Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Hard Work of Following Demanding Jesus

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
June 26, 2016

Year C, Proper 8: The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Luke 9:51-62

The Hard Work of Following Demanding Jesus
            I like to think that I’m a pretty easy-going person.
            Don’t correct me if I’m wrong!
            But, like everybody I guess, I do have at least a few pet peeves, things that really get on my nerves, really get under my skin, really tick me off.
            One is when people refer to the Episcopal Church as “Catholic Lite.”
            Have you ever heard that?
            I have – too many times.
            When people say the Episcopal Church is “Catholic Lite” what they mean is that we Episcopalians have all the trappings of the Roman Catholic Church, the often beautiful buildings, priests who wear fancy vestments, services that are so close to be nearly identical, we have all that Catholic “stuff,” but we don’t burden people with too many rules and expectations.
            “Catholic Lite” implies that we’re the church for you if you’re looking for an easy church that puts on a good show but doesn’t demand much of you.
            I’ve had to bite my tongue many times when people have used the “Catholic Lite” line on me, usually said with a laugh and a smile, said sometimes by Roman Catholics or even by other Episcopalians.
            First of all, I hate “Catholic Lite” because it’s not true – or shouldn’t be true.
            More than once my father has quipped that it’s hard work being Episcopalian. I think he’s mostly talking about the length of our 10:00 service – much longer than a typical Catholic Mass.
            But, he’s right, whether he knows it or not! If we take it seriously, it IS hard work being an Episcopalian.
            Many of you know that I love baptizing people. It’s one of my most favorite things to do as a priest.
            I love baptisms for lots of reasons, but one is the chance we get to renew our Baptismal Covenant.
            In the Baptismal Covenant we’re asked several very difficult questions. I always tell people that they get increasingly difficult.
            “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?”
            “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?”
            “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?”
            “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”
            “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”
            And, to each of these increasingly difficult, challenging, and demanding questions we all answer, “I will, with God’s help.”
            If we really take these questions and promises seriously, if we treat them as more than just words we say so we get on to the baptism, then there’s nothing “lite” about them.
            It’s hard work being an Episcopalian, hard work to make time for church every week, hard work proclaiming the Good news, hard work loving our neighbor as our self, hard work respecting the dignity of every human being.
            My father really is right: it IS hard work being an Episcopalian.
            The other big reason why I hate “Catholic Lite” is because an easy church falls so short of what Jesus demands of his followers.
            We heard demanding Jesus loud and clear in today’s gospel lesson.
            Today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke marks the beginning of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, Jerusalem where he will face betrayal and rejection and where he will endure suffering and death.
            Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem where he will give his all.
            Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to give his all but, it turns out that not everyone is able to follow.
            We’re told that a Samaritan village was not able to receive Jesus.
            We’re told that some bold person told Jesus, “I will follow wherever you go.” Big words, to which Jesus replies that unlike even a fox or a bird, he has no home. The text doesn’t tell us if the unnamed bold person still followed Jesus, but probably not, right?
            We can imagine him or her backing away and returning to everyday life, rather than following a homeless messiah.
            Jesus gives his all and demands the same of us.
            Someone else is willing to follow Jesus but adds a perfectly reasonable condition: “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”
            But, demanding Jesus won’t hear of it, demanding our all.
            Someone else is willing to follow Jesus but adds another perfectly reasonable condition: “…let me first say farewell to those at home.”
            Again, Jesus won’t hear of it, demanding our all.
            At this point, would be easy to say, well, Jesus is using exaggeration to make his point, but I don’t think so.
            Jesus demands our all, demands that we put following him above everything else including, it seems, even all the good stuff, like caring for those we love.           
            Jesus gives his all and demands that we give our all, too.
            So, “Catholic Lite” isn’t going to cut it.
            But, why? Why is Jesus so demanding?
            The answer is that Jesus knows what we’re up against – knows that the forces of evil are all so powerful.
            At confirmation this year, the bishop did something I’ve seen him do before.
            During the service he asked the candidates, “Do you reaffirm your renunciation of evil?”
            The correct answer is “I do,” which the candidates, mostly teenagers, said with a notable lack of enthusiasm.
            “I do,” they mumbled.
            The bishop stopped the service and reminded everyone of evil’s power – and how more commitment and enthusiasm is required.
            He asked the question again, and this time everyone roared, “I do!”
            Now, that’s what I’m taking about!
            None of us is able to do this completely, and we can only even try with God’s help, but once we begin to do the hard work of following demanding Jesus then we become freer and stronger to take on the powerful forces of evil in the world.
            And, we don’t have to look far to find evil in our world where we are drawing ever-deeper divisions between and among people, breaking the bonds that unite us, seeking to build walls rather than bridges.
            We don’t have to look far to find evil in our country, where we are armed to the teeth, where a lone gunman, probably tormented by his own demons more than motivated by a distortion of his religion, who had no trouble buying a military-style weapon designed solely to kill large numbers of people, entered an Orlando club and mowed down people, mostly gay and lesbian people, who had gone there for a night of music, dancing, and fun – people who had gone there, ironically and tragically, because they saw it as a rare and precious safe place, a place of refuge.
            We don’t have to look far to find evil in our city, where nearly every week we’ve been praying for homicide victims, where the division between haves and have-nots has never been as stark, and where on Saturday evening I went into one of our local liquor stores to buy ice for the art fundraiser and, I swear, it felt like I was getting a glimpse of hell as one addict after another stumbled up to the counter to get the fix that they needed.
            So, the “Catholic Lite” thing isn’t going to cut it.
            So, together, let’s try, with God’s help, to follow demanding Jesus – to put Jesus first, to pray together even when we don’t feel like it, to confess our sins, to proclaim the Good News by word and example, to love those people on line in the liquor store as our self, to strive for justice and peace among everybody, Republicans and Democrats, Christians and Muslims, Downtown and Greenville, Black and White, …
            Yes, it’s hard work following demanding Jesus, but, together, with God’s help, we can do it.