Sunday, August 19, 2007

Year C: Proper 15 (19 August 2007)

This is my homily for my first Sunday as Rector of St Anne's in Warsaw, Indiana.

Luke 12:49-56
Hebrews 11:29-12:2

Several weeks ago, as I began to think about my first Sunday at St Anne’s, and begin the process of “sermon formation,” I looked at the lectionary to see what the readings would be. Imagine my horror when I encountered these words of Jesus from St Luke’s gospel: “I came to cast fire upon the earth … Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division…” My heart sank! This was hardly the sort of unifying, uplifting, celebratory material I might have hoped for on my first Sunday in a new parish. But, I might as well tell you right now, because you’ll discoverer it sooner or later anyway, I’m committed to playing the hand that I’m dealt, and the hand I’ve been dealt features Jesus talking about conflict and division.

Of course, even without the unique context of this being my first Sunday with you all, these words of Jesus would definitely come under the category of what are sometimes referred to as his “hard sayings.” I mean, once in a while, Jesus comes up with something that just makes us gulp, and we say to ourselves, “Ooh, not so good. Why’d he have to go and say that? It’s going to be tough to explain that one to my skeptical non-Christian friends. Ouch.” Talk about parents being estranged from their children specifically on account of loyalty to Jesus just doesn’t square very easily with our image of him as…well, you know…a nice guy, someone who’s all about peace, all about reconciliation. This is definitely not the Jesus we’re familiar with!

So, let’s take it apart, and see what we might be able to salvage, shall we? First, the context: Jesus utters these words in the middle of what is, in Luke’s gospel, a travelogue. Jesus and his companions are on a trip—a long journey from Galilee, which was their home turf, on foot, to Jerusalem—roughly the distance from here to the Michigan state line. Right after his transfiguration—when Peter and James and John got a preview of his future glory—Luke tells us, Jesus resolutely “set his face” toward Jerusalem, the venue of his final battle with the Evil One, the place where his entire life purpose would come to a head. Jerusalem was where he would—to use the slang of the Country Western culture—“get ‘er done.”

Let me be even more blunt: At this point in Jesus’ ministry, the cross is beginning to dominate his personal radar screen; the cross is always in view. This was not a prospect that he relished—not in the least. But he knew that the cross was his destiny, and at this point, he just wants to get on with it. He just wants to “get ‘er done.” This is the “baptism” to which he refers, and by which he is “constrained until it is accomplished.” He can’t get it out of his mind. In the Jewish mindset of his time, crucifixion was not only a painful way to die, but an exceedingly shameful way to die. The Law of Moses says that anyone who is hung on a “tree”—and being nailed to a wooden cross was understood as the equivalent—anyone who is hung on a tree is “cursed.” But Jesus did not let that deter him. As the author of the epistle to the Hebrews puts us, he “endured the cross, despising the shame.” It is the cross, and nothing but the cross, that is consuming Jesus’ emotional energy. He’s a man with a mission, and he’s ready to get on with it! Jesus has the cross perpetually in view.

But here’s the deal with the cross: We talk about it being our life and our salvation. We talk about it being “the way of life and peace.” We talk about an “instrument of shameful death” being transformed into a sign of victory. And that is all completely true, but not … not if Jesus is the only one who “owns” it, not if Jesus is the only one who picks it up and carries it. The cross only “works”—it is only effective on our behalf—if we make it ours as well. Jesus invites us to take up our cross daily and follow him. And when we do so, he will lead us eventually to Calvary, even as he was led to Calvary carrying his cross. It is the vocation of the Christian people to walk the way of the cross with Jesus, to have the cross perpetually in view.

When Bishop Little—believe it or not, more than a year ago now—first approached me about the possibility of coming to Warsaw, I asked him, “Is it a beautiful church? Will it make my heart sing?” (For better or for worse, such things are important to me.) He assured me that, yes, St Anne’s is a beautiful church. After the Search Committee team that came to see me in Stockton last January returned from their trip, they sent me a thank-you note on one the cards that I’m sure you’ve seen, the ones that show this altar. Right away, my eyes were drawn to this large crucifix, and something resonated in my heart. Last April, when Brenda and I visited Warsaw, seeing this crucifix in person confirmed what I had felt when I saw in pictured in a card. Along with a couple of other features of the worship space at St Anne’s, the crucifix started my heart singing. So, how very appropriate it is that, on my first Sunday as your Rector, the gospel reading should be about Jesus not being able to take his attention off the cross, and, by implication, about our privilege and duty of walking the way of the cross with Jesus! At St Anne’s, the cross is literally ever before us, perpetually in our field of view, on our radar screen, a vision that constrains us even as it constrained Jesus—a vision of healing through suffering, of redemption through sacrifice, of victory through surrender, of life through death. This is indeed the mystery of our faith, and how blessed we are in this parish to have it before us in such a compelling way.

Now, when we walk the way of the cross with Jesus faithfully, one of the risks to which we expose ourselves is the disruption of our relationships—even our primary familial relationships—because people will sometimes not understand the choices we make, the priorities we embrace, the values by which we live as a result of our loyalty to Jesus, because they do not always conform to the values and priorities of the world around us, the dominant secular culture. In fact, if our commitment as Christians does not disrupt our relationships in some way, we should probably re-examine the integrity of that commitment!

But…part of the “deal” with the cross is that, not only do we share the suffering of Christ, we also share his victory, we share his glory. Yes, the letter to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus endured the cross, despising the shame, but he did it with an end in mind, he did it “for the joy that was set before him.” And, as we know, his end is also our end. The joy that was set before him is also the joy that is set before us. His motivation for despising the shame of the cross is also our motivation for despising the shame of the cross. And, just for good measure, we are cheered on, and prayed for, by an innumerable “cloud of witnesses,” those who have walked the way of the cross before us, and received the crown of life.

So, as it turns out, this gospel is, after all, quite auspicious for the beginning of this new chapter in the life of St Anne’s and in the life of my ministry as a priest: It invites us to keep our eyes perpetually on the cross, to “despise the shame,” to become a community of support when our primary relationships are challenged by our commitment to Christ, and to experience the victory toward which the saints who have come and gone before us in this place are urging us on toward. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

1 comment:

RFSJ said...

Fr. Dan,

Welcome to Indiana! I was canonically resident in the Diocese of Indianapolis for several years. I do hope you get the chance to visit the capital; it's quite nice. If you like fine music, Christ Church Cathedral is perhaps the finest; its Choir of Men and Boys sings at the principal service at 11. Since it may be hard for you to get away on Sunday, if you are present on a Thursday evening you can hear a fine Sung Evensong as well.

I was glad to see your approach to Sunday's hard sayings. I took a similar approach as you did, with less on the Cross and more on the possible divisions that can occur. My own notes (I didn't write this one out in full) are on my blog if you're curious.