A Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 5, 2014
Preached by the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina
Texts: Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46
May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.
When was the last time you worked on your resume? That may seem a strange and irrelevant question to those of you not actively seeking employment. That may seem a perfectly ridiculous question to those of you who are retired.
But I’d like you to think for a moment of what working on a resume means. Think of that process of distilling the important stuff of your life down to one or two measly pages. Think of the struggle to give a sense for your passion and purpose through a dull litany of old jobs. Think of that effort to prove…
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From the earliest years of Christian worship, the faithful have covered religious symbols—whether crosses, statuary, or paintings, from the Fifth Sunday of Lent through Good Friday. It used to be on the Sunday before Palm Sunday that the church would hear read the entire passion narrative, and so from that point during the liturgical year, through the end of Holy Week, crosses especially, but any symbol of God’s revelation to humanity, would be covered with a veil to remind us of the veil which was torn in two, according to Matthew, at the moment that Jesus died. Now, we cover the crosses throughout Lent here at Trinity, and other Episcopal, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic parishes observe a similar tradition; there isn’t a set rule about exactly how far in advance such items should be veiled, though Ash Wednesday, when we cover up the crosses, is the earliest appropriate moment.
The veil which was torn in two was the huge cloth curtain that divided the Holy of Holies in the Temple from the rest of the temple’s sacred space. In the Temple of Jesus’ time, there were three parts—the temple courts where anyone could walk around (this is where the money-changers were, who Jesus threw out), the Holy Place where only ritually-pure Jewish men could go, and the Most Holy Place or Holy of Holies where the Temple priests would dare to go only once a year to offer sacrifice on the altar. This is where we get the altar rail—that is a symbol of where it used to be that no one could cross, or even see very well, what was beyond. Because of Jesus’ willing sacrifice of himself on the cross for our own sins and waywardness, veil—the separation, physically and spiritually—of God from humanity, no longer exists.
Push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you. What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is a cross.
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
This is the same Jesus who suffers the little children to come unto him and offers an easy yoke and a light burden. How can this be? Let us not try to explain away the difficult words with which we are faced this morning; let us reflect upon what this passage tells us about God, and about our relationship to him.
The parables leading up to this passage in Luke, which we’ve been hearing the last few weeks, put an ever-finer point on Jesus’ message and revelation of himself. Those dearest to him are the crippled, the orphaned—those who cannot repay any a transactional way the kindness shown to them. Jesus gives his followers a new definition of family here—of who it is that qualifies as our mother and father and neighbor.
We are to love our fathers and mothers and siblings, of course, but we are to love these fellow disciples in the pews next to us, and even more, to love our guests who are eating breakfast in Satterlee Hall right now, to love those sitting in jail, and those who are oppressed, here and abroad. These are our family members, if we desire to be part of the family of God.
I have a friend from divinity school who came from a good, upstanding family, a long line of doctors and brothers who earned graduate degrees. When it became clear to his parents that he was going ahead with his foolhardly plan to become a priest, he was told that he’d been a “bad investment” and was financially and emotionally cut off from his family. He lost father and mother and blood-relations in order to be Jesus’ disciple. As inconceivable as that story may be, it is almost predictably common in Scripture. A prophet’s mother or friends or community is always ready to stone him for being a follower of the living God. The family’s plea may be loving enough—“choose another son to send into the fray, not mine!”—but in this family, born through baptism, I am no more, and just as precious as any other of God’s children
In Lillian Smith’s book, Killers of the Dream, first published in 1949, she recounts the moment that a young student realizes the cost of fighting segregation. The young woman says, “No matter how wrong you think it is, laws are against you, custom is against you, your own family is against you. How do you begin? I guess,” she said slowly, “if you hated your family, it would be easier to fight for what is right, down here. It would be easier if you didn’t care how much you hurt them.”
We naturally show favoritism. We love and share bonds of affection with particular people; some of this is just practical—a usual person cannot manage more than about 125 friends at once. But we also must realize that Jesus insists that the family that is more important than blood is our family of disciples, those who follow Jesus with us, and the family of the poor, the war-torn, the oppressed. These people are our family, throughout the world—these people are our neighbors.
On the cross, Jesus Christ risked all that he hand—his own life, his relationship with God the Father—in order to be and to stay with us, with all humanity. We abandoned him on the cross as he bore our sins, and because sin, fundamentally, is turning away from God, he was without God the Father, as well. Totally alone, in the deepest suffering, though he could have gotten himself down from the cross, Jesus stayed. Jesus Christ chose to be with us—this is how God reveals himself to us. As my favorite preacher, Sam Wells puts it: God has chosen never to be except to be with us.
This brings us back to the Gospel text today; as God’s disciples, the followers of Jesus, we are invited and beckoned to join in God’s work here and now, to love not only those for whom we have natural, blood-line, or you-look-like-me kind of affection, but God-given, uncomfortable, I’ve-never-met-you-but-you-are-my-family sort of love for all of our neighbors—realizing that their lives are just as precious in God’s sight. Jesus died to be with every single person on this planet, no matter where they happen to live.
There’s a Roman Catholic Italian family from Staten Island who now lives in Upstate New York; I met them when I was working in their small town in the Catskills one summer. I met them by chance—their children were the same age as some children I’d been babysitting one evening, and I’d hardly introduced myself before they were enveloping me in hugs. Before I left a month later, they gave me a key to their home, saying, “This is your home now, too.”
I was a stranger from another land, but they loved me and cared for me as if I was their daughter. How might we be able to love and care for those who are our brothers and sisters, whether here in Columbia, or elsewhere in the world?
As writer Glennon Doyle Melton often reminds her readers, “We belong to each other.”