Preached at South Wedge Mission
Rochester, New York
8 September 2013
Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Text: Luke 14.25-33
-It’s fantasy football season again. Despite telling myself I would retire after winning my league last year, I’ve let myself get roped in yet again. It’s a tradition, after all. One of the ways I stay in touch with my divinity school friends. I’m committed.
-It’s also a great place to witness ministers behaving badly. There’s swearing and mocking, smack-talk and sarcasm. But even worse, there’s bunk trade proposals. Now, if you’ve ever played fantasy sports, you know what I’m talking about. The owner of Team A, who is known for his track record of success, makes an offer to Team B, staffed by a new-comer or someone who just doesn’t care. Team A says, “hey, if you give me your three best players, I will offer you these three guys I just grabbed off the waiver wire! It’s a great deal!” Of course, if Team A has to explain that its a great deal, you know its a crap one.
-And yet, the worst crap deal I can think of pales in comparison to what Jesus seems to be offering his would-be disciples. In today’s Gospel from Luke, Team Jesus makes this proposal to Team Disciples: “You follow me to Jerusalem. And in return, you get to a) hate your family, b) give up all your possessions, and c) get crucified.”
-Say what? I cannot think of a rational human being who would willingly commit to such an offer. Even if, as many commentators suggest, that Jesus is using hyperbole to scare away any posers on the bandwagon to his final confrontation with the authorities in the Capital, this is a pretty insane sales’ pitch. No wonder Jesus compares the hearers to a king who sees his army overwhelmingly outmatched and so sues for peace.
-And it feels like sometimes, that that’s how our culture - and probably many of us here - view commitment in general. I feel like my whole life, I’ve relished having tons of choices and lots of options. Commitment - limiting ourselves for just “one thing?” - closing the door on a possibility? - saying no to anything better that might come along? - requires something of us. Sometimes, a downright sacrifice. And there’s no guarantee it’ll pay off in the end.
-I feel like such a powerful request request for deep commitment like Jesus’ can often feel almost incomprehensible in our postmodern day and age. Forget that the commitment of marriage has become seriously terrifying in a world saturated with divorce and heart break. Take something simpler, like Facebook. Friendships develop far too quickly on facebook, and disappear just as quickly as a new fast friendship moves in. I can pretend like I deeply cared about your three-year old’s ballet concert without having to suffer through the video - a simple “like,” and voila, instant connection minus commitment! We may click “join” or “yes” to an event invitation, but if you’re like me, I’ve also clicked “join” to several other events, and often have moved on to something even more novel and immediate by the time the big day rolls along. It’s not that I don’t have good intentions about going. It’s just easier to keep my options open. Right?
-The reality might be this: that most of us are probably better at committing to a week of watching the complete series of LOST or Doctor Who (for the third time), or to the World of Warcraft, or to our fantasy football teams, then we are to the things and the people that actually most give us life.
-And for me, oneof the saddest parts of such a commitment-phobic society is, frankly, that we also struggle to ask for commitments from others. Growing up, when I still had a land line and AOL Instant Messenger was the latest rage, I’d actually have to call folks on the phone. And I’d have to ask them directly, and personally: “will you come to my party this Saturday?” And often, they’d have to say yes or no. I asked for an RSVP. I wanted to be prepared. Didn’t want to be a second choice.
-Now, I feel like people say, “yeah, I’m having this event; you should come if you want.” I haven’t actually been invited. It’s like they don’t care or expect me to come. Like they don’t want to commit to me, or ask me to commit to them. Like it’s padding against disappointment. Like the real world is becoming more like the facebook one.
-Or maybe, we’ve just lost the knack for commitment. For keeping our word. Maybe we’re addicted to novelty. Maybe we’re afraid that we’ll be let down. Maybe we’re afraid of who we’ll become if we just stay put. Maybe we’ve just jacked up our expectations for others, and for ourselves, to unreasonable, uber-romanticized levels. Maybe we don’t even know what reasonable expectations are. As satirist Charlie Brooker once noted, “no one writes love songs about just-settling.”
-And see, that’s where I think Jesus’ request isn’t so crazy. Because as a God who has seen His people Israel make commitment after commitment, only to worship other gods over and over, Jesus knows what it is to be heart-broken. God’s created the church, only to see us take the Gospel of grace, and make it about anything but, time and time again. God’s been committed to God’s people almost to the point of unhealthiness. And God keeps that commitment - that covenant God has made with God’s world - even unto death. Being executed as a Betrayer, as Unfaithful, by an unfaithful and uncommitted people.
-See, in Christ, God remains committed to us. And God sacrifices for it. The cross is proof. Even though Jesus knows most of us will never hate our family or sell all our stuff, God loves us far too much to leave this marriage up to us. At the end of the day, the trade God offers is actually a crap deal...for God. Because Team Jesus gets killed. And Team Humanity gets salvation, divinity, redemption, and everlasting life. We end up the champions of the season. And it’s no fantasy.
-But see, we’re worth the deal to God too. Worth the commitment. We are worth the rejection. There is no better option coming along. No passive invitation. We’re it. We’re enough. Because Christ is headed for Jerusalem, regardless of whether we accept his invitation to come along. He seems to think that such commitment will lead to something more important than even death. So whatever he’s “just settling” for - it must be really worth it.
-It struck me, re-reading this passage, that Jesus’ willingness to ask us for a commitment sounds an awful lot like a proposal. Maybe even a marriage proposal. Like he’s not just saying, “give up all you have to die,” but also, “take everything I have to give you, and live!” Often at weddings, the story from the Book of Ruth is read, where the widowed Ruth tells her mother-in-law Naomi, “Where you go, I will go, and your people shall be my people.” There’s deep fidelity there. You lose a lot of possibilities. But you gain the reality of rootedness, intimacy, love.
-As Leah can tell you, I struggled with the decision to get married all the way up until our wedding day. I’ve never pinned down an exact reason. Maybe I was afraid of losing the possibility of someone more...ideal? More like me? Less eager to challenge me? Maybe I just couldn’t let go of my addiction to novelty, to possibility. Maybe I was just afraid, because I was heaping far too many expectations on marriage, on her, and on myself.
-I was really helped by the words of one of my seminary mentors, Stanley Hauerwas. The first time I met him, he told me Hauerwas’ Law: you always marry the wrong person. Now that was some cynicism around marriage I could wrap my Lutheran mind around! It was liberating to realize that the covenant to one another is what makes marriage work - not feelings, failures, expectations, or everlasting newness. The willingness to stick around, to forgive and ask forgiveness - and to know and be known intimately. What a gift! Sure, our marriage will never be perfect. But it is very good. And if I could, I’d go back and knock some sense into me!
-I’ve kind of felt the same way about church. There are so many other things I’d love to commit my time to. Maybe you’ve been there too. Why not leave the God-question open? Why commit to this community of failures - of people who are not cool, who will not always act as we want them too, who will promise to go to the cross with us...and then deny us? Why get married to a religion, or a church, when simple spirituality is so open-ended and commitment free?
-But then, I’ve had to wonder: has anything else in my life that I’ve committed and sacrificed for really given me what Jesus is offering? Not just happiness, and wisdom, and fulfillment. But deep and lasting intimacy. Freedom to be myself. Forgiveness for my failures. Abundant life that is not perfect, but is very good? Why wouldn’t I give up everything, and take up the revolutionary cross, and follow this man to the end, just as he has followed me to mine?
-I think it’s worth considering. Because the commitment of church - of following the Way of Jesus in community - is not a commitment to perfection. It’s not a fantasy. Or a facebook friendship. It is a commitment to the promises of God. And when we say “I do” with all of ourselves that we are able to muster, I wonder if we will like who we become. My guess is we will. Because God does.
-Because, after all, even God follows Hauerwas’ Law. God always marries the wrong person. And it’s definitely not perfect. But it’s very, very good.