Sermon preached at St. Luke's Madison, on the readings appointed to the day: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 1; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33. I'll post to the audio when it becomes available; this one left the script.
One of the things I love best about Jesus is the parables. The stories. The riddles and truths. It’s not so much that Jesus hides truth in them, but he never gives us disembodied truth. With Jesus, every truth has a story, a name, and faces. Likewise, Jesus invites us to live truth, in our bodies, with our names and faces. To wear truth, is the invitation. To move from inside it. Paul says we put on Christ; we wear Christ, because he is the truth.
I love the parables.
I sometimes misremember the parables. Or remember only certain ones.
I remember the parables about mustard seeds and trees with branches that become homes for all of the birds. That’s one of my favorites. I remember the parables about lilies and fields and believing that God will beautifully clothe me. I even remember the parable about the farmer and the seed and the different kinds of soil, a sort of parable of generosity and unexpected hope. Of course, who could forget the parable of the prodigal son and the loving embrace of the father. So many parables and pictures of faith. So many good stories. I love the parables.
But sometimes. Well.
Take Jesus this morning. He’s got a large crowd. Everybody’s happy. The sky is blue and birds are singing. He’s saying something godlike as they all nod their heads and walk down the road. Suddenly, he spins around and says, “Can I give you a picture of what it’s like to follow me?” Sure, Jesus. Please! “Great. Following me is like going to war. Against God. Only as you get closer and closer to God, you begin to doubt you can pull it off. Or, you should begin to doubt you can pull it off, defeating the Almighty. So you surrender instead. And you’ve got to know this surrender is not a negotiation, but a total take over. You lay down your life and lose everything. Family, heirlooms. Nothing’s safe. And,” if we can inject some of Jesus from a few chapters later, “Try to hold on and you’ll die. Lose your life, though, and you will save it.”
This parable doesn’t get included in most Sunday school curriculums. You don’t see as many artistic renderings of this parable. If parables invite us to put on Jesus and wear the truth, this one fits too tight and wears like a stainless steel sponge.
What do you make of Jesus’ implying that you and I are out to conquer God, or at least out to get as close to God as possible while keeping ourselves for ourselves? “You don’t have enough,” Jesus says, “to keep yourself to yourself and be a self apart from the love and mercy of God.” So put down your arms. And all the other stuff you would use to make yourself a proper self without relationship with God. Put it down. You look ridiculous. Put on Christ. Wear your baptism. In Old Testament terms, it's God's shouting in Deuteronomy today, “Choose life!” Surrender it all and feel for yourself that mercy comes in your size. It’s for you!
But you have to put it down. All of it. You can’t put on the new shirt, your new clothes, with two heaping armfuls of Justifying Yourself. Surrender.
Well, that was close! We had almost stumbled into warfare with God! And not just with God, with all the other people we would have tried to impress or conquer or hurt with all of the “see what I did by myself” stuff we were carrying. You could poke an eye out like that! But, putting them down, we’re invited to explore how our fights out there, with God and others, are connected to the fears in here, inside of ourselves. We’re invited to remember God’s promise that our surrender will meet God’s mercy. We’re invited to stretch ourselves and be opened, where once we were curved in on ourselves.
I’m an expert on stretching. Or I’m learning to be. You see, a few months ago, I went to the doctor with symptoms that scared me. Unpredictable pain. Tingling in my fingers and other limbs. Numbness. It was starting to affect the way I interacted with the world. But it turns out the conflict wasn’t between me and things outside me; it was a conflict within me. Specifically, my trapezius didn’t trust my shoulders enough to give them room to operate. The trapezius was doing everything, running the show. It was killing me! Sometimes it pinched areas outside of its purview. Thus the tingling and numbness. And, if you’ll make room for metaphor with me, maybe you’ve experienced a time in life in which you were operating primarily out of only one part of yourself, at war with yourself and one side was winning, and it changed the way you engaged the world, and not for the good; it altered your perspective. Maybe it left you unsure of yourself or mistrustful of others. Maybe it hurt. Maybe it left you numb.
A pastor on Facebook this week pointed out that, across the country, its the beginning of the school year and, for a lot of places, program year for the church. And he said there are three ways Christians can stretch themselves if they want to continue to grow in Christ, and - as fate would have it - those three ways correspond to three of the stretches that have opened my body, helped me surrender myself, and engage the world around me again. Three opportunities to be opened up. I want to share them with you.
The first stretch is up. [Off script here (doing exercises), but talking about serving God in worship.]
The second stretch is out. [Talking about serving one another and neighbors, keeping the elbows in.]
The third stretch is back toward myself. [Talking about investing in one’s own spiritual life.]
There’s a last stretch. It’s the hardest and the easiest. You don’t do this stretch. It’s the stretch that does you. [Foam roller as Eucharist.]
It’s takes all of them. One without the other leaves untapped potential to be opened. And once you get a taste for it, it’s hard to leave untapped potential on the table. It’s hard to walk away from the kingdom you’ve felt in your bones as the new possible. So we stretch - up, out, and inside. We feel the shape of his kingdom under our backs. We get up and go out, paying attention to the changes, seeing how long we can carry them. And we’re glad to come back. This new posture, this new kingdom, is not a fix for a moment but the way of living and being and loving and praising for which God has made us. There’s joy in this knowledge, and we hold onto this joy, and we stretch ourselves again and again toward him who stretched out his arms in his love for us.