Sunday, June 21, 2020

Following Jesus on a Path that Turns

The earliest Christians were called followers of the Way. It’s the name Paul uses in the 22nd chapter of Acts to refer to the people he had formerly persecuted. The nickname finds roots in Jesus’s own claim about himself, when he says in John’s gospel, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” And these words in turn led St. Catherine of Sienna to famously say, “All the way to heaven is heaven, because Jesus said, “I am the Way.” To simultaneously enjoy the presence of Jesus and yet still to be on the way, on the path, is the experience and situation of every Christian pilgrim.

About this time last year, my friend Gary was walking the Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James, making a pilgrimage that covers most of Spain and often includes portions of France or Portugal along its five-hundred-plus mile route. The journey is at once fantastic and ordinary. Fantastic: in 2018 alone, over 327,000 pilgrims made the sacred trek. Ordinary: foot care, good socks and shoes (I am told) are among the secrets to completing the journey. Ordinary: one pilgrim wrote a book about his experience which he titled simply and profoundly, “The Way is Made By Walking.”

We are those strange people called Christians, and so we are followers of the Way. We are pilgrims on a path. We are the people who some days find it too fantastic, too much to take in, too spectacular, to have been made a part of the mystical Body of Christ, to have encountered grace and God’s mercy, the Good News of Christ like this. We are also all too familiar with the ordinary. That we are not beyond need of the encouragement and reminder to not neglect our socks. To take one step. And then another. To show up again and repeat. The Way is made by walking.

But of course it’s one thing to imagine a path and another to be on it. What had sounded straightforward at the ranger’s station becomes significantly less when the path and, say, the map disagree. Or the signpost shows signs of tampering. And what about the unexpected trail that’s not supposed to be there? Where did that come from? The map shows just the one route, but in what is coming just now as a major disappointment, several more possibilities present themselves?

And, for Christians called followers of the Way, perhaps most frighteningly of all, what happens when following the path of Jesus takes us off of and away from a central path we had been following all before and until the paths divided? Away from the familiar? Maybe we had assumed that the two paths simply ran parallel the whole way or that they were really just one road that went by several names. Until one day it happens. Where we had assumed a journey that would allow us to thoughtlessly continue without much in the way of critical choices or sacrificial options, the path of Jesus clearly invites us to take a turn that departs from the old way we had known. 

Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”


Evidently, to follow Jesus is to follow a path that will turn and take us away from the familiar, what we know, and into something new.

Now, as I’ve observed before, for most of us, it is not news that daughter and mother-in-law might experience conflict. What is news is that following Jesus might occasion the conflict. What is news, to listen to Jesus, is that conflict isn’t even a sign that we’re doing it wrong; but to be ready for conflict is to remember that following Jesus leads to an encounter with something wholly substantial. The living God makes claims on the lives of God’s people that are real, concrete, embodied, and true.

Jesus proclaims Good News. News that is good. And goodness that is new. So the life of discipleship, of following Jesus, presents a necessary contrast to the life we knew before it. That is to say, it is a gift that asks us to empty our hands. When in your life have you taken a turn that took you away from what you had previously known in order to stay closer to Jesus?

Every Wednesday evening, from five to nine pm, Dominque opened her modest Minneapolis home for pasta night, an open dinner for anyone who would join her. No sign in the yard, only festive Christmas lights strung on the top of her chain linked fence out front. Some regulars she could count on to help with the hosting. And then, between 40 and 70 people, over the course of four hours. Some familiar to the regulars and some, like me, strange. Word of mouth, invitation, only. Friends and neighbors. Rich and poor. Black, white, and latino. Students and professionals. The just off work and the out of work. Single moms who relied on the community as a parenting reprieve. Families looking to breach the walls of their suburban fortresses. Six digit incomes and those without incomes. Laughing together. In enough languages to go around. Lots of pasta, of course (Dominque only rarely left her place by the stove top.) No beer or hard alcohol, which would have presented particular challenges whose battles with addictions had left scars on their bodies and their lives. The night I went as a guest of my friend Steve, a stranger eagerly invited me to try his homemade kombucha. The regulars never brought faith up at pasta night, but faith had started pasta night. And kept it alive in that community, through 3 different hosts (Dominique was the 2nd) over fifteen plus years. It was like a new family, each week expecting to discover lost kin. To attend, much less host, pasta night requires an intentional and sometimes anxious departure from familiar paths of socioeconomic status, individualism, predictability, and self-protections. Paths sometimes difficult to imagine leaving. That’s what makes the joy one encounters so beautiful. My friend Steve calls it the closest thing he’s experienced to the Kingdom of God.

Anna was speaking one night at a gathering of three-hundred and fifty mostly undergraduate students, crammed in and hanging off the balcony at a church at UW-Madison. Seventeen campus ministries, including the one I served at, had organized the event together, simply to witness that God has taken a good many of us followers of Jesus on a turn that led us to a deeper awareness of sins of systemic racism, of which Christian churches have very often been complicit. A turn that occasioned repentance and the desire to listen and engage. And Anna stood up before everyone and said that, as a white woman, a student at UW-Madison, with a commitment to racial justice, she had been challenged by her Black friends to act on what she could not yet feel. She did not know what it felt like to have her criminality presumed. She could not imagine what it felt like to stare down statistics that could land a quarter of her family in an incarceration industry that felt designed for the purpose. She cared, but did not show up, did not prioritize, did not act, did not turn, until her friends asked her to prioritize the acting before the feeling, and trust the feeling to come along. She did, and it did. Jesus invited Anna on a path that turned off of the old one. With God’s help and good friends, she followed. And, in following, she found new life.

Conflict names the turning. Jesus tells us, when we feel it, the conflict, not to be afraid. Don’t be afraid, he says, because you belong to God, and God will not lose no one who belongs to God. Don’t be afraid. But there are so many mostly good reasons to fear! What if I do lose something? What if I get lost on the way, that is, what if I lose myself? What if I mess it up? What if I embarrass myself or can’t find my place? Maybe it’s better to stick to what I know. The script with which I am familiar. The silence that keeps me safe. What if the status quo pushes back? What if I’m told I’m a sell out, a traitor, or worse? What if I do something wrong? What if I am wrong?

I want you to take these questions seriously, because I want you to take just as seriously the answer that Jesus speaks next. The answer that Jesus gives to his friends.

“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher...So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

Did you hear that? Three times Jesus tells them, “Don’t be afraid.” Christians find our fearlessness not in the assurance that we are up to the task or that it won’t cost us anything or that we know what comes next, but Christian find our fearlessness in the faithfulness of God’s love for us. Not because we’ll get it right, but exactly because we may get it wrong and still God’s love will blanket us. Even in such a moment, God’s love, God’s truth, defines us. The waters of baptism don't evaporate! And so we take the risk.

There’s that question again: when in your life have you taken a turn that took you away from what you had previously known in order to stay closer to Jesus?

A young Roger Schuetz, years away from founding the ecumenical community of brothers called Taize, revolutionarily bridging age-old chasms between Catholics and Protestants, was simply imitating his grandmother’s example when, at the outset of World War II, he moved to that small town, on the edge of the fighting, to harbor and provide safe-haven for Jewish refugees. You can imagine the risk. After the war, once the Germans had lost, the refugees safe, Roger went back to his family. Except Roger did not go back to his family; instead he opened his home again, this time to escaped German prisoners of war. For Roger, trust in God’s love led him to seek out and stay in the place of risk-taking love for another his cumulative work, his track record, guaranteed to make sense to no one, except and only as measured by the mercy of the Kingdom of Jesus.

It’s an astonishing thing. An astonishing reversal. You can imagine that trusting God’s love as the most true thing about a person might easily have lead a person the other way entirely; it could have lead a person to use divine love as an excuse, a fallback, a safety net, isolation and permission to check out or neglect right relationship with God and/or one’s neighbors on the Way. Let someone else show up and do the hard and dirty work. There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, after all. But instead, Paul invokes God’s love today, grace, as exactly the thing that makes it possible for us to show up, to enter uncomfortable space without fear. You are loved. You have nothing to lose! And so we can lose. We can put down all the rest. We can turn toward hard things, even things we don’t know how to fix. We can seek out hard conversations with each other and even strangers. Unthinkable for Americans, we can even be weak, which is to say, we can be our true selves. We can be opened. We can see God in each other. And on the days God is harder to see in some people, we can even love our enemies, just as, before we knew God, God first loved us. We can take the costly turn and follow.

So St. Paul asks the Corinthians, and us, “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” The conflict names the turning. Jesus tells us, when we feel it, not to be afraid. Don’t be afraid, he says, because you belong to God, and God will not lose any of those that belong to God. 

O my Child, do not be afraid. More is possible than we fear. Trust in God, and show up for the mess - even this COVID ridden, racial justice yearning moment, even the sometimes reduction of politics to formation in disdaining the other, a forgetfulness of our common identity as citizen and as children in the kingdom of God - all of this mess of humanity God is yet redeeming, determined to make beautiful. Take heart. Look alive. Child, you are loved. You belong to God! Trust in God, do not be afraid. God ain’t about to let slip even one of those beloved of and belonging to God. But neither would God deprive you of the abundant life, the good life, the beautiful life-that-is-life life, that takes - for each and every one of us and all of us together - some turns along the path to follow. 

Sermon preached at Holy Trinity by the Lake Episcopal Church (virtual worship), June 21, 2020.

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