Pentecost III – Proper 7 – June 25, 2017
Those who will find their life will lose it
A sermon preached by The Rev. Canon Jenny Vervynck at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; a
nd one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
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.”
Or as the Message Bible translates this passage:
“If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to me, you’ll find both yourself and me.”
One of the wonderful gifts of the Episcopal Church, and other traditions who use the lectionary readings system, is that the scriptures for each Sunday are selected so that over a three-year period, we hear a very large portion of the Bible.
Unlike other traditions, the clergy don’t chose the readings for Sundays, they are chosen for us.
I don’t know about you, but today’s gospel is one I could have gone a long time without hearing.
Really, Jesus? You have come to bring a sword and division to families? That’s your good news for our fractured and divided world? Honestly, if that is the message of Christ, why bother? We humans are actually very good at coming up with enough division on our own…. in our families, our communities, our country, and in our world! For example, many of our young people have just finished the school year…especially those in middle and high school….where there was plenty of division.
Division often begins with judgement of the other. They were judged on what clothes they wear, how their hair looks, what they say, how they talk, whether they are too smart, or not smart enough, attractive enough, athletic enough or not athletic enough…and so on and so on.
Even we adults divide ourselves up…the insiders and the outsiders, the good guys and the bad guys, the Republicans and the Democrats…….Episcopalians and everyone else of course.
So where is the good news in all this talk of division?
The kind of division Jesus is talking about is different. It is the kind of division that comes out of competing actions and conflicting perspectives and motivations. Remember…the people Jesus was talking to understood family a bit differently than we do.
Individual, unique identity was not a family value. Identity was formed not by who you were….but who your family was.
The son of a carpenter grew up to become a carpenter. The son of a field laborer grew up and became a field laborer.
And if you were a daughter…your identity was even more confined to not only your family’s identity but also to your gender…a second–class citizen. You kept to your expected role and place in the family. No deviation!
That is why, when people heard Jesus teaching and witnessed His miracles, they said, “Wait, isn’t that Joseph’s boy from Nazareth??” “You know, just a carpenter.”
Carpenter’s sons were not saviors….they were carpenters!
But Jesus reminded the people, and reminds us, that our identity does not begin with our human family, but with who we are in God’s family. Who God created us to be in God’s image.
Our human families can be loving and nurturing…or not so loving and caring. They are sometimes even abusive and neglectful, sometimes supportive of who we really are…..and sometimes not so supportive.
But in the household of God, we are loved individually, uniquely, unconditionally. Or as someone said, “God loves you just the way you are. But God loves you too much to leave you that way.”
God does love us…and God does push, and prod and challenge us each day…if we are listening…to follow Jesus. And sometimes in our seeking to follow Jesus, we do find ourselves at odds with family.
To follow the call of God, to live as Jesus teaches and pushes and prods us….has real potential to cause division. There is no getting around it. Jesus calls us to commitment, not just involvement.
It’s like the old story of the ham and egg breakfast: In that breakfast, the chicken was involved, but the pig was definitely committed!
Will following the call of God cause division when we stand with those our dominant society may deem unworthy…the marginalized, the poor and the oppressed? Will it cause division to stand against injustice, racism, sexism and other isms that divide us? Absolutely!
We might hear this gospel reading today, and hear Jesus saying that we must absolutely disregard our nearest and dearest, but I believe that is not His meaning here.
Instead, I hear a call to a love and commitment to follow Jesus which cannot be compromised by other competing loves.
A call to an identity as a child of God, not dependent on our human family identity.
A call to commitment……
A few years ago, my husband Brian and I traveled to England and France. During our time there I was struck by two poignant moments: one at the center of our Anglican Church, Canterbury Cathedral; and one standing on the beaches of Normandy on the north coast of France.
At Canterbury Cathedral, an incredibly huge, striking monument to the faith of people for more than 800 years. Hundreds of people daily, walk through the great stone structure, and marvel at the beautiful stained glass and graceful sculptures of saints and sinners, warriors and monarchs. They stand at the several altars and hear the stories of men and women who endured the hardship and political conflict which have shaped the beginnings of what we now call the Anglican Communion worldwide.
That great cloud of witness who have gone before us spoken of in the letter to the Hebrews.
As I watched the people file through and around this place of worship, I wondered how many truly saw that Cathedral as what its mission statement declared, “a place in which to encourage a living Faith in God by interpreting the Christian Gospel through the building itself, its history, its saints, its worship, preaching and teaching and through its work in the wider world.”
I wondered if the people visiting there really saw that building as a testament to so many who found themselves in conflict with family because they discovered and lived out their identity as a Child of God, and a follower of Jesus.
A testament to those who have gone to places of deep poverty and danger, injustice and war to be Jesus for others.
Or a testament to those who there, in ages past, gave a cup of cold water to a stranger and a place to rest on a long journey.
The second moment on our trip was when we stood on the shores of the English Channel, looking out across the sea which, on June 6, 1944, turned crimson red from the blood of the young men and women of the Allied Forces, fighting against the horror of Hitler.
I was struck by the kind of courage and self-sacrifice that can lead the hearts and souls of humanity when real commitment drives and motivates action.
When a mission is so compelling that no sacrifice is too great.
On the shores of that cold and lonely beach, I remembered the words of Jesus…the scripture reference tattooed on my son’s arm as he served in the Coast Guard….John 15:13. “No greater love has anyone, than to lay down one’s life for a friend. And you are my friend,” Jesus tells us, “if you keep my commandments.”
So what of this life, for us as Christians that Jesus talks about in today’s gospel. What of this life as a Child of God, loved and forgiven, a follower of Jesus. A life in which we are called to take up His cross….even when to do so may bring division and conflict, not peace.
What of this Christianity which a few years ago became the subject of jewelry, and bumper sticker, and WWJD bracelets…What Would Jesus Do?
How can we live this extraordinary, life-giving faith in a consumer culture of individualism that finds less and less value in the kind of commitment to which Jesus calls us?
Thanks be to God, that as followers of Jesus, our identity is not defined by the world, or by our family expectations, but by the God who loves us more than we can imagine.
Thanks be to God that the love of God causes division, and that God can handle division, because some things are worth fighting for.
Martin Luther King Jr. was divisive, Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa were divisive. Cesar Chavez was divisive. Archbishop Romero in El Salvador was divisive.
Thanks be to God that the love of God is so great that it will make us uncomfortable, and calls us to new places of commitment.
Thanks be to God that we are God’s beloved. As Martin Luther said, we are both Saints and Sinners at the same time, and that the Gospels call us to a radical reversal of values.
And thanks be to God that together we are a family of God’s beloved, here, for the challenging journey of following Jesus.
And Jesus said: If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself. But if you
forget about yourself and look to me, you’ll find both yourself and me.
Let us pray:
Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to thee, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly thine, utterly dedicated unto thee; and then use us, we pray thee, as thou wilt, and always to thy glory and the welfare of thy people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. Book of Common Prayer, pg. 832