The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Without Hope, Without Witness, Without Reward: A Sermon on Luke 14: 25-35

St. Bartholomew’s Church
September 8, 2019

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

I can’t believe I volunteered to preach on today’s Gospel. I mean, really, what was I thinking?

There’s no softening this one.

Today’s Gospel is Jesus at his most forbidding, his most challenging. “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.”

Then the follow up: “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

And just in case you didn’t see it coming, Jesus adds “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

So I did what I always do—I went to my sources. On Luke, that means I go to Joseph Fitzmyer’s massive and brilliant explication of Luke in the Anchor Bible series, The New Oxford Annotated Bible, and the commentary on Luke by my favorite Anglican theologian, Charles Gore—I say my favorite Anglican theologian, because I’m a fan of Nadia Bolz-Weber. Just to be sure, I consulted The Interpreter’s Bible—12 volumes I was given by the priest who supervised me at my field parish, where I trained for an academic year before I was ordained.

Basically, all the commentary can be summarized in four words: “Yeah. He meant it.”

Oh, Gore, with his typical subtlety, points out that “hate” here does not mean an emotion, but that just as love is an action, a promise, a commitment, so too here is hate—“the will directed toward action,” not feeling or emotion.[1]

And, Gore tells us, Jesus is laying down the “the sternest, most repellent claim—the claim for absolute renunciation of all natural ties and every kind of self-interest as the first condition for discipleship.” [2]

And yet, we don’t live that way.

We can’t live that way.

We do love our spouses, our families—biological or logical—our friends.

And we do not give away all our possessions.

Even in the Roman Catholic Church, only clergy, monks and nuns, are called to celibacy and lives of renunciation of the world. And yet even they engage lovingly with family.

The most fundamentalist churches, priding themselves on fidelity to scripture, do not follow this passage, because it is so hard to deny love, family, friendship.

We do not, in part because we recognize it as a form of self-harm. Without love, we grow distorted, angry, bitter. Like plants without sunshine, we wither without love, and only a very, very few of us can recognize a genuine call to celibacy and withdrawal from the world.

But even that is not what Jesus is speaking of here. Because picking up our cross means being in the world, but embracing shame, humiliation, and the rejection of the broader community, up to and including death.

This is Christianity at its most costly, its most harsh, its most difficult.

I’m not going to suggest that this is an easy Gospel. I’d be lying to you. But I think if we pull these verses out and make them into a self-standing, isolated code of life, we will either reject what Jesus is teaching us, or condemn ourselves to lives of self-inflicted isolation and deprivation. And when I think of Jesus in the Gospel According to John saying that he has come so that we might have life, and have it in abundance, we have to reflect more deeply on this Gospel to truly understand it.

The secular writer Steven Moffatt has written that “Good is good in the final hour, in the deepest pit – without hope, without witness, without reward. Virtue is only virtue in extremis,” he says, and tells a tale of two old friends, who have taken radically different paths. One is a hero, the other has become a criminal. When the hero asks his old friend for her help against seemingly insuperable odds, she refuses to throw away her life in a futile cause, and leaves him. But then, she changes her mind, and returns to help her former friend—only to be killed before she can reach him.

She dies, without hope, without witness, without reward.

She dies, knowing that her death did not help, that she will not be remembered or honored. She dies knowing that no one—not even her friend—will even know that she was coming to help him.

Virtue is only virtue in extremis—that is, virtue is only virtue when it costs. It is easy to lead an inoffensive life. But, if we look at Moffat’s tale as a parable, maybe we can catch a glimpse of what today’s Gospel is teaching us.

We are called to lives of heroic virtue, unheroic people though we may be, though I am. We are called to, as Gore wrote, direct our wills toward action—in plain language, to be ready to subordinate everything—comfort, family life, our position in the community—to witness the truth of Jesus Christ. To back up our professed belief that the ultimate truth, the absolute truth of the world is love. Not love as a pleasant feeling, or a diluted ethic of niceness, but love as a commitment, a promise.

That promise is a frightening one to make, because it requires us to actually be willing to pay the price of redeeming our word.

We can all point to stories of heroic virtue. Some are famous—Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela—so famous that the very establishments that sought to break their commitment now honors them, if only by lip service.

But there are stories of quiet heroism, of loving despite cost. The gentlest man I have ever known was my grandmother’s second husband when my sister and I were in our early teens. We called him Uncle Fred. He had served in World War II, and had helped liberate a concentration camp.

That youthful experience of wholesale, industrialized horror burned all the violence out of him. Later in his life, when we knew him, his much-loved daughter was murdered, her killer suspected, but never caught.

A little grimmer, a little greyer, Uncle Fred turned his love toward my grandmother, my sister, me, and our younger cousin.

It took heroism to commit to love again after his wartime experience, and to maintain that commitment, that promise, after my Aunt Carol’s murder.

He did it without witness—he was just acting like a normal person, not flaunting his sorrows. He did it, and here I must depart from Moffatt a little bit, with hope—hope not that the pain and loss would be magically healed, but that refused to give in to the face of the most obscene evil, both on the world stage and in his own family life. Uncle Fred continued to believe in the primacy of love, and to teach the children who loved him to love.

I know he did it not for reward, but I like to think his last family, the family he and my grandmother created in marrying—was rewarding to him.

That life of virtue in extremis, in the face of loss and the experience of cruelty, may shed a light on today’s Gospel. Jesus teaches us to put family ties, self-esteem, possessions behind the source of all of those good things—to not let ourselves be held hostage by them.

In AA we call this putting first things first—sobriety is more important than anything else. Because it is the condition of any kind of wholeness, of any spiritual growth.

Jesus is warning us that discipleship is hard.

That we may pay a price for it.

And if we intend to follow Him, we need to find courage inside our anxious hearts, and be ready to lose anything and everything along the way.

So when we lose them, when we are hurt to the very heart, we will not, as Job’s wife invites her husband to do, “curse God and die.” Rather, we continue on, always remembering that we are called to live abundantly, to our last breath, and to remember that the feeling of hate is always foolish, while the promise of love is always wise.

In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.

[1]Charles Gore, “The Gospel According to Luke,” in Gore, Goudge & Guillame, A New Commentary on Holy Scripture, Pt. 2: The New Testament, 228-229 (1929).

[2]. Id.

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