March 17, 2019
Categorised in: Sermons
Preached by Canon Roly Riem using Luke 14.27-33, at Mattins on Sunday 17th March 2019, the Second Sunday in Lent.
Sometimes the Bible can make you wince:
‘What king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand.’
In politics, Jesus suggests, is it not simply common sense to reckon on the cost of any undertaking before embarking on it, to consider what opposition you are likely to face?
Thinking of our own impasse at Westminster. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it seems incredible that the issue of the Irish border did not loom large in the referendum campaign of 2016.
And no-one could have known then that a snatched General Election of 2017 on a ‘strong and stable’ ticket would lead to a minority government relying on the support of the Democratic Unionists.
Since then, all sorts of variables have brought about further uncertainty: the rise of the European Research Group, the advent of the Independent Group, and a situation where traditional party lines and conventional political disciplines seem to count far less than forcing the outcome of this one Great Matter.
This miserable situation shows us in spades that reckoning the cost of our decisions to our communities and ourselves is in most cases impossible.
But there’s one decision where we can certainly predict the future, because whatever our context the same demands are made and the same consequences issue, and that is whether or not to follow in the way of Jesus Christ.
Jesus is talking here about the inevitable cost of being a Christian disciple. It always means, for example, disrupting natural family ties and overthrowing self-centredness, adopting the commitments of Jesus and taking on the pattern of his life.
By this point in the Gospel Jesus is sure that he’s travelling to Jerusalem for his execution. So he’s making it clear that those who want to follow him won’t be allowed to branch off to another path, to take a detour by which they arrive smoothly and easily at resurrection. True disciples choose to walk in the way of the cross and to bear the weight of the cross.
St Paul knew this and rejoiced in this when he confessed: ‘All I want is to know Christ and to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings and become like him in his death, in the hope that I myself will be raised from death to life.’
There are costs which are inevitable and which don’t depend on others, which are simply the consequence of following Jesus and allowing his life to become ours.
Let’s return to the inevitable cost to our family ties. The truth is that family ties define us. As we get older, we become more not less aware of the fundamental debt that we owe to our upbringing. It’s an intimate connection which reaches into the basic biological building blocks of our being, shapes our habits of mind, our moral compass, our habitual gestures, even gives our faces a family resemblance.
Jesus doesn’t deny this. Judaism prized and still prizes family. On the eve of every Sabbath Jewish families rest from their labours and sit down to eat and argue together. But Jesus offers an even deeper affiliation, which he expresses in typically Jewish terms: you must hate one thing and love another.
You must hate your family, even life itself, and love the cross itself above all. It is the cross you must embrace, the cross you must cleave to.
In our cathedral with its monastic past, perhaps we are too used to the story of monks giving up everything to live in Christian community, sharing a life under the authority of the Prior. We forget that many of the monks came from good families, with princes and rulers for brothers. They had chosen a new solidarity and society with God and with the Christian community and had set aside the things of this world.
One of the ways they expressed this in practice was not to own anything. Everything in the monastery was shared and used for the good of the community and to draw those who used them closer to God. Benedict, whose Rule they followed, hated the notion of ownership because for him it reinforced the corrosive empire of the self: what is mine belongs to me, and what is mine protects me from trusting God and others.
Being a disciple is a serious business, not unlike a marriage. Still today at the start of the wedding service we warn that, ‘No one should enter into [marriage] lightly or selfishly but reverently and responsibly in the sight of almighty God’, and here in the gospel Jesus is offering his disciples a sober assessment of the nature of following him: discipleship always involves taking up or bearing a cross. It is not an easy life.
It is not an easy life, but it is a rich and good life, and like marriage, at its heart stands a new solidarity. I wonder whether when Jesus talked about hating family he had in mind those ancient words from the Book of Genesis, about a man leaving his father and mother and cleaving to his wife. If we leave behind a natural solidarity, it is to cleave to a new and God-given one, a relationship with God himself through Christ which leads us into the way of peace.
A book I am reading for Lent is reminding me of this intimate centre to our Christian life, where our identity is sealed by the sign of the cross and where we continually give away our lives in order to find ourselves renewed in Him. It’s written by a Trappist monk from Colorado called William Meninger.
Meninger passes on a word from God, which goes: ‘My child, you know from personal experience that you do not know the way. … I am your way. I offer you direction, a calling, a path that leads to my kingdom. It is only through battling the forces of evil within you that you will come to me. You are also called to look toward the building of my kingdom in your world. You are called to labour in my vineyard using whatever talents I have given you.’
These words indicate an immensely joyful path, in total opposition to those who use their powers to destroy whatever threatens their own, embattled sense of identity. As we remember his victims, we pray for the imperilled soul of the young man who had such fear and anger rooted in his heart that he murdered 50 Muslim ‘invaders’, as he termed them, to protect, as his warped mind imagined it, the future of ‘white children’.
The way of the cross is a costly way, but it is the only way to peace. It is the way in which are hearts are softened in self-sacrifice. As we grow in the likeness of Christ, we become more like the One who faced the death of his cause and loss of his own life without hate or rancour, but with a fervent, unyielding trust in God.
This Lent we will be privileged to see Christ tested and tested again, by his enemies, his friends and the weakness of his flesh; but he will cleave to God. In doing this, he is opening up a way by which we can return to God.
The fact that he’s destroyed death by dying and has opened the way for all believers means that we needn’t become anxiously self-preoccupied when we fail, as we will, or give up when we look ahead and find the prospects all too much.
The way, however narrow, is open. It is a way to deny ourselves. It is the way to resurrection life.