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Sunday, September 09, 2007

Welcome Back!

"Whoever does not hate . . .can not be my disciple" Luke 14:25
XV Pentecost
Proper 19
September 9, 2007
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul
(the Rev’d) Elizabeth Kaeton
rector and pastor

Welcome to ‘Welcome Back Sunday’ – a moveable feast in Christendom, usually the first Sunday after Labor Day, but sometimes as late as the last Sunday in September. Whenever it it observed, one thing is certain: you’ll never find it noted on the liturgical calendar.

One of my predecessors in this place once quoted to me a parody of one of the verses from one of our glorious hymns ‘O God, our help in ages past’. He said, by way of gentle warning: “(summer) time like an ever rolling stream, bears all of St. Paul’s away.”

Well, that includes your rector and pastor. I love the summer as well. I suspect God does, too, and probably appreciates the time away from all the formal community worship as much as we do.

Of course, I think God also loves faithfulness, and there are special blessings, my grandmother always said, for those who come to church in July and August.

Indeed, I personally love going to church in the summer – because I get to see how other clergy and congregations worship God. So, even though I’m not here in Chatham, I am in a church somewhere on Sunday. I suspect that’s largely true for you, as well. At least, I hope so.

Never mind. We’re all here together this Sunday and gearing up for the new program year. The choir is back as are the acolytes and torchbearers. The children are registering for Church School. Eight new members of the Youth Group will be commissioned today.

The bulletin is filled with announcements of upcoming events. Evening Prayer and weekily Bible Study are back. There's an Adult Forum next Sunday.

You’ll notice small changes in the furniture in the narthex as well as in the undercroft near the Parish Office, thanks to Ann Rea and Cathy Hackett. There are new incandescent but higher watt bulbs in the church chandeliers, so hopefully the church will be brighter but better ecologically. After the 10 o’clock service, we’ll have a pot luck lunch together.

Welcome back!

You can feel the energy and excitement in the church, can't you? Are we not ready for a little ‘love incarnate, love divine’ from the lips of Jesus in this morning’s gospel? And, what do we get? This: “Whoever does not hate . . .cannot be my disciple.”

Whoa! Hang on there. Hate? Did Jesus really say that? Not only that, but he was quite specific about the object of our hate.

Listen again: “Who ever does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself cannot be my disciple.”

Tim Wong said during our staff bible study this past week, “I’m so glad I don’t have to talk about this text to the 6th, 7th and 8th graders this week!” And I said, “”Yeah, well, I gotta preach to their parents.” Sometimes, being the leader is not all it’s cracked up to be.

You are probably asking the same questions some of our kids would ask: What ever happened to the 10 Commandments? What about: “Honor thy father and thy mother?” What about the new commandment of Jesus to ‘love one another as I have loved you’?

Why is Jesus saying that if we come to him, we have to hate? ‘Carrying our own cross’, we get. Sort of. And yes, there is a cost to the discipleship of Christ Jesus. We get that. Mostly.

But, hate? From the lips of Jesus? What’s up with THAT?

Sometimes you have to exaggerate to make a point. Sometimes, you have to overstate to make your case. Sometimes. I don’t know that Jesus is exaggerating or overstating. I think Jesus is using the word ‘hate’ not so much as a directive but rather as a descriptive of how much you have to love the mission and ministry of the vocation of being his disciple.

You have to love that vocation more than the love you have for your father or mother, your spouse or partner or children, and yes, even your own life.

He knows of what he speaks.

I’ve been reading “God Is Not Great” by Christopher Hitchens. The subtitle of the book is: “How Religion Poisons Everything” – which is a mantra he repeats with distressing frequency throughout the book. While I don’t think that his mantra necessarily leads to the conclusion that God is not great, he does make quite a case for his position against ALL organized religion – Christian, Jewish and Muslim - which has less to do with God and more to do with how human beings, especially the religious sort – and how they can and often do poison ‘everything’.

With his own unique combination of obvious intelligence, searing humor, wit and unmistakable charm, which makes this such a good read, Hitchens takes on the smug complacency of many of us who are involved in an organized religion and shakes us by the shoulders and says, “For God’s sake, listen to yourself!”

To his credit, he says things like, “Past and present religious atrocities have occurred not because we are evil, but because it is a fact of nature that the human species is, biologically, only partly rational. Evolution has meant that our prefrontal lobes are too small, our adrenal glands are too big, and our reproductive organs apparently designed by committee; a recipe which, alone or in combination, is very certain to lead to some unhappiness and disorder.”

In his stinging critique, calling religious people “false friends,” he writes, “If you read (Stephen) Hawking on the ‘event horizon’, that theoretical lip of the ‘black hole’ over which one could in theory plunge and see the past and future (except that one would, regrettably and by definition, not have enough ‘time’), I shall be surprised if you can still go on gaping at Moses and his unimpressive ‘burning bush’.”

I can’t remember who it was who once said, “I am not a member of organized religion. I’m an Episcopalian.” I don’t know about you, but that statement has some resonance with me.

For a long time, it was my ticket out of discussions like this with people like Hitchens who describe themselves as secular humanists, atheists and agnostics. Over the past twenty years or so of my public practice of ministry, these folk continue to find their way through the door of my office, no matter where that office may be.

Not so much any more. There is an organized attempt by a wave of those who call themselves ‘evangelical’ and ‘orthodox’ to push for ‘clarity’ and ‘certainty’.

For the life of me, I don’t know why they come looking for clarity and certainty, which requires an organized approach to religion and theology, in the Episcopal church, of all places! We are one of the messiest religions of the so-called ‘organized’ religions – which is precisely why it is that people who have intelligent questions find themselves, eventually, in The Episcopal Church.

Those who are uncomfortable with paradox and mystery will not find a spiritual home here. Those who can not “love the questions themselves” as the poet Rilke once wrote, will hate The Episcopal Church. Indeed, some hate it so much that they are trying to take it to hell in a handbasket.

Being an Episcopalian and part of the Anglican Communion has always meant that, because of our commitment to Christ Jesus, our deepest passion was to love the questions and living into the answers. As our closing benediction reminds us, for those who profess to follow Jesus, the journey is our home.

Jesus calls us to love the questions and the uncertainty and risk in our lives - to love those things more than we love the security of hearth and home, of parents and siblings, of spouse and children.

That’s not an easy concept to grasp. It’s a complex and complicated idea that is hard for even spiritually mature adults to wrap our mind around. I can’t imagine what children think when they hear this passage.

Ultimately, that journey is about finding one’s own authenticity so that one might live with integrity.

Recently in the church, we hear more and more from those who snarl that ‘authenticity’ and ‘integrity’ are the ultimate values and goals of ‘secular humanism’ and have nothing to do with Christianity. Really.

Let me rush to assure you: They say this with a straight face and all sincerity and goodness of intention.

People who maintain that position are those whom Hitchens would call ‘false friends.’ If Christ Jesus wasn’t crucified because he was being true to his authentic self, so that we, like him, might be able to live our lives with integrity, then I have completely misunderstood the message of Jesus and I have no right to call myself a Christian, much less an Episcopalian in the Anglican tradition.

If what Jesus taught does not challenge us to find authenticity and integrity and live our lives – indeed, risk our lives – for those values, then why bother being a Christian? Jesus is right. We ought to hate and abhor any thing that keeps us from embracing that high calling.

That’s not easy. It never has been. It never will be.

There will always be those who want us to love and worship the image of God they have.

There will always be those who will want us to live into the image they have of us and not the image we know God has for us to grow into.

That will often put us in direct confrontation and conflict with the very people who love us who may also be those whom we love.

To those of you who are on that particular journey, I say, “Welcome back!”

This is the place where you can travel with fellow pilgrims who do not bring clarity or certainty to the religious trek. Rather, they travel with a load of their own questions and try to live faithfully, with integrity, into the authenticity of the unique answers.

This is the place where you can examine your journey in faith, and estimate the cost of it.

Here people will, eventually and when you need it, shake you by the shoulders and say, “For God's sake, listen to yourself.” And you, in all Christian charity, will, one day and when the time is right, return the favor.

Here, you can give up the things you need to let go of and take on the things you need for your journey.

Here, we work hard to make certain that the desert is dry enough and the well deep enough for you to express the full range of emotion – love and hate, laughter and sorrow, joy and pain.

Here, you can do all of the dyings and and all of the rebirths and resurrections God has in store for you that you may live more fully into the gift of life.

For such is the nature of the Body of Christ. It has been promised.

Welcome back to the Household of God, the Body of Christ.

Welcome back to St. Paul’s!


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