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Sunday, September 04, 2016

Will the real Christian please stand up?

A sermon preached at St. Philip's, Laurel, DE
September 4, 2016

Are you a ‘real Christian’? Are you a ‘true believer’?

Believe it or not, I often get these questions. Sometimes, it happens in the grocery store when I’ve got my collar on. Other times, it’s a test of whether a patient will accept me as their Hospice Chaplain.

Interestingly enough, the question is often answered for me in one of two ways. 

First, I obviously can’t be a ‘true believer’ because I’m clearly a woman who doesn’t know her ‘biblical place’.  No woman can be ordained because a man is the head of the household, which means that only a man can be head of the household of God.  

Says so, right there in the “Bye-ble”.

The second piece of evidence that I can’t possibly be either a true believer or a real Christian is because I’m an Episcopalian. When some hear that, they don’t need another word. It’s “Case closed”. 

They won’t even let me pray my way out the door.

Have you noticed that some folks these days want to develop an ‘acid test’ for identity? 

That test can range from the ridiculous to the sublime. Like “You may be a redneck if you were shooting pool when any of your kids were born.”

Or, “Real men don’t eat quiche. They eat red meat.”

Or, “Real women don’t wear pantsuits. They wear dresses or skirts.”

Some folks have certain, set ideas about what it means to be a “Real American” – and you might be very surprised to learn that you and I probably don’t meet their standards.

I’ve actually had Hospice patients on their deathbed who want to confess that they once smoked or drank whiskey or – Gasp! – danced. They honestly believe that they won’t get into heaven because they did these things.  Once. When they were very young. Or, away at camp. Or, in the Army.

What’s that saying? “You have to be carefully taught.”

This black and white, either/or thinking gets reinforced by passages like the one we just read from Luke’s Gospel (14:25-33).  It’s part of a collection of “hard sayings” of Jesus.

"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.”

Yes, Jesus said “hate”. (There's an explanation for this that we'll have to discuss some time in a Bible study or Christian Ed class.) Yes, he said, anyone who does not “hate” your family – even life, itself - Can. NOT. Be. My Disciple.

Not only that, he said, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” 

Not a metaphorical or symbolic “cross”. “THE” cross.  As in, “Follow me to the cross and get yourself crucified as well.”

So, that thins the crowd a bit, right?

Hate your family and love only Jesus and follow him to your own crucifixion. 

That’s certainly a higher bar to reach than whether or not you’ve not smoked or sipped whiskey or danced or been able to memorize and recite specific pieces of scripture. Scriptural gymnastics, is what I call it.

Why did Jesus say these things? To whom was Jesus talking?

We don’t know exactly where Jesus was, but it’s a safe bet that he was continuing his journey to Jerusalem.  As this 14thchapter in Luke’s gospel opens, Jesus had been having a Sabbath dinner at the home of the “leading Pharisee” and, we are told, “the people had been watching him carefully.” 

Jesus had been asked a question about healing on the Sabbath and responded with questions about the Levitical codes that none of the Pharisees seemed able – or willing – to answer.

He also told them a parable about a Great Dinner and how the Master of the house invited the rich and wealthy and well dressed but they all had excuses about why they couldn’t come. So, the Master instructed his servants to go out and invite the “poor and the crippled, the lame and the blind,” those who lived in the “streets and alleys ....  the highways and the hedges” saying that those who accept the invitation, no matter their status in life, will be fed.

After he left the home of the “leading Pharisee,” large crowds followed Jesus as he traveled. I imagine Jesus walking along from one town to the next, encircled by his closest followers and then, trailing along for a great distance, an endless stream of curious people. 

Jesus turned around to address this great multitude and I imagine he literally stopped them in their tracks with these harsh words about hating your mother and father.

I imagine the crowd vaporizing after Jesus finished, perhaps discussing among themselves on their way back home just what he meant.

It’s just pure conjecture on my part – Hebrew scholars call this ‘midrash’ – but I’m thinking that Jesus was saying something like:

“You think all these Levitical codes are what’s important to God? You think this stuff about keeping the Sabbath will get you into heaven? You think THAT’s the ‘acid test’ of what it means to be a religious or holy person? You’re going to have to leave behind everything you once thought was sacred. You’re going to have to sacrifice everything you thought had worth. Come, follow me into a new way of thinking about God. Come, follow me and have a new relationship with God.”

Here’s what I think. (This is midrash, again, filling in the gaps) I think what Jesus really meant by these words is just what happened in this morning’s story from Luke’s gospel. 

I think Jesus meant to thin the crowd. 

I think he hoped people would stop following him around and go back home and THINK about all they had seen Jesus do and all they had heard Jesus say.

Jesus didn’t want people to FOLLOW HIM AROUND.

He wanted people to FOLLOW HIS TEACHINGS. 

Big difference. 

Jesus doesn’t want ‘groupies’. He’s not a rock star. It’s not about just being a “follower”. 

Jesus wants disciples.  Disciplined students of a worthy teacher.

He doesn’t expect us all to live like monks and nuns – unless that’s what you feel you really want to do in order to be faithful. 

However you live your life, Jesus wants people to consider and follow his teachings, so we might have a better relationship with God and each other and make this world a better place for all of God’s creatures and creation.. 

After he said those harsh words, the crowd turned around and left, probably scratching their heads. I’m thinking they were talking about this Jesus and what he meant by some of his teachings and what it would mean for their lives to follow his teachings.

And, that’s the point, I think. That’s the point of the gospel story. That’s the point of sermons and coming to church. To get people talking about Jesus and what his teachings mean for us in our own lives of faith.  

My midrash understanding is that’s exactly what Jesus meant by these harsh words.  I think it's what he means for those of us who hear his words today.

I think he means to stop us dead in our tracks. I think he means to jolt our thoughts about our spiritual journey. I think he intends to send us back home to think – THINK, not simply memorize and recite – the teachings of Jesus – who, BTW, never said that anyone shouldn’t smoke or drink or dance.

I mean, I’m just sayin’.

I think Jesus is saying that WE are NOT the ones to set the standards by which we will be judged righteous or holy or religious, much less Christian. 

Only Jesus can do that.  

Or, as author Anne Lamott says, “You can be quite certain that you have created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

I think Jesus is saying “Just stop judging each other or trying to determine what it means to be holy or righteous or identified with me. That’s a zero-sum game. I did not come here to have you judge each other in my name. I came here to turn all of your expectations and assumptions about God upside down and right side up. I came so that you might have life and have it abundantly. So stop being so miserly with each other. Love God. Love one another as I love you. And, I love you. Unconditionally.”

And, you know, if we love God and love one another, we can change the world. 

I really believe that.

It’s really that simple. And, it’s really that hard.

Are you a ‘real Christian’? Are you a ‘true believer’?

I have come to believe that those are questions that ought not be asked by any one person of another.

These are questions that can only be asked by one person.

And, I believe, these questions are best asked and answered when that one person is standing in front of a mirror.



Lindy said...

Very interesting. I hadn't thought of Jesus thinning the herd, so to speak. Thanks for that.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I've been reading scriptures for most of my life and preaching on them for the past 35. This was a new insight for me.