Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, June 26 2016, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
2 Kgs 2:1-2,6-14; Ps 77:1-2,11-20; Gal 5:1,13-25; Lk 9:51-62

This is the hinge moment of Luke’s gospel—the point when Jesus “sets his face towards Jerusalem”, and we transition out of the story of the ministry in and around Galilee, and into the journey to Jerusalem, the city which will be the place of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, that double but inseparable “lifting up.” And at this hinge, Luke gives us a series of fragments, shards which begin to tell us something about what this journey means, and what it can mean for us to follow Jesus on that road.

The sequence starts—as so many do—with the disciples getting it amazingly wrong yet again. A Samaritan village exhibits less than hospitable behaviour, and in response James and John eagerly ask Jesus for permission to call down fire and destroy the villagers. James and John are a bit of a caricature here, but this is actually a model of discipleship which the church has, in a slightly more sophisticated form, very often clung to. It is discipleship as power, as a means of accessing the presumed capacity of God to deal out retribution, to enforce justice, a capacity ideally exercised through the medium of us, the church. We speak in this language all the time, claim to be empowered by God to do all kinds of more or less coercive things. Good things, even, sometimes—but still understanding discipleship as a means of accessing power, even if it be the power to heal or to build. I have spoken often enough before of our deep, and quite understandable, desire for a God of power who will compel us to be good; even more, we desire a God who will compel the world to be good, using us as the instruments.

But it is not like that. Discipleship is, confusingly, ironically, a means of accessing vulnerability. A means, even, of accessing failure. Discipleship rips the power out of our hands, and puts us homeless on the road with a homeless God. The world of birds and foxes is, perhaps, a world which is less alienated from God, a world which lives more nearly as it was intended to. But the world which we complicated broken human creatures have made, our world of commerce and competition, exclusion and accumulation, shiny toys and rumours of war—in this world Christ has no place, and insofar as we are faithful to Christ, we too are displaced, inappropriate, we do not fit. To love your neighbour as yourself, that commandment which is the whole law, if we really live it out, is a huge and radical challenge to our culture; and in the shiny pageant of false consolations, we are called to be the awkward ones. We are called to stand with all those who are displaced by the engines of money and power, those who really do have nowhere to lie down at night except a park bench or the lobby of a bank or an overcrowded shelter, with victims of abuse, with those who’ve faced rejection and violence, with all those pushed to the margins, to receive their stories and their pain, to understand them as no different from ourselves. We are called to futility and failure, often enough. It does not make life comfortable; it displaces us from our own learned values. It will change how we have to live.

And these changes are not only serious, but urgent. They may come upon us as instantly as a single word, or as gradually as the movement of seasons. They may be changes which are obvious to everyone around us, or they may take place in the private darkness of the soul. They may, likely will, be nothing we had ever expected, nothing for which our lives have prepared us, nothing for which the church had prepared us. And we must answer—we are called to answer no matter what the cost, without looking back, even if the sacrifices are drastic, even if we are failures in the eyes of others, even if the whole social world condemns us. For freedom Christ has set us free; and real freedom, the freedom that is vulnerable, displaced, and open, the demanding freedom that leads us into our full selves in the crucified and risen Christ, is the greatest challenge we will know.

We must free ourselves from so much—from the culture which tells us that we are always competing with each other for scarce resources, for attention, for love, that we can only win if someone else loses, that those who are different are a threat to our being and must be excluded or destroyed; from the economic forces which train us in envy and fear; from the temptation to smother pain under the accumulation of goods or achievements; from the quick sugar rush of self-righteousness which comes from declaring someone else wrong, lesser, outside. From the frameworks which the culture gives us, prisons of gender and race and class and status which enclose us all. We must make our way out. We must face our losses, our dead and our wounds, and move on. And we must free ourselves from the clinging hands of our own dead weights, the habits and beliefs and ways of being which we hang onto long after they have ceased to have any life—not because the fear and sadness are not real, for they are very real indeed, but because Christ has overcome death, and in Christ we can, and we must, begin to reach out past our fear and sadness towards life and love.

For we are made free for love, made free in order to love. To love our problematic neighbours, all the awkward and difficult and outcast people in this strange world, and to be loved as our awkward and difficult selves. To make small things, to grow tiny gardens, to comfort the grieving and the lost. To be the islands of humanity when the floods come. To fail in love, and to know that we will go on failing, and still be forgiven, still enabled to try again. We pick up the discarded tasks of those who have gone from us, and strike the water, and cross over into our own mission, our own calling.

In a few minutes, Beck Schaefer, a member of our congregation, will come forward to make a formal liturgical acknowledgement of one part of his own calling, his own urgent summons to discipleship. As many of you know, Beck has transitioned from female to male, coming into a truer understanding of himself as God created him, and as he is called to follow God. He has grown in his discipleship in and through this process, and will reaffirm his baptismal vows under his new name, expressing his commitment to continue to grow in Christ, to grow into freedom. We cannot live without our lives, the activist Barbara Deming once wrote. Beck is claiming the depth of his life, and the determination to live it, to deepen in this way his work for the kingdom of love and justice.

This is an act of discipleship with which much of our society is still profoundly uncomfortable. It is a very brave and potentially dangerous act; the terrible events in Orlando remind us of that—queer bodies are not safe, have never been safe, and all the safe space we may create can be violated by angry, wounded people, the people who think that they themselves can call down fire from heaven on the ones that frighten them. We bless Beck’s calling in community in part to bind ourselves to him, to say that we are one body, and we will, that we must, stand with him when the forces of hate stand against him.

But we do this as well to commit ourselves to our own truth. To promise that we too will listen to the call of the homeless and vulnerable God. That we will face our own changes and challenges, the unexpected imperatives of discipleship, our own fears and desires and possibilities, our own selves in the context of this lovely needy world, with all the courage and honesty and love that we can summon. For freedom Christ has set us free. And we must keep learning to accept the demands and responsibilities of that liberation. Displaced, uncomfortable, beloved, and more profoundly alive, more profoundly free, than we can even imagine.