Monday, September 6, 2010

Sermon: "Discipleship: After the Deluge"

First, a note: this sermon was way-hay-hay too long, and too convoluted. But, it was a hard text to preach on, and am interested to hear others' thoughts and ideas on what to do with this text.

Pentecost 15

Luke 14.25-33

Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26 "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. 27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30 saying, 'This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.' 31 Or 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? 32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

Discipleship: After the Deluge

The day the waters came, I was told to wake up before the sun even broke through the night at the horizon. The day the waters came, my mother was a parish pastor at a church in Point of Rocks, Maryland. The church sat on top of the rocky hill overlooking the Potomac River, right on the border between Maryland and Virginia. The church was called St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, a tiny parish serving the small town.

We had a rough winter that year, I remember. The first big snow storm of my memory happened that year, in December of '95. I was only eleven years old, and I remember the snow being so high in our yard that where my father had shoveled the snow in the walkway from our front door to the driveway, the snow was taller than I was. Kind of like this past year’s winter, right?

Well, the day the waters came, it was early mid-winter, the cold of January. All of the snow had melted away, but the air was still chilly afternoons and freezing in the mornings and evenings, and the sky was still a perpetual gray, as if you were looking at the world through a black and white television set.

The day the waters came followed this horrible winter, and followed rain storms up in the northwestern part of Pennsylvania. The sun had melted all the remnants of the rough winter snow off the tops of the mountains, which then drained into the Potomac River. This combined with the already swelled waters from the rain storms hundreds of miles away. And so, the flood came. And I, a little boy of eleven, was packed into my mom’s car along with my brother and sister, and drove out to the church which sat high on the hill, providing a good vantage point as the sun finally appeared over the horizon, to watch the waters begin to seep up the hill. The flood began sometime around January 18th or 19th, “ahead of a strong cold front. In the day leading up to the floods, strong southerly winds and dew points reaching in to 50's created ideal conditions to melt the snowpack that was covering the entire Mid Atlantic region. As the cold front moved through the area on January 19th and 20th, intense rainfall accelerated the snowmelt even further, causing massive amounts of runoff to enter the rivers and streams.”1

The day the waters came… it was a mess. I remember the frantic way in which the few hundred people who lived on that hill rushed trying to pull their possessions out of their houses as the waters without mercy climbed higher and higher. You could see the water rising, inches at a time. You could physically see the water as it went up and up and up, crawling along the grass.

The day the waters came… you could see the panic on peoples’ faces as they watched the waters force its way into houses. Houses are supposed to be safe; a place of refuge, comfort, there’s no place like home! There’s no place like home, but there is also nothing like watching your home be raped and used by flood waters, your place of comfort and rest being torn apart by mud and water and river.

The church, St. Luke’s, sat high enough on the hill that it was in no danger of being flooded, and congregants who fortunately lived out of harm’s way, out of the river wild’s maniac path, helped in whatever way they could—the women provided food and hot beverages, the men of the congregation pulling people’s furniture out of the path of the water, us children watching in horror as people’s homes were destroyed, watching the pain on people’s faces, seeing the tears in their eyes as the water came without ceasing, climbed without resting, took without caring.

The oddest thing I remember about that day, the day the waters came, was how still the river looked. It wasn’t teaming or whirling or raging, but it was tranquil, placid, almost, the surface of the climbing water as still as a lake. The currents underneath the surface were fast enough to sweep away entire trees, roots and all, but from my vantage the water seemed so gentle, so calm…

The water climbed thirty-six point five feet that day, a record.2 Nearly every single house in Point of Rocks was damaged in some way by the flood. The entire county declared a state of emergency. Damage estimates for this small town of just under one thousand residents were in the millions.3

Reflecting on the flood now, I cannot help but think of the Bible verse out of Amos, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”4 Thinking back on the flood, I can tell you that this was neither justice nor righteousness. And what Jesus tells us today in the gospel text—that’s not my idea of discipleship, that’s not my idea of justice or righteousness. Jesus tells us to hate our parents, our spouses, our own children and our siblings. Jesus tells us to hate life itself. The cost of discipleship is so great that we are to carry a cross and follow Jesus to death. Even more, we are told to give up all of our possessions. High stakes, here. Hate? That doesn’t sound very Christ-like to me. These words are coming out of the same man who said just a few chapters ago to love God with all of our hearts and souls, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Jesus just got out of dinner with Pharisees, sees a huge crowd, and they start following him. Jesus turns around and says these choice words. “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, spouse and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself cannot be my disciple.” We are told the cost of discipleship, there it is. Can you take it back? I don't want it. What do you mean I have to hate those whom I love?

Jesus further says, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” To share in the discipleship of Jesus means to carry his cross, to share in his death, as Saint Paul says. Again, I don't want it.

Jesus finally says, “None of you cannot become my disciples if you do not give up all of your possessions.” Um... to be a disciple is to go into a life of poverty? To become a burden on others as we cannot feed ourselves or our families? What are you talking about here, Jesus?

These three requirements should cause us to pause, sitting in our pews, and think... wow, what is this, what is Jesus calling me to do? What is being a disciple really like?

First, in a world of broken families, people who suffer from depression and other ailments, people who are poorer than poor, I honestly do not think Jesus is telling us to hate our loved ones, to hate our lives, and to sell all of our possessions. Rather, we are told that the life of a disciple is a hard one, one with heavy costs and heavy burdens. In this life, in this world, those whom we love can and will die. Our possessions can be taken away by something as simple and as horrible as a flood.

Some televangelists will tell you that if you just believe in Jesus, if you just pray hard enough, if you just send a check, then all your problems will go away and God will bless you with possessions and good health, praise Jesus, hallelujah! Is that what Jesus is saying here? That if we believe in him, if we pray to him hard enough, nothing bad will happen, our lives will be easy, we can kick back and relax through life? No!

Families, the familiar, possessions, all of these can bring comfort, and even worse, complacency. We can get trapped up in spending so much time and energy with our family or for our children that we forget to take care of our own health, for instance. And even more so, we forget that there are those around us who do not have families, who have lost loved ones, who have no support network.

We are not to hate the ones we love, but we are to detach ourselves from the comfort and complacency that it can bring. Because, life can suck, sometimes, to be honest. Nothing truer has ever been said. Floods can come, hurricanes can come, health can fail, loved ones can die, all flesh is grass and the glory of the flower is grass, Isaiah says, the grass withers and the flower fades. But, the word of the Lord endures forever.5

Because the cost of discipleship is high. In the flood of 1996, I saw the cost of discipleship in the midst of the flood. I remember that my mother helped carry a blind woman out of her house who refused to leave the house she loved and knew, the woman screamed as she was carried from her house even as the waters were ankle deep.

The discipleship, the community shown by the huddled masses of the church parking lot, holding vigil that night, waiting for the flood waters to cease, as the Red Cross and church members not affected by the flood donated food for a cookout, so people could have food in the cold January weather, the church opening its doors to and even its restrooms to the community so people could have a warm place to gather. Nothing in this world can heal the hurt that was felt by the community that day. Nothing. But, the promise of God is for a brighter tomorrow, for a new day, the promise manifested in the community that day, in the disciples who labored endlessly that day and night, is what helped a town get through a disaster.

That is discipleship, that is picking up your cross and carrying it. The hours of clean up by volunteers, the love, the open doors, the donations, the discomfort of being forced to stand together with people you never normally would have met or even spoken to as you share stories and bread on a church parking lot as you watch the flood carry mud and trees and dead animals through your homes.

The message Jesus is telling us is that bad things can and will happen, disciple or not. But, being a disciple is that when these things happen we come together as a community, get over our differences, and we gather together and live the Gospel whatever the cost. When the economy crashes, we help those who lose a job, when a loved one dies, the community gathers and supports the family, when the going gets tough the community, trusting in God, provides the help and care needed, even if it means discomfort. How are we being called as a community of faith to be a disciple? How is Parkville hurting, how is Baltimore hurting, how is the world hurting in ways, even simple ways, that we can help? How can we pick up the cross and follow Jesus?

The Kingdom of God that Jesus brings is like a flood. It comes without ceasing, ripping down the barriers of race and class, the barriers that separate men and women from having equal rights and opportunities, the barriers of sexual orientation or economic wealth. Nothing that oppresses or hurts the least among us can stand in the way of the Kingdom of God and not be washed away. The comfortable lifestyles, the many possessions we have, do you think those can stand between us and the flood of the Kingdom of God?

But, the waters of justice, the streams of mercy and righteousness, the font of every blessing, just like baptism, brings new life from the old, the many nutrients washed down the Potomac River brought a spring that was never seen before, a spring full of such beauty and flowers and blossoms and plenteous crops from the lower fields from all the nutrients, the new life the flood brought was overwhelming. It didn't make up for all the hurt, but it was amazing nonetheless. Annie Dillard, an amazing nature writer, describes one such story in her book, The Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, where a huge flood came through Virginia and wrecked homes and destroyed properties. But she tells of this one poor family, who after the flood had left the bottom floor of their house covered in slime and mud, later that year, even after all the cleaning, a giant mushroom grew in their living room, providing the family food, a final gift that the flood had departed for them, an almost consolation prize.

Even more than the springtime to follow the January floods, the plentiful harvest time to follow the heavy rains, the mushroom gifts discovered, how much more so does the Kingdom of God bring new life after all the hardship and turmoil, the ripping the mighty from their thrones, the grief, after all that is done how much more does the Kingdom of God give us new life?

Jesus tells us to hate what in this life makes us comfortable, because the comfort becomes a screen against helping others, the discomfort of living the life that Jesus calls us too is to easy to ignore when we are surrounded by what makes us comfortable. We are not told to literally hate our loved ones, in fact, as I said, just a few passages earlier Jesus tells us to love God above all else, but also to love our neighbors as ourselves. But when love for the comfortable, love for the familiar, love for the close at hand becomes more than love of God and love for those who need it most, the loveless, we are not living the life of a disciple. We are not following the via dolorosa, the path of Jesus, the life Jesus calls us to.

Because you know what? Jesus sought us when we were strangers. The grace of God which binds our wandering hearts to God, and yet continuously we turn away from the weight of the crosses we are called to carry, we turn away from the poor and turn to the embrace of comfort. Daily we wander, daily are we prone to leave the God of love. But the streams of mercy, the fonts of blessing, the never-ending flood of grace is always, is always filling us, healing us, making us whole, and binding our wandering hearts to God, calling us to the discomfort of discipleship, the discipleship that comes after the deluge, after the flood.

For the day the waters came at baptism, we were forgiven. The day the waters came we were made whole and are made whole, the day the waters came we were called to a costly discipleship, the day the waters came we were given new life. Amen.

Image above from, taken by Sam Yu. This image was from a recent flood in the Brunswick/Point of Rocks area.

All Bible quotations from the New Revised Standard Version


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