Pentecost 15 September 5, 2010

Deuteronomy 30:15-20                                                     

Luke 14:25-33                                                                      

I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, but there’s a pattern to the way I preach. I usually begin with some story or example from life, develop a topic, and then bring the biblical readings to bear on it. That’s not the only way to preach, obviously. Many preachers start with the Bible, what is called expository preaching, illustrating the points in the lessons with examples from life.

I usually start with life because most congregations in Episcopal churches are not very familiar with the Bible and don’t automatically accept it as authoritative the way, say, a Baptist congregation would. But there are drawbacks to my approach. It tends to water down or soften the force of the biblical readings. You might even say it’s a coward’s way of preaching.

So let’s start with the Bible this morning. Deuteronomy is a book written to summarize the Torah or teaching of the first four books of the Bible, as a reminder to the people of Israel as they are about to cross over the River Jordan after the Exodus and enter the Promised Land. If they do as the Lord commands them and as Moses has taught them, they will prosper in the Land. If they forget the commandments and go after other gods, they will suffer and die. “Life and prosperity” versus “death and adversity”: make your choice.

The gospel passage complements this message, with heightened intensity and urgency. The choice here is put in terms of discipleship – following in the way of Jesus, the way of the Cross. The cost of discipleship, Jesus tells us, is nothing less than everything. “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Again, a choice.  A choice that each one of us must make.

I think about a woman very early in my ministry – she was elegant and wealthy, privileged and cultured – who said to me after I preached on this gospel, “Do we really have to do it all at once? Can’t we take it gradually?” Commentaries on passages like this often characterize them as “prophetic hyperbole,” overstatement for the sake of emphasis. Well, that’s a comforting thought, but you have to bring that qualification to these passages; you certainly don’t find it in them. On the other hand, trying to swallow this message whole can lead to a destructive fanaticism – people who bang you over the head with the Bible but are actually no closer to living a life of discipleship than you are.

Maybe it’s helpful to consider two things, as we decide how these readings speak to our lives. The first is responsibility. Some of you will have watched the movie “Precious.” Anne and I did last week. It’s based on a novel written by a girl named simply Sapphire, who grew up in the ghetto of Harlem. Raped from childhood by her own father, abused emotionally and physically by her welfare queen mother, told again and again that she was stupid, fat, poor and ugly, she was doomed, you think watching the movie, to repeat this terrible cycle.

And yet “Precious” is the story of how she breaks free, “chooses life” as Deuteronomy puts it, with the strong and patient help of a young teacher in an alternative school and a welfare case worker. The movie is raw; it’s hard to watch; but I commend it to you. I commend it to you because it’s about responsibility. Precious, the real life Sapphire, takes responsibility for her own life. The teacher and the welfare worker, both of whom deal with dozens of similar hard cases, take responsibility for Precious. And it makes all the difference.

You and I could give examples from our own experience of people who take responsibility, for themselves and others, and people who don’t. I see it again and again right here in this parish. Taking responsibility isn’t easy. It requires great work, often breaking free of destructive habits that pull us down. And I don’t mean that it works miracles. At the end of the movie Precious is still poor and fat and ugly, with two illegitimate children. But she’s taken responsibility for herself and those children; she’s determined to go to college and do something with her life. She’s carrying her cross, choosing life.

So, responsibility is important to consider: what is my responsibility; how do I go about assuming it fully? And that brings me to the second consideration in deciding how these readings speak to our lives. That is, looking seriously and not defensively at our situation, the realities in which we find ourselves. Here I think of the comment someone made to me right after 9/11: “Why would anyone do this? Why would anyone hate America?” Here was a person who obviously had no sense of international affairs – indeed of history. Someone who had never looked at her country from any other perspective than the simplest kind of one-dimensional patriotic propaganda. So she could only react defensively. In effect, she was trapped.

That’s an example from a public level, and the fact that so many people are like that makes it every difficult to govern this country at a mature and sophisticated level. But the same lack of critical self-awareness traps us at a personal level. When I counsel couples or families, I always look to see whether people have perspective on themselves – their own failures and faults – or only blame others and defend themselves. If I can’t help them look at themselves, it’s going to be impossible to move them towards better patterns of dealing with each other. They’re not going to be able to take responsibility, not going to be able to choose life and carry their cross. They’ll just go on fighting – the way of “death and adversity.”

So, there: responsibility and perspective on ourselves. It isn’t a matter of softening these readings. They’re the heart of Scripture, the message of redemption. Soften them and we kill the Gospel of Christ. It’s how we come at them, how we soften our own hearts to be able to hear God speaking through them in a way that changes our lives.

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