Tuesday, September 27, 2022

King Charles III: Defender of Faith?


Britain’s King Charles III and Camilla, the queen consort, leave after a Service of Prayer and Reflection for the life of Queen Elizabeth II, at Llandaff Cathedral in Cardiff, Wales, Sept. 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein, Pool)

As we come to terms with what the British monarchy will look like in the post-Elizabethan era (can we recycle that term to speak of recent history?), I was interested in this article posted in Religion News Service on 21 September about the new king’s title Defender of the Faith and how King Charles may be interpreting it.

The term Defensor Fidei was first given to Henry VIII in 1521 by the Pope, when Henry was trying to curry favour with the papacy through a ghost-written tract he had put his name to, denouncing Martin Luther.  As we know, Henry was quite willing later on to jettison Rome’s favour to gain his divorce from his first wife, Catherine.   Readers who want to know more, and are looking for good fiction, are encouraged to read the late and lamented Hilary Mantel's novel Wolf Hall.

The title remained, and while the late Queen and her son have both maintained their membership in the Church of England and their Christian faith, there have been signs that the new King has envisioned the Crown being a guarantor of religions.   As Prince of Wales, he controversially said that he thought the monarch should be “Defender of the Faiths”, and while he recanted that statement, the RNS article notes that there were many different faith/religious leaders present at funeral services for Queen Elizabeth.

An expansive view of religious freedom is probably the only course open to a constitutional monarch with a fragile authority over an increasingly pluralistic and secular nation.   It is, however, the view that the late Queen took, as the RNS article notes:

In a landmark speech in 2012 at Lambeth Palace, the London home of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the queen said of the Church of England that “Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.”

She credited the established church with having done so already. “Gently and assuredly, the Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely,” she said.

Watching the funeral service for the Queen, one of my more conservative clergy colleagues jokingly suggested that the Crown on the flag-draped casket was a fitting symbol of Christian nationalism.   I respectfully differ.  When I was a chaplain in the Canadian Forces, as a religious functionary employed by the federal government, I came to the view that my role was to speak politically and socially for all faiths represented in Canada, while speaking pastorally and theologically only for my own.  A chaplain’s role, I thought, was ultimately to guarantee the freedom of people of faith to be themselves.  My sense is that the new King takes a similar view of the Crown’s role.     

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Rich Man, Poor Man, Repentant Man, Life: A Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost



19“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

(Luke 16:19-31 NRSV)


Preached at Prince of Peace, Wasaga Beach, and St. Luke’s, Creemore, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 25 September, 2022.

Readings for this Sunday (YrC):   Jer 32:1-3a, 6-15; Ps 91:1-6, 14-16; 1 Tim 6:6-19; Lk 16:19-31


Those of you with long memories and experience of the church will recall one of the verses from the old hymn, “All Things Bright and Beautiful” composed by Cecil Frances Alexander and first published in 1848.  The third verse went like this:

“The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God hath made them, high or lowly, and ordered their estate”.   

In Victorian Britain, this verse made sense to people who were accustomed to a class system and to an inequitable distribution of wealth.    It probably reflected the world as Alexander herself saw it, since her father managed great estates of the Anglo-Irish Protestant gentry and she herself composed the hymn in the middle of the Great Irish Potato Famine of 1845-49.

Some have argued in Alexander’s defence that she was expressing the view that the rich and poor are all God’s children.   However, the verse no longer appears in Anglican hymn books, and not just because of some recent woke censorship.   When the cleric Percy Dearmer published his Hymns Ancient and Modern in 1904, he cut this third verse and questioned whether Alexander had thought enough about the parable of the rich man and poor Lazarus in St. Luke, which just happens to be our gospel reading today.

Whereas the third verse of Alexander’s hymn does not say anything about the relationship between the two men (for all we know, she envisioned the rich man as being charitable to the poor man), Jesus in his parable leaves us in no doubt that the rich man doesn’t care a whit for poor Lazarus and does absolutely nothing to help him.  We’re told that the rich man doesn’t just eat, he feasts, “sumptuously” and “daily” (Lk 16.19), while the poor man can only dream of eating the scraps that fall from the rich man’s table (Lk 16.21).   

Those who heard Jesus tell this parable would have understood the unjustness of the situation.  In the ancient world, it was expected that the wealthy would give charity, or alms, to the poor, at least on special social occasions such as a feast.  Some of the wealthy houses excavated at Pompeii, for example, have benches outside the gates where the poor would wait on certain days for alms to be distributed.  The fact that the rich man here blatantly ignores Lazarus daily would have been a red flag for Jesus’ listeners.

Since the basic thrust of the story is easy to understand, let me take a few moments to suggest how we shouldn’t understand it.    First, let’s not make the mistake of thinking that Jesus’ point is to condemn the rich, nor should we think that it celebrates poverty as some kind of virtue.  The point of the conversation between the rich man and Abraham is to drive home the point that God has expectations of those who have been blessed by wealth. 

When Abraham tells the rich man in torment that his brothers still living have “Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them”, he is speaking to a very clear theme of Jewish law and teaching.  As just one example, the prophet Amos warns the wealthy that if they you that “trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land” (Am 8.4), then they will face God’s anger and punishment.  Abraham’s message is thus vey clear:  it is the will of God that those blessed with much care for their neighbours with less, and when Jesus preached that we should love our neighbour as we love ourselves, he wasn’t saying anything new, he was merely clarifying Jewish teaching.  The point then is not that wealth is bad or poverty is good, rather, the point as always in our faith is that wealth is part of God’s good’s creation, and to those that much is given, much is expected by the creator.

The second point I would make is that the point of the story is not to make us afraid that God’ might punish us in the afterlife if we’re not good.   I think the gospel is always about grace, and is never about scaring us into obedience.   C.S. Lewis once famously wrote that if the doors of hell have locks, then they are on the inside.  The rich man’s tragedy is that he cut himself off from God and from his fellow man.   His tragedy is made even worse because he sees the error of his ways, but too late.  His care for his brothers, his desire that they avoid his fate, is commendable, but comes too late, because his repentance came too late.

Elsewhere in Luke’s gospel, Jesus says, “unless you repent surely you will perish” (Lk 13.5). Repentance is one of the big themes in Luke/Acts.  Recently in church, as we’ve been working our way through Luke’s gospel, we heard the parables of lost and found sheep (15:3-7), a lost and found coin (15:8-10), which along with the lost and found son (15:11-32) always show God’s desire to reclaim the lost and single.   The most famous last minute repentance in Luke is of course the thief dying beside Jesus on the cross who is, as is sometimes noted, the first that Jesus admits to paradise (Luke 23.39-43).  

In many ways, today’s gospel and Charles Dicken’s Christmas Carol are not unalike.  Both are stories of rich men who cut themselves off from the poor (although Scrooge was too miserly to feast daily) and both experience conversions as they see the error of their ways.   The only difference is that only one repents in time, so whereas Dickens’ story is a comedy in that it has a happy ending, Luke’s story is a tragedy.

The gospel’s hope always is that our lives will have a happy ending if we give them to God and to our neighbour.   The gospel’s warning is that if we don’t govern our lives in accordance with the will of God, then we are the ones cut ourselves off from God and others by locking ourselves into our prison cells.

The temptation to think that our wealth can save us is always there.   The temptation to put ourselves before others is constantly amplified by some politics and advertising.    The temptation to imprison ourselves is always there.  The mission of the church, perhaps now more than ever, is to preach that the will of God is always there.  Unless we give our lives over to the will of God and to the needs of our neighbours, then our lives will be blighted and denied the fullness and joy that God wants for us.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Who Are You Praying To? A Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost

 Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 18 September, 2022.   Readings for this Sunday:  Jeremiah 8:18 - 9:1; Psalms 79:1-9; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13

“You cannot serve God and wealth” (Lk 16.13)

What is the church for?  Why are we at All Saints here?  If we were to do some brainstorming and wrote out a list, we would I’m sure come up with some interesting answers.

“Teach people about Jesus and spread the gospel” might be one, and it would certainly be in keeping with Jesus’ great commandment.

“Show the love of God” “Care for the least among us” “Feed the hungry”  - all good answers and very gospel centred.

“Community and fellowship” - would also be an excellent answer.

“Pray” would probably be on that list, and that’s one I want to focus on today, following the prompting of our second lesson from 1 Timothy.   We do pray on Sunday mornings, to be sure, but scripture would have us go further.  St. Paul, in one of his letters, tells the church to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thes 5.17).  

“Pray without ceasing” seems like a tall order.  Can we stop for coffee?    Are naps allowed?    How do we pray?  What if we’re not good at prayer?    These are all legitimate questions, but we can’t deny that among the things that God wants the church to do, prayer is right up there on the brainstorming list.

One of my favourite places to go to rest and spiritually recharge is to the Anglican monastery in Boston, the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, on the doorstep of Harvard University.  The brothers are prayer professionals.   Visitors to their guesthouse are invited to join them at prayer, before breakfast, at midday, before dinner, in the evening and finally before bedtime.   The brothers practice follow the ancient customs of regular, fixed hour prayer which goes back to the very early church and beyond that to ancient Jewish faith as we see in some of the psalms.   This practice is rooted in the idea that some should hold the world and its concerns in a gentle embrace of prayer, a constant murmur rising to heaven like smoke or incense, asking God to show love and mercy to those who need it.

Fortunately, guests at the monastery are not expected to participate in all five daily services, but are encouraged to visit the chapel as they wish.    Because the brothers are very skilled at chanting the psalms and prayers, in the Gregorian tradition, most visitors just sit and listen.  Joy and I have attended and have felt a kind of serenity as the prayers and chanting of the brothers washes over us, like being in a canoe on a slow moving river carrying you gently forward.  When I’ve come home from the monastery, I fall into the business of my daily routine, and often don’t have time to pray as I would like to, but maybe that’s why the brothers are there, to pray for the world without ceasing.

Something the brothers have taught me, however, is that prayer doesn’t have to be sung, read, or spoken.  Prayer can be a quiet attentiveness to God, finding moments of calm to reflect, to listen for that quiet voice that prompts us, of waiting for that moment of spiritual and mental clarity where something falls into place in our minds.    I like to think of prayer as an orientation of the self, a way of pointing our hearts and minds towards God in the way that flowers track the sun as it moves across the sky.   This sort of prayer can be done as we do things that fill us with joy, particularly in moments of service or creativity, like cooking a meal, tending a garden, or working on a craft or art project, something that uses our gifts and which connects us with others.

Seen in this way, prayer is self-offering, a way of giving ourselves back to the God who created all things.  One of the Boston monks, Brother Lucas, puts it this way.  Prayer, he says, is  “Always offering up, in some way, what we have been given by God, what God has provided us for sacrifice. And with that understanding, we may begin to enter into a new way of self-knowledge, a new way of understanding our feelings, thoughts, and actions: if it’s all prayer, we can ask ourselves about any given experience, no matter how mundane or “un-spiritual”, “Who was I praying to there? To whom was I sacrificing? Was it God, or an idol?”

I think Brother Lucas chose the word “idol” deliberately.   An idol is something created by human hands, something we offer ourselves to and so leads us away from God.  If we don’t try to orientate ourselves to God, then we run the risk of being captured by something else and falling into its service.    In today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells a parable of a cunning scoundrel who colludes with others to cheat his master.   Jesus concludes with the message, “You cannot serve God and wealth”  (Luke 16.13).

 An idol is something created by human hands, which can end up leading us away from God.  Again to quote Brother Lucas, he reminds us that throughout the gospels, Jesus teaches us that “all creation, and thus all that we might call material wealth, is the work of God. All wealth that we possess, whether meagre or great, is given to us by God’s providence, not as some reward for being very good or very special, but rather, as an act of God’s call to us. God places us in a position of stewardship, authority, and responsibility. He provides for sacrifice, and money cannot go un-sacrificed. Whether we spend it or keep it, we always offer it to someone, and it is always appropriate to ask ourselves, “To whom [are we offering it]?”

Brother Lucas is right to see wealth as part of God’s providence.   If prayer is the direction of our hearts and if prayer is the offering of ourselves, then wealth is part of prayer.    We can’t see our wealth and our gifts as solely ours, wholly walled off from others and their needs, because then we only praying to an idol of selfishness.    We exist in community and wealth is part of community,  and prayer is part of community, which is why in our prayers we pray for those around us, near and far.

Our sense of community is thus shaped by prayer, because we have an idea of what God wants community to look like.  In 1 Timothy we hear that we are supposed to pray for our leaders “and all who are in high positions” (1 Tim 2.2).   Further, we hear that we are to pray for our leaders (not to our leaders - we can easily elevate out leaders to idol status) for a particular purpose, “so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity” (2 Tim 2.2).  What does that mean?

“Quiet and peaceable” can just mean we want to be left alone, but then we aren’t giving of ourselves if we understand prayer as self-giving.   Can we settle for peace and quiet just for ourselves?    We are also called to live in “godliness and dignity” and those are gospel values?   Can someone live in dignity if they are degraded by poverty, or demonized because of their race, or political views, or their orientation?    Can a community be considered “godly” if its leaders incite hate or fear or violent thoughts?   In other words, we don’t pray that our favourite candidates win at all costs.  We don’t pray fo them to tear down, we pray for them to build up.  

To return to my original question, what is church for?  Among other things, church is a place of prayer, provided that we understand prayer as  lives that are oriented to God and hearts (and yes, wallets), that are open to the giving back of what God has given to us.   Prayer is seeking a peaceful and a better life not just for us, but for our neighbours.  Prayer is care for the dignity of others, and prayer is properly angry when the dignity of others is violated.     Prayer is living a proper life, because, just as flowers wither when they are not facing the sun, so do our souls and hearts wither when they are not facing God.

Saturday, September 10, 2022

Old Us, New Us: A Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Sermon for the Fourteenth Pentecost, Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, Sunday, 11 September, 2022.   

Readings:  Jeremiah 4:11-12,22-28; Psalm 51:1-10; 1 Tim 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

12I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, 13even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. 16But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. 17To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

Before there was Paul, there was Saul.   I’ll come back to that in a moment, but before I do, let me ask you this.

Who were you formerly, before you were you? Were you not always a believer?   Were you not always a nice person?   Did you do things you regret?   Maybe some of you have lived blameless lives, and if so, God bless you, but if your life wasn’t always blameless, it’s ok.

In fact, if it’s any reassurance, you should meet the person I formerly was.    I’ll spare you the details, but let’s just say that there are some people out there from my past who would be amused and/or deeply sceptical to know that I call myself Father Michael these days.

Before Paul, there was Saul.  Before there was you and me, there was the former us.  And here we are.  The fact that we’re all sitting here today is testimony to the love and patience of Jesus the good shepherd, who keeps going out to look for the lost sheep and bring them home, who has brought us home.

Our second reading today comes from the opening of the epistle known as First Timothy.   Once thought to have been written by St. Paul, it’s now widely believed that First and Second Timothy, along with Titus, were written early in the Second Century, when the principals, Paul, Timothy, and Titus, had passed away.    By this time, Paul had become a hero of the emerging Christian faith, so his name gave authority to the letter and meant it would receive a wide audience.

But notice what kind of Paul the author of this letter uses to gain his credibility.   “Paul” says that he is faithful and was appointed by Jesus to do good work for the church, but he never tries to hide or conceal his past.  “.. I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence”, he admits, and while he makes a little self-defence by saying that when he did these things he “acted ignorantly in unbelief”, he doesn’t let himself off the hook.  He was forgiven because he received the “grace … faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 1.14).

This opening tells us that whoever wrote this letter knew the book of Acts and the story of how Saul became Paul (Acts 9). “Paul”’s telling of his conversion story also tells us that by this time, several generations after Jesus and the first disciples, Paul had become an icon of forgiveness, a robust example of how God’s mercy can change us and make us new, fit for God’s purposes.  Indeed, this idea of forgiveness and transformation is so important to our faith that the very next line of our second lesson was gathered into the old Book of Common Prayer as part of the Comfortable Words:

“This is a true saying, and worthy of all … to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (BCP p. 78).

Is Saul/Paul unique in receiving this mercy?   Not really.   The letter says that Jesus “appointed me [Paul] to his service” (1 Tim 1.12), a service of tireless evangelism and teaching that would lead to a martyr’s death, but Paul did not receive mercy just because Jesus had a special purpose for him mind.    Today’s gospel reading from Luke, the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, teach us how persistent God’s grace is, always out there searching to bring home the lost, because each of us is precious in God’s sight.    Yes, God may have a purpose for you, some ministry that you didn’t always know you were called to, but first, Jesus had to find you and bring you home.

There are two final things I want to say, the first brief, the second a little longer.    The first is that if you are haunted or anguished by things that old you, Saul you, might have done in the past, you need to let them go.   Were you not worth saving?   Of course you were. Did the good shepherd who guided you back the flock not really love you?  Of course he did.  As God says, “Behold, I make all things new” (Isa 43.19, Rev 21.5), so enjoy your new life in Christ, revel in it, and take comfort that you’re the person God always dreamed you would be.  It wasn’t that old you was bad, so much as old you was distorted, out of focus, and God has sharpened you, brought you into light and brought you into focus, like a beautiful photograph.

The second thing I want to do is point out is that just as there isa  the danger of over-focusing on the guilt of our old lives, there’s also a danger of taking God’s work in us for granted.   We may think that we’re pretty good at this faith business, especially if we’ve been at it a long time.   No doubt some of those 99 sheep who did what they should and stayed where they should looked askance at the one who wandered off.     Remember that our gospel parables are told for the benefit of pious, self-congratulatory religious people who sneer at the sinners Jesus wants to bring home.    Remember that the woman who finds her coin calls on her friends to celebrate, just as the prodigal son’s father does.  There are no places for dour, pinched faces in the kingdom of heaven.  Some of us lost sheep just got led home sooner than others, is all.

Today I watched, and it feels very strange to write this, our new King speak to us with humility and grace.   King Charles promised to continue the Queen’s example of selfless service, and he said that the same Christian faith which guided his mother would guide him and his beloved wife, Camilla, the Queen Consort.    Now at this point, a certain amount of history is likely to intrude, for those of us old enough to remember Charles and Diana’s supposedly fairy tale wedding, the sad ending of their marriage, and Diana’s tragic death.   History can be a remorseless spectre at the feast, if history is all we see and God’s providence is forgotten.    All of this merely to say that if the royals are flawed figures, then their flaws are our flaws, their sins are our sins, only written in large type by the infinitely greater and crueler focus turned upon them.  And yet the same grace is given to us all.

As a man, I see in Charles’ flawed life some of my own history and flaws.    As a Christian, I recognize a fellow sinner, who like me has known the same rescuing love of Jesus.    From Saul to Paul, from old Charles to King Charles, from old Michael to Father Michael, from old you to new you, and so on for all of us in the dance of grace that Jesus leads us in.  So I recognize some of myself in Charles, but I also recognize that his duties now are infinitely heavier than mine, and so I will pray for him, as we should we all.   May our prayers be of love and concern for our earthly King, as he is called to wear an earthly crown, and may they be prayers of gratitude for all of us, who have been saved and called one day to wear a heavenly crown.

Saturday, September 3, 2022

Do You Have to Hate the Ones You Love?: A Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost (C)

Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 4 September, 2022, the Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost.

Lectionary Readings:   Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 1; Philemon 1:1-21; Luke 14:25-33,

25Now 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. 27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28For 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? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31Or 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? 32If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. 

A first sermon to a new congregation can be awkward, can’t it?   

You’re looking at me and wondering, “is he a long-winded bore?”   “Is this going to be relevant to me?  Will I understand it?”  Which is fair.   When I was leaving my first congregation, one of the wardens told me “Michael, for the first few years, we didn’t have a clue what you were saying up there in the pulpit”.  I like to think that my preaching has improved since then, but if it hasn’t, please don’t wait four years to tell me!

As for me, the new priest, I’ll be watching you for signs of boredom, looking for nodding heads, that surreptitious glance at a wristwatch.  When I was ordained, my father confided in me that the sermon is a place where one can lightly rest one’s eyelids.   For all I know, some of you may be of that school of thought!

So let me, as your new priest, lay my homiletical cards on the table.   Yes, preachers should know their personalities, and should strive to be organized, make a clear point, and use humour and topical examples to make their sermons relevant and interesting.    But, at the end of the day, the sermon is not about me.   I’m not even sure the sermon is mine.   The sermon is a response to the gracious and living word of the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who wants to be in relationship with us, who wants to guide us, and who wants to save us.

To put it another way, the sermon is an opportunity for all of us to ask ourselves, first, how do we hear and understand the word of God in our Sunday lessons, and second, what is that word asking of us?

Which brings us to today’s gospel.   And what a difficult gospel reading it is!  No doubt some of you are still getting over the shock of hearing Jesus say this:

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. 27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

Where on earth do we start with these stern words of Our Lord?  How do we understand them?  I find Jesus’ words about hating family particularly awkward, seeing as some of my wife’s family were kind enough to come here to support us on our first Sunday with you.    No, it’s ok, you can stay.

The reason you can stay is that we take Jesus’s words in context, which is why there’s never been a church anywhere with a sign saying, “Welcome to Saint Swithun’s, all are welcome, unless you’re related to a parishioner, in which case, get out”.  We don’t have such signs, for good reason.  Hostility is not a gospel value, it’s not a Christian ethic, unless it’s hostility to sin (but not the sinner).

So it would be very odd to conclude that Jesus was telling us to renounce loved and loving family members who shared our faith, like Joy’s family that have come to be with us here today, or like my siblings who are watching online.   What Jesus is saying instead, I think, is that his followers shouldn’t let family and friends hold them back from their vocations as his followers.

You may recall an earlier moment in Luke’s gospel, when great crowds are following Jesus because of his teachings and miracles.  Luke tells us that in the midst of this uproar,  someone tells Jesus that his mother and brothers want to speak to him.   Jesus isn’t interested in meeting them.  He says that  “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Lk 8:21).

Why does he seem to be so callous to his family?  It could be that we are hearing an echo here of something Mark tells us in his gospel, that Jesus’ family were trying to restrain him from speaking because they were afraid he was going to get in trouble (Mk 3.19b-22) since some people were accusing him of having a demon.  But Jesus isn’t interested in playing it safe to please his family.   He has high expectations of himself and what he needs to say and do, and he has similar expectations of others, which elsewhere in Luke’s gospel can be a deal breaker.  Several times  Luke tells us that Jesus meets people who would like to follow him, but not if it means breaking their obligations to their families and kin (Lk 9:57-

Jesus’ words about choosing the way of a disciple over one’s family no doubt made a lot of sense in the first decades of the church, when Jewish followers of Jesus would face expulsion from their synagogues and banishment from their followers.   As time went on, believers in the Roman world faced pressure from their family to renounce Jesus in the face of persecution from the authorities.   In today’s culture, we don’t face the same pressures from family members over religion.  

Because we have largely replaced religion with politics as our greatest source of meaning, families are much more likely to be bitterly split over issues such as vaccination, conspiracy theories, or attitudes towards a certain former American president.  We’ve all heard cases of family members who have just stopped speaking to one another these past few years.

That’s politics and sometimes we have to make difficult decisions about family and friends whose political views we find toxic. But when it comes to faith, I think most of us have learned that in our increasingly secular age, we can still have relationships with non-believing friends and family, indeed, I think we should have such relationships as part of our calling to be witnesses to Jesus, but we will have to manage differences in our values.  

 For example, some of you may have adult children who refuse to have your grandchildren baptized.  We may have to deal with friends and family who have formed a decidedly hostile view of religion, often for good reasons, and who wonder how we can believe this stuff.   With such people, sometimes the best answer is that we don’t follow a religion, we follow Jesus.  If that doesn’t work, being sane, loving, and non-argumentative is also a good strategy.

We may also find that our decision to follow Jesus complicates our relationships with our wider circles and networks.  You may lose opportunities, even face hostility, because your faith won’t allow you to participate in unethical business practices, or because you call out that person who sends you emails with racist or demeaning jokes.  We never know when we might have to choose Jesus over our kin and social networks, but Jesus is very clear that the decision to follow him may mean sacrifices

The other thing that Jesus makes clear is that the decision to be disciple is one that we have to make daily.  “Take up the cross and follow me”, says Jesus.    This saying is one of those wonderful paradoxes of our faith, in that Jesus seems to call on us to choose a difficult way of life, but elsewhere promises that “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mt 11:28-30).  The paradox is a way of saying that our lives are actually easier and more fulfilling if we put Jesus at the centre of them, but that’s a decision that we have to make every single day.   Earlier in Luke, Jesus uses the same “take up the cross” metaphor to describe discipleship, but he adds the word “daily”:

“If any one want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me”  (Lk 9:23-24)

Does that word “daily” seem challenging to you?   It’s certainly more than the occasional Sunday, or even every Sunday.   Following Jesus is how we act and think, as fundamental as brushing our teeth or eating.    Jesus wants us to put discipleship at the centre of our lives.  Jesus says that “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Lk 8:21), meaning that every day, we have to ask ourselves, “what would Jesus want me to do or say in this situation?”

Dear saints, I don’t think I’m telling you much that is new.  I think you have this discipleship business pretty much figured out.   When Bishop Riscylla asked me to come here as your priest, it was a pretty easy ask.   I very much wanted to be part of this vibrant parish which has a reputation as the church that feeds people.

Over the months to come, as we get to know one another, I’ll need to learn more about you and what you do, and we may even consider some new goals and projects.  But here’s a final thought about that from today’s gospel.  Following Jesus is never a project, it’s not something that we do on our own.   I think this is what Jesus means by his two parables, about the man who builds the tower and the king who goes to war.   In both parables, the enthusiasm for the initial plan quickly goes wrong because they have overestimated the costs and underestimated their resources.   Jesus here I think is saying that if would-be disciples underestimate the costs of being a disciple, then they will give up.

The lesson here I think is about dependence.     Anyone who tries to decide how much resources they will allocate to their faith lives - how much time, talent, and treasure - is sure to fail because you’ll always hold some resources back and one day you’ll weigh the cost of your faith against your other desires.

In contrast, Jesus is saying, go all in, make me the focus of your whole life, don’t hold anything back. When your own resources seem limited, when you feel old and tired and fewer than you once were, remember that the infinite resources and rewards of the kingdom of God are at the disposal of those who follow Jesus.   So let us resolve to be disciples of Jesus daily, taking up our cross and finding it easy, light, and the way to real life and real freedom.

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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