St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church, Albuquerque
The Rev. Carolyn W. Metzler +
Deut 30:15-20; Ps. 1; Philemon 1-20; Luke 14:25-33
Well, St. Michael’s, how’d you like THAT Gospel? D'you suppose the clergy and vestry of this church looked at upcoming Gospels before setting the date of their parish retreat this year? The truth is, though, I love this Gospel and was delighted to see the wrestling match to which it invited me in preparing for this sermon, so am grateful to the clergy and vestry of this church in allowing me to wade into these deep waters with alligators and sharks and piranhas. Leaches. Crocodiles. Flesh-eating bacteria.
All summer Jesus has been laying down for us the cost of discipleship. For several weeks running, he has been cautioning us against being owned by our possessions. He has invited us to think carefully about where we place our hope. He has reminded us that what delights God is not our adherence to the purity code of the Sabbath but our participation in the work of the kingdom: healing, setting free what binds and oppresses us all. And last week Jesus invited us to rethink humility, and reciprocation. This all has demanded some serious rearranging of our cultural DNA. It is essential that we not lose sight of the fact that all these lessons are being given to us as Jesus is bound for Jerusalem.
Many of you will remember by mother. Thirty years ago when she would come visit us in Maine, she would be (mostly) congenial until the night before she headed back to her own home in Florida, when she would deliver what we came to call “THE LECTURE BEFORE LEAVING,” wherein she would tell us everything we were doing wrong and how we should really do this differently and fix that character flaw and clearly we had no clue about parenting. You could set your watch by it.
I have come to think of these Gospel lessons as Jesus’ “Lecture Before Leaving.” He, the Lord of Eternity, knew he was running out of time, that the disciples were utterly clueless, that people were following him only for what they could get out of him, and that if things didn’t turn around this whole Word Was Made Flesh stuff would prove to be a very failed experiment indeed. So each part of the lecture got a little more dire, a little more urgent in its push to imagine a kingdom based on people actually loving and caring for each other as an extension of their relationship to God. That is where we open today. We are still on the way to Jerusalem.
Now - I am not someone who has mystical experiences. I have practiced contemplative prayer for a very long time, and offer myself to the Holy One many times a day, usually with my fingers crossed behind my back. Trust me, it is not a great offering. But the point is that the kinds of mystical experiences I hear about so often from others in spiritual direction do not happen to me. And that’s ok. I’m not jealous. Much. But last April, I was driving back from Aravaipa Canyon in Arizona where I had been broken open to my core wound again. It took me a couple days to pull myself back together, name it, and move on. Now I was driving home, not thinking, not praying, not planning, just - driving. And suddenly there were words in me that had never been there before, clear as clear. “Let go of everything by which you have defined yourself.” Just that. No further details, no instructions as to what that might look like, no schedule to follow. I think it is a sign of a true mystical experience that there are rarely details provided. If you ever get the 12-point plan, it’s probably not God talking. So I have spent the last four months trying to discern what that actually means for me.
I believe in this Gospel, Jesus is saying the same thing. “Let go of everything by which you have defined yourself which is too small for the kingdom of God.” That includes: Clan affiliation. Political loyalties. Titles. Fame. Fortune. Honor. Even personal holiness. It’s all chaff in the wind. It’s not about hating anybody, including your family, but it is about knowing that in the Body of Christ, “family” is larger than your last name. Jesus is rejecting family definition as our primary belonging. Remember the story of Jesus preaching in the synagogue and his parents coming to take him home because they were worried he’d gone off the deep end? And his response was “Who are my mother and my brothers? Whoever does the will of my Father is my mother and sisters and brothers.”
In a tiny church in a remote part of the diocese today, a sermon is being preached by a lay person who is telling the story of herself at age 7, and her brother at age 8, in the hospital for routine tonsillectomies. Her brother was taken first, was given too much ether, and died. When he did not come back she got worried and snuck out of her hospital bed to go looking for him. She never found him, because by then he was in the morgue. She, now 70 years later, told me how she looked out the window of the hospital and thought, “I am no longer a sister to anyone. So now I must be a sister to everyone.” I heard her story and wept.
Jesus’ words about carrying the cross and following him as the cost of discipleship is in the same truth. To me these are some of the most misunderstood words in the whole Gospel. When I was ordained after a 28 year long nightmare of a process, I hit the ground running, thinking that these words meant I had 28 years to make up and taking up my cross meant working myself to death. “Deny yourself” means no down time, no leniency for me! I didn’t do Ash Wednesday once, I did it SIX times in one day! What a good priest I am! It was all ego-driven. It took six years, colossal failure and emergency major surgery to bring me to the place where I knew “denying myself” had a lot more to do with giving up my need to be admired, loved, respected, justified, and holy than giving up a couple days a week to rest. “Let go of everything by which you have defined yourself,” said the Voice returning home from Arizona. Including all those lovely adjectives which make it all about our personal images of success, instead of our shared belonging and participation in the whole human family of Christ.
One more detail about the Gospel. It concerns Jesus’ injunction to count the armies before going to battle; and count the money before starting a project. This seems in total contradiction to his other words about not worrying about tomorrow; about being like the lillies of the field which neither toil nor spin, yet are cared for by the Holy One. How do we hold these in tension? Well, the way we hold all of it in tension. Remember also Jesus’ great piece of non-dual teaching to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Know the ways of the world, yet remember the ways of God are not about that. Or Paul: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your minds.” It is helpful to know what’s in the bank, and the force of community, but the success of the kingdom is not dependent on that. Be savvy about how to get things done. Yet do not hang your self-definition on that. “Let go of everything by which you have defined yourself.”
When Eric and I moved to New Mexico I desperately wanted a tribe; a people I could point to and say “I’m with them.” I wanted to have sacred songs, sacred dances, a unique language. I wanted darker skin. I wanted affiliated definition. It was here in this sanctuary, right about - there - that I realized I have a tribe. It is the Body of Christ. We have our sacred songs, our sacred dances, a unique language. “Please put the ciborium and pyx on the credence table under the aumbry while we chant the Gradual.” Soon we will share our sacred meal. This definition tells me who I am beyond clan membership, beyond possessions, beyond title, beyond role or work or purity code. This is where we land when we let go of every definition that is too small, too exclusive, too rigid, too puritanical, too self-absorbed. We do not stop being wife, father, priest, American, physician, activist, or anything else. We are still part of the family into which we were born. But our belonging goes much, much deeper than that. It speaks to our deepest yearning for profound connection, for membership in the family of the Holy. We live in this world but are defined not by anything we do here, nor by our last name, nor income, nor triumphs nor failures nor by anything else save our belonging together in Christ.
So what defines you? What of those definitions might be too small, too exclusive, too self-absorbed? I invite you to spend some time with this question, and to let go of everything by which you have defined yourself. You will find a far, far greater definition which embraces everything else that you are also: the Beloved of the Holy One of God. Amen.