Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Sweet Gospel

Another in my continuing series of sermons by my friend, Bruce Coggin. A good sermon on some hard lessons. Enjoy.

A Sermon
Preached at All Saint’s Church, Wichita Falls
Pentecost 15, 2010

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, even his own life, he cannot be a disciple of mine.

I don’t know about you, but I am so glad the weather has moderated. Mercy, you wake up on a morning like this one, and you think, “How lovely it would be today to join a throng of worshipers in a great nave, God’s lovely light streaming through jeweled windows, a great choir’s supernal anthems echoing in the vault, all that. Well, it’s just gonna be us, of course, in this little room with no windows at all, so we won’t fantasize. But at least, you say, let’s hope there’s something wonderful from the Bible for us to ponder. Yeah? And then you get Jesus telling us to hate Mama and Daddy and Bubba and Missy and the missus and the kids and even ourselves. Lord. Where’s the sweet gospel in that? But you can at least be thankful you’re not the preacher! I think I’ve told you that I go every week to a little gathering I call the Monday Morning Quarterback Club where a handful of clergy sit down and talk about the lessons we’ve got to preach on the next Sunday, and I’ve become a bit of a bore because I always insist on finding what I call the sweet gospel—and that’s not some saccharine something to cross-stitch on a cup towel. I just think that since God is sweet, the gospel must by nature be sweet, else it’s somehow skewed gospel. And I think there’s sweet gospel here, but it’s gonna take some work. So sit up. We gonna play godball.
In the Old Testament lesson we’ve got Moses laying down the law—and not the first time. He laid down the short form at Mt. Sinai back in Exodus, but some centuries later he reappears in Deuteronomy and lays down just a whole bunch more law, five or six hundred more just in case you didn’t get enough on the first go around. Mercy! I don’t know about you, but I don’t much like getting the law laid down to me; I don’t even like laying down the law myself—not that I get to much anymore, but I used to lay it down to my kids, for all the good it did me. I knew it put up all kinds of tripwires where their will and mine were bound to cross, but I did it anyway. All parents do. And it’s not a bad thing. I mean, a lot of laws work pretty well. In this country, people still pretty much obey the traffic laws, and the laws still pretty much work—although some of the cowboys and cowgirls up in this neck of the woods keep a feller on point. Rules are not a bad thing, necessarily. They’re meant to enforce and habituate good behavior aimed at securing the common good. The same rules don’t always apply to everybody everywhere. The ten years I lived in Mexico, I learned to change gears more ways than one when I crossed the border. Over here, you drive by the rules; over there, you drive by the rules, and you’ll get killed. They work it out a different way—but the surprising thing to me always was that they don’t have any more wrecks than we do, maybe fewer in fact. Here’s the point: the very fact that we have laws indicates that we need laws. Something about us does not work for the common good by natural reflex. Natural reflex says Me first! The common good says Maybe you first, maybe him, let’s see. The fact that we need rules indicates something about us and our place in the Great Order of Things—and religious rules tell us something about our place in God’s order. The only one of the Ten Commandments that’s anything unusual is the first one; all the rest are pretty ordinary stuff. What decent society doesn’t think it’s wrong to lie and steal and murder and mess around with somebody else’s wife or husband? The only one that’s really unique is love God with all your heart, soul, and mind—to which Jesus added, and your neighbor as yourself. Now, that one, that has legs, as the teevee reporters say of a story. It’s gonna come up again here in a minute.

Now that gospel. Jesus kicks it right off telling us that unless we hate our parents, our mates and our get, our siblings, and even ourselves, we can’t be his disciples. Gotta tote that cross. Then a couple of tiny parables about people who weren’t up to this or that job. Great way to start the day! Well, right off the bat that word hate just rings false in the mouth of the man whose every other word was love, whose two Big Orders were both to love, to love God and love each other. Something must be wrong here. Hate? When I was in the kid raising business, we raised ours not to use the word. When they’d say, “I just hate so-and-so,” we’d come back with, “Hate is a very strong word. Say, it displeases me a lot or I wish it were another way or something else. Hate is a strong word.” And they listened. Either that or they didn’t say it in front of us. In any case, hate in Jesus’ mouth stops me cold in my tracks, as do all the instances in the gospels when Jesus is credited with saying something so inimical to the voice of the Good Shepherd I’ve learned to listen for. And there are a good many.
Well, whaddaya do when you hit a stump like that? It’s not fair just to skip over it; and any word from Jesus, no matter how opaque, is precious. So I use a couple of tools to help me out of the ditch. The first, let’s call problems of transmission. Keep in mind that the earliest of the gospels—and that’s not Luke—first got onto paper at least twenty years or so after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and it was second hand. Luke comes along ten, twenty years later, and he adds a bunch of stuff that may have been taken down nearer the fact—but all the gospellers arrange stuff one way and then another. Who ya gonna believe? If I told you something fairly complex right now and then you told her and she told him and he told her after supper and then she called me, I’d have to and say, “Now, no, that’s not exactly what I said.” Y’know? I figure what Jesus said in today’s gospel has been problematized in passage, so I’ve got to allow for some latitude in the written words’ precise meaning.
Second, I try to contextualize the pericope, ahem. A pericope is a chunk of scripture, and at church we get a chunk this Sunday and another chunk the next Sunday and another chunk the next. We have to connect the chunks. If you’ve been good and have been in church the past few Sundays, you know that Luke is presenting a long teaching by Jesus on getting ourselves in the right order relative to God, the world, and our neighbor. We spent a couple, three Sundays on storing up treasures in heaven instead of on earth, all about false gods. Last Sunday we learned about not me-firsting our way through life. Go and take the lowest seat, and then if the master of the feast and so on. For today we skipped a pericope, ahem, that tells of a man who gave a banquet and invited his buds—and all of them said, “Oh, I’ve got to do this or that. I’ve got to go check out my new car. They need me at home. I have something to do that’s more important than your tacky old banquet. I, me, my.” So the host says, “Okay, cheat yourself!” and invites people whose egos don’t get in the way of their blessedness. And now, today: hate yer momma! What do you guess is going on? I think we’re hearing a very refined version of getting right with God, figuring out our place in God’s order and ordering our behavior to suit it. Can we go on from there?

I think figuring it out is at least part guess, so I look for a clue. Look at the scene Jesus chooses to make the point: the family. Where else are things any more intense? Where else do loyalties get across each other harder and faster and longer and fiercer? Families are where everything we say we believe and believe in eventually gets put to the test. Jesus, let me hazard, instead of telling us to hate each other—transmission—is saying that our promise to love God and each other will at times even bring us into sharp conflict with our families, our dearest and best. Yet we must always choose God’s love first among all the options—and that prioritizing doesn’t have to be ugly, just absolute. God before anybody, before Mama or Daddy or Bubba or Missy—or even (gasp) me. “His own life.” I think when Jesus says that, he means the day will come when every one of us will have to go down into that little room inside us where nobody else can go and have a meeting with himself and say, “It’s not me first. It’s God first, and then somebody else, and me last. Dang it.” And I think that’s more than just being meek and mild. I think it reflects the nature of God’s love. God’s love wants to be loved back—but only after it has been shared by its objects. That is, God’s love radiates from itself to me and from me to another and then back to God. If I am right with God, then I let that love flow through me to somebody else and then back to God—and maybe even wash a little back up on me from my neighbor. Isn’t that the way love works? I mean, I can love a Rachmaninoff symphony and sit by myself and love it; but give me a choice between spending the evening with Rachmaninoff and with somebody I love and who loves me, and there’s no contest. Love, especially God’s love, requires sharing among God and you and me. Me last. And it always has to be that way; otherwise we ain’t right with God, we cannot be Jesus’ disciples.

Jesus says we must bear the cross. Which cross? I know for sure that the heaviest cross I have to bear is me, myself, and I; and that cross forms every time my will goes against God’s will—which it does every now and then. If you’re anything like me, and I think you are, you know what I mean. I mean, none of us has had to suffer much for the gospel, not in any material way anyhow. There are places in the world where confessing faith in Jesus will get you shot. If I lived there, I think maybe I could justify keeping my mouth shut—unless, of course, I saw somebody else being mauled. Who said it about the Nazis? Niemöller, I think. “First they came for the Jews, but since I wasn’t a Jew I said nothing. Then they came for the communists and the socialists and the homosexuals, and I said nothing. Then they came for me, and there was nobody left to help me.” I hope I’d have the guts to speak up. Can’t say, haven’t been whipped into it. But since we don’t get tested that way, by rule, can circumstances require us to suffer by putting ourselves last? I know personally of a woman who starved herself during the Depression so her children could eat. Would I do that? I hope so. Or less dramatically, will I give up something I want to buy a mosquito net for somebody I’ll never see? Whatever’s the case, I don’t think Jesus meant for us to hate anybody but rather that we must let nobody and no thing come between us and God’s love.

Does that leave you a little dissasfied? Well, me too, so let’s move on to Philemon and see if we can improve the situation. Philemon’s a surprising little book. Not a word of doctrine or theology or teaching, no argument, no threat . . . well, maybe a very subtle threat, an implied urgency. Paul, an old man and way experienced, is in jail, and he writes to his friend Philemon. “Guess what? Remember that slave—that slave—you used to own—own. Well, they picked him up here, and he’s been in jail with me. And guess what? He’s been baptized and is our Christian brother now. Your Christian brother.”
(Time out for a story. This reminds me of Bishop Saucedo. He was bishop of the Mexican church for thirty, forty years. When he was consecrated, there were about six thousand Episcopalians in one diocese, most of them rich ex-pats; when he retired there were about sixty thousand in five dioceses, most of them dirt poor Mexicans. Since in those days, the bishop owned all the church’s property—Mexican law, don’t ask me—a priest in Acapulco sued him over something, and the police picked him up and put him in the slam. He spent over a year there. Bishop Davies helped get him out. And by the time he got out, he’d converted half the prison—baptized, confirmed them by the dozens, though I don’t think he married anybody. Weren’t doing that in those days.)
Anyhow, that’s what happened with Paul. Onesimus was no longer Slave Onesimus but rather Christian Brother Onesimus. And Paul puts the question to Philemon with tons of manipulation. “Philemon, you are the man! Your Christian witness awes me. It awes everybody. You are a light to lighten the Gentiles, dude! Now show me what you can really do. Put all of it behind you. Forgive it. You don’t even have to admit what a sin it was to think you owned another human. Just . . . gut up and take Onesimus back as your Christian brother. Not because you have to, but because you want to.” Funny thing about the lectionary today, they left off the last two, three verses. In them Paul adds, “And get my room ready, because I’m getting outta here too, and I’m coming straight to you!” He does not add, “to see if you’re up to the job I just laid on you.”
In this story, we see a man, Philemon, who has to confront himself and make a decision in Christ. He had the legal right to own Onesimus. Challenged, he would have defended that right with everything his upbringing—his family—and his circumstances—his culture—taught him, told him was meet, right, and so to do. He had to deal with his anger, his sense of outrage at the slave’s escape, cheating him of what was rightfully his. He owned Onesimus, dadgummit! And the ungrateful little creep ran off, no doubt leaving Philemon in various kinds of fixes. Philemon likely had hoped the cops would snag him and string him up, the sorry wretch! And now this. Paul asks him to shoulder the cross of his own wrongheadedness and wrongheartedness and tote it up the hill and nail himself to it. For Christ. For the sake of his baptism. For the salvation of his immortal soul. I can’t help thinking that Paul’s letter rattled him to the core. I wish I knew how it all turned out!

I don’t think Jesus wants us to hate. I don’t think hate is part of the nature of God, so that just about rules it out for Jesus in my book. When Jesus was . . . vexed . . . he spoke, acted pretty abruptly. Ask the moneychangers. But hate? I can’t imagine it. Nor can I imagine Jesus asking you or me to hate. I can, however, sure hear him saying, “It’s all or nothing at all, friend. Make up your mind. I’ll be right here when you do.” Sweet gospel? Yeah, I think so. Hard but sweet. He just leaves it up to us: either we put God first all the time, even when it hurts like the dickens, or we do not. So, which is it gonna be? For me, I’m the only who can answer that, and I don’t always get it right. When I know I’ve gotten in wrong, I have promised dozens of times to “repent and return to the Lord.” And when I do, he’s always right there. I can’t find any hate in that. Just sweet Jesus and sweet gospel.