Heritage

Sermon on Romans 12:9-21 and Matthew 16:21-28 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. You can listen to a recording of this sermon here.

The Federal gunline at Malvern Hill, the battle where my ancestor was killed.

Milton Hyman Boullemet served as a private in the 3rd Alabama Volunteer Regiment and was killed at the Battle of Malvern Hill during the Civil War. He also happened to be an ancestor of mine (my great, great, great, great uncle to be precise). When I was a child, one of my relatives compiled the letters he wrote home to his parents during the war and distributed the collection to members of the family. As a student of history, I was pleased to have this volume on my shelf, but I never took the time to read it until a few weeks ago. For the most part, Milton’s letters are fairly standard wartime correspondence: he reports on the weather, complains about “muddy coffee and stale bread,” and asks after his family. At the same time, there are elements of these letters that are downright shocking. For instance, Milton uses racial epithets casually, as if he doesn’t realize what he is saying, which may very well be the case. Moreover, I was dismayed to read that when it came to the Confederacy, Milton was a true believer. Though he was from the merchant class and had little personal investment in the institution of slavery, he regarded the South’s war effort as holy cause. One could rationalize that he believed he was defending his home or that he simply got caught up in the spirit of the times, but the fact remains that an ancestor of mine fought and died to preserve the right to own other people.

Our lectionary this morning appears to provide two distinct, even competing visions of the Christian life. In the passage from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus articulates the profound cost of discipleship: “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This is dramatic, sacrificial language; the implication is that a truly meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ requires us to abandon everything we hold dear and give up our lives for the sake of the gospel. There’s a nobility in this vision of the Christian life. In fact, it is consistent with some of humanity’s oldest stories: we have always admired those who leave everything behind and devote themselves to a glorious cause. Certainly, this is one of the reasons my Uncle Milton volunteered to fight for the Confederacy. Now, this story has a shadow side: single-minded devotion to anything can lead to division, where we reject those who either aren’t committed to our cause or aren’t committed enough. But it’s easy to rationalize that this is just part of the sacrifice that we are called to make as Christians. In the end, the most important thing is how we have committed to taking up our cross and following Jesus.

The passage we heard from Romans seems to describe the Christian life in ways that are diametrically opposed to this sweeping, sacrificial vision. Instead of a call to martyrdom, Paul offers a series of straightforward and, frankly bland exhortations: “serve the Lord,” “persevere in prayer,” “contribute to the needs of the saints,” and so on. Paul seems less interested in the cost of discipleship than he is in the cost of maintaining the church. It appears that this passage bolsters the familiar narrative that Paul essentially co-opted the message of Jesus for his own purposes. Even if we don’t take it that far, this passage from Romans feels conventional, while the section from Matthew’s gospel feels revolutionary. Paul’s advice seems more focused on behaving correctly than on being who God has called us to be.

This is only a reasonable interpretation if we ignore Paul’s final exhortation: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” This concluding remark places the entire passage within a larger context. Paul is not offering practical instructions about life in the church; he is articulating how to overcome the evil powers of this world. It’s noteworthy that Paul argues the way to overcome evil is by nurturing community: rejoicing with those who rejoice, weeping with those who weep, and outdoing one another in showing honor. Paul does not mention taking sides, digging in our heels, or shouting down the opposition. Paradoxically, he implies that overcoming evil is about transcending our divisions and striving to remain in relationship no matter what. In many ways, this vision of the Christian life is just as radical as the one outlined in Matthew’s gospel. While not a call to die for a glorious cause, Paul’s vision is more comprehensive: we are called to live out the gospel every day of our lives. Instead of a momentary, passionate decision, this vision invites a patient commitment to transformation. Moreover, it requires us to trust not in what we can do to advance our cause, but in the grace of God. This is precisely the same point that Jesus makes when he describes what it means to take up one’s cross. When Jesus says, “those who lose their life for my sake will find it,” he is suggesting that our lives find their meaning, not in anything we accomplish, not in our sacrifice, but in what God has done through Jesus Christ.

In 1862, the year my Uncle Milton was killed in battle, the Episcopal Church held its General Convention in New York City. Though the Civil War was raging, the Convention kept to its usual business as much as possible. In its account of the proceedings, the New York Times reported “it was resolved…that all vacant seats of Dioceses not represented should be assigned to the delegates present.” While this seems like an insignificant piece of parliamentary minutia, it actually speaks volumes. Those “dioceses not present” were the ones in states actively rebelling against the union over the issue of slavery. Remarkably, General Convention made the decision that these rebels would simply be marked absent; it was assumed they would return. Indeed, two bishops from dioceses in the Confederacy were warmly welcomed when they arrived at General Convention in 1865. This is a distinct contrast with many other denominations, which split into northern and southern branches during the Civil War era. We can certainly criticize General Convention for not taking a more righteous stand against the injustice of slavery. And yet, we must also acknowledge that this was an earnest attempt by these representatives “to overcome evil with good,” to stay in relationship no matter what.

More than anything else, this kind of response requires the humility to recognize that sin is never somebody else’s problem. This brings me back to my Uncle Milton. As much as I would like to disavow him completely, he is part of my heritage. I had an ancestor who fought for the right to own people. This is part of who I am, and it is important I acknowledge that it is shameful, as much as I would like to deny it. And yet, if the gospel teaches us anything, it is that we are defined not by what we or our ancestors have done, but by what God has done for us, for all of us. For this reason, the Christian response to hate and bigotry cannot be to destroy those who would advocate such things; it must be to preach repentance even as we acknowledge our own sinfulness, all while putting our trust in the boundless grace of God. This is the “true religion” our Collect refers to: the ability to trust the power of God’s grace to transcend our divisions and transform our lives.

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Inconvenient Discipleship

Sermon on Luke 3:7-18 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

This past Friday, my family and I ventured out to procure our Christmas tree. We were in a festive mood: we had a good friend in town, our 17 month old was happy and well-rested, and everyone was finally ready to decorate the house for Christmas. imgresBut when we got to the tree farm, our holiday spirit vanished pretty quickly. The weather was clammy and uncomfortable, the ground was muddy and covered with forsaken tree limbs, the remaining trees were scraggly and hard to come by, and somehow there were gunshots in the distance. It was a little like looking for a tree in a Cormac McCarthy novel. By time we had acquired our tree, I was thoroughly exhausted and feeling not at all festive. As it turns out, my Christmas spirit lasts only as long as it is convenient.

Or perhaps, that experience was preparation for this morning’s gospel reading. Today we return to the banks of the Jordan, to hear John the Baptist angrily call his people to repentance. In the gospel according to Luke, John’s wrath is particularly evident: “You brood of vipers!” he charges. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance, because every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” John, like the fire and brimstone prophets of old, is putting the fear of God into his audience, which is further illustrated by his chilling depiction of the coming Messianic judge: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” This fear-based evangelism is not an unfamiliar strategy, and it seems to have been effective for John. Luke tells us that the people who gathered at the Jordan, even the tax collectors and soldiers, were moved to ask what they should do, how they might forestall the coming wrath. Given John’s rhetoric elsewhere, you would think that he would prescribe dramatic acts of contrition. Instead, John’s instructions are astonishingly straightforward. To the soldiers, he says, “Don’t extort money by threats or false accusations.” To the tax collectors, he says, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” And to everyone else, John the Baptist says simply, “If you have two coats, give one to someone who doesn’t have one.” The juxtaposition is startling. Here’s John the Baptist, in a pique of prophetic rage, telling those he has just warned about divine judgment that discipleship isn’t all that hard. In fact, there’s a level to which it is convenient: if you have extra, share what you have left over. It’s really that simple. If John were writing a self help book, it might be titled, “How to succeed in discipleship without really trying.”

John the Baptist shows up in our lectionary fairly regularly, especially during the season of Advent. This is interesting, because this season reminds us that there’s a level to which John got his prediction wrong. At the very least, he seems to have misunderstood the nature of God’s judgment. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus, the one John was preparing us for, wields neither a winnowing fork nor an ax. Later on, in fact, John’s disciples ask Jesus if he is indeed “the one who is to come,” implying that John was disappointed with how the ministry of Jesus was unfolding. In the other gospels, Jesus picks up where John left off, telling parables about separating the sheep from the goats and the wheat from the chaff. But in Luke’s gospel judgment occurs not when God separates the wheat from the chaff, but when people are confronted with and indicted by their failure to apprehend the grace made known in Jesus Christ. In other words, the proclamation of Jesus in Luke’s gospel is fundamentally different than that of his cousin John.

Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than their different approaches to generosity, particularly when it comes to coats. When John exhorts the crowds who come to be baptized, he tells them that discipleship isn’t all that complicated; it’s as easy as giving away your extra coat. But a few chapters later, in the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus says “from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.” imgresThe implication is that as the person who stole your coat is running away, you should call out and say, “Hold on; you forgot something.” John frames generosity this way: if you are warm and your sister is cold, you should do whatever you can to make your sister warm, as long as that does not make you cold. Jesus, on the other hand, frames generosity in a far more dramatic way: if you are warm and your enemy is cold, you are called to do whatever it takes to make her warm, even if you end up cold. For John the Baptist, generosity is about common sense; it’s about doing what anyone an ounce of compassion would do, about sharing what wouldn’t be difficult to part with. For Jesus, discipleship is an inherently risky proposition; it requires us to become vulnerable, to give of our very selves. Jesus calls us to look beyond what is convenient or safe and risk ourselves on behalf of others. This risky model of discipleship asks us to think about the humanity of Syrian refugees before we think of them as potential enemies. This is an inconvenient discipleship; it transcends common sense and fundamentally changes the way we understand the world.

One night in 2008, Julio Diaz got off the No. 6 train in the Bronx. Suddenly, a teenager brandishing a knife stopped him and demanded his wallet. Diaz immediately complied with the young man’s request, but as he ran away, Diaz called out and said, “Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something. If you’re going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.” As Diaz removed his coat, the teen asked him what he was doing. Diaz replied, “If you’re willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars, then I guess you must really need the money.” Bewildered by this astonishing demonstration of generosity, the would-be mugger accepted Diaz’s invitation to have dinner at the diner he visited every night on his way home. When the bill came, Diaz said that he would be happy to treat, but that the young man had his wallet. Diaz made him a deal though: he would pay for dinner and give the teen $20 in exchange for returning his wallet and handing over the knife. The young man complied without hesitation and went on his way. By risking himself, Julio Diaz saw the humanity of someone who had made himself an enemy. By thinking beyond safety and convenience, Julio Diaz was able to see the young man who robbed him, and indeed the world, in an entirely new way.

In these final weeks of Advent, we are called to reflect on the risk inherent in the incarnation: the fact that God came to what was his own, and yet God’s own people did not accept him. Yet in spite of this rejection, the Word became flesh, dwelled among us, and became the means for our redemption. When we recognize that the entire world has been and will be redeemed through the supreme risk at the heart of the gospel, we can see the world in an entirely new way.