Proper 18 (Sept. 4-10)
Texts: Luke 14:25-33;
Philemon; Deut 30:15-20
GOOD NEWS . . . OF LIFE AS PURE GIFT
Several weeks ago we were treated to the Gospel Reading where Jesus says that he didn’t come to bring peace but division — such that even households will be deeply divided, father against son, mother against daughter, etc. We said that the Gospel can be challenging as hell, asking us to go through a kind of death on the way to transformation. This week we might say that we have that challenge in triplicate. To be disciples of Jesus we are asked to:
- “hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself”
- “carry the cross and follow me”
- “give up all your possessions”
Wow! I would say that hits the trifecta of challenges. One could be addicted to gambling and play the trifecta at the track and not risk losing that much. Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyred by the Nazis, wrote a book on how discipleship to Jesus is costly.1 This Gospel Reading is a prime example of Jesus asking us to count the cost.
The word Gospel means Good News, but how can challenges like these be Good News? They can’t be, and won’t be, unless one is ready to welcome the Good News as Jesus proclaimed it. What was his summarized version? “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). That’s Mark’s Gospel. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus proclaims the Good News through quoting Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). Either way, Jesus is telling us that, if you like the way things are in our human kingdoms, then this Good News might not be so good for you. Because God’s kingdom is coming into the world, and that means huge changes, a flipping of the way things are now. It’s those who are left out now in our human kingdoms — the poor and oppressed — who will most readily receive this as Good News.
How do we answer the call? We North American white folks who enjoy the greatest wealth and power of any human kingdom in history? If we like the way the human cultures and institutions are working for us, can we experience Jesus’ call to discipleship as Good News? Or is it too costly? As a white male in a white-male-dominated society, I have to honest in saying this has always been a challenge to me. How much does welcoming God’s culture, God’s kingdom, ask me to give up? What exactly is the cost to me? Do I need to literally give up all my considerable possessions? ‘Hate’ my family? Jesus can’t really be asking that and call it Good News, can he?
These are questions that I’ve struggled with much of my life, and I have a story that has become very important to me in sorting these things out. But I need to set up the story by sharing another crucial turn in my life: namely, discovering an anthropology to go along with my theology.2 Why is that so important? Because if we are going to understand what Jesus meant by the Good News of bringing us God’s kingdom, God’s culture, we need to also understand how that’s fundamentally different from our human kingdoms, our human cultures. What distinguishes us as human beings is that we are religious creatures. All human cultures and kingdoms are formed around gods and religion.
So we might ask: do all of those gods and all of those religions match who God the creator of this universe actually is? We have the sense that, No!, much of our experiences of god and religion are mistaken and continue to be off-the-mark. So a huge part of what Jesus came to do is to show us who God really is, which is ultimately Good News. But it is also challenging as hell, because we evolved with our own ideas of who god is. And they are surprisingly difficult to let go of. Today’s challenging Gospel Reading gives us a big clue as to why.
First, there’s that matter of giving up possessions. Our usual human gods are the ones who bless us with good things when we are good and curse us with the loss or absence of good things when we are bad. These gods make sense of the world for us in terms of how we set things up, namely, as rewarding what’s deemed as good behavior and punishing what’s deemed as bad behavior. When we are deserving, God blesses us with good possessions. That’s how our entire society is constructed, right? Working hard and getting what we deserve.
Second, there’s the matter of hating family. The blessing and curse thing works not only for individuals, but also for groups of people, for communities. God blesses or punishes us as a family, or tribe, or nation. God is our God, on our side. We count on our God to keep us safe against our enemies. In an us-and-them world, it is good to have God on our side. “God bless America!” Right? (You may have noticed I snuck in a different sort of “national hymn” this morning on this holiday weekend.3)
Does this God sound familiar? The God who is on our side and blesses us with good things, many possessions? It’s the God I grew up with in this great nation. It’s the God who’s behind saying things like, “God bless America.” This national holiday of Labor Day is a shrine to the idea of hard work deserving reward. But I have come to believe that Jesus came to divest us of that human-made God and show us who God really is, and it’s not that God. First, the true God of Jesus is the God of everyone, the God of the whole creation, so there is no us-and-them. There is only us. That’s why Jesus said outrageous things like, “Love your enemies.” Because there is no us and them, there is only us. The true God is not the god behind any of the divisions we humans create. The true God is the one behind the oneness of everything, the God bringing all things into harmony through love. So we need to let go of all ideas tied to us-and-them thinking, including our family as separate from anyone else’s family. We need to let go of mother and father, sisters and brothers, and receive all human beings as part of God’s family, our family.
And so God also doesn’t go around blessing some and cursing others. The promise to Abraham and Sarah right from the beginning is that their family was to be a blessing to all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:1-3). It’s supposed to be win-win, not win-lose. Again, Jesus makes this clear right from the start by beginning his ministry with the beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel: blessed are the poor, the meek, the grieving; and what we already heard from Luke’s Gospel, a blessing to the poor, the sick, the oppressed. In short, Jesus is flipping things on us, declaring blessings for those in this world we usually count as cursed. Jesus is teaching us that God doesn’t reward the good and punish the bad. We don’t receive possessions because we deserve them; we receive them as gifts of God’s graciousness. All of life is a gift! Not something to be possessed! So we also need to be able to let go of our possessions as possessions, and to receive them instead as gifts.
But let me get to the story which captures this experience in such a moving way. Yet the way that the gods have evolved for us is so strong. We keep coming back to them again and again. How do we ever come to know the true God? One of the ways, unfortunately, is to undergo a great loss in our lives that challenges the ideas of the God on our side who punishes and rewards. Many, many people go through such losses. And at such times there is the opportunity to meet the God of Jesus who grants all life as pure gift, not as reward or punishment. We meet a God who helps us receive life as a gift and also accept death as a letting go of the gift back to God, trusting in God’s continuing power of life. And, even more importantly, at such times, we experience the God of oneness who holds together all times, including times of great sorrow with times of great joy.
So the story is from Paula D’Arcy, an ordinary person of Christian faith, who herself suffered an unimaginable loss in her life: at the age of 27, while pregnant with their second daughter, her husband and toddler first-born daughter were killed in a car crash by a drunk driver. She had to accept that the God she grew up with, who blesses and curses, must have abandoned her, cursed her. Or come to meet God anew through Jesus Christ, the one who suffered the curse of the cross and was raised to new life.
But the story I’m sharing here comes years after her personal loss, after she has met God anew and largely healed. Paula is visiting a good friend of hers, Susan, in another town, when Susan gets that same call all parents dread. Her 22 year-old son Mark has been killed on the way back to college by a drunk driver. Paula accompanies her friend to the hospital where her son’s body has been taken. After time alone with her son’s body, Susan asks a nurse to invite Paula into the room. Here is Paula’s account of what happened next:
Susan asked me, “He never was really mine, was he?” She had had the experience of owning things and deserving things.
“Susan, none of them are ours. It’s all gift.”
“If that is true, then he can’t be taken from me. If he was gift, then at this moment I will give him back.” And Susan took my hand and one of her son’s hands, raised her eyes to the heavens, and prayed, “God, before me is the greatest gift you ever gave me. And now I give him back. Thank you. Thank you for all these years.”4
I have no idea if I could ever pray such a prayer in similar circumstances — especially in the first few hours after such a loss. But I think coming to faith in God anew and being able to pray such a prayer is what Jesus is pointing to with today’s challenging words. Susan’s prayer is a prayer that I’d like my life to grow into. It is being able to experience one’s possessions, even one’s family, as pure gift. It is being able to survive death by being in oneness with all of life — and the ground of all life, God.5 Jesus, our big brother, came to help us grow-up into that life of grace, a way through the cross to resurrection. It is the experience of “eternal life” here and now because it is the experience of life as pure gift. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Faith Lutheran,
Saginaw, MI, September 4, 2016
1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 4; Augsburg Fortress, 2000), Ch. 1, “Costly Grace.” The first sentence reads, “Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for costly grace.”
2. The anthropology I’m speaking of is the “Mimetic Theory” of René Girard, around which I’ve maintained a website, “Girardian Reflections of the Lectionary,” for twenty years, and now also conduct a seminar ministry, Discipleship Seminars in Mimetic Theory.
3. Hymn 887 in the Evangelical Lutheran Worship is “This Is My Song,” text by Lloyd Stone and Georgia Harkness, to the tune of FINLANDIA by Jean Sibelius. In this fractious time, I think it’s the only “national hymn” worth singing. Verse 1: “This is my song, O God of all the nations, a song of peace for lands afar and mine. This is my home, the country where my heart is; here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine; but other hearts in other lands are beating with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.”
4. This is my transcription from Paula D’Arcy’s telling on the story in the audio CD’s “A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life,” with Richard Rohr. For more on the importance of the experience of a spirituality for two halves of life, see my webpage for this Sunday. Basically, it is about the two spiritualities outlined in the sermon, one based on just deserts and one based on grace.
5. For more on God as the ground of all life, see Diana Butler Bass‘s Grounded: Finding God in the World — A Spiritual Revolution. This book wonderfully develops what Rohr articulates as a spirituality for the second half of life, but as a spirituality causing a “spiritual revolution.” In a very real way Butler Bass articulates the turning of one spirituality to another as a revolution happening on a global scale in the 21st Century world. The question she raises for the church, however, is: will the church sleep through this revolution? As church closings begin to multiply exponentially, there’s good evidence that, so far, the church is largely sleeping through it.