Most of you know Thomas, our ten year old. What you don’t know is his favorite TV program – The Antiques Road show. It’s fun to watch people bringing all kinds of family treasures, hoping they will turn out to be interesting or valuable – or both. This week one of the items was a leather jacket. It had belonged to the brother of the woman who was the owner. She explained he had worn this jacket on his air bombing missions during the Second World War. The expert, whose job it was to place this object in context, was very excited by the item and, in giving his evaluation, he explained that Second World War memorabilia were hot right now. Jackets, such as these, he said, were popular as people tried to connect with the romance of war.
The romance of war. I must admit that such a description of war had never come to my mind. My father fought in that war and I never heard him speak of the romance of being separated from his family for three years. Nor do I recall veterans of wars since speaking fondly of what they had been asked to do. What I have heard is survivors, civilian and military, speak with nostalgia of the close ties it created – the camaraderie of crisis. Certainly war forces an urgency about life that has the potential to clear the decks of the trivial and unimportant.
Those asked to be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice – the sacrifice of their lives are usually imbued with the highest respect by their countrymen. We are humbled by the gift they make. Courage and loyalty are not exercised without terror or error, but are understood as the highest service a person can offer – a commitment beyond the demands of family, of friends, or home. Allegiance to the nation that wages the war in the hope it will preserve the freedom of those at home. People may argue about the validity of a war but ultimately those who die are honored for the sacrifice of self for the common good.
Set this against today s Gospel. Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brother s and sisters, yes, and even life itself cannot be my disciple. Consider our response. Protest rises immediately to our lips. None of you can be my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. Surely, we hope, Jesus means this metaphorically, symbolically, or any other rationalization that will enable us not to confront the demand for our allegiance to the Christ.
For a demand for allegiance is what it is. Many people came to hear Jesus, to be with Jesus, some even to be healed by Jesus. But not all of them became disciples of Jesus. Jesus presents us with a choice. He is asking, Who am I to you? Am I just a Sunday God, the provision of a solid values system for your children, a reassuring presence in the background of your life? Am I here just to make you feel better? How much value do you place on your relationship with me? How much do you really love me?
Jesus is clear that he is not looking for polite relationship. He seeks total allegiance, complete loyalty from those who seek to follow in his way. Following in the Way means being clear that Jesus is first and that the imitation of Christ will mean a cross to carry and a burden to bear – and neither family nor possessions can get in the way. No wonder he tells us to sit down and count the cost before we decide to become disciples. They are not encouraging words for the comfortable middle classes at the end of the twentieth century and Jesus doesn’t intend them to be.
It s the same with the people of Israel as they stand before Moses poised to enter the promised land. They have wandered as aliens in the wilderness for forty years. Now they have come to that land given as a gift by the Lord who set them free. It is not a coincidence that the land turned out to be much more complicated than they had imagined. A land that will challenge their faith and test their loyalty to Yahweh. Land is home. They are coming home to God in a land provided by God who is the source of their freedom and life.
See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. proclaims Moses.
Moses and Jesus knew that only absolute loyalty would be enough – enough for us to survive the rigors of life that contain joy and hurt. Lives where relationships can be the source of growth and risk. Lives where relationships may squeeze the life out of us. Lives where we may gift others with loving freedom or lives that may bind others with bonds of steel until they suffocate. No wonder Jesus warns us to depend on the only pure relationship on offer – our relationship with God.
And just as good, relationships are relationships that nurture growth, so God in God s love for us sets us free to choose life or death. To turn to the true source of all we are and all we have or to turn to a life of self-absorption that will eventually destroy our very spirit.
The paradox is that with our freedom will come the cross. With that cross will come our life.
Sometimes we glimpse what Jesus knew already. In the church in which I grew to faith, I witnessed such an event. As a teenager, I had just ventured on my own discovery of romantic love. Love, I thought, happened between beautiful people and was conducted with large gestures and words.
And then there came a woman called Dorothy and a man named George. Dorothy and George were very special to that community. George was blind. Dorothy had been born sighted but became blind during a childhood infection. From that day on, her mother told Dorothy that she would not be capable of a normal life. She believed that Dorothy would, and should, be confined to life at home with her parent and nothing more. Even in the telling of this story I cannot begin to capture the power and beauty of those two people.
Yet, despite the constant assault on her soul, Dorothy grew to be a lovely, sensitive, highly competent, courageous person, skilled at her work, full of faith and joy. She met George and they fell in love. The world had told them not to expect happiness. Not to anticipate any opportunity for romance. But romance there was and the entire community was riveted by its power and beauty.
In time, they decided to marry. Dorothy s mother was furious. Despite her criticism, Dorothy and George found patience to love her in her loss and in the prison of her spirit. They even elected to live with Dorothy s mother so they might care for this broken and embittered woman as they lived out the delight and surprise of their own love. They went everywhere together. I remember that when Lindon and I were engaged, they gave us a tray they had picked out. Dorothy said, I liked this one because I could feel the wavy edge and it felt beautiful I still have it. You don’t part with the relics of the saints.
But this was not a fairy tale. A little while after they were married, Dorothy discovered she had cancer. In those days particularly little could be done to help. She suffered greatly and there was great sorrow in the community. Yet all through that time, George and Dorothy continued to love, continued to share the richness of their lives, continued in faith. On Good Friday of that year, our priest ascended to the pulpit and said simply, This morning Dorothy died.
And in the telling of that event on the day of our Lord s total allegiance to God, on the day when Jesus, the man, refused to turn his back on the One he knew as the source of all good, Dorothy also gave us life and hope. There in our midst was a true disciple who had lived life with all her might, a person who had triumphed over the voice of criticism and the petty limitations placed on her by others. She wasn’t beautiful, or rich, or even particularly clever but she is one of God s loveliest saints. She has reached beyond death. She stands with us at the Eucharist today. She followed her Lord and it was life.
So choose. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.