Good morning St. James’s! Welcome to the opening Sunday of a new program year. It is great to see everyone and I hope you have all had a wonderful summer. This is the closest we get to a kind of “welcome back” homecoming Sunday around here with the beginning of Sunday school, the return of the choirs and the parish picnic this afternoon. So you can imagine my chagrin last week when I read over the gospel assigned for today. Really, I thought, really, this is the gospel we have for opening day. There is nothing that says “Welcome!” like Jesus telling us that we have to hate our mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers. There is nothing that says, “Glad you are here!” more than Jesus telling us that in order to be his disciples we must give up all our possessions take up our crosses and follow him. It’s a little like being invited to a dinner party only to have the host inform you as soon as you walk in the door that you have to clean the house before you can eat.
Our gospel this morning is a lesson warning us to be sure to count the cost before we sign on as one of Jesus’ disciples. It reminds me of all those television commercials for prescription drugs that show happy, smiling, active people while some announcer in the background tells you about all the wonderful things this new drug will do for you if you just get your doctor to prescribe it. Only at the end of the commercial does the announcer quickly rattle off all the possible side affects of the medication: serious side affects have been known to occur, may cause an unsafe drop in blood pressure, serious stomach issues, liver or kidney failure, allergic reactions, shortness of breath, blurred vision, heart failure and risk of cardiovascular problems, including death! Wow, that is quite a side effect!
Have you heard the story about the Sunday school class that was talking about Easter one morning? (Dear Lord, please forgive me for this one) The teacher asks her class what they know about Easter. “What happened on Easter morning?” she asked the children. One little girl raised her hand and said “They found the tomb empty.” “That’s right,” replied the teacher. “They saw an angel,” shouted another. “That’s correct,” she said. One little boy said, “Jesus was resurrected on Easter.” “Right you are,” replied the teacher. “But what is the resurrection?” she asked her class. At that point there was silence for quite a while until finally one little child raised his hand and said, “I’m not sure what the resurrection is, but I saw on TV that if one lasts for more than four hours you are supposed to call the doctor.”
All kidding aside, we cannot escape the fact that the demands Jesus makes upon those who would follow him are extreme. Christianity is not simply a Sunday morning religion. It is a hungering after God to the point that we will surrender our lives if need be. It is a faith that shakes our foundations, topples our priorities, and can even pit us against friend and family. But as Martin Luther once said, “A religion that gives nothing, costs nothing, and suffers nothing, is worth nothing.”
We work hard around here to provide the best programming, classes, and opportunities for ministry that we can possibly create. We strive to be a welcoming, inviting and open congregation, where anyone can find a home. Perhaps it is only right that on opening Sunday we ought to share a little of the fine print that is very much a part of the Good News. Because ultimately the church is not a product, it is not something to be purchased and consumed; rather, it is a communal expression of a way of life that makes huge demands. Jesus wants every single bit of us when we sign up to be a part of his team. He doesn’t want anything to stand between him and us. When the great commandment says – love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind, soul and strength – that means there should be no competing loyalties – not our work, not our possessions, not even our families.
A while back William Willimon, who was the longtime Dean of the Chapel down at Duke University, got a call from an upset parent, a VERY upset parent. “I hold you personally responsible for this,” he said. ”Me?” Willimon asked. The father was hot, upset because his graduate school bound daughter had just informed him that she was going to throw it all away and go do mission work with the Presbyterians in Haiti. “Isn’t that absurd!” shouted the father. “A Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering from Duke University and she’s going to dig ditches in Haiti.” ”Well, I doubt that she’s received much training in the Engineering Department for that kind of work,” responded Willimon, “but she’s a fast learner, she’ll get the hang of ditch-digging in a few months,” “Look,” said the father, “this is no laughing matter. You are completely irresponsible to have encouraged her to do this. I hold you personally responsible,” he shouted. As the conversation went on, Dr. Willimon pointed out that the well meaning but obviously unprepared parents were the ones who had started this ball rolling. THEY were the ones who had her baptized, read Bible stories to her, took her to Sunday school, taught her about Jesus, let her go with the Youth Fellowship on a mission trip. Willimon said, “You’re the one who introduced her to Jesus, not me.” Exasperated, the father replied, “But all we ever wanted her to be was a Presbyterian!”
I love being a part of a church community. For more than 23 years I have nurtured and been nurtured by different Christian communities. When a community works together I am inspired by the power a church has to produce good in the world. I love the transformations that take place in the lives of individuals when we study and pray together in the name of Jesus Christ. I am awed by the amount of pastoral care and support a church community can rain on friend and stranger alike. But if you are going to walk the road of being a Christian, I mean really walk it, whether your are an Episcopalian, Presbyterian, or any other stripe of the faith, then you should know that serious side effects have been known to occur. You may have a sudden drop in your hesitation to love your most unlovable neighbor. You may experience a sudden increase in your desire to serve the poor. You may find yourself coughing up whole lot more money from your wallet, or feel an intense pain in your heart when confronted by the suffering of others. You may develop a severe case of conscience, and be seen by your family and friends as seriously disordered. Make no mistake about it, if you pick up your cross and carry it, there are going to be consequences, side effects. But what keeps me smiling is the knowledge deep in my heart that it is all worth it, because in the end it is the only thing that makes any real sense. Amen.