This past Tuesday in staff meeting I, as I always do, read the text for the week. At the end I said, ‘This is the Word of the Lord.’ And, dutifully, every week, they always answer, ‘Thanks be to God.’ Except this week. I read the text – Jim just read it – and then I said, ‘This is the Word of the Lord.’ And, to a person, no one said anything. And I can’t say I blame them. While I can work with the very beginning and the very end, it’s the part in the middle, particularly, "Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me." If Jesus is going to make me choose, especially when I think about my children, I’m not sure if I am on board. I’m just not.
The tenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel is Jesus getting the disciples ready. After the disciples begin their work, they sit and listen to the Sermon on the Mount in chapters 6, 7, and 8. Chapter 9 is packed with 4 different healing stories, all of very different kinds of people. By Chapter 10 its time – Jesus’ charges them and sends them out to preach and teach across the countryside. He needs these disciples to know how hard it will be. He tells them he is sending them out as sheep among wolves, that they will encounter suffering and betrayal and that, even then, they should have no fear. Jesus knows that they are going out into a world that is threatened by those who carry these words of life. He knows they are heading off into a world that is full of distractions, that draws us into comfortable places and holds us there.
And he leans into their deepest commitments. In a culture that was centered around family, Jesus was calling his disciples to a higher standard – not even family comes before God. This hits me in the gut. I don’t think of my family as something that gets in the way of following Jesus – I tend to think of my family as the primary arena in which I work out my discipleship. If I can’t be kind and gracious to my wife and kids, I sure don’t have a shot beyond that. If I can’t work with my wife to cultivate a certain set of values in our home, what else can happen? But Jesus seems to be saying here that anything that creates a barrier between us and God must be thrown away: Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever loves car or house or education or your favorite restaurant or the safety of a busy schedule that allows no diversions is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. It is a very real warning.
I am sure you have heard the old adage that the gospel ‘comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable’. The challenge that remains for faithful people, and us preachers, is: When do we primarily exercise which function? Because there are times when we need almost entirely comfort. The company downsizes. A dear friend gets sick. A marriage ends. We don’t need someone to stick their finger in our face trying to be prophetic. We must collapse into God’s grace, knowing we cannot make it on our own. But there are other times when we get too comfortable. There are other times when our routines, the busyness of our lives, even concerns about our health hold us back, not because those things are unimportant, but because we allow them a higher status than they deserve. Most of us, as people who by the world’s standards live in great privilege, need to be afflicted with Christ’s strong words about justice, about the poor, about those who we often leave outside in the cold because they look differently, act differently, believe differently. We need the gospel to grab ahold of us and shake us into a new reality, rearranging our priorities and hurling our to-do lists to the floor.
And the wrestling, this struggle, goes beyond us, but finds its way into the heart of the church, as we try and sort out who we will be, how we will follow. Yesterday evening in Detroit the Presbyterian Church, USA, convened its big meeting, our General Assembly, which happens once every two years. They spend the first couple of days in committees, hashing out resolutions of that come from other presbyteries or from our denominational staff in Louisville. We elect a moderator and vice-moderator. This year the two big issues won’t come as a surprise. One is marriage. Our nation is fairly well split – 19 states allow it, and 31 have banned it.1 Overtures have come from all around the denomination – some wanting the PCUSA to affirm what our Directory for Worship presently states, that marriage is a covenant through which a man and woman bear witnesses to the promises of God. Others want that language changed entirely, in a variety of ways. The most interesting choice is one I see gaining traction, an overture that doesn’t change the constitution, but how we think about it. I don’t think the larger church is ready for that kind of shift, as broad as our denomination is. There are also two distinct conversations to be had – about marriage as a practice of the church and marriage as a contract of the state. One overture is an Authoritative Interpretation – an approved way of interpretation the constitutional, like a judicial precedent – that offers pastors in states where gay marriage is legal pastoral discretion in doing marriages of gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in their congregations.
The other set of conversations will be the Middle East peace. In the last couple of General Assembly’s there have been votes on divestment, on stopping investing PCUSA funds – which are substantial – in companies that do business with the Israeli government and have connections to military operations. Caterpillar and Motorola are 2 examples. We know the Israeli/Palestine conflict is so complex and multifaceted. You support Israel too much and are accused of supporting the military occupation of Palestine; you support the Palestinian call for justice too much and are accused of supporting terrorism and risking the security of Israel. It seems like you can’t win. Divestment as a strategy has worked on occasion in the church’s history – boycotting Nestle in the 1980s made them change problematic practices, folks from South Africa talk about the support they felt from as boycotts and sanctions and divestment worked against the apartheid regime. But not matter what happens, a bunch of people are going to go away really angry.
I must confess I don’t know what to do with much of this. While some helpful study papers come out from General Assembly each year – we Presbyterians can surely write a really thorough study document – I can’t remember the last time I was overjoyed with something that came out of General Assembly. I want to be a good member of the team, want to be supportive of the larger church, but it’s hard to see where it’s going, especially in contrast to how much I love what is going on here, locally. But, we are only one small part of one small corner of the church, and remaining connected – for good or for ill, is an essential part of how we understand church. It’s not just us here, or them out there, and often it is filled with lively conversation about how we are called to follow Jesus. I have been reminded of that most fully as I have been cramming the history of the reformation in Scotland the past few weeks. A great crew of youth and adults are heading to Scotland on Thursday, June 26. We’ll spend a couple of days in Glasgow, a couple in Edinburgh, then head west to the island of Iona, the gorgeous site of a monastery founded in the year 563, rebuilt as the home of an ecumenical community of pilgrims about a century ago. We’ll do some good church history before we go, and two Sunday mornings from today we will worship in St Giles Cathedral on the royal mile. The conflict in their history makes our General Assembly look like nothing. One on occasion, in the heart of the reformation in Scotland, the worship leader for the day stood to begin worship with the Anglican Church’s new prayer book – not Reformed worship, the Anglican prayer book – this was July 23, 1637. And legend holds that one Jenny Geddes was so enraged that she hurled a stool, striking the deal of the Cathedral in the head, starting a riot.2
And it is this conflict, this wrestling, this sorting out of what it means to be faithful in a world of varied commitments, is part of who we are. We do our best to get it right. We fail a good bit of the time. But – and this is the great news – even as the sausage is made, in the heart of the conflict, God is faithful still. God was working through and despite those folks hurling chairs in St Giles in 1637. God will be working through and despite those in Detroit right now, shaping a church that will be more faithful in seasons, less in others. And while the church comes as gift, we know its structures and committees are, at their very best, simply ways to help us sort out our commitments, as we worship, and learn, and serve. As we keep ahold of Jesus’ words, this great paradox of faith – it is in the finding that we lose, and the losing that we find. And through it all, Christ reigns.
All praise be to God. Amen.