Sunday, September 8, 2019

Universal Welcome, Universal Cost

September 8, 2019 – The 13th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 18C

© 2019 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here.

It’s passages like this one, when Jesus seems to be setting the bar for his followers unattainably high, that make me think that it’s a shame that Jesus never learned what we say here every Sunday: “Whoever you are and wherever you are on your pilgrimage of faith, you are welcome in this place, and you are welcome at God’s table.” He probably could have doubled or even tripled his number of followers if he had stopped talking about the requirement that his disciples give up all of their possessions and, instead, let anyone and everyone follow him.

For too much of Christian history, the church has placed its emphasis on conforming before communing and believing before belonging. People who don’t go to St. Paul’s stop me around town to tell me how much it means to them that we welcome everyone. Quoting our invitation to the table, they want me to know that, even though they aren’t part of our church and often identify as atheists, it matters to them that a church like ours—an icon of established religion—cares more about breaking down historic barriers than erecting more hurdles to keep people out. Many of you have told me that those words of invitation have been transformative in your lives—that you never expected to hear someone tell you that you belonged at God’s table and that you never would have bothered going to this or any church had you not heard it.

And that makes me wonder why more churches haven’t figured it out. Surely they care about hospitality. Surely they recognize the spiritual, gospel value in declaring that anyone and everyone is welcome at God’s table. Why, then, do so many churches insist on putting doctrinal barbed-wire around the altar and guarding the gate to keep away outsiders? Maybe it’s because they worry that a universal welcome will hide Communion’s universal cost.

Luke tells us that large crowds were travelling with Jesus, and, almost as if to scare them off, Jesus turned to them and said, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father, mother, wife, children, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Wonderful pep talk, huh? What does Jesus mean? And why does Jesus say these words to the people who were following him? I presume that some element of hyperbole was involved—Jesus was known to exaggerate to make a point—but there also must be an element of truth to these words. What is it? Jesus wants his would-be disciples to know that following him is a costly endeavor, and, more than that, that being his disciple will cost them everything they have—especially the things they hold most dear.

Why? Because you can’t be a disciple of Jesus and carry on with life as you’ve always known it. You can’t be a student of the reign of God—a participant in what God is doing in the world through Jesus Christ—and hang onto the people and possessions you enjoy. If you’re a citizen in God’s kingdom, those things don’t belong to you anymore. Not even your own life belongs to you anymore.

Jesus came to enact God’s great reordering of society, and nothing is left outside of that transformation. In him, the lost are found, the broken are made whole, and the poor become rich, but those aren’t hypothetical, metaphorical changes. Just as the incarnation is a real moment in human history, so, too, is God’s work of turning the world on its head a movement with real, tangible, financial, relational consequences. The lifting up of the downtrodden requires the pulling down of the haughty. The celebration of the vulnerable involves the humiliation of the strong. Being a disciple of Jesus means being a student of that kind of transformation, and that’s the kind of transformation that you can’t give part of yourself to. You’re either all in or all out.

In this gospel lesson, it feels like Jesus is looking back at the crowd and saying to them, longingly and lovingly, “I want all of you to be my followers, but you need to know what that is going to cost you. It’s going to cost you everything—even your own life. If you want to be my disciples, you have to be willing to let go not only of everything you have but even the concept of possession itself. If you belong to me, nothing will belong to you anymore. Be sure that’s what you want. Count the cost. I’m on my way to Jerusalem, and the fate that awaits me there will catch you up, too. Don’t come any further unless you’re sure you’re willing to give up everything you have.”

Maybe that’s what we need to say every week when we invite people to the table: whoever you are and wherever you are on your spiritual pilgrimage, you are welcome in this place, and you are welcome at God’s table, but be careful because coming to this table will cost you everything. No matter who you are or what you believe, you already belong to God. Of course, God is beckoning you to come and find your place at God’s table. But, when you accept that invitation, you invite the transformation that God is undertaking in the world to take place in your life as well.

In spiritual terms, we believe that those who receive the Body of Christ become the Body of Christ. We who gather at the table, therefore, assemble not only as members of God’s family but also as members of Christ’s body. And that means that we are the ones in whom and through whom the work that Jesus came to do continues to be accomplished. We come to be fed, to be nourished, and to be strengthened, but we also come to be re-membered, to be re-assembled, and to be re-constituted as the Body of Christ. Anyone and everyone is welcome to come. You don’t need to be a saint, and you can bring your doubts with you. But it is a mistake to think that you can come to the table and not be changed. How can you partake of the Body of Christ without taking part in the Body of Christ?

Today is our Ministry Fair. Almost all of the programs and opportunities for service we have are represented in the parish hall. If you want to give some of your time and energy to doing good and godly work in this community, go and sign up. It’s important work, and we need you, and it’s absolutely worth it. But, if you want to be a part of something even bigger and you’re willing to give your whole life—all that you have and all that you are—to the transformation God envisions for the world in the gospel of Jesus Christ—then this is the invitation for you. 

Whoever you are and wherever you are on your pilgrimage of faith, God is inviting you to lose yourself in the life-giving work that God is doing in the world. If you want Jesus’ vision for the world to be your vision for the world, then this is the place where you can find it and give yourself to it. But be careful: it will cost you everything.

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