On Choosing One
September 4, 2022
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.
Today’s sermon is titled On Choosing One.
In my research this week, I learned about a man whom history regards as the “first international celebrity.” His rise to fame was in the mid 1800’s when, unlike today and without the help of instantaneous world-wide communication, international recognition was an honor truly earned. His name is Giuseppie Garibaldi; he was an Italian General whose relentless quest for a unified Italy reads like an epic tale, complete with dramatic victories against all odds and stealthy retreats. Garibaldi is described as “an internationally recognized symbol of liberty. He might have also been an American hero if President Lincoln had had his way. Twice Garibaldi was asked to lead Union forces but an agreement could not be reached. Garibaldi came up in my research because as he recruited soldiers he is quoted as saying, “I can only offer you hunger, thirst, forced marches and death. All who have the name of Italy, not only on their lips but in their hearts also…let them follow me.”
There are striking similarities between Garibaldi’s statement and a statement that Jesus makes in the 14th chapter of Luke. I chose to not have Jesus’s statement read aloud with the other scripture readings this morning. In fact, I spent most of the first part of this past week trying to find a way out of using the scripture at all. It’s not the first time I have squirmed under the weight of Jesus’s words. I did the familiar traipsing from one source of biblical commentary to the next, looking for a way out, and there were plenty of avenues of avoidance but not a single one offered any satisfaction at all, so today we are just going to face it head-on.
Before I read what Jesus said, please imagine this scene as described in the scriptures. It says, “Large crowds were travelling with him.” Perhaps the crowd was too large. Perhaps Jesus knew that there was no way all those people could walk the full length of the journey he was walking, a journey that would lead to his death and to the persecution of his followers. The scriptures say, “He turned and said to them, ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?…Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So, therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
This passage is known as “The Cost of Discipleship” and Jesus could not be clearer about what is required: everything. There aren’t many occasions where I feel comfortable guessing about what really happened in Jesus’s ministry, but I would bet money that crowd was significantly thinned after Jesus’s ultimatum.
So how are we to deal with this command to hate those that are closest to us? Well, the only way I have found for myself is to forgive the use of that dreaded “H word” and look a little deeper at the possible reasoning behind why Jesus, as one biblical scholar describes it, “demanded a primary and undivided allegiance.” The first question that comes to my mind is, “Who can ask for such a thing? Who can ask for primary and undivided allegiance?” The answer: The Son of God can. The next question is, “Why would Jesus ask for primary and undivided allegiance?” The answer here is two fold. In the context of Jesus’s life and ministry, his disciples had to be completely devoted to not only following him, but also to adopt a lifestyle that was monastic; Jesus’s disciples owned nothing but their cloaks and their sandals. They lived as nomadic monks. In the passage we have today, Jesus is challenging each and every one in the multitude to assess their level of commitment.
There is a message for us as modern day disciples, as well. There is a message for us that may be hard to hear because we are so accustomed to defining ourselves, and others, by the circumstances of our lives. We define and identify ourselves by so many factors, like where we are from, where we attended school, what we did or still do for income, what political party we identify with, and… whether we like it or not, or are even fully aware of it or not, we are defined by our families. Jesus’s challenge to us is this: let God define who you are; don’t let your family’s projections and expectations of what you should do and who you should be supersede living in accordance with the Divine forces of goodness and love that we call God. The words from Deuteronomy today come as an assurance that we have all we need within us to live aligned with God; the ancient scriptures remind us, “the word is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” The instructions are clear; it is practice that we require.
Practice was a running theme throughout my time away from work this past month. Like many things that occurred over the past month, like contracting covid and nursing two of my children through separate bouts of covid, I did not plan it. Sometime in the first week of August, as I was prayerfully considering what I needed most during the coming month, it occurred to me that what I needed most was to narrow my focus to the task at hand and give my mind a rest from juggling the meetings, correspondence, service planning, sermon prep, and pastoral care. I began to practice, primarily, slowing down and focusing fully on whatever I was doing. When eating, I would only eat, not watch or read or talk too much. When walking, I would only walk, not listen to a podcast or talk on the phone. When preparing food, I would take my time and try to enjoy each step without other distractions. Did I always succeed? Absolutely not. But I did experience enough of a difference to be able to catch myself now when I am beginning to rush or multi-task. I find it difficult, because I like to rush and to multi-task, but I am trying to make a change. I am trying to choose another way of being that makes more space for the Holy
Spirit of God to have influence. It will take much more practice, but I think starting was the most difficult part.
Friends, our teacher, Jesus of Nazareth could not be more clear about the choice that is before us each moment of every day. If we can, over the course of our lives, cultivate the habit of choosing the one, choosing the source of all goodness, choosing God before all people and before all things…if we can cultivate the habit of learning more and more how to love, learning to trust in love, act in love, speak in love, and think in love then we become equipped to be the strongest pillars of support in our families, in our workplaces and in all areas of our lives. But if we do not choose to continually place God at the center of our lives, if we put other people or things or substances, even, at the center of our lives instead, we are like ships at sea navigating by the lights on shore instead of navigating by the stars in the sky. If our lives are chartered by the changing dynamics of human relationships then we have nothing to guide us when faced with the inevitable loss and the crushing weight of tragedy that we all face in our lives and in the lives of others.
In closing, I want to circle back to the words of the Italian General. When facing the brutal reality of war, Giuseppie Garibaldi warned his troops, “I can only offer you hunger, thirst, forced marches and death. All who have the name of Italy, not only on their lips but in their hearts also…let them follow me.” Jesus is warning his followers, warning us, too, that what is required is a singularity of focus. Jesus is asking for all of our love, knowing full well that it is in the process of giving all we are over to the service of love that we find we are capable of loving more than ever before. This, I believe, is the very essence of Jesus’s message: make the love that is God the center of your existence and all else will be blessed; through times of tumult and through times of peace, all will be blessed. So be it. Amen.
In this stillness, we lift our prayers to a place beyond us, where the unfathomable divine workings of God are all that are. May peace replace anxiety, may love replace fear, and may assurance replace uncertainty in all we are facing in our lives. Help us, Holy Spirit, to look for the best in ourselves and in one another and yet foster in us a spirit of forgiveness, tolerance and understanding. Please be with those of us in need, those enduring illness and those in recovery. Guide us with the light of your loving presence, we pray in the name of Jesus, who gave us this prayer so long ago…Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
I leave you with these words of prayer written by Bishop Joseph Butler in 1657: “Help us to improve to Perfection, till all partial affection be lost in that entire, universal, one and Thou, O God, shalt be all in all.” Amen.