Kingdom Priorities and Family Values

Our lives are live-out within a place of tension between the Tradition we receive and the demands of the times in which we live. As human beings we like to divide reality into past, present, and future. For us these divisions carry real meaning. The past is gone, the future has yet to arrive. So we are invited to pay attention to living in the present.

This neat division of past, present, and future breaks down when we consider the tradition is the presence of the living past in the midst of our present experience. At the same time the future is always breaking into the present through what we Christians recognize as the expectations of the Kingdom. Daily we pray the words: Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. In God’s sense of time Tradition as the living past, and Kingdom expectations as the direction of that which is not yet, flow in and out of our experience of present reality.

Two weeks ago I preached on the passage from Luke’s Gospel where Jesus heals the woman with curvature of the spine on the Sabbath Day.

I explored the importance of this healing lying not as an expression of physical cure but as the healing through which Jesus lifted from the woman the moral burden of sin, which popular Jewish belief of the time maintained was the cause of her deformity.

At issue between Jesus and the leader of the synagogue was not the fact of the woman’s deliverance, but that Jesus had infringed and interpretation of God’s command in Genesis to keep the Sabbath day holy through abstaining from all work. Jesus understood his action as releasing the woman from the bondage of Satan, an fitting action for the Sabbath Day.

I went on to explore Jesus’ reference to the bondage of Satan as an expression of the way the interpretation of Tradition becomes subject over time to the hardness of the human heart. For Jesus indicates that Satan is to be found in way the hardness of the human heart turns Tradition into an agent for human oppression rather than an instrument of our liberation.

My title for this sermon of two weeks ago was the Humanizing of Tradition. Luke shows us how Jesus’ uses the circumstances of the here and now to humanize the application of the Tradition of Moses by interpreting-out of the living tradition the distorting effects of human society’s need to find scapegoats to sacrifice.

Some have commented how helpful they found my sermon from two weeks ago. Episcopalians are very comfortable when we read how Jesus again and again seeks to humanize religious tradition. We particularly like the way Luke attends to the human realities encountered in this place of tension in the present time. As Episcopalians, we warm to this Jesus. Ours is a very human interpretation of Christianity. We are at home with there not being easy answers. In fact we are hugely relieved that life requires skillful negotiation of a world of grey rather than feeling locked into the certainties of a world of black and white. We embrace culture and are passionate advocates for the interpreting-out of the hardness of heart from the Christian Tradition. 

Yet our mood changes to unease when we encounter Jesus proclaiming the expectations of the Kingdom. We puzzle at his call for us to take up our cross and follow him on the road of discipleship. We don’t usually think of ourselves as disciples. That’s a little too intense for us. Passages such as Luke 14: 25-33 really disturb us if we allow ourselves to pay attention to them. Our response is to take comfort in Jesus’ use of hyperbole as a teaching tool, whispering reassuringly to one another that when Jesus says: Whoever comes to me and does not hate father or mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple – he doesn’t really mean it, he is just exaggerating for effect!

Yet, Jesus does mean what he says. If he teaches and demonstrates the humanizing of tradition, he also calls for the radicalizing of culture through the expectation of the coming of God’s Kingdom. We welcome the expectations of the kingdom through embarking on the path of discipleship. This is a path that requires us to place relationship with Christ as our first and highest priority. Only if we do this can we become agents of the Kingdom.

Episcopalians may not have much enthusiasm for the notion of discipleship, especially because those Christian’s who do, give it such a bad name! Yet, we really do care about the coming of the Kingdom. We are a Christian tradition that is passionate about social justice and the eradication of discrimination that results in the evils of racism, sexism, homophobia, and poverty.

It’s not possible to ignore Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom and the radical implications of the coming of the Kingdom for our culture. Neither is it enough to explain away his words as simply the use of hyperbole, although this is also true. So what is the way forward for us in relation to this text and other texts in which Jesus proclaims Kingdom expectations?

At Trinity Cathedral summer is passing. Two things for me mark the passing of summer: the Choir returns after its summer recess and we move into the period of the annual renewal program. Financial stewardship is a significant element of our annual renewal. Following the custom developed last year we will commence the annual renewal program on the 6th of October and run through to the Sunday before Thanksgiving. A departure from previous years means that we will have a pretty clear draft budget for 2014 in advance of the renewal campaign so no-one can remain unaware concerning the urgent financial priorities facing us in 2014.

It is urgent that we meet the financial challenges presented by the 2014 budget. Yet, we will not do so if we only rely on those who can afford to be more generous. The only way we will grow into the challenges in 2014 is through taking seriously Christ’s call to discipleship. Generosity without gratitude is not sufficient. Members can be generous. Only disciples experience and are able to express gratitude.

For me the pivotal section in Luke 14:25-33, God’s invitation to conversation with us as a community, comes at the very end when Jesus says: So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.  

Unfortunately, the English translation uses the word possessions, which implies things to be given up. However, the Greek can also be translated as possessing. Possessing implies that what is to given up is not a thing – a possession, but an attitude to possessing. Our relation to possessions lies not in having them but in the meaning and importance we give them, i.e. our attitude towards them.

The same is true with relationships. Our relationship with the people we call husbands, wives, sons, daughters, brothers or sisters becomes a spiritual problem when we seek to possess them. What offends many of us when we hear the phrase family values is the way this phrase operates as short hand for relationships of control and possession. We possess others when we see them as objects to satisfy our own need for security. We glory in them as extensions of our own needs, thus bringing us social approval and acceptance. However, relationships are gifts to be enjoyed. Even our own life is a gift which is given back to us again and again. The danger here is of clinging to a view of our life as the result of our own self-assertion, of something we earn, the success of which we is in our control.

It’s not a matter of hating family members and our own lives in the literal sense. Jesus is inviting us to see our relationships, our possessions, and our own life as flowing from the priority we give to our longing to love God.  As Augustine put it: our hearts are restless Lord, until they find their rest in thee.  

The message of this Gospel passage is this:

  • Success does not lie in the numbers of followers, in fact numbers alone pose a danger, because nothing attracts like success and success alone will not provide the staying power and stamina needed to bring about the expectations of the Kingdom.
  • The problem lies not in family relationships, but in the attitude we harbor towards others as objects to possess, with the power of possessing being the source for our own sense of security.
  • If we cling to our relationships and even our own life as something to congratulate ourselves on having earned through the hard work of self-improvement, we will lose the only thing that is certain, the enjoyment of life as gift and the fruitfulness of life that flows from this.
  • As a community of Christians we will not be able to fulfill our passion for the coming of the Kingdom unless we first accept the call to discipleship. The Kingdom is not furthered simply by our being good people doing what good people like to do.
  • We become disciples through our membership of the self-denying, cross- bearing community of the Body of Christ at the intersection of Central and Roosevelt. This alone defines us as a community of disciples. Discipleship alone has the power to provide us with the resources to complete the task God calls us to.

Discipleship is an expectation of the Kingdom of God. Through responding to the call to follow Christ, the expectations of the coming of the Kingdom break into the present through us as daily we pray: Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

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