Today we heard Jesus describing following him as a path of sacrifice. Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. It is a path that involves letting go and leaving things behind. No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.
In the part of the Bible, the book of Galatians, Paul describes the fruits of the Spirit as love, joy, peace patience, kindness, generosity faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Add rainbow, lollipops and free-wifi and you will have a utopia. It makes it sound like following Jesus should be this wonderful experience.
How do these images fit together? One is about a Christian community founded by love and dwelling in peace; the other is about a Christian walk shaped by uncertainty and a disconnecting from what was once familiar and comfortable. How can there be peace in uncertainty? How can Jesus suggest disconnection as a positive?
Some of it may be hyperbole, the way that Jesus has of speaking in an extreme way to drive a point home. If your hand causes you to sin, chop it off and throw it away. Yet if it is exaggerated, it is language that points to a theme that is part of many religious traditions; there is great peace to be found in detachment. Flipped around, it is often that to which we are most attached that causes us the greatest grief.
In the same passage in Galatians when Paul talks about the opposite of the fruits of spirit, what he calls the works of flesh, it is a different list: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery (and the proliferation of this rock and roll music), he’s really talking about becoming overly attached to an aspect of life that in many ways is created good. Sexuality is good, but an over-attachment to sexuality can become destructive. Food is good, but an over-attachment to food is unhealthy. Debate and discussion is good, but an over-attachment to one’s point of view leads to anger, quarrels, dissensions and factions within the community. If it is always your way or the highway, that is not the Holy Spirit at work.
From Tuesday to Thursday this past week, Margaret Hall and I were in Grand Rapids, Michigan at Calvin College for the concluding conference around our vital worship grant that helped establish the Still, Small Voice. There were representatives of thirty grants that were finishing and thirty grants that were starting up that took part. Groups came from all over the United States and Canada. They represented several denominations as well as independent congregations and parachurch groups. It was large and small churches. It was African-American, Anglo and Latino congregations. It was many different communities of many different traditions coming together to ask how can worship deepen our connection to God; how can worship expand our ability to share the gospel? As one of the speakers put it, it was a gathering for people who, in many different contexts, ask, “What if we did this?”
For some, it was looking at things we Lutherans take for granted. What if we used the liturgical calendar? What if we celebrated communion more often? For some, it was going in a direction radically different than we might experience in our congregation. What if we had an outdoor church for people experiencing homelessness? What if we added a service geared toward the Latino community in our area? For us it was, what if we used silence and contemplation as a way to deepen our experience of God in worship? For those who have participated in the Still, Small Voice, I think you have a positive answer to that question. For those who haven’t, I still encourage you to try.
At some point, every person who led a grant project, every person who experimented with worship, had to let go of some assumptions about what Christian worship, Christian community and Christian life look like. And in doing that we got to experience God at work in new and renewed ways. We got to connect Mt. Aerie Baptist Church, in Bridgeport, CT where young men of the church dance as part of communal prayer. We got to connect with Emmanuel Reform Church in California where evening worship in Spanish is always preceded by a fellowship meal for anyone who can make it. We got to connect with the More than Twelve community in Vancouver, where God is praised with hard rock and hip hop. Now to be clear, I personally don’t have a lot of interest in hard rock/hip hop service. They probably don’t have a lot of interest in a worship service of silent contemplation. But the fact that I know that God is at work in a hip hop service and that God is at work in a contemplative service and that God is at work in a liturgical service and that God is at work in a light rock contemporary service is freeing. I know that God is not extremely attached to any one of those. We are the ones who attach ourselves, who limit our own vision of how the gospel can work.
Often we talk about the church as a family. We might talk about our church home or wanting to make visitors feel at home. Today’s gospel lesson can be taken in at least two ways. On the one hand, it challenges the notion of that family model that has shaped a lot of congregational ministry. One of the long-standing criticisms of the idea of congregation as family is that it can be very difficult to truly welcome other people into that family, especially if they refuse to become like us. I’ve have heard it argued that part of the reason we are experiencing aging congregations is that we have been so protective of the elders of our family and their traditions that we neglected the needs of the younger generation.
A more positive spin on the passage is that when you are not attached to any one place as home, then every place is home. God is not in love with our church buildings. God is not overly attached to this space. God is here. As we gather at the communion table in a few moments, Jesus will meet you there. But peace happens when you realize that God is also with you as you leave, that you are walking the walk of faith on Monday morning as well as Sunday morning. Peace breaks out when we realize that God is at home in every face we see and every place we wander.
Both Paul and Jesus in different ways are talking about the freedom of the gospel. For Paul, when we become less attached to the things of the world, we are set free to love others, to be generous, to be joyful. For Jesus, the call to follow is a call to let go. The process of letting go can be uncomfortable and disorienting, but it is in letting go we find the freedom that leads to life. Let go. Let go of your past. Let go of your mistakes. Let go of your assumptions. Let go of your expectations. Let go of every could, should and ought. Let go and find peace. Let go and be free. This is the good news.