Preached on September 4, 2016 (Proper 18C), at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Seattle.
The other day I was asked two big questions, questions that might defy easy answers, and I found to my surprise that I had my answers at the ready. The first question was, “What is your greatest fear?” And the second question was, “What is your greatest joy?”
Like I said, easy. My greatest fear is separation, loss of relationship, a tear in the fabric of friendship. I cover my eyes in movies when my favorite characters break up. I’ve been known to spend months grieving the loss of a relationship, and as long as twenty years later, I can still wistfully recall the pain of it. I take endings hard.
My greatest joy, then, is reconciliation. I am a sucker for happy endings, for long-desired, sweet embraces, for that kind of hug that feels so strong it runs down to your feet, to your toes, and your throat catches as you tuck your tired head next to their neck, your arms around your friend who is telling you that it’s going to be okay.
Imagine my delight when I first turned to page 855 in our Book of Common Prayer and discovered that the mission of the Church just happens to be my greatest joy: “The mission of the Church,” the Prayer Book says, “is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” To restore all people to unity: that sounds like reconciliation to me. A happy ending.
It makes sense, then, that I work for the Church, and it also makes sense that I’m a couples therapist. I’ve taken some wrong turns in my vocations and careers over the last 25 years, but for the most part I’ve tried to work on my greatest joy, which of course means facing my greatest fear, sometimes on a daily basis. I can’t cover my eyes when I’m working with a struggling couple in my office.
I invite you to reflect on these questions: what is your greatest fear, and what is your greatest joy? I’m grateful that my answers are in relationship with each other, like two sides of the same coin. Maybe yours are too, or maybe not, that’s okay. Or maybe your answer to one of the questions just might shed a little light on the other.
You likely have many smaller fears and joys. I’m afraid of looking foolish, disappointing my friends, the sight of blood, and airplane turbulence, but these and other fears are not at the core for me. I love molasses cookies, exercise, the color blue, and the key of E-flat major, but none of these is my core joy. What is at the core for you? What is your deepest gladness? What is your deepest dread?
Today we find Jesus confronting his followers, and he seems to be all about the core, the most important thing, the task that is his greatest joy, but also will lead him into what he fears the most. And he skips the part where he would take into account how they’ll feel when he confronts them. He is reminding them—a little brutally, without apology—that what he’s up to is going to be costly, and if they want to follow him, it could require them to give up everything they have, everything they treasure, even family.
In that time and place, to shun one’s family could be catastrophic: your network of kinfolk is your most valuable resource in a time of brutal political occupation and economic oppression. To turn from them and follow Jesus: that could have felt to his followers a little like suicide. But Jesus doesn’t sidestep this. He doesn’t gloss anything over. Following him is a serious choice with serious consequences.
It may be hard for us to relate to all this, because none of us plans to shun our families or give up all of our possessions, and if we’re honest we’ll admit that we wouldn’t dream of building a church that told anyone to do that. In our reading of today’s Gospel, Jesus was exaggerating; he was using hyperbole to make an important point. And we’re not entirely wrong about that: the early Jesus Movement shared all things in common, but they relied on benefactors who could provide houses and food and supplies; they didn’t train their apostles to be mendicant beggars. In his last days Jesus stayed with his friends in Bethany, in a family home. St. Francis was different: in the early 13th century, Francis took this message of Jesus very seriously and literally, and we commend him for that and learn much from his example. But most Christians throughout time have understood that there is more than one way to interpret what Jesus is saying here.
But there is no avoiding the brutality, the urgency, the dead-seriousness of what he’s saying. “What is your joy?” is not, in our faith tradition, just a wistful or playful question. Writer and theologian Frederick Buechner says that “Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world's deep need.”
“Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world's deep need.”
And Jesus today seems to be all about vocation, a word related to voice and vocal and evoke and advocate, a word that moves us past the question, “What do you do for a living?” and asks us, what is that deepest joy of yours, that joy that will kill you if it doesn’t get out, that joy or that gladness that brings splendid nourishment to an urgent need out there in the world, a need right there next to you, a need for nutritious food or a need for beauty, a need for a vaccine or a need for wisdom, a need for shelter or a need for hospitality, a need for a repaired relationship or a need for rescued animals or a lower average global temperature or a poem that makes life worth living or a discovery of an Earth-like planet or a safer neighborhood or the election of a better City Council or …
There are so many needs in the world. If you follow Jesus, then your deep gladness meets a deep need in such a way that God’s dominion of justice and peace begins to dawn in the joyful labor of your own little life.
Last week as we were inviting you all to bring a symbol of your vocation into church today, someone said to me, “I really don’t feel like bringing in something from work. It’d be great if I could just bring a wooden spoon from my kitchen.” I told him that that’s a great idea. God’s kingdom dawns in that person’s kitchen as brightly as it does in another person’s day job. A kitchen full of food, open to others in warmth and hospitality: the early Jesus Movement was known for that more than almost anything else. Here at St. Paul’s we build that kitchen every last Tuesday of the month, and every Sunday at coffee hour, but you can do that too … and you must do that if it is your greatest joy.
We often imagine Jesus as kindly and loving, weeping for his dead friend, making careful provision for his mother, resting his healing hand gently on those who suffer. But today we see that he is also stewing and seething, pushing us hard to pursue our deep gladness to fill the world’s deep need.
What is your greatest joy? What is your greatest fear? What is your vocation?
Jesus is waiting impatiently for your answers.
Scripture: Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 1, Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25-33