Our Scriptures for this Sunday are not the warm fuzzy ones we like to hear about our loving God-or are they? It all depends on how we understand love and what love can help us to do. Here, we are asked to follow Christ and to more deeply understand what that means. We are asked to count the costs of our decision to follow Christ. We are asked to look at those things and relationships that “ground us”. Not in the sense of anchoring us in stormy seas, but in the sense of holding our feet to the ground when we are ready to fly or just plain need to go. In the Gospel (Luke 14:25-33) we are asked to “Turn our backs on our loved ones” (some translations say “hate” them) and turn “our backs on even our very selves” to follow Christ” ; to “take up the cross” to follow; and to “say goodbye to all of our possessions” to be disciples. Wow! If this is about only what we give up it is too hard. But, if it is about learning how to love as Jesus loved that is a different story.
I am reminded of a scenario from my older adolescence-one that I did not handle very well although I tried. I lived in a poor inner city neighborhood where violence was on the increase. My mother loved me very much and wanted to protect me. She also had many internal fears about how dangerous life was and I fought to embrace life and saw it differently. When any event planned by the Church or the Youth Group involved returning home late at night I could not go. There was a particular event involving an inspirational and evangelical speaker and it was far away necessitating several subway rides. Although people would accompany me there and home, my arrival home would be very late. I loved my mother who in many ways was giving her life for me, but I needed to let her know that I it was important for me to go to this event. My Grandmother even advocated for me. Mom was adamant and I wound up yelling at her and saying things I was sorry for. My Pastor called me on this and he was right. But, I still couldn’t go until my Pastor convinced her that he, himself, would bring me home. In my mind my mother had wrapped herself around my ankles and literally held me from following Christ. I could not see that she, too was a woman of faith, or comprehend her fears of losing me and how much I was her life. I didn’t know how to be loving in my distancing. I didn’t know that growing up could be so difficult and complex. But for me it was.
And I would learn in later relationships in life that the call of God and the demands of the relationship were sometimes in conflict. This is not an argument for being single and celibate though some are called to be that. It is in relationship with loving others that we learn what it is to be in relationship with a loving God, and the reverse is also true. In relationships, the beloved is first. But it can be particularly hard when there are two beloveds-when God, our love, is first and when our spouse, partner or child is ,in another way, first. That is when Jesus asks that God and the needs of the kin-dom be our greatest love. No spouse or life partner finds it easy when the pastoral response demands attention to others, even strangers, at the worst times and hours and sometimes at the cost of other important plans or even one’s health. When Pastor took me home, he would get home even later and at his own peril. Somehow in love we negotiate these times. We don’t hate those we love, but we do put the call to serve first and for the right reasons, and I think that is what Jesus meant in the Gospel.
What does it mean to follow Jesus? Why does it sometimes take some hard self-denial? What are the ‘right reasons’ to put our following before those we love and our very selves? What does it have to do with love?
First, what “following” is not-it is not admiring what Jesus did. The wise theologian Soren Kierkegaard said that Jesus wants followers not admirers. The “rich young man” (Mark 10:17-22) admired Jesus. He admired his goodness and called him “good master”. Jesus was not up for this adoration and told him only God is good. When he pressed Jesus on what he should do to have life forever, Jesus told him to keep the commandments and to sell what he owned and give his money to the poor,and follow him. He went away sad because he couldn’t part with his great wealth or change his lifestyle. Jesus too was sad because he “looked steadily at him and he was filled with love for him.” Many times people will tell us how much they admire our work with the poor and homeless, adding “I couldn’t do it”. Sometimes I answer that God has given many gifts and talents as if it is only a gift and not the essence of the Law and the Great commandment to live a Matthew 25 life. If I were true to the Gospel, and not afraid of hurting someone’s feelings, I would say as Jesus did “inasmuch as you do it unto the least of these, you do it unto me”.
One does not need a special ministry. There are many opportunities in every day life everywhere to live this Gospel. Our Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests (ARCWP) Bishop , Bridget Mary Meehan enjoys McDonald’s ice cream and goes regularly to get it. She has a ministry of presence as she greets, smiles and talks with people that no one else would talk to. A woman who was homeless and mentally ill shyly approached her. She engaged her and was happy to buy the woman a meal. Subsequently, the woman would approach her at various times. On one occasion another friend accompanied Bridget Mary. This friend, “Betty” who is generous in many ways to her own friends, chastised Bridget Mary and tried to convince her that she should not talk to or give anything to this woman, “who probably drank”. Without chastising her friend in return, for she loves her, she continued to relate warmly to this lonely woman. I know Betty admires Bridget Mary, but she does not follow her.
To “follow” is, then, to do what Jesus did. To respond in love to the needs of all, especially those who are poor, sick, lonely, and outcast. To work hard for justice and peace so that no one is left out of having what they need, be it a bed indoors at night or a simple meal or a place to raise children without fear, or medical treatment. To welcome the stranger and open the doors of the Kin-dom to everyone. To create a culture of sharing and giving rather than having and hoarding. And, yes, to challenge those who make religion into endless rules that no one is good enough to follow perfectly and an exclusive, members only club. To overthrow the tables of those who sold doves and animals for sacrifice, to set all God’s creatures free, including those who made money from their sale, from their perversion of religion,their misuse of God’s House. To risk righteous anger at all systems that oppress,exploit and starve some while others are inordinately rich and sleek. Pope Francis is now giving an example in simplicity and priority on serving the poor that is moving to all who want a renewed church. Last week workers in some major cities of the USA united in a strike against fast food chains to lift the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $15 an hour so they could begin to live and not barely survive. It takes 3 such jobs to pay rent, bills and care for a family. Dear followers of Christ, this too is our fight. This month too we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s I Have a Dream Speech and the dramatic changes the Civil Rights era brought. This too is an ongoing dream of equality for all through nonviolent activism that we as Christ followers are still fighting for.
In the Epistle reading (Philemon verses 9-10; 12-17) the Apostle Paul is challenging the institution of slavery “left handedly” by entreating Philemon to take back his slave Onesimus, who ran away to Paul and became “Paul’s Heart” and was loved as Paul’s own child. Philemon is asked to love and treat him as a brother,not as a slave. While we may have preferred a polemic from Paul against slavery, and wish that he did not send the slave back to his owner(thereby giving a double message), we can full well appreciate the love Paul had for Onesimus and Philemon. We can appreciate Paul’s “appeal in the name of love” and we can learn to do the same along with whatever courage it may take in the face of injustice. The book of Wisdom reading (9: 13-18) helps us because it reminds us that we do not have to rely on our own faulty mortal reasoning, but on the Spirit of our living God to learn what pleases God. We are so thankful for the Spirit of Wisdom (Sofia) when things are too hard for us to know or do otherwise. Sofia teaches us the love of Christ, hence how to follow.
Jesus embraces all of us, including the rich young man who could not allow himself to follow him. Jesus had a special love for him. We are challenged to have that love as well. To have enough love to lift Lazarus from the grave. To love when we are too tired to love, to care when our caring dries up because we do not feel cared for ourselves. To care for people who cannot give up the addictions and ways that are killing them. There is a Memorial wall of pictures in our church and a few candles beneath it. The wall has become too filled with pictures of our people who have died homeless, or addicted to alcohol or both. I am actually astonished at those we have helped to turn around-and there are many who have expelled demons and only by the grace of God. Some we got into good housing and all was well for a while. Then, and it breaks my heart, they still could not stop drinking and died rather than use help. Last week I almost cussed at a man who was doing really well in housing and then got hooked on prescription painkillers that took away his rationality and good judgment. I told him that I was not planning to do his funeral and bury him. I did cuss when he was gone. When I get over my anger at him, I will gently start my work all over again. To love as Jesus loves is sometimes to have a broken heart.
Hence, to “follow” is not only to do what Jesus did but to feel what Jesus felt. To feel the love that filled him until he wept, until he cried out to God and sweated blood in intensity and even fear, To feel the “dryness” when God seems too far away. To feel alone and exhausted. To be reproached and battered for taking on the “powers that be”. To carry people on your back when you can hardly carry yourself. To crave time away only to be followed on your bathroom break. And, maybe even to keep on loving and forgiving when you feel like you are dying. Can it be that we are asked to love as God loves? I think so and that is the cross.
The beautiful spiritual poet, J. Janda says it this way in the closing lines of a poem called “Covenant” from his book IN EMBRACE published by Life In Christ Press:
“….I know/it is/difficult/ to suffer/but look/I am taking/away your heart/and in/its/place/I am/putting/my heart/now I will/ be suffering/now I will/be/forgiving/now I will/be loving/in you/my heart is/beating in you”
“Following” is when Christ’s heart beats in us. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Judith A. Lee, ARCWP
Co-Pastor Good Shepherd Inclusive Catholic Community
Fort Myers, Florida 9/4/2013 Sculpture at the FDR Memorial in Washington DC