In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Good morning to you all! I can’t really believe that this day has finally arrived and that we are now living among you in Ponca City. So here we all are together! At the very beginning of what God willing will be a lasting ministry with you all in this new chapter in the life of Grace Church. We’re still settling in but we are so grateful to the goodness of God that we found a beautiful house to make into our home. Special thanks to all those who’ve welcomed us and especially to those of you who’ve been so kind as to bring us meals.
Though some time has past since my call to serve as your rector was announced, I also want to say again how thankful I am for the diligent prayer and work that the search committee and the vestry contributed throughout the search process: something that took way longer than what was anticipated. In fact, I happened to be looking through my inbox recently and discovered that my first day in the office this past Monday was exactly a year to the day from when I first submitted my materials to the search process for this position. So this has indeed been a long time coming and the world has been turned upside down since. Nevertheless, God’s timing is always ordained under his never-failing providence; it’s our job to discern the call of Christ in the midst of whatever situation we find ourselves in. Christ took up his cross so that every moment of life can be a moment to take up ours.
And what a moment we’re in now! There is something ironic about entering into the liturgical season that we often call “Ordinary Time,” since I can’t quite recall the last time that I considered to be ordinary, but maybe that’s the point, the deeper truth. Maybe what counts as “ordinary” for the life of the Church just is this constant act of discernment; this constant discrimination between that which acknowledges Christ and that which denies him; between the false peace that tries to sweep its violence under the rug and the sword of Christ that severs it with a true peace that the world cannot give; and yes, even between some of our closest relationships and strongest attachments. And if this is “ordinary,” then this liturgical season of Ordinary Time simply takes this challenge for granted. Which means that the call to take up our cross names the basic activity of the Christian life.
But you’d be forgiven if you found today’s Gospel reading to be rather severe and maybe even a bit intimidating. Christ certainly allows for no compromises: it’s either/or all the way down. And this is a recurring theme throughout St. Matthew’s Gospel, specifically. So we’re left with the question that we should always ask of any passage of Scripture, which is where the good news is to be found. That doesn’t mean that we’re supposed to look for the bright side of whatever we’re reading or put a positive spin on it. Rather, to perceive the good news in Scripture is to allow ourselves to be honest about what counts as good news. And this requires the courage of prayer and discernment. We have to be willing to be transformed by what we find to be good news. We have to cultivate the humility to recognize that sometimes, it’s in our ideas of what’s good for us that we are most mistaken. Sometimes, our idea of what is good is where we stand to be the most transformed by the renewal of our minds.
And I think that’s one of the reasons that our Lord describes himself as the one who comes “to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law”; to be the reason that “one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” Happy Fathers’ Day, right? Because what is more familiar or comfortable or as unsuspicious as your family? Now, there’s no doubt that there are Christians now and throughout history that have experienced this in the most literal sense: Christians who are effectively disowned by their families for following the call of Christ. Or at least cause a bit of tension. Not to mention of course the countless people among us whose families were never true places of comfort and security, but of fear and danger. But even if that’s not your experience, the intensity of this image of Christ setting families against each other is meant to focus our attention on what Dietrich Bonhoeffer would call “the cost of discipleship.” If Christ comes to demand our full devotion, then we should not be surprised to find that the more we’ve devoted ourselves to things other than Christ, the more painful that change will feel at first. It could feel as though we’ve had to reject something as close to us as our family.
Remember that human life consists of a bunch of different loves: at the end of the day, everything that we do, every action we take, is motivated by some kind of love, some kind of attachment to what we desire. And that goes for things as small as when I’ve already made too many ice cream runs to Braum’s since coming back to Oklahoma all the way to things as large as the question of what occupations we choose to perform or how we raise our kids. And when a human life becomes a Christian life, none of this is particularly changed. Human life is still about discerning the things that are worth our devotion, worth our love, from among those things that aren’t -- it’s just that now, the ultimate standard for that discernment is Christ himself. Jesus is like the template, the pattern for what a human life looks like when all of its loves are perfectly ordered. And paradoxically, that pattern looks like the cross. We find our lives when we lose them, just as Christ found the new life of resurrection when he gave up his life for the sake of the world.
Maybe I’ve only increased the severity of Christ’s words so far and you’re still waiting for the “good news” part. So let’s get back to that. When kids insist that all the food on their plate is kept separate, with nothing touching anything else, the certainty of their demand comes from the absolute clarity of their preferences. There’s no ambiguity about where the mac n’ cheese belongs vs where the hot dog goes: those are totally different things that should never be confused or treated as though they were the same. Now, as we grow older, we discover that the neat and tidy categories and distinctions of childhood don’t really work for a world as complicated as ours. And so it’s appropriate that adults learn to let up on their certainty a bit, at least on some things; to admit that not everything is crystal clear. I mean, we entered 2020 as if things would just continue on as they were, with not the slightest clue about the pandemic and the shutdown that were just around the corner. And here we are together at the beginning of this new chapter and the future remains as foggy as it always is. But the good news of these stern words from our Lord today is that we can become again like children; as disciples of Christ, we can begin cultivating for ourselves the kind of clarity of discernment that they show with the food on their plates. By the grace of God working through our prayers and obedience to the teachings of his Son, we can slowly move to a place where that which doesn’t go with the call of Christ is as clear as day. So my prayer for us all, here at the start of something new in the life of Grace Church, is that God would bestow on us the wisdom and the virtue with which to face the daunting uncertainties of our present day, confident of the truth that shines through them all: that life is to be found in giving it away; that human life is lived to the fullest when it looks like the cross. So let’s take it up and follow Christ, discerning the times, ordering our loves. Because that’s how we will discover just how much grace can really be given to this parish that is so appropriately named.