Simply Not Conventional
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, November 22, 2020
Jesus brought to us a unique Gospel. A new way of seeing. A new way of living. It is not the way we are used to. Not the way we are taught to think, see and live in our culture. It is a mistake to believe that Christ confirms the way we live as his own. When we do find ourselves in a dead-end. Following the Lord's teaching requires a recalibration of our minds.
The Gospel is simply not conventional. It is not capitalist or socialist or communist. It is not an ism or an ideology. No political party can possess or claim it as their own. It is not "of this world." It is not about power, it is about service, humility, self denial, and the exultation of the poor, the oppressed, and the outcast brought to us by a Crucified Lord who invites us to join him on the Cross.
I believe the Church is supposed to be a prophetic voice, yeast in the loaf, salt, and light in the world. We give up this role when we become conventional, when we become supporters of the status quo to gain influence. When we do, we become of the world rather than in it.
I love Barbara Brown Taylor’s take on this. She writes, “Jesus was not killed by atheism and anarchy. He was brought down by law and order allied with religion – which is always a deadly mix. Beware those who claim to know the will of God and are prepared to use force…to make others conform. Beware those who cannot tell God’s will from their own.”
For example, we have been taught that acquisitiveness is a virtue. Acquisitiveness is the rich man's gospel. "Laying up treasures for ourselves" on earth is the exact opposite of the Lord's Gospel which is to share above and beyond what might be considered reasonable. Go the second mile, give your coat as well, give expecting nothing in return is how the Lord puts it. We could easily go on with other examples from the gospels.
There are beautiful stories told about the late Patriarch Pavle of Serbia. He refused to ride in limousines and fancy, expensive cars. He preferred to take the bus. And often he returned home in his stocking feet because he had the habit of giving his shoes away to anyone he met that needed them. Once he called a meeting of the Serbian Synod and as they gathered the patriarch looked out the window and said, "Who drives all those BMWs?" The answer was, "The Bishops arrived in them." The patriarch replied, "May God have mercy on us." The good patriarch had adopted the mind of Christ and lived it.
The rich man seems to have cared only for himself. In America we grow up with the idea of rugged individualism and self-reliance. That, I think, is the same thing as self-centeredness which is definitely not a tenant of the Christian way of life. Rugged individualism is delusional for the truth is, no matter how strong and capable we are, we need each other. We are connected with everyone else by nature and reliant on this connection whether we know it or like it or not.
An anthropologist did an experiment with children in an African village. He set a basket of fruit by a tree and told the kids that the first to reach it would have the fruit all to themselves. What they did astounded him. They joined hands and ran to the basket together. Then they all sat down to enjoy the sweet fruit together. Surprised, the anthropologist asked why they did it that way. They replied, "Obanato," which means, "I exist because we exist. How can we be happy if some of us are sad?” In this there is great wisdom. “Weep with those who weep,” Jesus said. When asked about the Lord’s commandment to love neighbor as self, a rabbi replied that it does not mean to love your neighbor the way you love yourself, but love your neighbor because your neighbor is yourself.
"No man is an island unto himself." We can nurture the connection, ignore it, or deny it. That is our choice. But if we want to follow Christ, we must recognize this as His truth and live it out like Patriarch Pavle and those wonderful African children.
The wise Meister Eckhart wrote that “people should think less about what they ought to do and more about what they ought to be.” So, what ought we to be? We ought to be exactly what we were created to be. The image of God is what defines us. Each and every one of us. This is a given, a gift from God freely bestowed. The image of God is the foundation. And our vocation, also given, is to allow the likeness to God grow in us. We are the image and we ought to be becoming divine.
Of primary importance in this “becoming” is the recognition that we are here and now in God’s kingdom. There is a growing acceptance of this truth among Christians of many stripes like Cynthia Bourgeault who wrote: Jesus says, “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you” (that is, here) and “at hand” (that is, now). It’s not later, but lighter—some more subtle quality or dimension of experience accessible to you right in the moment. After all Jesus did teach that we must “seek first his kingdom” and everything else will come. The more we immerse ourselves in this truth, the more we will experience it. In this way we will gradually learn to love what God loves which is to be like him.
My final example. David Deutchman, aged 86, called the “baby whisperer” died this week. He spent Tuesdays and Thursdays cradling sick and dying babies in the NICU at a hospital in Atlanta.
Enough said, I think. Find your “babies.” Find your particular mission. It will be, in fact, God’s mission and your vocation.