Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Pentecost 17 (Proper 21), Year B, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2009

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22; Psalm 124; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50
Preached by Rev. John Warner

Easy Street

If there is one thing that the process leading to my ordination as a deacon taught me, it was patience. The initial interview with Bishop Louttit led to a six-month discernment period followed by several years study of scripture, ethics, church history, theology and liturgy. I progressed from discerner to postulant to candidate to ordinand. Like many before and probably after me, I wanted to hurry the process; however, the Commission on Ministry wisely included a series of minimum waiting periods within the process that prevented me from rushing through it. I had encountered the proverbial “hurry up and wait!”

Anyone who is currently in or has graduated with a college degree, especially a postgraduate degree, has had similar experience. When you begin college, all you can focus on is a long series of quarters or semesters arrayed out ahead you. If one needs a college degree for a better job, higher pay or more prestige, the number of courses required can be daunting and depressing. Many may be tempted to short circuit the process and seek an alternative route.

Before retirement, I had the occasion to recruit a professional to fill a vacancy at the regional mental health office in Augusta. As the resumes were submitted, I would review the content and sort each into one of three piles: 1st group interviews, 2nd group interviews, and “over my dead body” interviews. Since the positions required a minimum of a Bachelor degree with experience, a red flag would go up when an applicant’s resume including a Ph.D. hit my desk. Frequently, the schools awarding these postgraduate degrees were unfamiliar to me; therefore, I would use the miracle of the Internet to review the quality of the school’s academics. What I found shocked me.

There are several sites that offer advanced degrees for “life experience.” For a fee you can receive a diploma and a transcript of grades without attending one class. For an additional cost, you can receive a diploma with honors to display, a cap and gown to hang in your closet and a student ID card to allow you to receive those student discounts. While during my Internet research, I discovered a news item about Chester Ludlow, a pug dog from Vermont who received a Masters in Business Administration for its life and career experience. Now, that is one talented dog—my dog Suzy can only sit on command!

To paraphrase Dr. Scott Peck from The Road Less Travelled,”Life is no easy street.” Life is a series of obstacles which requires self-discipline to overcome. I believe that the life worth living isn’t the easy life, one reflected through only the goal achieved, but the life of struggle where obstacles are wrestled with that makes life worth living.

This view of life also applies to our Christian faith, which I believe that Jesus alludes to in the Gospel reading. His words today are disturbing:

· If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off.
· If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off.
· If you eyes cause you to stumble, pluck it out.

However, before you believe that Jesus is inviting us into a practice of self-mutilation, remember that Jesus was a master storyteller frequently using metaphor and hyperbole—exaggeration—to drive his point home.

No, Jesus isn’t inviting us to amputate various body parts. I do believe he calls us into a Christian life, one that requires self-discipline and struggles against the world’s temptations enticing us to travel the easy street, a path that leads us away from Christ’s calling.

Some may want to know what the minimum is that we must do to be considered Christians. It would be easy to believe that Christianity only requires us to show up in church, at least on Christmas and Easter, to profess our love of Jesus and to say our prayers for an easy life. However, I believe that Jesus is telling us that to embark on the Christian life that will cost us everything. A similar sentiment is addressed by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, “For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?”

After the events described in today’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples continue their journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. His fate is to be betrayed, arrested, tried and crucified. For the disciples and other followers of Christ, suddenly, the cost of following in Jesus’ footsteps became dearer. With the exception of only a few that dared to stand with Jesus has he hung on the cross, the crowds who followed Jesus disappeared fearing a similar fate. During the next few centuries before Christianity was sanctioned by Constantine, hundreds of individuals who proclaimed themselves to be Christians were martyred for their faith by stoning, crucifixion, burned at the state or some other form of torture or capital punishment. For others, when faced with persecution for their Christian faith, continued adherence was too great; therefore, they renounced their faith.

Jesus understood what it was like to be human. He knew what it was like to be tempted to take the easy path through life. He was tempted in the desert shortly after his baptism to accept an easy life of power and plenty. While praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, he momentarily asked God to free him from his journey to the cross.

Most Americans today don’t encounter the threats to our Christian faith as did our apostolic fathers. Nor do we experience the persecution similar to many small Christian groups today in some third world countries. Although we are tempted to take Easy Street, such a path isn’t without consequences. A life lived influenced more by the self-centered world outside these walls rather than a Christ-filled life is a life of emptiness and meaninglessness.

Jesus was serious about the way we live our lives and the consequences of not living our humanity to its fullest, our divine potential . That is why Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel:

· It is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell, where the fire never goes out.
· It is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.
· It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell.

Jesus calls us to walk with him on the Way. The Christian life isn’t always easy; it can be a difficult journey. Being a resident of the kingdom of God is what Jesus is calling us into. It is a journey worth taking.


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