The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at: http://frsparky.net/a/r190.htm

s190g13    Sunday 23   8/9/2013

'Whoever does not carry the cross'  Luke 14.27

I am not a self-disciplined person - especially when it comes to physical exercise!   I enjoy walking along our beach, but getting out of bed in the morning to do so is another matter :-)   I do enjoy practicing playing my cello, but I know that I would enjoy it even more if I played regularly with other learners.   In years past, when I practiced Yoga, it was essential that I did it with others.   Obviously I have a practice of daily prayer, but this is done with others, at home with Mary in the morning, and at the hospital in the afternoons - ostensibly privately.   I have a discipline of sermon preparation, yet as last week's sermon graphically shows, my words are a reflection on human interactions, both real and virtual, happening around me.   These interactions happen unplanned, unbidden.

The words of Jesus today seem to reflect a very private, solitary religion.   We are called to hate others, those of our natural families and our spiritual families as well.   My experience of those suffering from acute mental illness is how often they are isolated from others, either from stigma, shunning, of their own will, or by some sense of compulsion.

Yet these words of Jesus are not straightforward - for he goes on to talk about kings and armies.   If the exercise is to win a battle then the solitary 'voice in the wilderness' is going to count for naught.   If God sends us alone on an exercise even God recognises is bound to fail, is that God worth worshiping?   Perhaps a masochist might worship such a god!

Last Sunday (25 Aug) the preacher, the Rev'd Rob Ferguson (1) said that the important thing is not whether we believe in a God or not, but what sort of God we believe in.   The scriptures are littered with examples of people following wrong gods, so he is only restating biblical truth.  

So we have a choice of what God we believe in and worship, though, of course, things are never quite that simple.   The choice of what God matters, matters for ourselves indeed, but also matters for others and for society as well.   If we choose a god who inexplicably favours us over others, then this has practical, day to day consequences - for ourselves, for others and for society as well.

But this calls me to examine the phrase 'inexplicably favours us'.   Who are these 'us'.   Well, Jesus lists them - father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and ourselves - and as I said these include our natural families as well as our spiritual families - we can't just replace one with another - inexplicably.   Who then are we called not to hate?   Others!   We are called to not hate the outsider, the alien, the unbeliever, the heretic ..

I read the passage from Mark 8 recently, I guess for the umpteenth time in my life: the feeding of the multitude.   'He asked them, ‘How many loaves do you have?‘   They said, ‘Seven.’   Then he ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground; and he took the seven loaves, and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute; and they distributed them to the crowd.   They had also a few small fish; and after blessing them, he ordered that these too should be distributed.' (2)  And for the first time I thought: here the disciples were ordered to share their Holy Communion with the crowds.   This is what carrying the cross means, here is what hating life itself means - giving our Holy Communion away to others - others who have done nothing to deserve it - others who will be here today and gone tomorrow!

So again, it may be nice that I personally carry my cross, that I am self-effacing, yet it will count for naught while the church selfishly keeps feeding only herself and the fathers and mothers, wives and children, brothers and sisters - those to whom they are related naturally or spiritually.  We might be tempted to think that it wasn't the Holy Communion that Jesus told the disciples to share with others - they were only ordinary loaves and fish.   However Jesus made sure this was not the case and that the Church gets the message - for we are told that he blessed them before having them distributed.

Jesus spoke these words about hating others to the large crowds who followed him.   Following Jesus can become an exercise in the selfishness of a holy huddle and hatred of the outsider as easily as any other religion.   The plethora of denominations testifies to this fact.

How often has the church spent her time and energy trying to resolve seemingly intractable questions by trying to get others in the church to agree with their own theology on issues like the ordination of women, when our attention ought to be focussed on the gifts and contribution that people other than those who come to church make to us and to society in general?

Jesus calls the church to give up all her possessions if she wishes to be called a disciple of Jesus.   Individuals and congregations are not possessions of anyone else - for our proper focus is not on loving our congregations but on not hating those who are not.   And this is nothing new.   King David decided to count the Israelites despite the advice of his commander Joab, but it was the very people he counted who bore the brunt of that sin.   We are told 70,000 died of the pestilence. (3)   And while the church is busy counting her followers, it is her followers who miss out.

For me this makes me question how the church so often makes the faith into a sort of manual of personal training in order to avoid really taking the message of Jesus to heart on a corporate level, and individuals and congregations are disempowered and disheartened.   I remember those demands of the Egyptians:  'Go now, and work; for no straw shall be given you .. You shall not lessen your daily number of bricks.’ (4) It is a classic strategy of the church to keep the people busy lest they rise up and free themselves.

Our gospel passage ends with Jesus talking about salt.  Salt brings out the flavour, the distinctiveness of the food on which it is sprinkled.   Salt enhances the flavour of other things.   Too much and it ruins a whole meal.   And this is our task as the church, to bring out the variety of flavours in the multitude of people amongst whom we are sprinkled.   In doing so we will surely be blessed by people and society in general.   We will be agents of good news, good news that people will be happy to embrace and be a part of propagating.

(1) http://robfergiealoud.com/
(2) Mark 8.5-7
(3) 2 Samuel 24
(4) Exodus 5.18,19