holy cross sermon for the twelfth sunday after pentecost, august 7, 2016

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

So says Jesus in the opening of today’s gospel reading. And in this knowledge – the knowledge of what is in store for us – that it is our Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom – we may be bold and otherworldly. This conviction of our status as children of God and coheirs with Christ of divinity – this reality, and our knowledge of it, are what ought to make Christians conspicuous within the world. Its the source the peculiar priorities of the practice of our faith.

In the Gospel reading Jesus goes on to urge his followers to live out of this conviction, to put these priorities into practice. “Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

In Christ, we have come to know the source and summit of all value. As the great Catholic theologian of the 20th century, Hans Urs von Balthasar, put it: from the day of Jesus’ resurrection and onward and forever, all shape must arise from the Lord’s empty tomb, all wholeness must draw its strength from the Lord’s glorified, creative Page 3 of 11 Holy Cross Sermon / Proper 14 / Year C Fr. Will Brown wounds. The resurrection and glorification of Jesus is our ultimate reference point and the source of all value. Because we have been made “members of his body” (Ephesians 5.30) by our baptism, therefore his destiny has become our destiny. And therefore all of our life should be oriented toward the fulfillment within ourselves of what Christ has accomplished.

This is why the Gospels put so little stock in the things of the world – because, as Peter says, “…the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up,” (2 Peter 3.10).

This too is why the Gospels seem to take such a dim view of riches, and of the rich, and of those who are wrapped up in the affairs of the world, those who have made its values and priorities their own – i.e. because all of that will pass away, and those who are tied tightly to it are liable to pass away with it. Conversely this is why the Gospels place such value on poverty and abnegation, why the Lord speaks so highly of those who are afflicted within the world, as in the beatitudes where he says: blessed are the poor in spirit… blessed are those who mourn… blessed are the meek… blessed are those who hunger and thirst…blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…. Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely…” (Matthew 5, passim). Because, as Page 5 of 11 Holy Cross Sermon / Proper 14 / Year C Fr. Will Brown Bob Dylan said, “if you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” But more to the point: if you ain’t got nothing, then you have a space within yourself in which God may dwell, if you desire him. If you want God to fill you, first you have to become empty.

Today’s Gospel reading opens with Jesus enjoining his followers to “fear not”. I once had a conversation with a friend about desire. When one reads the Gospels and hears these kinds of things – about the priority of poverty, of lowliness, humility, chastity, abstemiousness and the like – sincere and attentive people may get a little frightened. We may worry that really committing ourselves to following Jesus will end up in our being poor, maligned, persecuted, and so forth. The Page 6 of 11 Holy Cross Sermon / Proper 14 / Year C Fr. Will Brown conversation I had with my friend centered on this fear. We worry about the consequences for us of becoming the brothers and sisters of Jesus in spirit and in truth. This anxiety is a symptom of our still being wrapped up in the world’s blandishments. There’s only one consequence of communion with Jesus that is worth thinking about: the kingdom of God. We don’t “receive” poverty; we receive the Kingdom! We become what Christ is. Paul says in Romans:

…you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation Page 7 of 11 Holy Cross Sermon / Proper 14 / Year C Fr. Will Brown waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God… (Romans 8.15-19).

This is why so many of the saints exhibited such a nonchalance in the face of every kind of adversity. They knew what they were about, and they really believed the promises of God.

One of my favorite pieces of spiritual writing is a pastoral letter written by Pope John Paul II to the elderly of the world. The Holy Father wrote it in 1999, when he was 79. He had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, and was beginning to exhibit symptoms. In it John Paul writes of the dynamic about which we hear in today’s Gospel – letting go of earthly things in order to store up treasurers in heaven, and Page 8 of 11 Holy Cross Sermon / Proper 14 / Year C Fr. Will Brown about how hard it is to do this. In his letter, John Paul comments on the risen Lord’s words to Peter at the end of John’s gospel, where Jesus says:

Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.” (This he said to show by what death [Peter] was to glorify God.) And after this he said to him, “Follow me.” (John 21.18f)

John Paul knew that he had a terminal disease, and as his death was coming into focus, he felt, like Peter, as though he were being girded by another and carried where he did not wish to go. He wrote: “These are words which, as the Successor of Peter, touch me personally; they make me feel strongly the need to reach out and grasp the hands of Christ, in obedience to his command: ‘Follow me!’”

Central to the mystery of this dynamic is that the abandonment of earthly things does not, as one might expect, lead to a disengagement from the world. On the contrary, and somewhat mysteriously, it leads to our becoming vessels of God’s grace within the world. We become empowered by God to transform the world – powerfully to cooperate with God in his work of redeeming the world, in his work of reconciliation, healing, and the proclamation of the Good News of new life in Christ. But we are empowered to do these things precisely in the act of becoming detached from the things of the world. This process can be painful and frightening, but God is good, full of mercy and love, and Page 10 of 11 Holy Cross Sermon / Proper 14 / Year C Fr. Will Brown he comes to us with the gift of a peace and a joy that transcends circumstances.

“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” We might think of faith as keeping our eyes on the prize. The prize is the Kingdom of God, which is coextensive with our communion with Christ himself. We must keep our eyes fixed lovingly on him (through prayer, meditation on God’s Word, and frequent recourse to the sacraments of the Church). In the letter to the Hebrews, in the chapter just after the one we heard today, we are exhorted to do this very thing and for these very reasons:

…let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance Page 11 of 11 Holy Cross Sermon / Proper 14 / Year C Fr. Will Brown the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. (Hebrews 12.1ff

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

 

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