The Revd Robin Sims-Williams
It isn’t easy for young children to grasp the idea of delayed gratification.
In a humorous anecdote posted on the internet by a parent, about trying to convince her toddler to wash his hands, before getting to eat some crisps. Finding the toddler unable to accept this sequence of events, the parent resorted to repeating in a louder, and probably more frustrated voice, in the vain hope that repeating it might help the toddler to remember the sequence long enough to wash his hands:
Hands then crisps, hands then crisps, hands then crisps.
As a parent this sounds very familiar.
As we get older we are able to judge more effectively whether it is worth going through the sequence necessary to get what we want. Whether the reward is worth the cost or sacrifice of getting it.
In today’s Gospel Jesus uses strong language to describe the costs of discipleship: you must ‘hate your father, your mother, your wife, your children, your brothers and sisters and life itself.' This language is rhetorical, it’s intentionally hard to hear, and hard to preach on! But we need to remember that the Gospel is ‘Good news’ of great love. The disciples wouldn’t really be expected to hate the world or their families as a pre-requisite to discipleship. They did, however, need to be prepared for the fact they will be travelling far from them, that they will be putting their relationship with their families through serious difficulty because of the commitments of discipleship.
He wants his disciples to walk into their role with their eyes open. Businesses tend to have processes to ensure they do this. As a team leader at Airbus I had to produce a Statement of Work for any modifications to a piece of equipment, no matter how small. The bureaucracy ensured the costs were accounted for, at least at one level.
The challenge is that costs aren’t always easy to assess and mistakes later on in the process or delays to beginning of a project can lead to them increasing. We’ve seen this in the recent analysis of the Government’s execution of Universal Credit. I am sure we can all picture this. The unexpected can cause delays and the costs can increase.
It is easy to make out the costs are lower than they are, to convince people to commit themselves, but in the end that can result in disappointment and frustration when the real costs become clear. I’m sure we all have memories of being asked to do something, on the pretext that we won’t have to do too much, but in the end discover we have to do a great deal more than we were originally led to believe.
Jesus is giving the disciples a choice because their free will is important to him. Free will is a fundamental part of who we are as humans. And is part of the way in which we are made in the image of God. God creates out of free will and we are free to choose to follow God.
The choice wasn’t easy, that’s why Jesus is so extreme in describing the costs. It clangs compared to the obvious choice put to us in the Old Testament: following God and prospering vs not following God and perishing. Becoming a follower of Christ will not necessarily result in prosperity, likewise failing to follow Jesus doesn’t result in all your assets in this world perishing. Instead, following Christ transcends worldly glory, in following Christ one becomes less focussed on earthly rewards and possessions. one becomes focussed on Christ himself, and thus on the possibility of the Kingdom of God.
In case it wasn’t hard enough to be told to hate your family, Jesus goes on to tell his disciples they must ‘Carry the cross and follow him’. The readers of Luke’s Gospel will know that Jesus died on the cross. They would understand that the cost, ultimately, of discipleship for them could mean their death. Not just death though, painful, humiliating death like that of Jesus. We are lucky that this is not the cost of us coming to Church here in the UK.
But the cross has other meanings too. In the two millenia since Christ’s death bearing one’s cross has come to mean something about taking responsibility for our sin. For my ordination I was given a book which warns that using the word sin in society today is open for misunderstanding. It has been linked so closely to ‘guilty pleasure’ that the church being against sin has come to mean we are against pleasure. Just to be clear: Eating chocolates when you’re on a diet isn’t sin. Sin is the human propensity to mess things up. It is quite natural that, given free choice we will mess things up. The true cost of discipleship is being honest enough to recognise that, accept it, and, when we can, to try not to mess things up so much. Honesty like this is easy when we are looking at other places, like Syria or Egypt at the moment, but it becomes more difficult when we look at our own society or even our own lives. We need to recognise things aren’t all great all the time. And thus, we have to accept that life won’t be perfect, we won’t achieve the worldly glory we want.
Now, this might all sound a bit depressing. But, there is a certain freedom in being honest about our circumstances which is far greater than any other freedom. Ask yourself, do you come to Church because you can pretend to be the person you are not, or because you can be the person you actually are.
I would like to think it was the later, that’s the way it should be, but if I’m honest people often come to Church feeling they can’t admit who they really are, what would people really think of them? My grandfather, when he was training as a priest, bought himself an old caravan and travelled around offering his services as a general handy man. He found that way he could hear people’s real problems and their real joys, and offer them real support.
In the recent coverage of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the story of Bayard Rustin has come to light and he has posthumously been awarded the Presidential medal of freedom. The reason it’s taken until 2013 for him to receive the medal is because in the midst of the honest exposition of the struggle for equality, his involvement in planning the march on Washington was denied because of his sexuality.
Please, don’t come to Church thinking you have to pretend you are something you aren’t, or that everything in our lives is amazing. Or, for that matter, that everything in our life is miserable; honesty demands that we also recognise how fortunate we are. We can then support each other in our good as well as in our darker times.
This honesty is an essential step towards real transformation. Recognising that the world is flawed can lead to real change. Recognising that those flaws aren’t far off and the result of some disembodied evil is essential.
At the same time, accepting that what we do to improve the situation in our time isn’t going to result in immediate gratification can release us to respond to sin more creatively. While the scale of the cost of building Cathedrals in the middle ages might have been known, the completion of these buildings might not be witnessed for 3 generations. Builders, architects and patrons worked and gave money in faith.
Today’s collect asks that we be found to be steadfast in faith and active in service.
The return for the disciples, on the investment of their lives, was not one which they would come to know in their lifetimes. But, They remained steadfast in faith, in hope... and active in service, as we too are called to do.
Paul’s letter to Philemon recognises the challenges that exist within that community in receiving Onesimus back into his community, but now not simply as a slave, but as a brother, a fellow Christian. This scripture was used both by those who argued that slavery was acceptable, and by those who worked for the abolition of slavery.
200 years after the abolition of slavery, There are thousands of modern day slaves in the UK, being forced to work as sex workers and labourers. Traficked, sold and having their rights restricted. We wouldn’t, however, consider the abolishion of slavery to have been a waste of time. Instead we should recognise it as a hopeful speculation for the way things ought to be.
One criticism of the representative democracy we have here in the UK is that it is only interested in achieving goals in time for the next election. Spending large amounts of public money on a project which won’t see results for another 10 years won’t look good on election night. But equally, being limited by a term of office can mean real change, or real investment in projects that can make a difference is impossible.
In discipleship we are released from those kinds of timescales, we are freed to work in a hope which doesn’t expect immediate reward. A hope that we can improve things, even if we don’t witness the improvement.
A hope that, in the end, when all things have come to pass, with the help of God more things than we can ask or imagine will come to be.
I wonder if Martin Luther King expected that some of the people with him on Capitol hill 50 years ago would see a black president of the United States. He bore his cross, and followed Jesus to his own public death. Even then, segregation and racism is still rife, in the US and right here in a cosmopolitan city like London. But he did what he did in hope that through bearing the burden of honesty, of truth with respect to the state of his society, by dreaming, as we should, things would get better.
And in faith we should make a choice, to be true to who we are, to accept each other, and the world for who we are and what it is, and respond in active service.
In this sermon I made reference to a book by Francis Spufford, 'Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense'