Date: 26 June 2016
Text: Luke 9:51-62
Site: Bethany United Church - Halifax, NS
Methodist Minister and Canadian icon J.S. Woodsworth, a man our longest serving Prime Minister MacKenzie King referred to in this way, "There are few men in this Parliament for whom I have greater respect…I admire him in my heart, because time and again he has had the courage to say what lays on his conscience, regardless of what the world might think of him. A man of that calibre is an ornament to any Parliament" found it necessary to declare there was a gap, a space, between what it meant to be a Canadian and what it meant to be a Christian. Woodsworth in his sermons and his activist work believed he was working toward what he called "the Kingdom of God here and now". Before he went into politics, as a Methodist Minister, Woodsworth questioned the Church's emphasis on individual salvation, he had concerns with baptism, and tests for those entering the Church. So he tendered his resignation, but it was refused. However, in 1916, during World War 1 Woodsworth was asked to preach about the duty of all Canadians to serve in the war. Woodsworth objected as a pacifist saying he was morally opposed to the Church being used as a vehicle of recruitment. Woodsworth resigned again and this time his resignation was accepted. It was not the first time the Church could tolerate diversity of views on theology but not when it came to loyalty to the state.
There are many non-pacifists would have agreed with Woodsworth on World War 1 suggesting that conflict does not rise to the high standards of what constitutes a Just War. But if there ever has been a war that theologians have described as a Just War it would be World War 2. And again Woodsworth would vote his conscience and become the only Member of Parliament to vote against that war too. Woodsworth had a clear set of beliefs based on his Christian faith, these led him to oppose war but work for programs we now take for granted such as social assistance, pensions, and medicare.
On this Canada Day Sunday, with so many of you dressed in red, with us beginning our service by singing O Canada, it begs the question, do we in 2016 see any gap or space between our Christian beliefs and our loyalty to Canada? Is there an issue currently being debated in our Parliament or during a recent political campaign that you would be willing to stand up and take a stand on, go to jail for, because your faith took precedence over your love of country?
It was not always so. In the 1960’s Jewish and Christian leaders risked violence, prison time and heavy fines to advance the cause a civil rights. These Christians believed that such actions, as with Woodsworth, were necessary to live out their discipleship. I think the reason we don’t think in these terms has to do with a change in how we view discipleship. We read books like Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison and conclude that discipleship on that scale is reserved for times of profound evil and since we no longer live in these times we can shift our focus inward, use our Christian faith to help us live healthier, happier and kinder lives. Much of what we hear in churches has to do with the personal, not the political. And like the time of Woodsworth there is a greater pressure on our clergy to conform to political conformity than theological orthodoxy. Our Ministers are allowed to question all sorts of beliefs, even belief itself, but we better fall in line on national holidays and times of national remembrance.
And yet discipleship throughout the gospels is a very core value to Jesus. As much as Jesus speaks to the personal he also calls on believers to live out their faith in the larger society. What Woodsworth and many churches today would share in common is a belief that everyone is welcome to this movement; that we ought to do everything in our power, as Jesus did, to remove barriers such as gender, wealth, race, ethnicity and orientation so everyone has a place around our table. But then what? New Testament scholar Klyne Snodgrass in his commentary Stories of Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus writes, "If the invitation to the poor and outcasts is universal and free (Luke 14:21-23) the expectations accompanying the acceptance of the invitation are stringent. The primary obstacles and opportunities to discipleship are possessions and family."
And here we come to the rub of why it is so hard for conservative and liberal Christians alike to deal with matters of discipleship in the public realm, when we move out of the personal we by necessity deal with issues like our lifestyles, our families and our collective spending. And once we do this we run the risk of ridicule or worse.
Today’s gospel shows a man telling Jesus that he wants to stay to "bury" his father before leaving to follow Jesus. The man does NOT mean that his father has died already and that he needs a day or two to make funeral arrangements. He is saying that he has a duty as a son to care for his father in old age, to see that he has what he needs while he's alive and that he gets an honorable burial once he does die. And Jesus tells this man to "follow me, and let the dead bury the dead." Jesus instructs a man to abandon his family. This is serious stuff, and it deserves to be taken up from the pulpit in parishes -- most especially in this age in which being a "Christian" is supposedly synonymous with "family values" that are identical with those held by respectable people in our culture.
In Jesus' culture, children -- especially sons -- are the only social security. If you have sons, they (and their wives and children) are expected to stick around to take care of you until you die, and then to make sure you get a proper burial. The least you can do to "honor your father and mother" (Exodus 20:12) is to take care of them when they grow old. Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Chuza (Luke 8:1-3) are happy enough to provide for the other disciples and Jesus from what they've saved, but they just don't have enough to support everyone's extended family too. And even if they're fit to travel, how fair is it to drag them into the kind of shocking behavior you've been called to engage in as you follow Jesus? This is called one of Jesus' "hard sayings," because it says that, at least under some circumstances, if you do your duty toward your family, that will entail serious compromises in how you follow Jesus. Our culture says we should do if we want to be considered good people. In some ways, it's easier to follow Jesus if you don't have much respectability to lose. That's probably part of what's behind Jesus' saying, "Honored are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" (Luke 6:20). The difficulty we respectable folk have following Jesus is compounded by our "mainstream" culture's tendency to equate the phrase "being a Christian" with "being nice" or "being good."
Our passage for this Sunday from Luke underlines that our family is all our sisters and brothers in the Body of Christ, and as human beings our family is all in the human family, as we're all God's children. As counter-cultural as it was and is, Jesus taught (and lived) that we are called to care about and for EVERY mother or father and EVERY child as we would care for our own mother or father or son or daughter. ALL of our relationships are to generate the fruit of the Spirit; there is no one who because of a lack of ties of blood or marriage or our assessment of "deserving" toward whom we are licensed to behave "less than".
In 2007 I was a volunteer at the Brunswick Street Mission, I helped cook the meals on Thursday mornings and I led a Bible Study for those living in the neighbourhood. One night I received a call from the then Chair of the Mission Board telling me that the Executive Director had resigned effective immediately and that the new ED would not be taking up her position for another three months. I remember saying to Gordon, “would you like me to think of some names of possible Interim Directors?” Gordon responded that there was no need, he already had a name in mind and it was mine.
The arrangement we made between St. Luke’s in Tantallon and the Mission was that I would arrive at the Centre early in the morning, open up, be available to staff and clients for feedback and also field calls and email related to my work at St. Luke’s. By late morning I was driving to the church office in Tantallon. I was to be a “caretaker” ED. Except there was a refugee living in the nursery at the Mission and unknown to me at the time was this reality, the government did not accept his status as a refugee and wanted to send him back to Albania. When I met with the lawyer who was advocating for this refugee he told me that the stakes were high, the government could, if it wanted to, rush into the church and arrest this man and charge all of us in the church structure who were aiding and abetting his avoidance of complying with the law of the land.
It was the first and only time in my career when following the laws of the land ran contrary to my Christian beliefs, or at least the first time I was conscious of this and ready to acknowledge this reality.
I love living in Canada as you do. I can’t imagine a country I would rather live in and belong to. But our history as a people is not pure. Our relationship with our First Nations people is such an example. Our internment of the Japanese is another example. Moreover even though Canada’s involvement in what I would call the Just War of 1939-45 was heroic, our soldiers fighting for the cause of freedom, in the years leading up to that war our government, largely following popular opinion at the time, looked the other way as Jews around the world tried to escape before it was too late. Sadly it was too late for many of them. If you want to know more you can read None Is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe 1933-1948 by Harold Troper and Irving Abella.
What would have happened if Christians had risen to the challenge of these unjust acts in our Canadian history? Did we allow our national pride and patriotism to diminish our true discipleship as followers of Jesus? Our Gospel today records, Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Friends, I love my family. I love my country. I love my friends. But more than any of these I love to proclaim the Kingdom of God in my words and my actions. I am not a pacifist like Woodsworth but I share his vision of working toward “the Kingdom of God here and now.” There can be no more satisfying way to live your life than in the cause of such work. Amen.