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Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Things which matter most

My sermon for this week was based on Luke 14:25-33.

This week, I opened my sermon by asking people to raise their hands if their spirituality was one of their top 5 priorities.

I then asked for a show of hands if they would say that spirituality was their number 1 priority.

I stopped them before anybody raised their hands and explained that for your spirituality to be your number 1 priority would mean that it is your first thought when you wake up in the morning and your last thought before you go to sleep at night; it would mean you spend more time contemplating the state of your soul than you spend contemplating your finances, your career, your human relationships; basically, that your spirituality is the aspect of your life which informs all your other decisions, and from which all other considerations flowed.

Nobody raised their hands, not even me.

The problem is that even as a priest, my own faith and spirituality is expendable, disposable or at least a secondary consideration to the "busy-ness" of my daily life.  I worry as much as the next person about finances, my marriage, my career, my skills and abilities as an expectant parent, and so on.  I work at improving or balancing all those things, but my faith end up neglected and sometimes forgotten almost entirely.

I prioritize food, sleep, water, exercise, free time and quality time with my spouse, friends and family, but at the end of the day, that does not leave a whole heck of a lot of time and energy for prayer, meditation and spiritual well-being.

I think many of us have the equation backwards, and I know I certainly often do: we think that if all these other things are going well in our lives, then our spirits will be well.  But in my experience, the reverse is actually true: if all is well with my spirit, THEN all these other facets of my life tend to go better, more smoothly, or at least I have greater strength, patience or wisdom with which to approach them.

Jesus uses some pretty harsh words in the Gospel passage for today to make this very point.  He says, for example, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple".

Now, if you have actually read ANYTHING else Jesus ever said, it would be pretty obvious that Jesus did not actually want anyone to hate anyone.  Jesus even calls his listeners to forgive someone 7 X 70 times, and to pray for our enemies.

Rather, I think what Jesus was trying to convey is that our relationship with God should be our first priority, before even our relationship with our parents, spouse or children, to the extent that compared to our relationship with God, all other relationships should pale.  You know how some people say, "You have to love yourself before you can love someone else"?  For a person of faith, that could quite accurately be changed to "You have to love God before you can love someone else".

The reason is this: Christ, God, the Divine, whatever it is you call the source of your spirituality, is for the Christian the source of all love, justice, mercy, forgiveness, tolerance and peace.  If God is at the top of your priority list, then all your personal relationships, how you go about your job, how you approach your finances, how you deal with your problems, frustrations and worries will be informed and guided by these principles.  Otherwise, we tend to just be taking stabs in the dark and reacting out of our baser impulses.  I don't know about you, but when I act out my baser impulses, I usually end up having to make apologies.

But how do we go about prioritizing our faith and spirituality?  I will share with you some simple steps that often help me get back on track and get my head straight.  Try this for a few weeks: 

1. When you wake up, set just 5 minutes aside and sit quietly contemplating the day to come.  Ask for guidance, wisdom, strength, humility, patience, whatever it is you think you need to get through the day.

2. As many times as you need to throughout the day, take a mental time-out before, after or during certain events, and ask for these things all over again.  Ask yourself in all things what the most graceful and productive way to respond to your daily challenges would be and act accordingly.

3. Upon retiring at night, take a "grace inventory" of your day: go over it again and note the things you are grateful for, felt good about or are proud of yourself for.

This is perhaps the simplest and most foolproof way to keep your faith at the top of your priority list, and to live your life according to spiritual principles.  It will take practice, it does not solve everything and it does not make everything in your life ok, but it is something that helped me.

I could also add one more step:

4. Contemplate your cross.

Jesus says one other thing in this Gospel passage that really sticks out for me: "Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple".  What does it mean to  carry the cross?

Well, although this incident happened well before Jesus was crucified, we know that people who were convicted of crimes and sentenced to death by crucifixion were forced to carry their own crosses to the place of execution.  The cross was seen as emblematic or their crime, and those carrying their crosses were thought to be dragging the weight of their crime in the form of a cross.

But what does that mean for us?  What is our crime, what is our sin, why would we need or want to pick it up, and to where should we drag it?

This is where I think you and I need to contemplate our own crosses.  I am from a Protestant tradition, and you may have noticed that most Protestant churches do not portray Christ crucified.  Only Catholic churches have that.  I am simplifying the issue here, but that is because Catholic theology traditionally has placed the emphasis on the sacrifice and suffering of Christ, while Protestant theology has emphasized the resurrection and conquering of Christ.  For Catholics, the cross is, as the old hymn goes, "an emblem of suff'ring and shame".  For Protestants, Christ is no longer in the tomb, much less nailed to the cross, and so the cross becomes a symbol of life, resurrection and redemption.

So when Jesus asks us to take up our cross, what is he, in fact, asking us to do?  Is he asking us to shoulder our burdens of sin, shame and regret?  Doesn't sound too Jesus-y to me, and I don't think those are the things Jesus would see us yoked to.  Rather, I think he is asking us to cast of those burdens and take up the "burden" of the cross which represents love, joy, forgiveness, life and freedom.  I think he is asking us to take up the cross as our new yoke, a yoke which he promises is easy and light.

I hope that today we would be able to pick up our crosses, and to let the virtues that the cross represents inform our thoughts, words and deeds.

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