Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Luke 14:25-33
Here we are, three weeks into this sermon series on Finding Jesus. So far, we’ve heard from Mtr. Anne and Dr. Tom Vozzella, sharing their stories of God coming and taking flesh and changing their lives. It may seem miraculous – and it is miraculous – but it’s also part of the deal for followers of Jesus. Much of the point of this sermon series is to encourage us to expand our sense of where and how Jesus might show up in our lives. Sometimes, it’s dramatic. Sometimes, it’s everyday. And sometimes, it’s both. But whenever and however we find him, he comes with an offer – an offer of relationship. The question is, what do we do with the offer?
So, what’s your relationship with Jesus like? One way to assess it might be to picture who’s there at the other end of your prayers. Who are you praying to – and maybe more to the point, who are you comfortable praying to? Are you connecting with the creator of the universe, a cosmic parent who wants the best for you, who fervently hopes you’ll to make the right choices, and who sometimes intervenes (inexplicably) to show you the way? Or maybe you’re connecting with a Spirit you can’t quite identify or picture but who calms you, or comforts you, or empowers you to do what you could never do on your own? Or maybe you’re connecting with the One who calls you “friend” (John 15:15) – someone who has walked the path you’re walking, and who guides you along it, and who stunningly sacrificed himself to give you the gift of life that never ends?
It’s that last One I’ve had trouble with. Even early on, I could identify with God as the cosmic parent. I could even identify with God as a spirit I couldn’t picture but knew was there – everywhere, in everything. But who exactly was this Jesus everybody talked about? The hero, the superstar of our faith; I get that. But also the one who “ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father,” as we proclaim in the Creed every Sunday. Talk about a long-distance relationship.
It didn’t help that I grew up as an Episcopalian in Springfield, Missouri, the buckle on the Bible Belt. In Springfield, it seemed, everybody knew Jesus. On every corner was a Baptist church or an Assemblies of God church. In those traditions, not only did they know Jesus, they could even talk about him. A lot. And they could talk about him in those wise and mysterious ways that said they knew things I didn’t. A great example was a billboard for a Baptist church on the north side of town. “Jesus is the answer,” it proclaimed. OK, fair enough. But what was the question? If I don’t know enough to ask the right question, I’m probably not going to be able to understand your answer.
Although I went to church every week growing up, I actually heard very little about Jesus – at least very little about the risen Jesus present in the here and now. That was just as true at church as at home. Most of what I knew about Jesus came from sacred music because I sang in church choirs from the second grade on. And the church music we sang wasn’t praise songs or old Protestant classics. Other Christians I knew sang those songs, about having a relationship with Jesus. Think about the titles: “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” “I’m Gonna Have a Little Talk With Jesus.” “I Come to the Garden Alone,” where “he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own.” We tended to make fun of music like that, as I was growing up. What we sang in the Episcopal Church was instructive and poetic but much less personal or experiential. Think about these Hymnal classics: “Joyful, joyful we adore thee.” “There is a green hill far away.” “O Word of God incarnate, O wisdom from on high.” “In Christ, there is no east or west.” “Lift high the cross.” Even the old militaristic hymns, like “Onward, Christian soldiers.” The songs we offered all proclaimed Jesus with power or beauty or theological depth. But few of them had me singing about someone I love and who loves me back.
Actually, I envied my Baptist and Assemblies friends, the people who sang the other kinds of Jesus songs. I envied the folks who had an authentic answer when the proselytizers came knocking on their doors. In my family, we came up with smart responses we could use when they stopped by. “Have you been born again?” Why, yes, when I was baptized at 1 month of age. “Have you ever come up for an altar call and given your life to Jesus?” Why, yes, every Sunday when I receive Communion. The answers were right, of course; and I’ve offered them myself to people struggling to understand how Episcopalians see those beliefs and practices. But those answers don’t describe a relationship. If you don’t know what it means to say, “I love Jesus” or “Jesus is my personal Lord and Savior,” then you think your way into the same truth.
OK, fast-forward to when I was 24. I’d returned to college to earn teaching certifications, and I was back in Springfield, living with my parents and going to Christ Episcopal Church once again. I was grateful for the place to live while I took classes for a year, but I have to say that identifying with my parents wasn’t really what I wanted at that point in my life. After all, I was a little older than most of the other students in the program; I’d had a couple years’ experience in the real world, writing for the governor of Missouri; I was teaching a freshman composition class. I had delusions of coolness. Looking back at myself a quarter century later, I recognize that I’ve never had any hope of being cool, whether or not I was living with my parents. But at that point, the last thing I wanted was to see myself as being part of my nuclear family at 24 years old.
Among other things, it’s hard to find a girl when you’re in that situation. Now, Ann and I knew each other at that point, from having a class together; but we weren’t dating. Part of the reason why was because it’s not exactly the height of “cool” to take a girl back to your parents’ living room after a date and sit there while they watch TV. I wanted to be cool, but instead I was stuck being a family guy. And I kind of resented it.
One Sunday morning, the Old Testament reading was the one we heard this morning, from Deuteronomy. I don’t remember exactly where the priest went with the sermon, but I can still hear him, in his high, reedy voice, repeating those words over and over again: Choose life, choose life, choose life that you may live (30:19). Even without a strong personal relationship with my Lord and Savior, I could take a hint. It was time to recognize that being my parents’ son was a pretty good gig. It was time to embrace the life God was giving me rather than wishing I had a different one. And it was time to stop worrying about how I measured up in other people’s eyes.
Well, long story short, it turned out that Ann was looking for a family guy rather than a cool dude. Praise God for that – and not just because I got the pretty girl but because that pretty girl helped me find Jesus. I don’t know that she knew that before this week, but it’s true.
I’d love to be able to say that I found Jesus in some lightning-bolt moment. Many of us with clerical collars think we’re supposed to have stories like that, some moment when the scales fell from our eyes. Tom Vozzella shared a moment kind of like that last Sunday, about hearing a church organ for the first time and knowing he was called to serve God through music. Must be nice. In my case, a miraculous vision during Eucharist would have been great, given how things worked out professionally. But I didn’t get any of that.
Instead, I got a wife. And what does that have to do with finding Jesus? It’s about God offering me life, the life of God’s love in the flesh, and me being aware enough of the blessing to choose it.
As we heard in that reading from Deuteronomy, God holds out to us the offer of astonishing blessings, the chance to live in the Promised Land that God prepares for us. For me, that Promised Land has been the land of relationship. In the love I’ve found in our marriage, I have experienced the love of God incarnate, which is precisely who Jesus is. That kind of love is not abstraction or explanation. It’s not an agreement in principle between two parties to tender and accept the offer of eternal life. The love of God is Jesus – love with the abstractions removed. It’s love that takes flesh, and commits to you, and stands by you, and affirms your inherent value even when your actions don’t merit it. I came to know that love, divine love, from Ann.
It may be odd to hear that on a Sunday when Jesus tells us, in the Gospel reading, that we have to “hate” our families to follow him (Luke 14:26). I think that hyperbole is his way of saying we can’t put anything in the place of God. But I would say the love we know in relationships doesn’t have to compete with God’s love. Instead, the love we know in relationships can point us toward God’s love, helping us believe it’s true.
That worked for me. I chose to believe God’s love was true even though my own wiring would have left me skeptical of it forever. I used to be the guy waiting for the rug to be pulled out from under him, waiting for Lucy to yank the football away just as Charlie Brown runs up to kick it. In the love of my wife, I came to know a different definition of me. I came to know that, in God’s eyes, I was worthy of the Promised Land. I came to see that I was worthy of being saved. I came to know the love of Jesus – the love of someone who hangs in there with you, and gives himself for you, despite the fact you’ll never be good enough to earn it. So I decided to say, “Yes” – to choose life, to enter the Promised Land, to accept God’s love with flesh and bones on it, and to accept the fact that, yes, I could, actually have a little talk with Jesus. Because God loves me – flesh and bones, warts and all.
So, there’s part 1. You’ll have to come back next week to hear how the story goes in part 2.