The Very Rev. Tom Callard – August 30, 2020
Lately I’ve been walking our dog, Max, every morning. We wake up and there is Max waiting for me on the floor outside the bedroom. He follows me as I go to the bathroom. He stays outside. And then he follows me downstairs and watches as I make coffee. He sits and stares at me as I drink my coffee, which is cute, but kind of creepy.
And then as soon as I’m ready, I head for the front door, and Max rushes to get there before me. He’s so excited to walk. And every morning before we go out, I put on Max’s harness, so we can walk in safety on the streets. I grab the harness and bend down to put it on him, just slip it over his head and buckle it underneath. And every morning before I can get the harness on him, Max runs away. Because he hates the harness. And so I get up, go back to the door. Max runs back to me, until he sees the harness, and then he turns and runs away again.
But Max, I say, looking into his eyes of love, this harness is good for you. It protects you. It keeps you safe. And I keep waiting for the day when I go to the door and get the harness and Max just runs into to it, slips it over his little head, buckles it up, which I don’t think he can do because of his thumbs. So every day I am sad that Max does not accept the harness, and we struggle until he grunts with annoyance and eventually gives in.
And so this morning I want to talk about that. Not so much about Max, but about these things in our life that are like harnesses put around us and guide us and keep and protect us, but which we may not necessarily want to wear.
When it comes to things you have to do in this life, things that harness us in, we might think of obeying laws, or going to the dentist regularly, going to the doctor to get shots, following a strict diet or exercise plan, paying bills, paying the IRS – these things we don’t really want to do but which we have to do.
And then there’s this whole other list of things which may seem like harnesses, which we may not want to do, like loving our neighbor as ourselves. Or loving the Lord our God with all our heart, our mind, our soul and our strength. These things that come from our religious traditions, like our Baptismal covenant, where we don’t always want to respect the dignity of every human being. Or strive for justice and peace. We don’t always want to follow the 10 commandments especially about coveting, or honoring our parents, or using the Lord’s name in vain.
We don’t always want to do what our church and our faith ask of us. And sometimes it seems like a harness to think about these things, and, like Max, we may struggle against them.
And we say – well what would happen if we don’t follow these rules or obey these commandments, what would happen if we are like Max one day who just runs out of the house without his harness into the street. And instead of being good to other people, we treat them badly, and instead of listening to Jesus we just ignore what he has to say, and we break the commandments, and we just live selfishly without regards to anything except our own desires. What happens to people who live that way?
Well the truth is that many of them get rich. Or they become successful and get ahead. Many people get away with treating others badly and live with no moral compass or regard for the needs of others. They get away with dumping waste into rivers and ruining other people’s names for their own gain and putting down those who are weaker than they are. They get away with walking away from businesses after cheating and robbing. They get away with lying and being abusive.
And often when people live this way, nothing bad happens to them. There seem to be no consequences that come from breaking the rules of the faith. The hand of God does not come down to smite those who live this way. There is no karmic retribution that we can see. And they thrive. Because that’s how the world works.
There’s so much space out there to do what you want, and so little guidance to say: No, don’t just do anything, but do the right thing, the noble thing, the thing which is good, even though you don’t have to. And there’s such a little sense of why we have to follow these rules.
There’s a powerful message in Jesus’s words today about taking up the cross, and it’s meant for all of us who want to have guidance about what to do in this world. Jesus says; if you want to be my disciple, take up my cross and deny yourself and follow me. It’s interesting to think that what Jesus is saying to Peter and the rest of the disciples – is that they must follow the rules.
You know we’re Episcopalians. We’re pretty laid back when it comes to rules. If someone asks me what the Episcopal Church is all about, I’m not going to say – it’s about teaching rules. And I’m not going to come here week after week and reinforce the checklist of rules and preach about the penalties that come from disobeying them. We’re not Liberty University where the students must sign a pact about their conduct, and if they fail to live up to the rules in the pact they get fined or kicked out of school.
Rather than rules, I would say that the Episcopal church is more about prayer, faithful community, social justice, and formation as disciples drawing closer to our Lord through worship. Yes we have rules. For example the baptismal covenant is built on guidelines about our belief in God and our treatment of others and our spiritual practices. It is built on rules.
Likewise there are rules, or rubrics, in the Prayer Book, which we must follow. I could be brought up on charges if I do not follow them. For example, the Prayer Book says that the altar must be set with a clean, white cloth during the celebration. It says that after the Sanctus, the people stand or kneel. That’s a rule. After the Sanctus, during the eucharistic prayer, you can not sit. And when the Bishop is present, he or she always gets to celebrate. These are rules. Plus of course, all the rules found in the teachings of Jesus. We have the ten commandments, and we have all the other traditions passed down through history.
But it’s not like we talk about the rules all the time or there’s a real sense of punishment if we break them. It’s kind of up to us to police ourselves. And our clergy and our bishop are here to remind us of these things and to be present to help us and navigate them in our life. And unless there’s a larger concern, which occasionally there is, the rules of being a Christian are just kind of there. They are part of our lives, but we’re not always focused on them.
Which is why if you think what Jesus is saying today sounds harsh, maybe it’s because we’re not used to hearing it. Deny yourself, he says. The only way you can be a disciple is to deny yourself. And he’s not talking about the Lenten denial of chocolate or meat on Fridays. It’s not a token – I’ll give up my space in line so you can go first. It’s – I’m going to give up my will so God can take it. I’m going to give up control, so that Jesus can guide me. I’m going to not do everything I want to do, so that the way I am is more aligned with what Jesus teaches. And all of that is summed up in “The Cross.” Jesus talks about taking up the cross. This is the cross.
Peter doesn’t want Jesus to go to trial, to suffer at the hands of the chief priests, elders and scribes, and to die. He tries to talk Jesus out of going to the cross. And so Jesus tells Peter today – look, you’re the one that’s got to go to the cross. not just me. Your own attachment to these things, your own desires, your own preoccupation about the world, your own will – all need to be set aside if you’re going to follow me. You have to take this harness, Jesus is saying, and you have to put it on.
These sets of rules are not just here for us to become better people or more moral or more pious. There are here so that we become closer to God and Jesus Christ. And I can see how for many people, it would seem humiliating or degrading to think we’re being made to follow these rules, like we are being told – put on this harness so we can take you for a walk.
I hate the idea that I’m being led like a dog by Jesus, even though I often wear something like a dog collar. I hate the idea that black people whose ancestors were slaves would be told they have to submit to something like a harness. I hate the idea that women are being told they have to submit, especially to a male figure. And I see how in this day and age when we so value our rights and uphold ourselves as unique individuals, I see how it would be uncomfortable to think that Jesus is saying, deny you, just set you aside, as if there’s something wrong with you. There’s not.
It’s just you, out there, living without rules and walking around without our harness, you and I are subject to so many things. And in here, inside us, are so many things which call us to be people who are selfish and judgmental and mean and who try just to get ahead, regardless of others, and prey on the weak, and forget about a higher calling. We are all daily and hourly tempted to forget about God, and forget about our neighbor, and to simply ignore the cries of the poor. Because that’s what we see out there.
If you don’t think that the temptations of the world are strong and true, turn on the news. You see the reality of the suffering of people caused by those in power who simply think they can do whatever they want. You can see tons of people who think that what Jesus teaches about love and compassion and about putting God first is not meant for them. You can see tons of people who think that common decency is somehow optional.
And so they have walked away from the harness as it’s been laid before them. And they have refused to accept the Cross of Christ. And what happens then is that one may get ahead and succeed and thrive in the world but the cost is, as Jesus says, your life. This is what you lose by not following the rules of God, you lose your life.
Our life is our freedom from sin. To gain our life is to be free from living in anxiety. Too gain our life is to be free from ego’s cage of anger, insecurity, and pettiness. To gain our life is to have the space and time to focus on things like love, purpose, service, and all that Jesus describes as being part of the Kingdom of God. And to gain our life is to be here not just for me and for mine, but for all. To gain our life is to gain the all.
And the truth is the world is not a bad place. Out there is equally good and equally bad. And the creator has given us freedom to choose, to turn this way or that, and to do pretty much anything we like. And so our faith is a guide through the many options we face, following what Jesus has taught and what countless people have done through thousands of years of practice
I know like you, I am not going to follow every commandment all of the time. But I will make sure there’s a clean, white cloth up there on the altar. And I will do my best, even though it’s hard, I will do my best to love my neighbor as myself and to love my God with all that I am.
And I know that like you, I’m no saint and, like my dog Max, sometimes it may seem like just a burden for us to follow, to slip this thing over our neck, and pick up the cross, and to deny our self. But the more we do it, the more we realize the presence of God with us, and the more of God we gain, the more we gain our life.