Sermon: The Cost of Construction

The Cost of Constuction
This sermon was prepared by the Rev. Scott Wells for the Universalist National Memorial Church pulpit for September 9, 2001.

Jeremiah 8: 1-11
Luke 14: 25-33

Greetings: great greetings to all who come, members and visitors alike. We open the doors of our church in its fullness for a new year of this church’s ministry.

I trust that it is a co-incidence that today’s appointed lesson from the Gospel of Luke matches the new school year. The passage where Jesus tells his students to hate everything they should love – and we do love – is responsible for causing more grey hair in ministers than fund-raising campaigns. I hesitate to preach about it in front of the c-h-i-l-d-r-e-n, particularly the ones that can spell. But there is something to learn here, and oddly enough, I think its good for us, school-student, and non-school-student alike. How, then, can we make good come out of hate, and glory from the cross? And how can we make a foundation for faith on this dubious footing?

I was chewing the fat online this week with a friend, the Rev. Hank Peirce, who is the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Medford, Massachusetts. You might recognize the name of the town; it is where Tufts University is, and Tufts was founded by the Universalists. Our faith has deep roots there. We were talking about the passage from Luke, and seeing a parallel, he quoted Jerry Rubin, remembered from the radical Yippie movement of the late 1960s. He dared me to include it in the sermon. I don’t cotton up to dares, but in its own way, does shed light on the truth.

Rubin wrote in his young adulthood:

We are a generation of obscenities. The most oppressed people in this country are not blacks, not the poor but the middle class. They don’t have anything to rise up against and fight against. We will have to invent new laws to break…the first part of the yippy program is to kill your parents…until you’re prepared to kill your parents you’re not ready to change this country. Our parents are our first oppressors.

I have to smirk when I read that. After all, despite its protestations for radicalism, it has narcissism at its heart. If culture must defend its existance in the face of injustice, how then can revolution be waged so capriciously. What I will concede to Rubin is a sense of restlessness, which is not unique to him, or his time, or ours. Restlessness is as good a catalyst for change as persecution, if only it can be focused to good and worthwhile goals. Undoing what your parents do – which is what I hope he meant by his words – is only meaningful if there is something better there to replace it.

History has its own sense of justice. The young either grow older or die. Though killed in a street accident in 1994, he had grown old enough to see his own moment in history pass him by. The Yippie became a 1980s Yuppie and was called a sell-out. Were he alive today, he would find himself with a generation of parents – even new grandparents – and the youth would look upon him with confusion and wonder.

Despite the shocking nature of his rhetoric, and his own ambiguous life, I take it on faith that Rubin really did want to see injustice undone. Yet the way he led his life seems to undercut any real hope for meaningful and positive change. Antics, from him and Abby Hoffman and their ken, replaced tactics. The subtext is grim, and lest I get accused of beating up on helpless hippies, the right-wing pendulum swing that followed sixties radicalism is just as grim and limited. Is this any way to live?

Leaving the personal, and returning to the social, the situation is more dire today than in Rubin’s heyday. What Rubin stated in a fit of rhetoric – the part about killing parents – cuts a bit too close to home. The killing of parents by children and children by parents is a fit of evil like something out of a Greek tragedy. Yet it has become part and parcel of the new American story. What Rubin said was meant to shock, but now it isn’t so much shocking as it is lamentable. How many of us have a cold, tight ball of rage within us every time we hear of such a crime. A ball that grows tighter and colder each time, and has no cure or resolution. Its a tough world, and a hard place to raise kids.

But I come not to praise Jerry Rubin, or to scorn him, or to blame him, but to investigate destruction for the sake of building something better. God knows in this area there are enough buildings being removed for new ones, or gutted to have new and more useful floors installed. The house we live in depends upon a solid foundation. A crack in the foundation is a homeowner’s nighmare. A crack in the foundation of our faith is worse. We often cannot see it. It risks more than just the stability of our religious practice, but everything else that we do or hope to do.

Jerry Rubin and Jesus have this much in common. Our foundational assumptions condition everything that comes from them. This is not original, nor unique to them. In each case, something must end. Rubin held out an arm and grabbed or pushed what was within reach. Jesus reached in, and exhored his followers to reach in and put away anything that would keep them from taking up their own cross and following him.

The H Word

Then comes the tough word. Jesus says hate. When it came to the word hate in verse 26, I was hoping to resort to that great liberal hope: mistranslation. After all, if the words translated hell and everlasting don’t mean what we mean when we use those words, then there’s hope for every difficult word or phrase that comes from God’s self-disclosing mind. I hoped that the word really meant “dislike” “digregard” or “forget.” These definitions would blunt Jesus’ harshness. No such luck: the word says hate and means it. Its not a rare or peculiar word either. Used more than three dozen times in the New Testament.

Fred Craddock, the famous preacher and teacher of preachers, chalks up the use of the word hate to Semetic hyperbole. The word, he councils, doesn’t have the same emotional import that we bring to it, but should be read as seperation. I’m not convinced. It would be hard to break apart families and not import strong emotion, word or no word. The real issue is not the word hate but the intensity of feeling that examines motives and ability, even down to the foundation.

Back to the Gospel

In our passage from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus turns to the crowd – indeed, turns on the crowd – in such an abrupt was that it is clear to interpreters that this scene is a composite of a number of teaching about discipleship. There is no parallel in any of the other gospels; the stories are there but they are spread out. It is easy to think of Luke combining all the appropriate teachings into one place: the authors of our hymnals did this with the responsive readings, and it is a reasonable practice. One side effect is that it gives the urgency of choosing discipleship over family and personal responsibilty that Jesus probably did not preach. We get a clue of this from what is recorded. Nowhere does he say, “convert or else.” Extrapolated from his parables, the penalty for falling short in one’s discipleship is reproach. But we can live with reproach. Can we not live without the firm foundation of the Gospel just as easily? The thrust of the passage answers, “no.” We cannot rely on our tower of faith to support us if we don’t build it well – and early. Origen, the early church leader, writing in his Commetary on the Gospel of John (VI:1) reminds us to build “in fine weather and in calm, so that nothing may hinder the structure from acquiring the needed solidity.” Origen saw terrible persecutions of the church when he was a boy. There is a story that he was so stirred up at age seventeen after his father’s arrest – which would have gotten himself arrested and killed – that his mother hid his clothes because he knew the young Origen wouldn’t get himself martyred while naked. Think of that, as Origen (who I hope was clothed by this point) adds:

And thus [the building] turns out so strong and stable that it is able to withstand the rush of the flood and the dashing of the river . . . which are apt to find out what is rotten in a building and to show what parts of it have been properly put together.
. . . .
This, it appears to me, was well understood by the servants of the prophetic spirit and the ministers of the Gospel message; they made themselves worthy to receive that peace which is in secret from Him who ever gives it to them that are worthy and who said, ‘Peace I leave with you, My peace I give unto you; not as the world giveth give I unto you.’

The strong foundation we build in faith gives us a place to stand when the cold ball of rage or fear or even real hate tries to take us over. We haven’t already started, we should lay that foundation now.

Would the Disciples have joined the Youth Group?

Until I started on this sermon, I had just assumed the disciples were, well, approaching middle-age, or had arrived. We know Jesus was thirty when he started his public ministry. Shouldn’t the disciples be at least this old, if not older? All the art I’ve seen of the disciples (save one icon of Jesus and St. John) depict them as mature. I wonder! It is at least as plausable that some of the disciples were teenagers: young, and anxious, and perhaps rebellious?

I can imagine Andrew or James, or Peter, at age fourteen or fifteen. It isn’t all that hard to believe that some of the disciples were teenagers, perhaps no older than some of the youth sitting in the front row. It has only been in modern times that the idea of a childhood without gainful work and instead dedicated to development and education has been the norm. Child labor laws only became national law within the lifetimes of some of the people in this sanctuary. A child’s life and propects were far from rosy in times past. Joan of Arc is a famous example of an adolescent of great influence. Though a bit older, John Calvin had already published his great theological work Institutes of the Christian Religion when he was twenty-three. Youth is not an impediment to God.

It is easy to imagine, too, a scared bunch of kids who have begun to follow this new teacher, and don’t know what to do. What they’ve been taught at home has been drawn into doubt. First century Palestine was a hard place to live, and I’m sure it was tough to raise kids there, too. The teen-disciples want to return home. Perhaps they had been bethrothed or married. They are torn, demolished really. Jesus starts from a plan of reconstruction. You start to build at the foundation. You consider how you want to live, or even how to survive, and then make a plan. Count the cost; start from the bottom and build up. A word about this foundation, or to change metaphors, the roots.

A new-old radicalism

Radical means root. Radical comes from the same Latin word that gives us radish. Salads have never looked the same since I learned that. In the well-loved Advent hymn O Come O Come Emmanuel, a traditional verse, missing from our hymnal, is calling on Jesus as the “Root of Jesse,” one of his ancestors. To bear the name radical is to go back to the roots, to start at the beginning.

Radicalism is misunderstood. Some people will see it as a way to be peculiar. Others will see radicalism as a threat to society. Others still will see it as idealistic and unattainable. Different people will hear the word radical and will thrill with hope and others will shudder in horror. Oddly enough, each of these perspectives has a piece of the truth. A radical will look at society askew, and vice verce.

In our tradition, to apply the radical impulse, to go back to the roots is to wipe away anything that puts up a barrier between us and God, and between our current way of living and that kind of life that God would have for us. To get back to the roots is to wipe away the distinction between “our God” and “their God” because there is only one. To get back to the roots is put aside any leader or minister – myself included – who stands in the way of Jesus’ leading spirit, summarized in our mutual love with God and neighbor. To get back to the roots is sift through the record of God’s self-disclosure to find out what is true, even if it challenges our comfortable way of doing things. To get back to the roots is to put aside those things we do that hurt – hurt both ourselves, those we know, and even those we don’t know – because we should do no harm in the world. To get back to the roots is to clear the road of the stumbling blocks that keep us and others from approaching God’s unending care. Using our faith as a weapon, or as a fortress, or as a barrier – none of these – helps us anticipate the final harmony of all souls with God. And that basic unity is the taproot, and the source of all.

That’s what I mean when I try to be radical. I try to apply it in my faith.

I one of the nice things about being a Christian in the fellowship of Unitarian Universalists is that your faith is tested to the roots, and is not rewarded with bland affirmation.

I am a Christian because God has moved in my life in a fundamental and unexpected way. It didn’t happen overnight or in a fit of lightening. This life crept upon me slowly and bit by bit replaced the old Scott Wells, and a new man emerged from the experience. Perhaps that’s overstating the case, but a new path opened up for me, and I pray ever-renewing paths open for each of us, of all ages.

We put aside the old person within. Our relations with those we love will change in the bargain. We will be led to questions and crossroads. We will not be given an easy, slumbering rest, but God’s own peace. We will set our towers on firm foundations. Then we shall see: A full faith is worth the cost of construction.

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