Pentecost 13: leap of faith

Sermon by the Revd Dr Brutus Green
Readings: Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25-33

People often assume that soldiers in the Parachute Regiment love to jump out of planes. Talking to them I’d say, for the main, the opposite is true. This is because the whole process is deeply boring and uncomfortable. In general, you’re waiting around usually for six or seven hours while the RAF decide whether it’s safe to fly. Then you have to stagger on to the plane carrying 75kg of equipment, more than your own body weight, before shuffling down the plane, while it does low flying manoeuvres, by which point you’re only too delighted to throw yourself out.

Only of course there’re risks. Just before I joined the regiment a boy had shattered his back during an air steal, where another parachute get too close, causing him to plummet to the ground. One soldier confessed to me that every time he jumped the whole way down the plane, he’d sing “Glory, glory what a helluva way to die” to the tune of the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

But of course there are also refusals. Usually boys who are overthinking, or perhaps whom life has taught not to trust others.

I can’t say I ever looked forward to it. Even after you land you’ve usually got weeks trudging about, sleeping in the open in Winter without a sleeping bag – and that’s if you’re lucky enough to have time to sleep. And every time I was told to jump – and it’s never a question – I’d think – is it worth it? The risk, death or permanent injury, and for what?

What does merit facing death? For what would you take up your cross?

The church likes to think it’s inclusive. We are a church of sinners. And Christianity has always spoken to the outsider; it’s the tax collectors, women, slaves who are its first followers.  

And the Church of England is the most forgiving. It’s as though Church is permanently on special offer. Perhaps it’s because we have some slightly embarrassing characters in our past: Old Henry number eight was not a model husband and perhaps more ready to put people on crosses than take up his own; but we are not inclined to judge those who join us: Elizabeth the first set the mantra that we will not ‘open windows into men’s souls’, and, as a church, we tend to be rather grateful that someone might come along. We’re the golden retriever of churches, friendly, tail-wagging, a little bit needy and over-enthusiastic; a strange cross between a social club, a support group, and an amateur dramatics society.

So some of the more fierce readings can come as a bit of a surprise. Old Deuteronomy, a cat who’s lived a long time, tells us today: See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. It’s a strong message and I look forward to seeing what Sunday School have done with it; but because of this ambivalence, this fear of being thought judgemental, of being intrusive, we don’t ask questions. I’ll bet there’s dozens of people you’ve met here for years and have never once spoken to about faith. Which when you think about it, in a church, is kind of extraordinary.

But, as all the reports show, the most important thing is that churches are welcoming and friendly, and this will lead to growth. Only then we have a Gospel like today – where we’re told that to be Christian we must take up our cross; put our families, our own lives even, after Jesus.

You can imagine Dominic Cummings writing it off as dreamed up on the back of a cigarette packet: ‘Take Back our Congregation’, he insists: Do talk about tea and coffee, Do talk about church schools Do talk about culture and community. Don’t talk about taking up your cross.

And it also stands completely at odds with Deuteronomy. That has a much better selling line:
obey the commandments and you shall live and be blessed in the land. go astray and perish.Promise and reward. That could get anyone to church. In the line made famous by Trainspotting: Choose Life.

But Jesus did not choose life. He chose something else.

And to be a disciple is to follow. So, if Jesus obeyed and faced death and adversity, so should we. 

Now the history of Christianity is littered with examples of self-sacrifice. Jesus was immediately followed by most of the disciples, Paul in today’s epistle ‘a prisoner of Christ’, in discovering the most gruesome forms of execution. Right up to the Second World War when to name just two, Maximilian Kolbe in Auschwitz and Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Flossenberg, give two examples of extraordinary men dying horribly for their faith. And today it’s still estimated that thousands of Christians are killed each year, very often with their faith being a primary issue.

That is not at least an immediate threat for us, though I sometimes wonder if the impulse within Christianity to immoderate positions: refusing to allow gay couples in your B&B or bake them a wedding cake, resisting female priests, is partly fuelled by a desire to stand against the current, even to feel a righteous sense of persecution. It would be very British to be martyred on the grounds of refusing to bake a cake.

And it’s interesting that around the time Christians stopped getting persecuted, they started taking themselves off to live in the desert. It’s as if with the lack of challenge a spiritual vacuum appears that has to be filled. So the Desert Fathers, as they’re known, found their cross in the unforgiving hardship of the wild places.

You can see this switch even within the Gospels. So today’s Gospel reads: ‘Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple’ echoed in Matthew 16 and Mark 8, but in Luke 9, we have a slightly different wording where Jesus says: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.’ So while Jesus and the early church may have been describing the brutality of the life of faith that awaits many disciples, in this wording, we are also concerned not with a grisly end, but with a life of renunciation.

Renunciation I know about. My current wife has deemed September a waste free month so we’re trying to fit all our household rubbish within a large jam jar. We’ve just switched to toothpaste that comes in a pill that you chew, but tastes of chalk, and went yesterday to an over-priced farmers’ market. But we’ve also been trying to be a little more frugal and to give more to charity. And then there’s the daily running, which meant we had to run to a gin party last night. Some heavy sacrifices.

As I said, there’s a spirituality that comes in seeking martyrdom, seeking crucifixion; a desire to find challenges in life that stretch us personally. For some it’s bound up with financial or enivornmental concerns. For some it’s the person they chose to marry.

But being a disciple means being ready to change your life, to take up the challenges, that God calls us to. Being a disciple means offering to God the unknown and unpredictable future. We can all here make the commitment to give up a morning to be here together. But will our faith stretch to when we get a bad prognosis. Or a friend does? Will our commitment see us through the worst of days – And will we stand by it when our cross is standing before us. 

Bonhoeffer, one of those martyrs, wrote: ‘When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.’ That isn’t the easy grace that trades on God’s kindness; that presumes if God is God, then I can expect him to do everything, meet my every need; the God that is grateful that I’ve come to church, and makes it as easy as possible to join. The promise of God that we see in Jesus’s crucifixion is that he will be faithful even to death. The question today’s Gospel asks of us is will we? And will we find the strength in the hour of difficulty to turn to him and ask for forgiveness and grace. When we’re stood, loaded down, in the plane door is our commitment strong enough to believe it’s worth jumping out?