Sermon for Lent 2 Evensong & Benediction Sunday 21 February 2016
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie Lent 2 E&B
33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. Luke 14.33
What do we make of this ‘good news’ that the only way to be an adequate disciple of Jesus is to give up all our possessions. Not some possessions, note, not give to charity, not 10%, not ‘live simply’. This is a command which can only be fulfilled literally by becoming a beggar or a monk (and quite an austere sort of monk). Apart from providing a useful retort to rich fundamentalists, where is the good news here?
As always looking at the context of the saying will help. But I also want to imagine what the saying might mean, in our time. I’m sure we’ve all known people who have very little. I have known many, and I am helped to understand it just a little from a human life I witnessed at its end.
Her name was Ena Smith, and she died 8 months short of her hundredth birthday. While we must always be careful about canonizing the recently departed, I also think we should notice shining goodness. Looking at Ena’s life in its simplicity, its poverty in modern terms, and noticing her cheerful and indomitable faith,
I can say without exaggeration or sentimentality that she was a disciple of Christ who had very little and whose faith was her riches. I don’t suppose she set out to give up all her possessions or to ‘do without’, but she ended her life in a charity almshouse without any money of her own. She did, nonetheless, a very great deal for others, reduced in her last few years to excellent knitting for a Hospice shop and cooking for family and friends.
Ena had been profoundly deaf from the age of 9 (influenza during the WWI epidemic). What I didn’t know until I talked to her nephew after she died was that she had been married. She and her husband had courted for ten years until finally, she 44 and he 55, they married in the 1950’s; and nine months later he died. Having lived in single rooms and tiny prefabricated council dwellings for most of her life she had finally moved to the 17th century almshouses on Berkhamsted High Street, to be near her nephew. This last accommodation, one small room with a kitchen/bathroom annexe and a curtained-off sleeping space, was, she said, her dream home. One week her nephew and his wife were to be away, so they’d organized daily visitors; I went on the Tuesday afternoon at 4pm to give her communion, a monthly occurrence. It was always an eccentric occasion because, being so deaf, she effectively took the service, extremely loudly, while I did things at the appropriate moments. We’d never before included anointing with holy oil. But that day she just kept on reading, so I anointed her, with just a momentary wonder about why this was happening just then. She was very tired, but also very cheerful. And the next morning she died, having, wonderfully, received the last rites.
Now is that a real-world illustration of Jesus’ command? It is one life’s hint of it. We cannot replicate that life, but there are qualities in it to teach us something. Ena could be as definite and judgmental as any of us, but she was a shining light as well. The simplicity of her life, and her ready and uncomplaining acceptance of it, certainly nourished and informed her faith further. It was a small but beautiful life, marked by lack of attachment, acceptance and cheerfulness. Not a bad recipe for saintliness.
The context of tonight’s passage is also instructive. It follows that story about the rich man giving a banquet whose guests all refuse his invitation with feeble excuses: enraged, he sends for the most marginal people he can imagine to populate his banquet, a feast which is to be understood as emblematic of the Kingdom. After it we hear the saying about being salt, having a definite flavour to your faith and life, if you like.
Also, the verses directly before our passage are the admonition to hate our families and even our lives. It is extreme talk, about the necessity for absolute commitment, explained as ‘counting the cost’, explaining how ‘carrying one’s cross’ is part of following. Just think about that image for a moment and reflect on what it is doing here. We are still in the teaching and healing ministry of Jesus. Luke has related the events of the Transfiguration in the mountain (an acted prophecy of the resurrection) and Jesus has more than once predicted his betrayal and death (9.43ff.). But, Luke says, no one has got the point. Crucifixion is, of course, a run of the mill event; one would have seen people carrying crosses to their execution sufficiently often to use a phrase like that. But this particular sentence has been expressed in these particular words by Luke with hindsight from the other side of Good Friday (and Easter Day).
Which means, first, that resurrection is implicit in it (there’s another sermon there) and second that the whole passage is written by Luke in order to fill out Jesus’ radical call for total commitment to the Kingdom, which is expressed as a priority (seek first…). That priority should, quite properly, challenge our attitudes to what we have, as well as what we say or do. It will also remind us that the more we accumulate in a number of areas of life, the more baggage, literally, we find slowing down our pilgrimage to heaven.
But it is really about the things or lack of them – we always tend to get hung up on the wrong detail. Ena wasn’t good because she had little; she was good because she lived joyfully and generously, regardless of her circumstances. The point is the priority of commitment, ‘staying awake’ to what matters, as Jesus recommends elsewhere: a lifelong struggle for us all.