Readings: Jeremiah 18:1-11; Ps 139:1-5, 12-17; Luke 14:25-33 Stephen Blackmore
A man went to the doctor for his annual physical checkup. After the doctor had examined the man, he asked “Is there anything else you’d like to discuss today?” The man thought for a moment and said, “Yes, as a matter of fact there is. My wife has gotten so hard of hearing that often she doesn’t hear me…and she refuses to get her hearing checked. What can I do about this?”
The doctor thought for a while, and then said, “I have an idea for you. Next time you see her, and she is not looking, say something to her and see if she hears you. Then see how close you have to get before she hears you. Let me know what happens.”
So, the man went home. As he entered their house, he saw his wife with her back to him at the kitchen counter getting dinner ready. He stood at the far end of the room and asked in a reasonable voice, “What’s for dinner tonight, Honey?” As usual, she did not respond. So, he took a few steps closer and said again, “What’s for dinner tonight, Honey?” Again, she did not hear him and there was no response. So, he took a few steps closer and asked a third time, “What’s for dinner tonight honey?” Again, there is absolutely no response. So, he gets right up behind her and asks again, “What’s for dinner tonight, Honey?”
At this point she turns around and faces him and says, “For the FOURTH time, Beef Stew!!!!”
Funny how our hearing is often not nearly as robust as we think it is? I think this can be especially true in our spiritual lives, and our life together in Christian community. That is, it can be difficult for us to truly hear one another, and it is especially challenging to discern God’s voice calling to us and leading us forward in tumultuous times.
This parish has entered a season of discernment. With changes in leadership comes uncertainty and a measure of unsettledness. (St George’s has bid farewell to a long-time and beloved priest in Nigel Bunce, St. John’s is hoping for a more consistent experience of priestly ministry). I am here to help lead you through this season of change, and I believe our principal task in the months to come is to listen for God’s voice that would lead us and guide us into the next season of parish life. During this time, we’ll have opportunities to get to know one another, and I don’t take it for granted that you would welcome me as part of your faith family, for however long we end up being together. (We know it will be at least 6 months, but beyond that is a bit of a mystery at this point).
One of the things you’ll learn about it me is my appreciation for Ignatian Spirituality, which I studied at Regis College at the University of Toronto several years ago. Ignatius Loyola brought change within the Roman Catholic Church during the tumultuous time of the Reformation. He crafted a manual of Spiritual Exercises one might undertake to aid in making important life decisions. In short, Ignatius was an expert in spiritual discernment.
One of the key ideas of his approach is how we need to take stock of the attachments in our lives and how they influence us. Do we have a healthy appreciation for the gifts in our lives: for family, friends, career, hobbies, etc – OR – do we compulsively look for these gifts to meet needs they cannot possibly meet? Do we expect our friends to be able to read our minds and ‘just know’ when we need them? Do we think we will be truly happy if we just get that promotion at work? When we’re feeling anxious or stressed, do we give in to compulsive behaviours (like overeating/drinking) to cope? Ignatius advocates for what he calls rightly ordered attachments – the good in our lives has its place, but we must be attentive to the ways our attitudes and compulsive behaviour can take over our lives and effectively mute the voice of God.
I think today’s gospel could be read in this vein. At first glance, it is a shocking teaching from Jesus. Is he really advocating hatred towards one’s family if one wants to be his follower? I hope we can all answer, no, of course not! We know Jesus taught love, acceptance, and radical hospitality, not hatred and hostility. Here, and elsewhere, Jesus employs hyperbole to make a point (something effective teachers have done throughout time). His point is one of priority: Is one’s primary allegiance to God and the ways of God’s Kingdom, or to the socio-economic expectations of one’s culture?
Jesus is preaching to an audience with extremely tight social circles and formidable family bonds. Multiple generations lived under the same roof, fathers teaching sons trades so that one day their sons would support them. But Jesus comes along and starts challenging the assumptions of his culture. You see, when one’s family is all one lives for then it becomes easy to justify neglecting one’s neighbor. Or worse, it becomes easier to rationalize exploiting others for the benefit of one’s own.
Jesus uses strong language like ‘hating’ one’s brother or sister, father and mother, to get across the point that one needs to prioritize beyond one’s biological family. He is saying that when one picks up one’s cross to follow him – when one hitches one’s cart to Christ’s life, death, and resurrection – one becomes part of a much larger family. Jesus’ call is about the right ordering of our relationships. I don’t know about you, but when my spiritual life suffers, the rest of my life suffers as well. If I’m not consistently praying for God’s love and mercy to transform my thoughts and actions, I tend to be more impatient with family and loved ones. The gospel invites us to put first things first, to seek first the kingdom of God, and God’s justice-making, and ALL the other good things in our lives will be considered as blessing.
This isn’t an easy teaching, but it is the call to discipleship that may ground our lives. Living it out can be very difficult, in fact, I would say impossible, without the grace of God. We scratch and claw to get our way, for our ideas and practices to take centre stage. And when life throws its worst at us, it is all too tempting to blame God and give up the fight of faith.
I don’t know where you are in your spiritual journey, but I’ve been going through a season of challenge to my faith. I’ve struggled, physically, mentally, and spiritually these past few years, like all of us have. But I’ve also watched my wife’s health suffer, our daughter’s mental health take a nosedive, and the financial stresses of astronomical housing costs and loss of income have hit families like ours extra hard. I’m excited to be with you in this next season of life, as I work on studies in Toronto and work part-time in the parish. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say I have some apprehension about how to make life work in these busy and stressful times.
I, like you, need to be particularly attentive to God’s leading. I need to be aware of those things in my life I might be overly attached to. And I need to embrace the principle of radical acceptance of one’s reality. That phrase is used in Dialectal Behavioural Therapy, and it is about keeping pain from becoming suffering. It is accepting the facts of reality without responding by throwing a tantrum or with willful negligence. In other words, it is what it is. Therapist Andrew Harris writes,
“Radical acceptance is NOT approval, but rather completely and totally accepting with our mind, body and spirit that we cannot currently change the present facts, even if we do not like them. By choosing to radically accept the things that are out of our control, we prevent ourselves from becoming stuck in unhappiness, bitterness, anger and sadness and we can stop suffering.” https://hopeway.org/blog/radical-acceptance
To use an image from our OT reading today, we embrace the fact that we are the clay, battered and misshapen from life’s hard knocks. We accept this as reality, but we also name the truth that our loving Creator is working on us, sometimes tenderly, sometimes rigorously, in order to shape us into a divine work of art. I’m so thankful to be a part of both St. George’s and St. John’s. You have beautiful buildings, but even a lovelier spirit of warmth and community I’m already beginning to experience. I hope and pray that we will all be particularly attentive to God’s leading in these days ahead. The gospel will continually point us back to putting Christ at the forefront of our hearts and minds and will expose those unhealthy attachments in our lives. We’ll need to lean into the uncertainty of what comes next, of the future of this church, and accept the uncomfortable aspects of our reality. We can do this because we love and serve the Beloved Creator who, (as the Psalmist puts it):
“Searches us out, and knows us. Who knows our sitting down and rising up, who discerns our thoughts from afar. Who traces our journeys and resting-places and who knows all our ways. Who created our inmost parts, knitting us together in our mother’s wombs. Let us thank the Lord for we are wonderfully and marvellously made! (Ps 139, paraphrased) Amen!