Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost…? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, `This man began to build, and was not able to finish.' (Luke 14:27-28)
Despite a positive review in the New Yorker, I cannot actually recommend that you go to see the teen-oriented film, Superbad, mostly because you would never forgive me. You are a Ritz-Five, opera–going, ballet-loving, orchestra-subscribing crowd. Many of you would never make it past the vulgar language of the first few scenes of the film without storming out of the theatre wondering if I had gone completely mad. You are grown-ups! You would be shocked, appalled, offended.
I was charmed.
But allow me to share with you the basic idea of the film. Two teenage boys, Evan and Seth, are about to graduate from high school. They have managed to get themselves invited to a party hosted by one of the hottest and most popular girls in school, on the promise that they will be able to procure alcohol for said party. The boys, however, are clueless. Evan is gangly and awkward and painfully earnest. Seth is pudgy, with an awful, curly mop of hair, and possessed by his hormones. The two boys desperately want to be “superbad,” (meaning good). They are breathless to lose at least some measure of their innocence with the fairer sex, but a great gulf is fixed between them and the girls they so admire.
Alcohol seems to them to be their only hope. If only they can provide it, and if only the girls get drunk enough, the boys hope to make it at least to first base – if only by mistake - as the drinks make the girls careless. But Evan and Seth are woefully and obviously underage. They have promised booze, but they have none. And their innocence remains in tact as the film launches into their journey to procure some liquor – any liquor at all.
Strangely, this seems to be exactly the kind of thing Jesus is warning about in today’s Gospel reading. Don’t set out to do something unless you are quite sure you have what it takes to finish the job. But from the earliest moments of Superbad it is quite clear that these boys don’t have what it takes to achieve their ambitious goals. They are doomed to remain innocent, their virginity firmly in tact in every conceivable sense.
If only we outgrew such adolescent quandaries! But alas, we often seem doomed to repeat them. In the church we are so beset by our own anxieties these days that one wonders what will become of us. We have dreams (do we not?) of being “superbad” (by which I mean good). We see around us the vestiges of an era when the church could do what she liked and stand tall about it. We remember the stories of missions and schools and the expanding empire of Christendom. But today these memories seem to be like hormones mocking us (as in adolescent boys) for wanting to be something we cannot be. The pews are not full, people walk right by our doors and ignore us, we cannot do the things we think we ought to be doing, we cannot afford the things we think we ought to be able to afford. And neither can most of our neighboring churches.
And what’s worst, religion is mocked in the public square. Jesus and his Cross are fashion accessories at best (and ironic ones, at that). The height to which the steeple of this church once soared is now belittled in nearly every sense of the word. The churches are of full of scandal. Our own Anglican church is in constant crisis at the diocesan, national and international levels. There is bickering, legal maneuvering and name-calling.
How did we become teenagers again? Not children, but apparently not grown up yet either? How did we get stuck here again in this adolescent angst? And we wonder, will the day ever come? Will we ever get there? And of course the question occurs to us, (doesn’t it?): Do we have what it takes to finish what once was begun? Can we even finish our own little piece of it (whatever it is), here on Locust Street?
“Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.”
If you really want to feel like a teenager again, try to pretend that I am your father or your mother telling you this: “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.” Does this make you want to shrug? Or grunt non-commitally? What are we to do with this teaching from Jesus. Does he honestly expect us to take up our cross? Does he really want us to be prepared to be at enmity with those we love? Does he expect us to give our things away – truly? What can we possibly do in the face of this kind of teaching but shrug and walk away, as though we didn’t really hear it?
The answer is that Jesus expects us to grow up. He expects us not to be ruled by our passions for things: for clothes and cars and real estate, or for status, or power. He expects us to be more than teenage bundles of hormones desperately grasping for the things we hope will make us “superbad.” Jesus expects us to live not for ourselves, but for others. And the cross he asks us to take up is the pry-bar that pulls us away from our selfishness and opens our eyes to the others around us. Our cross is anything that helps us do this: whether it’s feeding the hungry on Saturday mornings, or visiting someone when they need us, or picking up the phone to check on a friend. Your children can certainly be your cross (don’t they sometimes feel like it) as they demand more of you than can possibly be reasonable. And your parents may play the same role at the other end of life. And the list goes on. We take up our cross bit by bit as we learn to live our lives less for ourselves.
And the question is, have we started something that we can finish? Do we have what it takes to grow up into what Saint Paul calls the fullness of the measure of the stature of Christ? Can we really live outside of ourselves, or we will constantly be longing to return to that juvenile time when someone took care of us?
In the film (which, of course, you will never see: I recommend you never see it!) the boys, Evan and Seth, discover that they, of course, have set out on the wrong journey. They had set out to try to satisfy their hormonal rages, which cannot be achieved with booze or sex. They begin to discover that the only journey that they can finish is the journey of growing up: learning to care about one another, and to respect the girls, who are, indeed, out of their league, but oddly responsive to displays of inner dignity, rather than false machismo. The boys find out that they will never get anywhere unless they begin to learn to live beyond the immediate cruelty of their passionate self-obsession. And they begin to find that within themselves they have had what it takes to make this journey all along.
And it is good news to discover that you may just have what it takes, after all. It is good news to find out in the midst of teenage angst that God has bestowed you with more than you knew. It is good news to realize that once you stop obsessing about yourself you become a much better person. And if this is true for teenagers (boys and girls alike), then I suspect that it is also true for the church: that when we live beyond the immediate cruelty of our self-obsession we do much better. That is, when we allow the Cross to pry us from our selfish concerns, we find out that we are more than we ever knew. And when we have the Cross, we have everything it takes to complete what we have begun.
Here at Saint Mark’s, the work of discipleship was taken up 160 years ago. And it looks to me, as I observe what those men and women built just with stones and glass and wood, that our predecessors were deeply confident that God had given them everything they needed to undertake any journey, to achieve any goal for the sake of Christ. They probably could never have imagined the kind of angst that can grip the church these days. And I doubt they could fathom the puzzling state of the Christian religion in this country and around the world today.
Nevertheless, we have been given here at this marvelous place, what you might call a “superbad” legacy – by which I mean extraordinarily good – that was left to us by men and women who were grown-up in their faith. We are invited, at the foot of the Cross that is the very center of this place, to learn to live beyond ourselves, to discover that we have what it takes and have had it all along, to be more than we ever knew we could be, and to share this good news with anyone and everyone who will listen.
It’s not actually all that complicated – no more complicated than growing up. And when we begin to do it - to live in love, beyond the immediate cruelty of passionate self-obsession, living instead for others – we discover that the life of a disciple, lived in Christ, guided by his Cross, this life is “superbad,” which means it is very, very good.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
9 September 2007
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia