You may listen to Father Mullen's sermon here.
Potentially embarrassing photos of me are floating around on the Internet. They depict an eleven-year-old version of me at camp, with a haircut suitable for 1978, wearing blue jeans and a hastily fashioned cape of some sort made of a kind of rust colored fabric that is tied around my neck. I am with three friends on a rock outcropping overlooking the lake, on the opposite shore from the camp. We would have had to row boats over and scramble up the steep slope there 20 or 25 feet to the outcropping.
In our youthful enthusiasm, and fueled, no doubt, by a history lesson about the medieval period, the photos show that we had fashioned what we hoped could be classified as a catapult, made of fallen tree branches, a sapling, an old inner tube, and lots of twine. I believe we intended to use water balloons as ammunition. Although my memory is hazy, I think our tests of the weapon were all disappointments. In truth, I cannot even recall what invader we thought we would repel – any and all, I suppose.
Although the details are fuzzy, I think the entire enterprise came to a quick end when one of the four of us took a wrong step and tumbled off the outcropping and partway down the steep hillside. This emergency required a swift evacuation, and a fast row across the lake so the injured party could be taken to the nurse, who was able to tend to all wounds, as I recall.
What became of the failed catapult, whose design flaws would surely have become evident very quickly, I cannot say.
Children are supposed to make such mistakes and learn from them. But we seem to live in a society where adults continue to act like children well into their more mature years; liable to make the same mistakes over and over again; doomed to repeat history because we are so inept at learning its lessons.
“What king,” Jesus asks, “going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand?” Jesus never meant this question as a lesson in geo-politics, and he was not asking his audience to consider the current affairs of his own day, nor of ours.
And if the New Testament is to be believed, Jesus never called anyone to battle, or even to take up arms – though he is heard from time to time telling someone to put his sword back in his sheath.
And from our particular vantage point of history, it would seem that anyone who ever claimed that Jesus was calling him to war has been proven to be a charlatan, misguided, or just plain daft.
Among the many things we adolescent boys had not considered in our lives by the time we built that catapult was what it would mean to be real followers of Jesus, although we were at a Christian camp, where worship and prayer were a part of every day’s agenda. If you’d asked us to march around singing “Onward Christian Soldiers,” we’d have done so gleefully, with wooden swords shoved into our belts, homemade capes fastened around our necks, happily arranging ourselves into battalions of some configuration, unrecognizable as either real soldiers or real Christians.
But if you’d asked us what it would cost us to follow Jesus, we’d have looked at you blankly. The best we could do, I’d guess, would be to tell you that during Lent we would have to put a coin or two aside every day to fill our mite boxes, but that would be a pretty neat summary of the cost of discipleship to our youthful minds. And for our age, that would have been a reasonable limit of our imaginations. It would not, at that time, have occurred to us that our worship and prayer cost us anything – for we had nothing else to do with our time, and no freedom to make decisions about it anyway.
But we are supposed to learn from our childhoods and to grow beyond the limits of them.
In the reading we heard today from Luke’s Gospel, Jesus was sitting at the table of a ruler of the Pharisees. He was having an adult conversation. He’d had difficult words for his hosts, and challenged them to be more humble and compassionate in their leadership.
The large crowds that were traveling with him must have been outside. Maybe he had to lean out of a window and shout to them. St. Luke does not say that these crowds were friendly to Jesus, they are not yet his disciples. Maybe they were twittering outside that Jesus was giving the Pharisees a talking-to.
But now Jesus turns to the crowds – who it seems to him might be only too happy to be told to form into battalions and start singing “Onward Christian Soldiers,” especially if by so doing they could express their disdain for the Roman occupiers of their land. But this is childish, and Jesus knows it. No one has considered what kind of life God really wants them to lead. They all want to know what God is going to give them. But Jesus wants to know what they are willing to give to God.
And I suppose that Jesus knows they are not yet serious, he knows they have not yet grown up, he knows they are not yet ready to follow him. So he exaggerates when he tells them, “You cannot be my disciples, for you have not considered the cost of it. If you want to be my disciples,” he says, “give up everything you own, and then come follow me!”
I am willing to bet that the crowd quickly dispersed – no so many were all that interested in Jesus any more!
And frankly, if that was the message of the Gospel to us today, who of us would stick around to hear the details? Give up all our possessions? Including my flatscreen TV? I don’t think so!
So maybe Jesus is not teaching foreign policy, and maybe he is not truly advocating that we forsake all material goods. Then what is he getting at? I suppose that Jesus is trying to teach us to grow up, to consider carefully what it means to be a follower of his: to count the cost.
And I am reminded again of my childhood escapades by the lake with my friends at camp, and how our game came to a quick end when one of us took a wrong step, and went tumbling down the embankment. We were, you recall, on the far side of the lake, meaning it was difficult to call for help. So I suppose the three others of us went to the aid of our fallen comrade. We’d have had to help him down the rest of the hillside to the tree where the row boat was tied up, and then we’d have to have gotten him into the boat with his injuries and rowed him across the lake to the other shore. We’d have had to get him safely to the dock and let him lean on us as we helped him to the nurses’ station, and from there, as I say, I believe all was well.
It reminds me that every real soldier I have ever come across who’s fought in battle, has told me that in the end it’s the soldier next to you who matters far more than the enemy. It’s the band of brothers (and now sisters) to whom you have been joined in trust. It’s worrying about that guy, and what you can do for him – to keep him from getting shot, or to help him once the bullet or the grenade or the shrapnel has hit.
And it makes me grateful for that little childhood journey down the hillside with my wounded friend’s arm around my neck, rowing across the water back over to the other side of the lake, where, instead of weapons, there was a nurse, and a ping-pong table, and the circle of logs around which we’d sit every night, with a fire in the center, and we’d tell stories of what mattered to us that day, and we’d say prayers for the people we cared about, and we’d sing “They’ll know we are Christians by our love,” and “Kumbaya,” and “Puff the Magic Dragon.”
Which was all a process of growing up, learning about the different sides of the lake, learning how much more blessed it is to give than to receive, and how much more important it is to carry your friend down the hillside and to row him across the lake than to successfully launch your ordnance from a catapult.
And I hear Jesus calling from a window, saying, “Yeah, remember what happened last time I tried tell everyone what it would cost to be my disciple? How hard it was going to be? How much it was not going to be about you, but about living for others? Where have the crowds gone?” I hear him ask.
And I hear myself, answer: “We are just here on the other side of the lake, playing with our weapons! Don’t worry, just as soon as one of us falls, we’ll come scrambling down, get him into the boat and row him across the water over to your side! But for now we are doing what we must do!”
“You do what you must do,” says, Jesus, “and I will do what I must do.”
And he stoops down to pick up the fallen branch of a sturdy old tree that still has some twine and a piece of an old inner-tube tied to it, but which is long enough for him to stretch his arms out on it when it comes time to nail his hands to it, and he carries it step by step toward a green hill, far away, across the water, hoping that when we grow up we will follow.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
8 September 2013
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia