Sermons

The EPISCOPAL CHURCH of ST. JAMES the LESS

Building a Tower–of Faith

I see more faces back than last week and the week before. Welcome!

Labor Day fell early this year, so we have this “between” Sunday that we’re calling “Fall Preparedness Sunday.” At the announcements we’ll bless the kids’ backpacks, as we do each year. They’ll each receive a little memento of St. James to carry to school with them. After church, our ushers and greeters and Lay Eucharistic Ministers, and anyone else who’s able to stay, will learn about safety and security in our building. The Scarsdale Police will be here to train us how to respond to any intrusions or threats to our safety.

The Sunday School teachers have been this summer doing safety training and awareness. Each of them now has a background check. Of course the staff, every member from me to the weekend sexton has undergone these checks. I know we like to think church–our church–is somehow immune from the problems of the outside world, but it’s only as immune as we are diligent in keeping it so.

Next Sunday is Banner Sunday to kick off the new program year. The choir will be back. We’ll be waving our banner here proudly. I’ll speak during the sermon about some of the things this new year holds. I’m very excited to be moving into my fourth year here as your Rector, and I feel a kind of momentum that’s only going to get better in the year to come.

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Preparedness, as it so happens, is the theme of today’s Gospel reading. I was amazed at the serendipity of this. Jesus is traveling to Jerusalem. “Large crowds,” the reading tells us, were traveling with him.

At one point as they’re walking along, Jesus stops, he turns to the crowds, and he utters forth some hard teachings, lessons about life as his disciple, about denying oneself, about giving things up, about holding attachments loosely–all of this we encounter frequently throughout the four Gospels.  

Then he poses two hypothetical questions to this crowd of followers. “Which of you, he says, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid the foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him.”

Then, another example: “Or what king, 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? If he cannot … he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace.”

One thing I find inspiring about this passage is that Jesus clearly isn’t looking here to garner a huge following. I think it’s probable that, after this encounter, those “large crowds” our reading speaks of got a little thinner. Contrast that with the desperate drive in our culture, especially our digital culture, to have followers, as many of them as possible. It sometimes seems people will say anything, post anything, to get more “likes” and draw a bigger crowd. I recently read that technology companies are actually looking at ways to modify their software so as not to feed this addiction we have to popularity. In fact Twitter (I hear) may soon stop tallying “likes.” Maybe tech companies are finally waking up to the monsters they’ve made of us, and I suppose it’s heartening they feel obliged to do something about it.

But then there’s Jesus here, teaching some hard lessons that I have no doubt winnowed the crowd that day. He wasn’t concerned with being popular, but with being true to himself, and to God, even if that (at least in that moment) cost him “likes.” It’s a lesson for all of us.

His message to the crowd is demanding, and simple: If you’re going to commit to me, and to God, don’t be halfhearted about it. Don’t make this another of your half-finished projects. Really think about what it takes to be a person of faith, what it demands–the time, the inconvenience, the discomfort physically and spiritually, the sacrifices; maybe you’ll need to lose a few friends, even family. Game it out. Because–and here this might be what Jesus would say to us in this room today–you do this is in so many other areas of your life.

Here we all are, getting ready for fall. For weeks now I’ve been deliberating (and I’m sure some of you, now or in the past) over what to sign my kids up for. What to sign myself up for. We ask ourselves questions like: What will that commitment look like a month from now, when things are really busy? Will I be able to carry it out? How much is just enough to challenge and stimulate my kids but not stress them out? Is this the year to sign up my son for piano? If it’s not this year, will I miss my chance? Will his life forever be more impoverished without it? Will he resent me when he’s older if I don’t do it? I mean, we think out so far, ridiculously far, when it comes to raising our kids or improving ourselves. We don’t even notice we’re doing it.And we handle our financial life the same way–planning, projecting, making contingency plans.

What if my spouse loses his or her job? Will we still be able to save for college, and how much? What will college cost in 5 years? How much do I need to be putting into that fund every month until then? If I downsize my house in 15 years to exactly half the cost I’m now paying, then how much more can I add to my retirement account and will that make it possible to retire five years earlier? We write these questions down, we talk to someone about them, they send back recommendations that we take note of and try to follow.

Jesus might look at all of us and say, Why don’t we apply that same kind of rigor to our faith life? And what would that look like? For one, it might quickly change all those other plans above.

Think about if we projected out a well-lived Christian life for ourselves the same way we do for other things. At some point, maybe we would live very modestly. We’d need to plan when that would be, how we’d get there, the emotional preparation we need to do now to accomplish that. At some point we might aspire to invite someone into our homes, a foster child, a scholarship student, a child from Children’s Village. It could get more extreme. Jesus said in today’s reading Give up all your possessions. Maybe at some point we give away half our fortune to something that supports the poor. Factor that into retirement figures, college funds, or market fluctuations.

And why shouldn’t we make plans for our children that concern their growth as Christians? We bring them to church–this is where they learn about devotion, community, responsibility to others. Many of you do Midnight Run with your kids, faithfully. Add to that weekly outings to communities that aren’t like ours. Or take them to worship with some Episcopalians down in the Bronx one of these Sundays. There are lots of Episcopal churches down there. African American, Caribbean, Haitian. Commit to going to one of those on occasion. Set an example and buy more things used, teach your kids to do the same, so they don’t become adults who overspend and hoard resources.

Game out their Christian life like you do their academic or athletic or musical life. What kind of Christian do you want them to be in 20 years? You can’t control that, of course, but neither can control those other things, and yet we still plan assiduously as if we can. Which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? The tower Jesus wants us all to build is our faith. To make it a grand, beautiful, soaring structure. It’s costly to build. Exhausting, too. That’s why we need God, and each other, plus a lot of courage and conviction to make this tower of faith something about which will one day be said, “Well Done, Good and Faithful Servant.”

10/2/2019