[Kara Slade] Knowing Ourselves as Known
A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Kara N. Slade at the opening Eucharist of the Scholar-Priest Initiative conference, at Duke Chapel, June 26, 2014
2 Kings 24:8-17, Matthew 7:21-29
Since confession is good for the soul, I’d like to begin with one of my own. I panicked a little – well, more than a little – when I saw the lectionary texts for this evening. Ordinarily, I’m the first to sign up for anything with a homiletic difficulty setting of “extreme,” but our lessons from 2 Kings and Matthew seem a strange word indeed with which to begin this conference. We have come together to talk about “welcoming theology home,” and yet in today’s Gospel we hear what sounds like a decidedly un-welcoming word from Jesus:
‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”’
There is something about today’s texts that goes against the grain of my stereotypically Episcopal desire to be nice, to be uncontroversial, to sweep conflict and fear and judgment under the rug and hope it stays there. There is something about today’s texts that asks us all to wrestle with Scripture until it blesses us, and I think that is all to the good. I think it actually goes right to the heart of what we have gathered to do.
First, to our Old Testament reading, where the hapless boy-king Jehoiachin is carried off into exile, the next to last monarch of Judah falling victim to the consequences of his own evil deeds as well as his father’s, and yet at the same time he seems to be almost a passive spectator to the work of forces beyond his control. What we just heard narrated in almost matter-of-fact terms, Jeremiah elaborates on in a howl of anguish. The end of the monarchy as an institution seemed to mark the end of the promise itself.
In Jeremiah 22 we read, “Record this man as childless, a man who shall not succeed in his days; for none of his offspring shall succeed in sitting on the throne of David, and ruling again in Judah.” The city and the people are broken beyond mending, and Jehoiachin himself is, in Walter Bruggemann’s words, no more than a “valueless, useless, discarded pottery shard, never restored, never valued, never returned, worthless.” It is the end of the royal succession, the end of the certainty of inheritance and all the assumptions that went along with it – but it seems to be the end of so much more.
How easy it is to see our own ecclesial situation reflected in this story of exile: easy, and yet dangerous.
How easy it is to romanticize this story of exile into a metaphor for changing demographics, or to twist it into a self-evident justification for ourselves as part of God’s faithful remnant.
How easy it is to conclude that what we really need to do is to build a bulletproof bulwark against all those forces beyond our own control, hoping against hope that Babylon might be held at bay, that Christendom itself might be saved – if only we work at it hard enough.
How easy it is to long for an ideal leader to solve our ecclesial predicaments: If only we had a proper king, and not Jehoiachin. If only we had proper bishops. If only we had proper clergy. If only we had something like the Scholar-Priest Initiative, we could save the Church. But while this yearning for authoritative leadership might be an understandable human impulse, our Gospel reading reminds us whose authority matters. It reminds us whose Church it is, and in the end, who has already saved it – and us.
In today’s passage from Matthew, Jesus brings the Sermon on the Mount to a terrifying conclusion, at the end of an already-terrifying to-do list for Christian discipleship. John Chrysostom, that golden-mouthed one, writes, “Surely it was logical that they were in pain over the heavy weight of what he had said. They were stunned by the soaring level of the requirements that he had made. But now the strength of the one teaching was so great that he seized many of them and threw them into great amazement. . . . For not even after he went down from the mountain did the hearers leave, but even then the whole audience followed him because of the great love that was shown in what he had said. But most of all they were astounded at his authority. For when he said these things, he did not refer to another, as even the prophet Moses did, but everywhere he showed that he himself was the One who had the authority to decide…that he himself is the One who will bring justice. This is what made such a commotion among them.” It is none other than the Jesus Christ who has died, risen, and will come again who is the condition of possibility for all that he has taught.
Or, as a more contemporary golden-mouthed theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, puts it, “Jesus teaches as one who has the authority to determine what is authoritative. What he says cannot . . . be separated from who he is and how he says what he says . . . his life is but a commentary on the sermon, and the sermon is the exemplification of his life. What he teaches is not different from what he is…What he has taught, what he is, requires nothing else than our lives. Only the Son of God has the authority to ask for our lives, and that is the authority behind every word of the Sermon on the Mount.” For those of us who are disciples of Jesus today, and who have been sent into the world to make disciples, to baptize and to teach, this is – to put it mildly – a very serious existential situation.
Now, as a child of the 80’s who grew up watching quality films like the Nightmare on Elm Street series, I have always known that the scariest part has to come last, a conviction that has perhaps been reinforced by reading too much Kierkegaard. So, here it is. I think Jesus’ words about who will, and who won’t, enter the kingdom speak a very direct, convicting word to those of us gathered here today. Who is the one to whom Christ says “I never knew you”? In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, it’s the one who “hopes his intellectual ability or his success as a prophet will bring him power and influence, money and fame,” the one whose “ambitions are set on the world, not on Jesus Christ.” I read these words, and I recognize all too well my own temptations. Lord, Lord! Did we not do many deeds of power in your name? Did we not publish articles? Did we not sign book contracts? Did we not get into that doctoral program? Did we not write that blog post that everyone shared on Facebook? Ouch.
And so this evening I’d like to suggest that this gathering and this initiative is, above all, not a project to save the Episcopal Church or the Anglican Church of Canada. It is a project to save theologians. It is a project to bring people like me into that place where I can work out my salvation with fear and trembling, where I can know myself as known by receiving the loving work of the one who is Love. Into the school of charity and mercy where I am taught to love my real, actual neighbors as Christ has loved us. Into the Church, into concrete, particular churches where my neighbors walk in the doors and sit in the pews. And as Bonhoeffer points out, following St. Paul, this is where the rubber meets the road, because “the very works of Christian charity, giving away one’s goods, and even martyrdom, may be done without love, without Christ, without the Holy Spirit,” and “without love the activity of discipleship is absent.” Contrary to some arguments I have witnessed recently on the Episcopal Internet, love and discipleship are not mutually exclusive. They are inseparable. Without love, there is no discipleship. But without discipleship, we cannot know what it is truly to love. This kind of love does not, and cannot, exist in the abstract, and it has nothing to do with the sentimentality our culture attaches to the concept.
No, the call to discipleship is a call to be constantly unsettled, to live on the edge of holy vertigo, to have our lives and our loves swept up into a state of divine confiscation. And as I have lived it, week in and week out, in a little parish church in the middle of Granville County, North Carolina, it constantly throws me back on my own need for grace – “not grace for this or that” but my “infinite need infinitely for grace.”
What I want to ask you in closing is this:
Why did you come here? And what do you need to leave behind, today, at this altar? (Y’all didn’t think you were going to get an altar call at this service, did you?)
Who is the prodigal in your own heart and in mine who needs more than anything to be embraced by the One who loves us, the One who gives us neighbors to love in this strange and awkward place called church?
What are the lonely burdens of individual ambition or ecclesial anxiety that the risen Lord is calling you to abandon, here and now, in his presence at the Eucharist?
Let go of them. Let go, and know yourself as known, and loved, and saved. Know that the Scholar-Priest Initiative doesn’t have to be the future of the church – and you don’t have to be, either – because Jesus Christ has already taken that job.
And then, my brothers and sisters, knowing that, how brave can we be?
1. Jeremiah 22:30, NRSV.
2.Walter Brueggemann, 1 and 2 Kings, 578.
3. John Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 25.1.
4. Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew, 92.
5. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 191.
6. Ibid., 195.
7. Søren Kierkegaard, Journals and Papers, JP 11 1482 [Pap. x.3 A 784 n.d., 1851].