Getting Ready for Sunday: June 26 (Proper 8)
The grandiose overstatement of hyperbole is meat and potatoes for Americans. How many times has someone told you to see “the best movie ever?” Hyperbole isn’t unique to our situation or to this period in history, of course. The world of literature would be crippled without it. Here’s a great example from Flannery O’Connor in her story, “Parker’s Back:” “The skin on her face was as thin, and drawn as tight as the skin of onion, and her eyes were gray and sharp like the points of two picks.” But what is unique to our time in history is the sheer volume of obese language we must sort through each day. It is the exception to read something that has not been shot full of linguistic steroids to try and arrest our attention and empty our wallets.
Such a situation is disastrous for us we approach the Scriptures, particularly if we are going to listen to Jesus.
- “It would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea”
- “If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away”
- “And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away.” (Mt 18:6-9)
We encounter grossly inflated language so often that when we hear Jesus say something extreme, we pick it up and toss it in the “hyperbole bin.” And when we do that, we promptly domesticate it and cut it down to size until it looks like the meek Jesus with the Fabio hair that we find on the walls of many a Sunday School classroom. The teaching of Jesus about the shape of the lives of his disciples is often overwhelming, but it is not hyperbole. And this is what we encounter at the end of the 9th chapter of St Luke’s Gospel. “I will follow you wherever you may go.”
I love watching tennis. You may remember seeing or at least reading about something remarkable that happened in the tennis world some six years ago. In the second round of Wimbledon, American John Isner inched past a Frenchman and smashed record after record: the longest match, at 46 hours, 39 minutes; the most games in a match, at 183. The fifth and final set was also the longest on record with 138 games over a period of 8 hours, 11 minutes. More than once, St Paul held up the picture of the athlete as a model of what is required of us to follow Jesus:
Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable….I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified (I Cor 9:25-27).
We usually think of the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel in terms of evangelism, preaching the Gospel so that men and women would convert, be baptized and become disciples. But we must remember: it is nearly impossible to make a disciple without first being a disciple. And being a disciple requires everything. “I will follow you wherever you may go.”
This is the heart of the matter, right here. I’m tempted to say that is that what Jesus wants is for you to give everything, to focus all of your energy on following him, to subdue every thought and temptation to him, to be perfect as Jesus was perfect, to lay down your life so that you will find it. But what could you do with that kind of advice? Hyperbole, schmyperbole. Probably the same thing that you would do if I said to you: “Start practicing tennis so that you too could play an eleven hour tennis match over the course of three days.” I might as well suggest that you tell the Trinity River, “Move from here to there.” But we must start somewhere and there is only one starting place. That place is the cell of silence, where we quiet ourselves in the presence of God and listen; sit with God; be with him. The offering of praise we make each Sunday in the Eucharist is the necessary beginning of a prayer life; it opens us up, little by little, so that we can begin to know his voice. But the Eucharist alone cannot sustain our communion with God. Morning and Evening Prayer thrust us into the Scriptures, forces us to pray the Psalms. But the Offices too cannot substitute for the constant, regular work of praying to God out of the sheer love of His presence. The Holy Eucharist, the Daily Office – they both only serve to give us the grace necessary and the tools to begin the kind of prayer life described in today’s Psalm: “I have the set the Lord always before me” (16:8a). This is where we find God face-to-face.
The only way to follow this Jesus wherever he goes, the only way to be able to put our hand to the plow and not look back, is to return over and over to the place of silence with the Lord. My spiritual director put it to me as starkly as he could: “There is nothing that you can do that is more important than this. Without this, you will die.” I am no prayer athlete, let me assure you. I’m not as remotely consistent as I long to be. But I can tell you this: that there is great sweetness in sitting in God’s presence, not asking for anything, not trying to get relief from my anxieties and worries, but just fixing my heart on Jesus. And the more I do it, the more I can’t wait to get back there. This is where we begin to enter into the prayer of Jesus, into the total offering that he made to the Father. Only in the quiet and the silence can we know what it means for you or for you me respond when Jesus says, “Follow me.” Only then can we put our hand to the plow and not look back.