A dynast with a string of wives may bring to mind Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury and a key player in Henry the Eighth’s rebellion against Rome, for it was Cranmer that created the rationale for separating from the papacy, aligning the Anglican Church with the Protestant Reformation. After Henry’s death, Cranmer would be martyred during the brutal reign of Queen Mary, Henry’s daughter, appropriately called “Bloody” Mary for her ruthless suppression of Protestantism.
But it was an earlier King Henry and an earlier Thomas, Archbishop of Canterbury, that recently appeared in our invasive news cycle. In response to a question from Maine Senator Angus King, former FBI Director James Comey quoted a line attributed to Henry the Second, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” That violent rhetoric, spoken by a king, was interpreted by his knights as an order to assassinate the Archbishop, Thomas Becket, which they promptly did, leaving his brains on the floor of Canterbury Cathedral.
Five centuries later, and we still haven’t figured out that violent rhetoric leads to violent action. For the last eight years we have heard calls for armed insurrection, heard Ted Nugent and others suggest the assassination of political opponents, have seen the US president lynched in effigy again and again. There is a contemporary term for this way of strategically communicating using code words to activate a fringe element in the population. It is called a dog whistle, something normal people hear as heated debate, but that others hear as a call to violent action.
Just over six years ago, a political action committee “dog-whistled” Gabby Giffords, placing a target over her congressional district, and soon after, an anti-government conspiracy theorist heard that call and shot Giffords and twelve others, leaving six dead, including a federal judge and a nine-year old. Wednesday’s reprehensible shooting of Republican politicians and their staffs, the 154th mass casualty shooting in the US this year, should have been expected given the years spent stoking the fires of fear and anger. Within hours, the 155th mass shooting of the year had taken place in San Francisco.
Archbishops Thomas Becket and Thomas Cranmer both died for their faith, faith in an ancient rabbi who, like them, was murdered for inconveniencing the powerful.
“Great,” you may be thinking. “Late spring day, almost summer (though you can’t tell it by the weather), a celebration of fathers, graduation down the block, and you give us dead people.” But there is good news. Despite an anxiety fueled by both the dog whistle of real violence and the hysteria of the 24-hour news cycle, you are extremely unlikely to die for your faith. You are not going to be a martyr, and Christians in America are not being persecuted. Old age, disease, a tragic accident, these are the things that will close the stories of our lives, not a Jihadi with an explosive vest or a white nationalist with an assault rifle.
But that doesn’t mean your faith will cost you nothing.
In 1937, as the Nazis consolidated power and German Christians aligned themselves with that hate-filled regime, a work by a dissident, the Rev. Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was published. The title in German is “Nachfolge,” which means “Following,” though in English is is known as “The Cost of Discipleship.” In it, Bonhoeffer writes:
“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”
Bonhoeffer got the term “cheap grace” from the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where he attended worship while doing post-graduate studies at Manhattan’s Union Theological Seminary. The experience of the Black Church, the church as resistance to systemic evil, transformed Bonhoeffer. It is easy to argue that it was an authentic conversion experience, an encounter on the road to Damascus, or at least on 138th Street, one that moved the theologian from a faith of the head and thought to a faith of the hands of the heart, of action, that all that Bonhoeffer would become began in a pew at Abyssinian.
Bonhoeffer argued in “Nachfolge” that the church had been so secularized that instead of society conforming to the gospel, the gospel was made to conform to society. A powerful recent study of religion and spirituality in American youth would horrify Bonhoeffer, martyred for acting on his faith, and confirm that his worst fears have come true. The authors coined the term “moral therapeutic deism” to describe the socially-acceptable “do-gooder-ism” that defines most American Christianity, a fluffy faith of cheap grace, the rise of which has exactly matched plummeting church attendance, the rise of the “nones” and “dones.”
Moral therapeutic deism is the faith that does not take a stand, does not make demands, that is a provider of spiritual goods and services in a civic space. It is a faith that lacks the power to change lives. It is a faith that is dead and just doesn’t know it yet.
A faith that has the power to change lives demands something. In our reading from Romans, it demands endurance which leads to character which leads to hope. I’m not completely sold on that equation, though endurance, character and hope are certainly essential marks of discipleship. I just don’t think the only way there is through suffering.
But it is the second reading that seems most relevant to the situation in which the church finds itself today, both the church universal and the church particular.
The country pop star Taylor Swift has made a career out of writing songs about ex-boyfriends. One of her most recent hits takes on the whisper, gossip and talking about others generally, a sin that happens in all settings. I will spare you my voice and the pop-beat repetition, but the refrain basically goes:
Cause the players gonna play,
And the haters gonna hate,
Baby, I’m just gonna shake,
I shake it off,
Heartbreakers gonna break,
And the fakers gonna fake,
Baby, I’m just gonna shake,
I shake it off.
…Sort of like Disney’s Elsa singing “Let It Go,” just without the talking snowman.
We might argue that Swift and Elsa are both too ready to throw off relationships, but we cannot dispute that in today’s gospel, Jesus tells us to do the same thing.
We don’t like this text because we get stuck with the immediate, the short-term cost. We can’t think long term, even if the required treatment will save us. Climate change, anyone?
Jesus is very clear. If you are offering someone God’s word, and they are not receptive, walk away. Let me say that agin. If you bring your gift to a community and they don’t want to hear it, it is your gospel duty to move on.
And whatever clings to you from that place, the dust of that place? Do your best Taylor Swift, and shake it off.
Nothing cheap about a grace that asks you to walk away from relationships, that tells you that following the Way of Jesus, a way that has a laser sharp focus on those at the margins, on the powerless, that choosing to be in relationship with “the least of these,” might cost you something. Not cheap at all.
No thanks. We’ll get our grace at the discount store, as cheap as possible.
Here’s the thing: Discipleship, the justice, kindness and humility demanded by the ancient prophet, might cost you some relationships. But faith is not about width. It is about depth. The relationships centered on Christ are the ones that will last, through crisis and grief. They are the ones that do not get thrown away easily. Quality not quantity. “You shall have no other god before me.” Why? Because God wants your whole heart.
It might cost you something, but it promises you everything. And I’m not talking about a heavenly reward, though there is that promise, that whole “I’m preparing a place in my Father’s house” thing. I’m just not willing to gamble it all on an unknown, and maybe I shouldn’t. The phrase translated from the original Koine Greek as “everlasting life” appears better translated as “life in full.” That is the promise. That you will be who you are meant to be, that your life will be full, if you align yourself with that powerful force of love and serendipitous creativity we call God.
The Way of Jesus is not alive today because it was easy or popular. It was hard.
Watch out for people. They will hand you over to councils. People are going to be divided. Even members of the same family. Whenever they harass you in one city, escape to the next.
That’s a lot to shake off.
And it is gospel. It is a love of God and a love of other humans so powerful that Jesus was compelled to announce the kingdom knowing it would cost him his life. It is a love that prompted Cranmer to hold out the hand that had offended him, that it might be burned first in the fires of execution. It is a love that drove Theresa of Avila to call for reform, to call her order to place purpose before popularity, even if she was sanctioned for doing so.
It is a gospel that drove The Rev. Jonathan Fisher to speak out against slavery and the treatment of Native Americans, writing in the now archaic language of his time and first published in The Christian Mirror on December 20, 1831, a poem that declares a day of reckoning.
The Black-man toils,
Enslaved unjustly; and the Redman mourns,
denied his rights…
It is the gospel that drove other New England Congregationalists to risk everything to fight institutional racism that was hundreds of miles away in other states.
It is a gospel that did cost something. Though I can’t get behind the Rev. Fisher’s zeal for the temperance movement, it should be noted that taking a stand for something he believed in came at a cost. He writes on November 28th, 1831
“Had yesterday a thin audience. The affection of the people of my charge seems to have grown cold against me, partly, I believe, on account of the exertion I have made for the temperance cause.”
Today we are called to a gospel of extravagant welcome. It is good news that says we are all sinners, always in need of grace and courage and divine love, and that every single one of us is a child of God called to repentance and action. It is a gospel that demands and it is a gospel that delivers. It isn’t about whether people like you, like us.
If you speak the truth in love, the haters gonna hate, as Ms. Swift sings. Shake it off! The good news of Jesus is about changing yourself and changing the world. It is about defeating the dog whistle of violence through love and hope.
If a misogynist walks through that doors, we will offer them God’s love and call them out of their sin. If a racist, a xenophobe, an Islamophobe walks through that door, we will invite them in, but we will not distort Christ’s gospel to make it conform to the hatred of society. We will call those who hate out of their hatred precisely because we love them. And when we are afraid, we will say to one another “be not afraid,” and we will count on the depth of our relationships to get us through, to lead us through endurance and character to hope.
The door will always be open to those who walk away, who swam in the shallows rather than diving into the powerful waters of deep faith and deep relationship.
Deep relationship. The power to change lives. An encounter with the holy in sacred places, ancient practices, in other people… these are as much in demand today as they have ever been.
May we never find ourselves in a village that is unable to hear the good news, that demands only the cheapest of grace. May we never find ourselves packing our bags and walking away. May we never need to shake it off.
Stand firm until the end. You will be saved. Amen.