Just before 9/11 I moved to the Twin Cities from Los Angeles. I had to drive my car cross country, and so I decided to do some sightseeing on the journey. I’d never seen the Grand Canyon, so I stopped there. Now I’m not a very visual person and not easily wowed by things I see. But I will tell you that when I caught sight of the Grand Canyon, it blew my mind. I was stunned by how impossibly vast and intricate and beautiful it was. It totally captured my imagination. If you stand at the rim of the Grand Canyon you can look an entire mile straight down. Then a park ranger told me that every step you take on a path leading down into the Grand Canyon represents 20,000 years of erosion—so that the rocks at the very bottom of the Canyon are 2 billion years old. The place captivated me. I just about decided to move there because there seemed to be no end of what I could explore. I could spend the rest of my life, there, endlessly engaged, without ever losing my sense of awe and wonder.
Well obviously, I didn’t move to the Grand Canyon. In the end my life moved in a different direction. But the notion of something vast and beautiful enough to completely capture my imagination, for which it would be worth altering my relationship with everything else in my life, has never left me.
In today’s text Jesus says some pretty intense things—he says, unless you hate your family, you can’t be my disciple. Unless you take up your cross and follow me, you can’t be my disciple. Unless you give up everything you have, you can’t be my disciple. These sound strange and radical and impossible. Surely Jesus can’t be asking us to actually hate our own families, for example—that would contradict other essential biblical teachings, like honor your father and mother, and God is love. I think Jesus is saying that there are three things that give most of us our sense of safety and identity: our family, our stuff, and our very lives. These three important things have to yield to the paramount decision to follow Jesus. By comparison to love for following the way of Jesus, the security and worth we get from our families, our stuff, and even our own lives, are less important, not even on the same scale. But what in the world can get us from where we sit today to the experience that following Jesus is a truer barometer of our security and worth than our families and our stuff and our lives? What would inspire a commitment like that?
The vision Jesus has been describing, of the kingdom he is bringing about, is as vast and incredible as the Grand Canyon. Earlier in Luke’s gospel Jesus says what his mission is: he has been sent by God and empowered by God’s Spirit to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of God’s favor. This is the way of Jesus, this vision we have been exploring at St. Matthews, and it is worth everything we have. But the way of Jesus can only inspire us to the depth of our being, like that, if we have had an encounter with God or God’s kingdom—unless we see God’s healing, God’s liberation, for ourselves. I had heard of the Grand Canyon all my life, and had seen many pictures of it. But until I saw it with my own eyes it just stayed in my list of a hundred places I hoped I could visit someday.
This past year I listened to Krista Tippet’s NPR Show, On Being, when she was interviewing a Jesuit priest in Los Angeles named Father Greg Boyle. Some of you may remember that Blair talked about Father Gregory Boyle in her sermon earlier this summer. Just to remind you, Father Gregory, following the way of Jesus, started something called Homeboy Industries. It’s an organization made up of former gang members in the worst section of Los Angeles, and they have created several businesses. They employ the gang members no one else will hire. It’s one of the most successful gang intervention programs in the country. One young man there told the story of how his mother abused him so badly that at school he always wore three t-shirts, one over the other, so no one could see his wounds. Then when he grew up he still wore three t-shirts so no one could see his scars. But now he speaks to other gang members and tries to help them, and he says that if he didn’t have those scars, he would never have the ability to reach out to others in the same way. So now he treats his scars with love and respect and is no longer ashamed of them. When Father Greg saw this his response was total awe. I imagine he felt something like I did when I first saw the Grand Canyon. This young man’s healing captivated him. So, Father Greg calls each of these gang members his sons. He has prayed for them, intervened in their lives. He has buried more than 150 of them. They have broken his heart, and also awed and delighted him. He has given his life for them, and they have become his family. Reaching out to the poor and the forgotten, and witnessing how God heals and liberates them, is one way I think God’s kingdom is realized. Seeing that for yourself is beautiful and magnificent and worth everything we have. It’s worth any pain or suffering that we go through to experience and participate in it. And it is just one corner, one facet, of something even larger, something impossibly cosmic in scope, whose full dimensions we can never finish exploring and can’t even imagine.
The way of Jesus is like that. It isn’t one limited idea that you can keep on your shelf and dust off every time it happens to catch your attention. It is an unimaginably beautiful vision, that you can keep exploring your whole life with every part of who you are, body, mind, and spirit, for the sake of seeing beautiful things—beauty like the liberation of that young man, beauty like our own healing where we are broken. It is real and it is worth discovering. It is what I pray for the youths I know at Youthlink, where I go to build relationships with homeless young adults in Minneapolis. One homeless young woman I spoke with this week, let’s call her Angie, has attempted suicide several times because her mother never wanted her. Her mother had abandoned several other babies at the hospital and intended to do the same with Angie, but somehow was forced to take Angie home. This mother has repeatedly told Angie that she would never be any good except on her back. But Angie has a dream. Even though she is only 20 years old and has never had anyone believe in her, she wants to create an organization where young abused kids and abused animals gather and begin to receive healing through their interactions with each other. I think it’s a brilliant idea. I am awed by Angie. I pray God’s healing and liberation for Angie, and I believe with all my heart that her healing is possible. I believe that the vision of God’s kingdom is not a picture on a postcard or an idea in a book, but a reality that is worth changing my relationship with everything I have—family, stuff, and life.
As the people of St. Matthews explore the way of Jesus, my prayer is that we can collectively see how breathtaking a vision it is. What would it take for you to be captivated by the healing God is bringing about through the way of Jesus? I pray we can collectively see that it is worth following with everything that we are and everything that we have. It doesn’t mean we have to become fanatics or lose our capacity for small talk or stop thinking critically or no longer be able to watch TV. But it is worth sacrifice. It means that in our own corners of the world, wherever we work and live and commute and to whatever unexpected places God leads us, we can be looking out for signs of how God is already active and moving in those places—and then we can follow Jesus through the practices we are exploring here, like simplicity and hospitality and generosity and prayer, and watch God’s kingdom be established, on earth as it is in heaven.