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I don’t know how many times you’ve moved in your life. Some of us here today may have lived in the same place our whole life. Others may move from place to place each night looking for a safe place to sleep. And for others of us it may be in between, moving around every few years or so.
By my count I’ve moved about 14 or 15 times in my life. Growing up, my family moved roughly every three years. So I’ve had a lot of practice with the winnowing process of what to bring along and what not to. And yet all that practice doesn’t make it easy. I once had a Halloween costume with a pirate hat and plastic sword. I only ever wore it one time, but for some reason that hat and sword made it through more than one move. It just kept making it into a box. I might need it someday!
Some of us may be more pack rats than others, but I think all of us have the same need to hold on to the things that make us feel secure. So the Gospel reading for today is challenging. “Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
Those of us here today who are homeless have a better insight into this passage than anyone else. For Jesus this passage is pretty often literally true. He and his friends go from town to town preaching and looking for people to take them in. He’s just been kicked out by a village of Samaritans, who won’t put him up for the night because Jews and Samaritans don’t get along and he’s on his way to the Jewish capital, Jerusalem. But when he gets to Jerusalem, what waits for him is worse: trial, humiliation, and death on a cross.
Perhaps you’ve seen the movie Romero, which came out in 1989. It’s based on the life of Oscar Romero, archbishop of El Salvador in the late 1970’s. At the opening of the film, Bishop Romero has a nice, cushy place to lay his head. He’s surrounded by well-spoken members of the government who offer him congratulations on his position and ask for private baptisms for their babies. But when Romero begins to realize what the gospel demands of him, he has to abandon that security. He’s a conservative man with a deep life of prayer. And that prayer life leads him to speak out against the government’s repression of poor people. He negotiates with rebels and celebrates Mass in occupied cities. And on the 24th of March, 1980, Bishop Romero was assassinated. For Bishop Romero, learning to follow Jesus meant giving up his prestige, his comfort, and in the end, his life.
Sometimes the things that keep us from walking in Jesus’s footsteps are more subtle. In the reading we heard today from Galatians, Paul calls on us to “be guided by the Spirit.” When we follow Jesus, we’re not led by a system of rules and regulations. As Paul writes, “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” We might prefer having clear laundry lists of what’s right and wrong. But in Christ those are swept away in favor of the rule of love.
Often we get uncomfortable with that way of living. Instead of living in the tension of listening to the Spirit’s guidance, of being open to change and new ideas, we retreat into the neat mental systems we construct to explain reality. You might say we “lay our heads down.” Having things figured out is a soft pillow.
It’s ironic that even as Paul writes about living in freedom and not submitting to the slavery of the law, people through the centuries have used this exact passage as a checklist for who’s going to heaven and who isn’t. “Fornication—check. Drunkenness—check. Idolatry—check. Carousing!” (A lot of Episcopalians I know might be in trouble there. There was a little holy carousing this weekend around Bishop Megan’s consecration.) But Paul’s point isn’t to make a checklist about what behavior gets you saved and what behavior doesn’t. God’s grace doesn’t come from our good behavior. Grace is a free gift of love that leads us to love God and neighbor in return. Holy, transformed lives are the fruit of God’s grace, not a condition for it.
James and John were thinking in terms of conditions and checklists, of who’s in and who’s out. When they got rejected by the Samaritans, they knew who was out. They wanted to torch the village with fire from above. Jesus sets James and John straight—and he does the same to us. We may not be as brash as James and John, but we may well have those moments when we’d like to torch our enemies, if not literally then at least metaphorically. How different it would be if we heard Paul’s words: “Through love become servants to one another.”
In our life as the Church, the Holy Spirit is constantly shaking us up—if we’re able to listen. Through the Spirit’s promptings, the Church has realized that things faithful people had taken for granted for centuries were totally incompatible with the Gospel of Christ. Two centuries ago, people could scarcely envision a world without slavery. Just two generations ago in a large part of the United States people could barely imagine a time when people of different colors could drink from the same spigot. When the Spirit opens people’s eyes, new and exciting things happen. But those things can also be threatening. Changing the way we do things threatens our sense of comfort—that’s part of what it can mean not to have a place to lay our heads.
Yesterday in an amazing ceremony we ordained our dear sister Megan Traquair as our new bishop. It was a beautiful day and one that was completely unexceptional. And just a few years ago it would have been completely radical. It was exactly thirty years ago that our church, the Episcopal Church, ordained its first female bishop. In 1989 that was radical. It was only fifteen years before that in 1974 that we ordained our first female priests. I think I hardly need to say, today, that this Episcopal corner of the Body of Christ is not only hugely enriched by its female clergy. I don’t think we would exist without our female clergy. As a child of the Episcopal Church in the early 80s I grew up with female clergy, thanks be to God. And yet it took us until 1989 to welcome women as bishops. And we’re still learning what it means to welcome the gifts of people who are gay, or lesbian, or transgender. There are those for whom these changes have been hard. And we have to be gracious to one another during change. It’s not always easy to tell whether a change to the status quo is the Holy Spirit or not. But in the meantime, our job is to follow that great commandment to love one another.
The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. In our journey with our Lord, we can be held back by the things we think we need—whether they’re material things, social status, or long-held beliefs. As we learn to walk the way of the Messiah, may we be guided by the Spirit out of all the things that we think make us secure, and into the only real security there is—the challenging joy of walking with God.