The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18c): September 8, 2013
Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33
Preacher: The Rev. Samuel J. Smith, Assistant Priest, St. Michael’s Church
Well, here we go again. Jesus is up to his usual devices, saying things that surprise and puzzle us. Speaking to the crowd following him on the road to Jerusalem, Jesus makes bold demands. “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” and then, as if that weren’t enough to shake us up, at the end of the passage he says, “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
Wow. What is he suggesting here? Could Jesus really be asking us to give up our families and everything we own for the sake of discipleship?
And furthermore, what were the creators of the lectionary thinking? On the Sunday when we are kicking off the new program year, complete with new beginnings and hopes that members will again place a priority on being here, we read a gospel that proclaims the abandonment of family? Couldn’t we have read this in the middle of the summer, when fewer people were here, and when our brains, addled from heat and humidity, might not have even remembered such a demand was made?
Nonetheless, we have made a deal as a church to wrestle with the gospel as it comes to us in the lectionary, even when it feels awkward and inappropriate – maybe especially then. So it is our job to dive in and try to understand exactly what Jesus is asking. But I can’t say I would blame any preacher who would turn instead to the Old Testament or Epistle lessons, avoiding these rather perplexing and challenging edicts from Jesus.
And yet— when we avoid tough passages like this one, it seems to me we miss an opportunity to wrestle with the paradoxes of being Christian. Avoiding today’s gospel is to skip over an important, but very challenging point: Christian discipleship is more than just a matter of lip service. Discipleship demands more than just proclaiming that we are disciples—in fact, much more. This morning’s gospel, if it makes anything clear, certainly points up that following the example of Christ, being disciples, requires sacrifice.
Christ reminds us once again that the life he offers turns the world upside down. Fully embracing Christ’s message means placing ourselves outside of the norms of society. It is far from easy. To be successful disciples, we must understand that the way of the cross is all-encompassing. Jesus demands to be in first place in our lives.
But I have to say, this doesn’t feel like a great sales strategy for church membership. How are we to hold each other to such a standard? After all, many of us have families that we care for; how could we ever in good conscience forsake them? And yes, I could ask you to give up your possessions – to resist buying the next cell phone, or to forego the winter vacation you are already planning, or to restrict your clothes shopping only to Goodwill—how would those acts move us any closer to Christ? Wouldn’t they instead make us all cranky, resentful and envious?
So what are we to make of this? Well, after we agree that we shouldn’t let ourselves off the hook—that we need to wrestle with these hard ideas—perhaps we should remember that Jesus and the writers of the gospel stories were all storytellers. They use various methods to make important points. One understanding of this passage is that Jesus may be using hyperbole—that is, deliberate exaggeration used for effect. Perhaps Jesus says these things about hate and about giving up everything in order to draw our attention, and to make a point. This may simply be very effective language. I know it works, because this passage has had me thinking about its meaning all week. Sometimes Jesus says things that seem extreme in order to be sure we get it.
And yet, this too seems like finding the easy way out. What if, instead of only seeing this as hyperbole, we look at the ways we relate to the very things that Jesus in focusing on here: family and possessions? Maybe Jesus is asking us to examine those relationships.
Let’s start with the easier one first. When I think about my relationship to possessions, I am reminded that I have always been one who liked things. I have always had cherished possessions.
In December of 1972 I was ten years old, and what I wanted to find under the Christmas tree more than anything else was a Seance board game.
Now I doubt that many of you remember this game—it was not a big hit. It had an elaborate three-dimensional set-up of a Victorian parlor, with a focus on a big table. Inside the table was a record player of sorts, from which a ghostly voice would speak at the end of the game, revealing clues that led to the game’s winner.
I think I wanted it most because of that elaborate set-up—from a young age I loved theatrics, and this certainly felt like a model for a stage set. But I think I also wanted it because it was (at the moment) a hot commodity, and it was not cheap. I knew it was asking a lot for my parents to buy me this gift. But it felt really important to me to get such a prized gift. You see, I grew up in an affluent suburb of Austin, Texas, and I knew that many of my friends, whose fathers made much more money than my Methodist Pastor dad, would get this game for Christmas.
Most of my school friends had pretty much everything they wanted – in those days the desired items for boys were transistor radios, cool bikes with banana seats and chopper handlebars, a full complement of Hot Wheels model cars; and of course whatever latest toy was being heavily advertised during Saturday-morning cartoons. It seemed to me that my friends got everything that was cool. And not only that; they had all the coolest posters in their large bedrooms; they went on vacations to Disney World, or Hawaii; they spent summers at their family lake houses, or in their backyard pools. And I wanted to keep up.
It seems to be the human condition to want stuff—and to envy those who have more than we. My guess is that many of you could tell similar stories of growing up, whether your family was affluent or poor. We always want more.
I wonder if Jesus might be pointing not so much to our possessions, but to the power they have over us. Even today, I certainly cling to my gadgets—my iPhone is never far from my fingertips—and I am attached to it probably for the same reasons that I wanted that board game over 40 years ago now. It’s really cool—and it makes me feel like I am part of the “in” crowd. These things often become false idols for us. They take our attention away from what really matters; we are distracted by them, and unable to see the things in life that are most important.
But of course, Jesus calls us here to give up so much more than just our things. What might Jesus be saying about our relationship to family?
OK—my inner voice is saying to me right now, “Watch out! There are lots of mine fields here—Don’t step on any toes or blow anything up! Family relationships are very complicated, and everyone is unique. But it is interesting to me that this passage seems to equate families with possessions. And maybe that’s where we can find something interesting to contemplate.
How have we made our family relationships objects of ownership? Do we sometimes make those relationships idols in themselves? Or do we sometimes treasure them exactly as they are, gripping our loved ones so tight as to strangle them, not allowing the relationship to grow and change as it needs to?
I am certainly not willing to believe that Jesus doesn’t understand our familial relationships as embodiments of his love, or that Jesus would have us abandon mother, fathers, spouses and children for him alone. But maybe Jesus wants us to examine our role in those relationships, and wants us to be sure that the ways of love that he embodies—mutuality, respect, selflessness—are at the core of those relationships. Maybe Jesus is warning us against thinking of those we love, or our relationships with them, as possessions.
Well, these are all interesting meanderings around the gospel. But I find myself called back to the central idea of sacrifice. Verse 27 says, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” That seems pretty straight-forward. Christ calls us to sacrificial action. And I must say, it makes me pretty uncomfortable.
One of my favorite biblical commentators, David Lose, points out that this “language of sacrifice, and counting the cost. and crosses” is not something we usually emphasize, “particularly in an era when people have so many options for spending their Sunday mornings.” He says, “We tend to avoid asking for significant sacrifice and try to make church involvement as easy as possible. We emphasize God’s grace and work our schedules for fellowship, education or youth group around school calendars and community activities as much as possible.”[i]
But today, and always, Christ calls us to more. What would sacrifice look like for you? I’m not asking you to make that sacrifice right now—but I am challenging you to think about what you might have to give up to strengthen your walk in the light of Christ. Maybe it means saying yes when you are asked to teach Sunday School or join the Altar Guild, even though you have dreaded being pinned down to regular attendance at church. Maybe it means engaging in a regular prayer routine every morning, even though it might cost you 30 minutes of precious sleep. Maybe it means making a stretch pledge to the church this coming year, giving up a few nice dinners or extra pairs of shoes.
Or maybe it’s all about intentionality for you. Maybe it’s really making a commitment to figuring out what you believe, and what truly matters in your life, rather than just hoping that sitting in the pews on a regular basis will work it all out. Or maybe that you won’t be just a closet Christian, but will make an effort to find the right opportunities to talk to your work colleagues, your friends, and your neighbors about how this community has made a difference in your life, and why they might find something of value here too. These are sacrifices of a sort too, because they may challenge you to move out of your comfort zone and into uncharted water.
So maybe the devisers of the lectionary knew what they were doing after all. Today’s gospel is one that shakes us out of our complacency. It is one that snaps us to attention, and challenges us to think about the relationships in our lives.
And above all, today’s gospel reminds us that Jesus wishes for us to become disciples; to embody his message for the world.
And our world is in such need of the love of Christ! My head is still swimming with the stirring images of the March on Washington, which we remembered on its 50th anniversary last week. In his stirring speech, The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of the “fierce urgency of now.” In a week when we are facing hard decisions about acts of war abroad and important elections here at home, there is an urgency, to be sure. Just as there is an urgency to the many activities starting up again here in our church home.
Jesus asks us to act now—to consider how we will live our lives as his disciples. Of course it is not easy to take this challenge of sacrifice. But remember that God, who knows our innermost thoughts and fears and hopes, knows the ways that we are limiting ourselves, or distracting ourselves, or not challenging ourselves, keeping us from being all that God so desires we would become. In this call to sacrifice, we are urged not merely to give up those things that hinder us, but to take up in their stead the way of the cross.
We are called today to become our best selves, living into the difficult call to be disciples of Christ, and that’s a great way to start the new program year. So welcome, or welcome back, or welcome still to St. Michael’s—a place where we learn together, and pray together, and laugh and cry, and sing, and serve, so that we might become the light of Christ for ourselves and for the world. Amen.
[i] Lose, David. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2726, accessed 09/03/2013.