Sunday, September 05, 2004

Proper 18 C

Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 1; Philemon 1-20; Luke 14:25-33

So, therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. What could Jesus possibly say to us that would be less appealing, less encouraging, than this. Let’s see. Oh, I know. Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters....That’s less appealing. Tack on the also unpopular Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple, and we’ve got this morning’s not-so-encouraging gospel reading.

There were large crowds traveling with Jesus that day, presumably because they liked what they had been seeing and hearing. Blessed are the poor and hungry and those who weep, he had preached on the plain. I say to you rise, he had said to a widow’s dead son, and the boy sat up and began to speak. Your sins are forgiven, he had told a woman, known to be sinner, who knelt to wash his feet. He had chased away demons, calmed raging seas, fed thousands with bread and fish, healed countless diseases and infirmities, turned dinner parties literally upside-down, and he never lacked for a good story to tell about the kingdom of God.

There were large crowds traveling with Jesus that day, their hearts and minds and bellies so full of miracles that they were ready to follow him anywhere. I wonder if any of them noticed that the road they were on led to Jerusalem. I wonder how many would then have turned away had they known what would happen to Jesus there. Would their hearts have melted, their minds clouded, and their bellies turned?

I think this is what Jesus might have been wondering that day. Wondering if the crowd that so enthusiastically clung to his words and his works would still be clinging at the cross. Wondering if the crowd followed him because he helped them feel good, or if they followed him because he helped them feel God.

You really want to walk this road with me? he asked them. You really want to be my disciple? Because it’s not enough to have eaten my bread, to have had your hurts healed, to have sat at my feet and listened to my stories. Here’s what you will have to do. Unless you hate your family, unless you carry a cross, unless you give up all your possessions, you cannot be my disciple.
It’s not exactly an inspiring recruitment speech, is it? Not at all like the one Moses gave, when he told the Israelites that if they followed God they would receive blessing upon blessing. Choose life, Moses urged them, choose God, for that means life to you and length of days. Choose life, loving the Lord your God, walking in God’s ways, and observing God’s commandments....and the Lord your God will bless you.

That’s the deal the crowds thought they were getting. Blessing upon blessing. Hadn’t their lives already been blessed in so many different ways since they began traveling with Jesus?

But suddenly Jesus seems to offer a much different deal. Choose life, he urged them (and he urges us), choose life, choose God, and you will have to hate your family, take up a cross, and give up all your possessions.

I wonder how large his crowd was the next day. Luke doesn’t say. We only know that by the time he did make it to Jerusalem, the crowd that had so enthusiastically clung to him began to whisper and then to shout crucify him, and at the foot of the cross, only a handful remained.

How can it be that to choose life, to choose God, to choose God who is the creator and sustainer of all that lives - how can it be that to choose life we must also choose death? To choose love we must also choose hate? Didn’t Moses say it was an either/or? We can choose life and prosperity or death and adversity? How can Jesus tell us that to choose life we must hate life?

When texts are difficult, like this one, we tend to search for a way out. Sometimes there really are contexts particular to the time and place where Jesus was speaking that make his words sound harsher than they are. Sometimes there are nuances in the Greek text that become lost when translated into English. But there doesn’t seem to be a way out today.

In the Ancient Middle East, family was terribly important. It was the source of one’s identity, the source of one’s standing in society, and very literally the source of one’s life. Without family, a person was invisible, on the margins of society, and without any assurance of a place to live or food to eat. Today our families are more scattered, and we are less likely to be dependent on our extended families for food and shelter. But to be asked to hate our mothers and fathers, our spouses and children, our brothers and sisters....even in the most fragile of family relationships this demand melts the heart a little, clouds the mind, and makes our bellies turn.

So does the thought of carrying a cross - we no longer execute criminals this way, but we are well aware that a cross is a mark of shame and an instrument of death, and that it is indeed where Jesus was headed as he traveled toward Jerusalem. And then to give up all our possessions - how much more difficult is this command for us than it was for the large crowds who traveled with Jesus that day, the poor, the hungry, the weak, the outcast....and we who have three meals a day, a roof over our heads, a car to take us shopping, and probably so much more....

The contexts have shifted in 2000 years, but Jesus’ words still sound harsh.

And there is nothing in the translation to help us, either. The Greek word we translate as "hate" may not actually mean the opposite of "love," but it does clearly mean to place as a lower priority than something else. We are to place our families and even life itself as a lower priority than God. A little easier to stomach, perhaps, but still bitter to the taste.

If we give up our families, if we give up our possessions, if we give up our fears of ridicule and suffering and death, what do we have left to sustain our lives?

We have God. We have God.

And having God, we need nothing else. This is what Jesus wanted those who would be his disciples to know. I think it is what Moses wanted the Israelites to know. Having God, we need nothing else because having God, we have everything.

We have Love, the kind that does not fear, that does not judge, that does not end. That’s how God loves us. And it is this Love that then becomes the source of our love for our fathers and mothers, our spouses and children, our sisters and brothers. It is this Love that makes sisters and brothers out of all of us here, and all those whom we meet out there, and even all those who we will not meet. I will never forget the letter my mom sent me at a youth retreat when I was in high school - she wrote, "It gives me joy to know we are not just mother and daughter but sisters in Christ."

Having God, we have everything. We have Strength, the kind that does not force, that does not give up, that does not lose hope. That’s how Jesus walked to Jerusalem, and it’s how he was able to endure the cross. It is this Strength that then becomes the source of our strength to take up the cross in our own day, to risk humiliation, rejection, and perhaps even death in order to bear witness to God’s love for the world. We do not bear the cross alone.

Having God, we have everything. We have Life, the kind that does not fear being lost but knows that it is for ever found, the kind that does not live for itself but lives for others, the kind that does not know scarcity but only abundance. It is this Life that makes us able to regard our possessions not as ours alone but as gifts we have to share. One of the many desperate people who come to St. Paul’s daily seeking financial assistance delivered the best sermon on stewardship I have ever heard. He said, "It’s not like we’re being asked to give up what’s ours - it all comes from God anyway, right? From God having made us able to do certain things and be certain things...."

Love, Strength, Life....blessing upon blessing upon blessing....Jesus wasn’t changing the deal Moses offered - I think he was just highlighting the fine print. Moses warned the Israelites, because he knew them all too well, if your heart turns away....if you are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish. When we put anything, anything before God who is Love, who is Strength, who is Life, then we are living as less than who we were created to be. Our lives are diminished, even if they are filled with family and possessions and security.

When we put God before everything else, then everything else in our lives is transformed. Choosing God, choosing Life, choosing discipleship is not just about clinging to the One who fills our hearts and minds and bellies with miracles. Choosing God, choosing life is also walking with Jesus to the cross. Love that does not end, Strength that will not lose hope, and Life that will cannot be lost sustain us as we go.

Let us pray in the words of Julian of Norwich, "God, of your goodness give me yourself, for you are enough for me. If I ask anything that is less, I shall be in want, for only in you do I have all." Amen.