It’s been a bit since I posted a sermon — or anything for that matter — on this blog. This summer I preached without a net; it’s good for me to mix it up. But we’re back to a full morning schedule at St. Mark’s, and I’m back to using a text.
Here’s the one from Sunday. Jesus tells us that unless we hate our friends and relations then we can’t follow him. Yeah, he said that. Continue reading to see what I made of that hard saying from Jesus.
Proper 18C— Based on Luke 14:25-33
Whoever comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, and even life itself—cannot be my disciple.
A number of years ago, a commercial came out depicting a college-aged couple. They were, as my parents would have said, “necking.” They pull apart momentarily, and he looks down at her smiling. He says, “Your lips are so soft,” and she replies, “You’re so sweet.” As they say this, and begin kissing again, the camera pulls back to reveal their shirts. He has on a red Ohio State sweatshirt, and her blue shirt has Michigan emblazoned across it.
Text appears on the screen. “Without sports, this wouldn’t be disgusting.” It peddled ESPN, of course. As someone raised in the great state of Michigan, it made my skin crawl.
Maybe it’s not U of M and Ohio State for you, but it may well be Red Sox-Yankees, or Bruins-Canadiens, or BU-BC. It’s all about loyalty. One team you love—based on birth or family connections or, as in my case with the Sox, because you married into it—and the other you despise.
Large crowds traveled with Jesus, Luke writes, and he turned to them and said, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, and even life itself—cannot be my disciple.” If you want to follow me, Jesus tells them, then you must be loyal to me and my kingdom. When you face a tough choice, don’t go with what your parents say or your spouse or children. Do what I would want you to do.” You must despise or hate who or whatever pulls you away from Christ. If you can’t or are unwilling, well then you aren’t really a disciple after all. “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
Jesus obviously hasn’t read Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People. Lesson number one is all about using honey rather than vinegar. Jesus doesn’t heed this advice. If you’re gonna follow me, he tells them, then your loyalty is to me first, and it’s not going to be easy.
That’s why he tells those two parables. Suppose you want to build a new storehouse, Jesus tells them. Don’t you first sit down and draw up a budget and make sure you have enough to cover the expenses? Because if you don’t, and your building is only half finished, people will ridicule you for not having enough dough to finish the job. Likewise, if a king is in a conflict with a neighboring ruler, before engaging in a battle he makes sure his army can handle the fight. Otherwise, if he can’t, he’ll send over a peace agreement before things get out of hand.
In both cases, these people counted the cost. They figured out what it would take and then took a good hard look at their own situations and decided from there. And that, Jesus tells the large crowds traveling with him, is what they should do too.
Which is quite the opposite of what we in Christianity often say. When someone new comes into the church, we don’t tell them about how hard it might be or what could happen if their loyalties went to Jesus first. We talk about how easy it is to join our church, about the low level of commitment. The conversation often follows the well-rehearsed script you might hear on a car lot, “So what’ll it take to get you into this wonderful church today? No money down? Low monthly cost? No commitment? You’ve got it!”
“Whoever comes to me and doesn’t hate…even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
For Jesus it’s all about commitment. And he tells would be followers upfront that there’s a cost to following him. They really need to consider that before pulling up stakes and following him.
And then Luke’s Jesus seems to go for the jugular: “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” I can tell you the looks I get when I suggest folks give away 10% of what they make. But Jesus tosses in the other 90% as well. In a country like ours where it’s hard to talk about money—it’s the last great taboo, it seems—this is completely ludicrous. Give up all my possessions? Surely you jest, Jesus.
So two questions remain: what does it cost us to follow Jesus and why should we bear that cost anyway?
If we consider Jesus’ opening line about loyalty, about making sure our allegiance stayed with him no matter what, then it might become clearer as we consider the cost. Imagine taking a stand about giving aid to undocumented aliens and being questioned on that by people you love. Scripture says, “If a foreigner resides in your land, you must not oppress him.” That could be costly. Or maybe you decide to stay committed to your vows and work on your marriage although things have gotten tough and you’ve noticed supposedly greener pastures. Telling a friend you can’t grab a drink after work because you’re off to feed the homeless is tough. Perhaps you stick up for a person being mocked because of who they are, or you refuse to turn a blind eye to your boss who is cheating the investors or you decide to give away a portion of your income. Maybe your friends don’t see why you read your Bible or they can’t understand your making church a priority on Sundays. All of those things would certainly reflect the way of Jesus. But they come at a price that may include friends or family members calling you nuts.
Or maybe the one thinking this is all crazy isn’t someone else but you yourself. To imagine that Jesus would ask anything substantial from you makes you scratch your head. In part, because we rarely talk about how following Jesus devotedly might actually cost us, and because we seldom think of our faith as asking for a sacrifice from us. The cultural soup we swim in constantly tells us that we are the most important and that we should always look out for our best interests. To even imagine the life Jesus is proposing is counter-cultural.
So why would we do it? Why follow Jesus? In a similar passage from John’s gospel after Jesus gives a hard teaching, many who had been following him turn back. “You don’t want to leave too, do you?” he asks the Twelve. Peter speaks up first, “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” And that’s what I would say too. It’s hard sometimes to follow Jesus, to love your enemies and to pray for them, or to live on a little bit less money each month, or to promote beliefs that may at times put you at odds with both political parties. Or your faith may cause you to be lumped together with other Christians who seem a bit odd.
Yet, even though there is a cost, it is so worth it. The sacrifice is nothing in comparison to the deep contentment and joy I have found in following Christ. Other things that garner our loyalty, well they let us down, don’t they? The Sox are great entertainment, but in the end it’s all a business and about making money for John Henry. But Jesus gave up his very life for us and lived they way he wants us to live. Jesus doesn’t ask us to go someplace where he himself hasn’t led the way.
What about you? What is the driving force behind your actions and choices? Where do your loyalties lie? With this one who came to bring life? Or with something—or someone—else? If the first thing you use to describe yourself isn’t “Christ follower” but rather “banker” or “mom” or “American” or “Red Sox fan” or “husband” or whatever else it is, Jesus is asking you to reconsider. If the thought of selling all you have crushes your spirit entirely, maybe your stuff has too much power over you. That’s what following Jesus costs us. It’s costs us our lives. And the life we get in return far exceeds anything this world can offer; I, for one, am banking my life on it. Amen.