Sunday, September 8, 2019
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
Marcos and I recently returned from a wonderful time in his native Brazil, visiting family and renewing ties with old friends. This was my 17thor 18thvisit, but let me tell you, it never gets old. I am still thrilled by the sites and sounds, smells and experiences. True to form, I ate too much and drank and sang and laughed. It was a good vacation. I hope you had a good vacation too.
It was busy here at church in the weeks before I left, so, I didn’t do what I usually do before I go away on vacation. Usually, I look ahead and do some preliminary research on the sermon for the week after I return. I do that because I find that subconsciously I’m already formulating my thoughts for the post-vacation sermon. And it makes my reentry a little easier.
Well, thank God I didn’t do that this time! If I had, I would have spent my South American holiday fretting about what I was going to say to you about this: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
These words are shocking. They shock us because one of our most fundamental values as a society is the love of family. It’s right up there with baseball and apple pie. We’ve even elevated the modern nuclear family as a bedrock of our faith. Travel across these United States and you will find churches in every town with names like “Family Life Center” or “Heritage Family Church.”
It’s interesting to me that we have come to deify so-called family values as much as we have, because the Bible does not speak about family values in the same way that we do. Most biblical families didn’t look anything like ours. Men often had more than one wife, and if they were rich enough, plenty of concubines too. Females – both wives and daughters - were thought of as property. And only the oldest male child inherited the bulk of the family’s wealth. Those were the family values of biblical times.
But even though those values were so much different than ours, we can safely assume that there was still a lot of love there, that there was commitment and loyalty and sacrifice and joy and comfort and celebration. And we can assume that they were just as gob smacked as we are by these words: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
Luke makes a point of telling us that “large crowds were traveling” with Jesus on that day. And Luke says that before speaking these shocking words, Jesus turned around to look directly at the people.
In Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film The Gospel According to Matthew, the character of Jesus is often shot from behind so that the perspective of the viewer is that of someone in the crowd following him. But every once in a while Pasolini has Jesus turn to deliver a difficult saying directly to the camera, almost as if daring the viewer to continue following him. Maybe that’s what Jesus did here. Maybe he wanted the people who thought they wanted to follow him to know exactly what that meant.
So, what are we to do with this difficult passage? Cut out losses, sing a hymn, and go home? Well, we could, but we might miss an important lesson. And there’s actually some good news in it, believe it or not. There’s also challenging news here. But first, the good.
What Jesus meant by the word hate and what we mean by it are two very different things. For us, hate is a visceral response to something repulsive. But when Jesus uses the word hate in this passage, most scholars agree that was employing something called Semitic hyperbole – a common kind of speech that was a purposeful exaggeration in order to make a point. It was a teaching tool; a rhetorical device. And Jesus employs it throughout the Gospel accounts.
In addition, in the ancient world, in which extended families were everything, “hating” one’s family didn’t mean that you had a negative emotional response to them. It meant doing something that would have been embarrassing or shameful for them - like running off after some dusty rabbi named Jesus and leaving your responsibilities behind. We know this is the case because “letters survive to this day of some Roman families who complained that their son or daughter had run off and joined some (cockamamie) group called the ‘Christians.’” (Robert Tannehill)
So, the good news is that when Jesus said hate and when we say hate, we mean very different things. But there’s also the challenging news, and it’s simply this: being a disciple of Jesus actually costs us something. And sometimes it costs us a great deal.
I don’t preach that very much. After all, how do you build a church, grows it membership and ministries, by telling people how hard it’s going to be to follow Jesus? But maybe that reluctance has been a mistake. Some church experts believe that the decline of our mainline churches is due, at least in part, by our well-intentioned but fatally flawed attempts to make the Christian life as easy as possible; to not ask too much of people. And yet, don’t you know from your own life that what you sacrifice for, you value more. And the people who heard Jesus that day – who had left their homes and families in order to find the Kingdom of God – knew the value of that sacrifice.
And here’s some more good news, and some more challenging news. First the good news: we shouldn’t read this passage as an ultimatum about God’s love for us. Jesus isn’t saying that if we don’t pick up our crosses and follow, then God won’t love us. God always loves us – and always, always will. There isn’t anything you have even do to make God stop loving you. So, this is not about love. This is about discipleship. And so here’s the challenging bit: claiming Christian faith and being a disciple may not be exactly the same thing. I can love Jesus, but draw the line at sacrificing too much. And to be completely honest with you, there have been great stretches of my life that I have been perfectly content to have warm, fuzzy feelings for Jesus, but not really be a disciple.
This world has plenty of folks who know that Jesus loves them. But it has far fewer people willing to incarnate that love. It’s wonderful to sit in this room and feel God’s love, but it’s much better still to buy tools for someone in the developing world or supplies for a Bahamian family or two or ten by not going out to eat this week, by not buying those new sneakers, by not saving quite as much so that others can rebuild their shattered lives. It’s wonderful to feel loved and welcomed in this room. But it’s better still for this church to be a bold place of wide welcome for those so often not welcomed, even if some folks in town think we’ve gone too far. It’s wonderful to exult in the change of the seasons. But it’s better still to stand in solidarity with God’s creation, to write letters and march in the streets and sound the alarm about creation’s ever-accelerating destruction.
This beautiful but broken world has plenty of people who admire Jesus. But what it really needs is disciples.