Sunday September 5 2010 Proper 18C
Text: Luke 14: 25-33
Preacher: Christopher McLaren
Theme “If you can’t get out of it, get into it.”
If you were working for Jesus as his Public Relations officer the day he delivered this difficult sermon you might have considered it a nightmare. Jesus is finally attracting large crowds, he’s surrounded by groups of people who are deeply attracted to him and his proclamation of good news. They are eating up his preaching, calling their friends to join them with a picnic lunch and then he turns to these eager crowds and delivers a real show stopper. We’re not sure what Jesus had for breakfast that day or if someone had just told Jesus, “Look at all these people, we’re finally attracting a following, we’re becoming successful this is amazing.”
Jesus turning to the crowd and thinking I guess its time to agitate them a bit begins to preach, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father or mother, wife or children, brothers and sister, yes even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”. So much for mistaking Jesus for an epicurean or hedonist.
The crowd around Jesus gets real quiet. I can just see the quick press conference being called. His PR disciple, was that Thaddeus or John, the one with the silver tongue, stepping up to the microphones and cameras to do some damage control, “I want to explain what Jesus really meant by that rather strong statement, well he certainly did not mean to literally hate your mother and father, (though some of you may already) at least not hate like we would ordinarily think about, he meant more keeping things in proper perspective. Thank You. Jesus will be preaching less difficult parables again tomorrow after a nice hot bath and good night’s sleep.
The problem of course is that before the press conference can be called Jesus adds a few things. And another thing, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. Anybody who begins a building project without first counting the costs runs the risk of looking really stupid when he runs out of building materials and cannot finish the project, evidently like the mayor of the town we just passed through. And another thing, A king who rushes into a war without seriously considering whether or not he has enough troops to have a chance of winning the war, runs the risk of looking rather foolish when he is begging for terms of peace and exposing his people to servitude. Count the cost people, this isn’t some kind of happy hour show its going to cost you. Oh, and one more thing: “You can’t be my disciple if you don’t give up everything you own” That’s it for today. I’ll have more tough tracks for you tomorrow.
That is a seriously difficult sermon. The next verse, although it is not printed in all of your translations of the Bible is this: the large crowds were a great deal smaller after this sermon.
In some ways what is most amazing is that the sermon was kept as part of the tradition. The writers of the gospels actually preserved the difficult sayings of Jesus and at times added to them.
What is true of Jesus is that he was never afraid to say difficult or surprising things or to use a phrase that will inevitably be misunderstood or confused. In this way he is a brilliant preacher. In essence he is saying I’m preaching the truth, I’m putting it out there and it is your job to struggle with what I am saying. Jesus doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining things or making sure that he is not misunderstood. He is not very Episcopalian. Yes, Jesus is a good preacher he doesn’t want to water down the power of his teaching. He wants to agitate you, to stir your mind and spirit. He tends to put the burden on us to puzzle out the truth to suffer a bit with his sayings.
One of the most obvious ways of understanding this passage is as a call to discipleship. Jesus puts strong demands on anyone who would desire to follow Jesus. The unusual demand to hate one’s family and even one’s own life is better understood by looking at the word’s meaning in the original language. The word hate that is used is a Semitic way of expressing detachment, a turning away from. It is not intended to be the emotion filled word we experience in the unwelcome scream, “I hate you!” If that were the case this single verse in the Bible would shatter all the calls to love, to understand, to forgive, to care for others, especially one’s family (I Timothy 5:8).
Hating one’s life is not a call to self-loathing, to throw one’s body under the bus or beg the world to trample on you. No what Jesus is calling for is that those who choose to follow him understand that loyalty to him can and will create tensions within the self and between oneself and those one loves. In such conflicts of loyalty, Jesus requires primary allegiance. Jesus does not want you to turn back from pursuing the kingdom of God just because your family thinks that serving the poor is in bad taste or that advocating for those without a voice is a waste of your law degree. Following hard after Jesus is to be your primary concern, you highest calling and you are to do what you can to make sure that your love of family or your love of your own creature comforts or your culturally-conditioned ideas of success don’t get in the way of really doing what the spirit is speaking so strongly into your heart.
Jesus is trying to draw us into a lively conversation that matters. He’s not interested in easy answers or neat packages. He wants us to struggle, to struggle with his words but more importantly to struggle with our lives in relationship to his words. The stories of Jesus, cut at our way of life, they challenge us and our ways at every turn. They demand that we become reflective about the way we live, the way we love, the way we spend our money, the way we acquire possessions, the way we talk about the stranger, the way we invest in our own children and others children, the way we see violence as an easy answer to problems, the way we look at other’s misfortune, the way we avoid intimacy, the way to hide behind our anger, the way we take the easy road instead of the meaningful one.
There are a lot of things one could do with this passage. One can simply ignore it completely as the lunatic and aberrant sayings of Jesus. My guess is that if you were going to select one book saying “the teaching and approach to life in this volume will be my philosophy of life, I doubt that Luke’s Gospel would be the one you chose. Why because so much of it cuts at us too deeply in areas where we remain closely guarded and want to maintain our comfort and sense of entitlements, myself included. In so many ways the teaching of Jesus has not been tried and found wanting it has been found difficult and left untried. The passage ends with this devastating one-liner, “So therefore none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
For me the passage connects to these powerful lines of poetry by T.S. Eliot found in The Four Quartets:
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
These words of T.S. Eliot describe the deep wisdom of conversion. Like the tough teaching of Jesus, they attempt to pull us into a life of faith, the giving of ourselves in a God-ward direction. The difficulty of the sayings is meant not to drive us away but rather to expose our deep need of God. They show us that there is a more excellent and grace filled way to live that is costly but worth every sacrifice.
In the end I believe that Jesus’ tough talk is really an invitation to intimacy with God. Jesus is saying if you want to know me, if you want to experience the joy of following me, then you had also better be willing to risk. The tough teaching of Jesus attempts to draw us, the listeners, into a conversation that really matters instead of one that ends with tidy answers and quick resolution. Jesus wants us to understand our true loyalties whatever they are and in the midst of that to offer us wider and more creative ways to live. Why because they require our dispossession, our letting go of things we cling to so tightly so that we can truly receive in the freedom of discipleship in Christ. The freedom comes from truly discovering that the one thing in life that is truly worthwhile is becoming God’s friend.
This of course is the grace that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was describing when he wrote these words: “Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a person must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a person their life, and it is grace because it gives a person the only true life.
There is an Outward Bound slogan that reads: “If you can’t get out of it, get into it.” This is good advice for the challenging times in life. It is equally good advice for the Christian life. Rather than try to escape the tough demands of discipleship, that messy advice about loving one’s enemies and forgiving others, we ought to get into them, take them as a call to a more adventurous intimacy with God. The Christian life is meant to be a wild adventure. So today Jesus is saying “if you can’t get out of it, get into it.” A lively conversation between your life and God’s grace awaits and within that conversation is life itself. Choose life.