Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Jesus, the Great Offender

I don’t believe in genies, or psychics, or fortune tellers.  I like fortune cookies, not because of the fortune, but because of the citrusy flavor, and I only occasionally read my horoscope if I’m in a waiting room and there happens to be a newspaper opened directly on that page. I’m a Cancer, by the way. And I believe that moments of clarity, the kind of clarity that grants us a vision of what our lives could be…those moments don’t come as often as we’d like them too, or as often as we imagine they do.  But I believe we are experiencing one of those moments this morning.

Sunday after Sunday we celebrate the Holy Eucharist and hear the Word of God broken open and revealed to us.  But how often do those words simply pass by? Archaic language and metaphors, stories about a far removed people in an ancient day, seemingly irrelevant to our modern day existence.  Though I adore the Holy Scriptures, even I’m guilty of sometimes daydreaming about the upcoming Star Wars movie or thinking about lunch even as the lessons are being read.  It’s easy to do in a world where we are formed to focus on several tasks at once and to be attentive in 10 minute increments.  It’s easy to experience the hearing of the Word as just one more thing listened to during a long day of talk radio, political campaigning, and Sunday night broadcast TV.

But this morning, these words are sharp, they’re edgy, and they have the power to cut through our inability to listen attentively: “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.” Jesus, the incarnate God, the incarnation of pure love, is drawing a line in the sand.  If the word ‘hate’ seems a bit too harsh, Matthew’s telling of this story makes Jesus’ use of the word ‘hate’ a bit more plain: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me…” While it’s clear Jesus is not calling us to a kind of antagonistic, vitriolic hatred, but rather to a higher form of love for Jesus and his mission, the translation we have received in Luke this morning paints an appropriately stark picture.

The starkness, the power, the confrontational quality of the phrase “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother” is an opportunity for us to be stirred to reflection: are there things in this world that we love and desire more than obedience to and a relationship of love with Jesus?  Now, this isn’t necessarily a prescriptive text.  Jesus isn’t dictating what such an intense and superlative love will look like in each individual’s life.  There is no checklist for Christian discipleship that, once filled, will give us the satisfaction of being a radical disciple.  Only you can discover what a passionate love for God might lead you to do.  But this fact remains: every single one of us should take some time to evaluate precisely what it is we truly do long for with the most passion.

Passion.  The word the Church uses to describe the crucifixion of Jesus. A scene from the Passion sits on the cover to our bulletin. And in a sense, crucifixion is what Jesus is calling us to.  Jesus’ question moves from, “Do you love me more than all else?” to finally, “Will you die for me?” How willing are we to risk, in the pursuit of Jesus and his mission, all of the things that give us comfort, stability, or the self-made identities we so tightly cling to? Some of us have more to lose than others.  But all of us, in the situations and the contexts in which we find ourselves, are called to love Jesus and the life of discipleship more than all else, and be willing to lose the things of greatest importance if it means remaining faithful to the Gospel.

The temptation for preachers is to take a portion of Scripture and reduce it to the lowest common denominator, to reduce it to something easily palatable and comprehensible.  But it seems wise, to me at least, to let Jesus’ words wash over us, even if they make us uncomfortable, even if they seem too confrontational.  We do a great disservice to the power of this passage and to the demanding summons of Jesus if we reduce this to something prescriptive, a kind of dime store theology where we soften his summons so much that its hard-edged call to discipleship is lost.  I don’t know exactly what it would look like in my own life if I fully gave myself over to the demands of discipleship as Jesus has framed them.  I don’t know what that looks like for you.  But rather than hearing these words, being perplexed or put off by them, and heading home to let them float out of our immediate consciousness, we should be vulnerable and curious enough to imagine what our lives would look like if we made the conscious effort to become more committed disciples of Jesus today than we were yesterday.

Jesus’ words may be ancient, but they are not archaic.  They are not so far removed that we can listen as observers.  In a very real sense, Jesus is meeting us in this very place, asking of us the same questions he asked his disciples and followers: “Will you love me above all else, a love that might even lead to your death?” Stories of the earliest Christians abound and witness to us across time and space, stories of women, men, and children who stared in the face of an oppressive empire and refused to be shaped by ethics and cultural norms that stood contrary to the Gospel. They understood that the values of the Gospel actively promoted the well-being of others, refused an ethic of brutal competitiveness, and led them even to sell all they had for the benefit of the poor and destitute among them.  While not every situation we might find ourselves in will be so dire, those situations, and others like them, remind us that lives of discipleship are not just about a two-way relationship, “the disciple and Jesus”. Christian discipleship, when lived into and given precedence in the lives of believers, can be a force for good, a force for transformation, a real and honest source of change in the contexts in which it is lived out.  A recurring theme in the Gospel of Luke is that the Gospel has come to the poor, the lame, the crippled and the blind…those forgotten by society, those deemed unworthy and unclean.  Luke’s Gospel understands that Christian discipleship, when embraced radically, will be reflected in the way Christian communities will transform the communities in which they are embedded.  This is reflected in the concluding statement of Jesus’ teaching this morning: “So therefore, none of you can be my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

Ultimately there is no clear-cut answer to the question, “What is God calling me to do?” There is no easy solution to the ills of this war-torn, image obsessed, poverty stricken world.  But, hope abides.  Hope abides in you, my friends.  Hope abides because you have come to be fed at Jesus’ table, and you have been knit into the very fabric of Jesus Christ our Lord.  As one of our concluding prayers says, “We are living members of the Body of God’s Son, and heirs of God’s eternal kingdom.” Hope abides because Jesus Christ continues to be made alive in you, my brothers and sisters.  Alive, walking and talking as you carry his presence into your schools, your workplaces, your homes, your communities.  Are you ready to change the world? If so, the journey of discipleship, of loving Jesus above all else, waits for you to take a step.

*A sermon preached at Trinity on the Hill Episcopal Church in Los Alamos, NM on September 4, 2016.  The texts were Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 1, Philemon 1-21, and Luke 14:25-33.

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