Sermon for 13th Sunday after Pentecost 2019
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 Psalms 139: 1-5, 12-17 Philemon 1-21 Luke 14: 25-33
A young woman was giving her testimony in church one night. “There have been so many wonderful changes in my life since I asked Jesus to come into my heart. Why, I was so angry at my father for so many years, I vowed I would never even go to his funeral. But now that I am a Christian, I would be delighted to go to his funeral anytime!”
To be a Christian…Jesus moves on toward Jerusalem. The story of the carelessness of those invited to the banquet that we heard last week, emphases the seriousness of discipleship. We read that the call to follow Jesus can’t be taken half-heartedly. These verses reestablish the tone set at the beginning of the journey toward Jerusalem. Jesus returns to the theme of family division that might come as a result of responding to the gospel that we heard in chapter 12. Jesus says that his disciples must hate father and mother and family. This is Jewish exaggeration to stress that anyone who stands in the way of thorough commitment to Jesus, even one’s closest relatives must take a back seat. “Hate” here is used in the sense of “prefer less, to turn away from, or detach from.” This is the radical message of the cross.
In today’s reading, just when Jesus seems all about healings and invitations to dinner, he shocks us with his direct words. The word “hate” punctuates our hearts. Does discipleship really require us to hate our parents, spouse, children, siblings, and even our own life? “Hate” is a hyperbole, a figure of speak not meant to be taken literally, but it does not underestimate potential costs of discipleship. Life meets every one of us with choices that may be emotionally costly. In most cases, it works out. But, when Jesus uses the word “hate” in the same sentence with family, he ups the bar. He is no longer speaking in detached pie-in-the-sky notions.
Discipleship is an all-consuming vocation. It must be accepted with mature deliberation. Jesus uses two examples: a wise builder would not begin a project without assessing his ability to finish it and only a madman would go into a battle without considering the odds.
We can love more than one person, one congregation, one circle of friends at one time. There is enough love for parents, spouses, children, siblings, even ourselves, and it all balances out well enough. But sometimes it doesn’t balance. A father becomes ill and dependent on his children; duty may require some sacrifice of attention or resources, and what ordinarily would go to spouse or children is diverted to parent. A mother of three children finds her time and energy consumed by the needs of a special needs child; what belongs to the other two has been used up. Conflicts of loyalty can be heartbreaking. It is not only family members who compete for our affection and dutiful attention – there is love of country and state and city and church and Jesus. Usually we can keep these loyalties and obligations in balance, but sometimes we are pulled off center, we lose our balance during times of conflict.
When a builder doesn’t count the cost or estimate accurately, the building may be left incomplete. Will we abandon the Christian life after a little while because you did not count the cost of commitment to Jesus? Following Christ does not promise a trouble-free life. We must carefully count the cost of becoming Christ’s disciples so that we will know what we are getting ourselves into and won’t be tempted to jump ship at the first bump we encounter.
Not everyone may be called to be a disciple. Discipleship goes a step further than just being a responsible human being. Although discipleship is not always in conflict with other allegiances, sometimes it is, turning upstream against the ordinary flow – almost to the point of reordering duties and affections that might normally claim first place. Jesus does not say it will not hurt. “Whoever does not carry the cross…” When loyalties compete, they need to be sorted by priorities. For those who hear a call to discipleship, Jesus becomes the sorting principle. Jesus is the embodiment of self-offering love, mercy and compassion. Jesus is our “true north.”
Take up your cross stresses faithful endurance in the face of continual trials. Jesus’ audience was well aware of what it meant to carry a cross. When Romans led a criminal to his execution site, he was forced to carry the cross on which he would die. This showed submission to Rome and warned observers that they had better submit too. Jesus made this statement to get the crowds to think through their enthusiasm for him. He encouraged those who were superficial either to go deeper or to turn back. Following Christ means total submission to him – perhaps even to the point of death.
Throughout the stories in the Bible, Moses had hard choices – to continue living in the Pharaoh’s house or to claim his Hebrew heritage. It took faith for him to give up his place in the palace. He was drawn to what needed to be put right. When Moses saw conflict, he reacted. He heard God’s call for him to challenge God’s people. Much of the time he stood as a buffer between God and the people. In Deuteronomy, Moses said to all Israel the words which the Lord commanded him, "See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess…… Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days…." Moses made hard choices.
What about us? What does being a disciple mean for us? In Latin, Disciple means learner – one who follows and learns from another as a pupil. To break down the word disciple and think of its meaning as a learner seems to take the sting away. I can learn. You can keep on learning. We can learn some more through study, prayer and experience. We all are invited to learn more about ourselves and more about who God is for us, in us, through us.
Mother Teresa is our example of one of Jesus’ best and brightest disciples. She strived to serve the poorest of the poor in Calcutta. She founded the Missionaries of Charity in 1950. In a book published after her death, we see a different face to this famous nun. It seems she struggled. She experienced profound estrangement from God during the very years of her greatest achievement for others.
She was calling to God to “Come be my light,” during those years, decades of stark darkness. Some of her published letters cry out, “What tortures of loneliness. I wonder how long will my heart suffer this?” A letter to her archbishop, “Please pray…that our Lord will show Himself – for there is such a terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead. It has been like this more or less from the time I started “the work.”
Mother Teresa didn’t minister in easy times – during the chaos in Calcutta in the 1950s and the strange looming tensions of the Cold War. It was a time when nations began to know they possessed weapons that could kill millions in one blow. Projecting love the same way was impossible. But Teresa proved that love, individualized love, still made sense in an atomic age, and that love was still effective and meaningful, still redeeming. Thousands followed her and continue to follow today. Thousands have visited her home and returned changed and spiritually alive – awakened. Millions have allowed themselves to be touched by recognizing the flame of faith and love she represents may be the same flicker of love within them.
So, it is not all about Teresa and her connection to God. It is all about God working in and through her. It is all about her willingness to saying “yes” to God in the work God had called her to do. She chose to take up her cross and follow. And in following, she walked the path of suffering that Jesus had walked. She maintained an intense bond with Jesus, even in the long years of darkness. She was able to radiate joy in her life because she was living into God’s promise. She will be canonized on September 4, 2016 as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church.
How do people of God choose discipleship, and what does it look like when we choose it? The question is never as vivid as in Jesus’ teaching about accepting the joys and challenges in following him. Three times in this passage, Jesus says that without a definite decision, a person can’t be a disciple. A person does not just fall into it. First, a person is required to make their family ties and self-preservation secondary to following Jesus. Second, he commands carrying the cross and following him. Third, he demands the giving up of possessions. The pastoral work of any Christian community involves our acknowledgement of the great challenge, the challenging requirements of becoming and doing what Jesus expects. With the commitment comes great joy, amazing strength to meet the challenges and a new family forged together by a common goal.
I have learned that God does not call the equipped, but that God equips those called. It is in knowing where our strength comes from, that allows us, enables us, empowers us to serve others as Christ has served us. God meets us where we are and then moves us to where God wants us to be. We only have to say yes and let God work in us. Amen