That’s a tough Gospel, beloveds. One colleague suggested that preachers should invite people to take a deep breath and hold hands before we read it. Before we proclaim that unless you hate your family and give up everything you own, you can’t be a real disciple. (This is definitely one of those passages that makes you wonder what people mean when they talk about Christian family values!)
Sooo let’s unpack these difficult words. Part of what’s going on here is the intersection of two things: Jesus’ tendency to use hyperbole, and where this passage falls in Jesus’ journey to the cross.
Jesus sometimes uses hyperbole in his teaching – exaggerated statements that are not meant to be taken literally, like, “I’m hungry enough to eat a horse!” Jesus never said that, as far as we know. But he did say that if your eye causes you to sin, you should pluck it out. And he did say that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is ruled by their own wealth to enter the kingdom of Heaven. (That image wasn’t unique to Jesus; the Talmud, a Jewish text from around the same time as the New Testament, talks about an elephant going to though the eye of a needle.)
People used hyperbole sometimes back then, just as we do now, to get people’s attention and make a strong point. I think it is fair to say that when Jesus says his followers must hate their families, he is using hyperbole. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus scolds people who don’t care for their aging parents as the Law of Moses requires. And even the first Christians didn’t take Jesus’ hard words here literally. In the letters of early Christian leaders we call the Epistles, for example, followers of Jesus are advised to show faithful love towards their spouses and children.
The sharpness of this passage could also come from the fact that it comes at a moment in Jesus’ path when the stakes are rising. Luke 13 tells us that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. He’s traveling slowly, stopping in towns and villages to teach and heal; but he is making what he knows will be his final journey. Some sympathetic Pharisees tell him, “Stay away from Jerusalem and the surrounding area; King Herod wants to kill you.” And Jesus says, This is what I’m here to do.
Jesus is walking towards his death – a brutal, humiliating death. He has every reason to expect to be crucified. That’s what the Romans did to people who caused civic unrest, who stirred people up and caused a ruckus. Crucifixion was a slow, agonizing, public death, intended to demoralize and deter onlookers. Everyone in Jesus’ original audience would have been familiar with these horrors. They would have known how the condemned person would be forced to carry the crossbeam along the road out of the city, to the place of execution, where the upright beams were already fixed in the ground, awaiting the next victim.
Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. A large crowd is following Jesus, as this passage begins. Jesus knows that some of them are just there for the buzz, the excitement, the thrill of the road, the rush of being part of the next big thing. So he’s telling them – warning them: Listen. This is not a picnic in the park. Stuff is about to get real. Are you sure you’re ready for this?
That’s the purpose of these micro-parables of the builder and the general: Count the cost before you begin. Consider the stakes, and the odds. Consider yourself, your attachments and commitments – home and family, business, plans and possibilities. Are you willing to hold them lightly? Consider all of that – then decide whether to follow Jesus down this road.
(By the way, I’m pleased to mention that the tower we are building here, for the elevator, IS completed. Thanks for your ongoing gifts to our renovation fund!)
Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. This passage is in heavy use in certain corners of Christianity. It has been misused, over the centuries, to normalize suffering and encourage acceptance of oppression: racial injustice or domestic abuse, for example, might be just somebody’s cross to bear. That is emphatically not what Jesus is talking about here. He is talking about choosing a costly walk on the way of Love.
Suffering doesn’t automatically make you a “good” Christian, and lack of suffering doesn’t automatically make you a “bad” one. But this is true, beloveds: Being a real Christian, being serious about following where Jesus leads, means we have to be prepared for stuff to get hard. For this road, these commitments, to cost us something.
Here’s the thing, though: Not following this road can be costly, too. I’m not talking about being consigned to hellfire. If you’re looking for a sermon about how people who don’t accept Jesus will burn forever, you are in the wrong church.
I’m talking about what happens when people stop striving to do justice and love mercy. When people turn their backs on the strangers God calls us to welcome; close the door on the hungry God calls us to feed; dehumanize those in prison, whom God calls us to visit and care for; when people exploit the earth, which God made us to tend with love. Those actions carry their own consequences, sooner or later.
The prophet Jeremiah lived in a time when those with power among God’s people in the land of Judea had decided, We don’t need God and God’s bossy opinions about how we should live. In the lesson assigned for last week, God speaks through Jeremiah to say, “What wrong did your ancestors find in me that made them wander so far? I brought you into a land of plenty, to enjoy its gifts and goodness, but you ruined my land; you disgraced my heritage. Your leaders rebelled against me, Your priests did not seek me. Ask anyone: Has anything this odd ever taken place? Has any other nation ever switched its gods? Yet my people have exchanged their glory for what has no value. My people have committed two crimes: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water; and they have dug wells for themselves, broken wells that can’t hold water.”
In today’s lesson, Jeremiah is saying, Look, you think you’re God’s chosen nation, and that you can do whatever you want because God favors you. But God can choose a new favorite nation anytime. God doesn’t owe you anything; it is the other way around. Hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches!
The text uses the language of God’s punishment: “Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you.” The idea that God punishes Israel when they turn from God’s ways is an important idea in the Hebrew Scriptures – and I struggle with it, every time it comes around, because it’s at odds with how I understand God’s heart for humanity, through the witness of Jesus. But I don’t think we need the idea of divine punishment to understand what happened to Judea in Jeremiah’s time – any more than we need the idea of divine punishment to understand how our nation and world are suffering the consequences of our collective bad choices today. We have intense and destructive hurricanes in part because we’ve ignored alarms about climate change. We have violent actions in the news far too often because we’ve armed civilians with weapons of war. We have mass incarceration because we’ve criminalized poverty, addiction, and mental illness. The things we tolerate, collectively, become their own punishment. So it was in Jeremiah’s day.
Jeremiah did not like being a prophet of doom. He was beaten, imprisoned, mocked and derided. He cries out to God: Cursed be the day on which I was born! If Jeremiah had sat down to count the cost of his call to serve God as a prophet, the total would have been astronomical. But Judea needed Jeremiah’s voice, however unwelcome it was. Speaking God’s words to God’s people was Jeremiah’s cross to bear; and he bore it.
Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
Disciple is a word that’s used a lot in some kinds of churches, less so in others. It really just means a student, maybe an apprentice – somebody who’s in the process of becoming a certain kind of person. Our Presiding Bishop has been trying to get Episcopalians to think about discipleship, by talking about the habits of Christian living as a Way of Love. Back in 2016, we did some work here at St. Dunstan’s to name the ways we live our faith in daily life: Welcoming, Abiding, Wondering, Proclaiming, Turning, Reconciling, and Making. It’s a good list; every time I revisit it, I think, These are great! This set of practices is a useful, substantive way to talk about how we live out our faith, in big ways and especially in the small, everyday ways that are actually so important! We should work with this more!
And yet at the same time I feel in myself a hesitation to cross that Sunday-to-Monday boundary and flat-out tell people, Hey, here are some things you should try to do more. There are lots of reasons that telling people how their faith should shape their daily lives can feel transgressive for people formed by the Episcopal Church. I think maybe the biggest reason is that we all know about other kinds of Christianity that can be specific and intrusive in telling people what their daily lives and intimate relationships should look like. Those kinds of Christianity have hurt some of us. Are, arguably, hurting all of us.
In response, we Episcopal types tend to bend over backwards in the other direction. The church may ask things of you: Make a pledge! Cook a meal! Bring cookies! But, we hasten to say, GOD isn’t asking anything of you. Jesus said to tell you that you’re FINE.
But here, awkwardly, we have Jesus himself, saying, Take up your cross. This Way, if you take it at all seriously, will make a difference in your life. And sometimes that difference will be joy and hope and strength and possibility. And sometimes that difference will be hard and exhausting and scary and sad. Costly. That’s what it means to be My disciple.
So this fall we’re going to talk some more about those practices of discipleship we have named together. A year ago, as part of my sabbatical, we visited my friend James, also known as Sir Beorn, a knight in the Society for Creative Anachronism. James has a combat practice ground behind his house, and around it are the shields of various famous knights, each of which represents one of the virtues of chivalry that the people who gather there seek to practice and embody. So taking a cue from Sir Beorn, we will put up images of saints around this space, one saint for each practice. We’ll start next week with blessed Pauli Murray and the practice of Welcoming. And if you’re here at 9am, we’ll talk about the practice together, what it means, when it’s easy, when it’s hard. Because discipleship is hard, and the companionship of trustworthy friends helps a lot.
Christian essayist John Pavlovitz writes about Christians sometimes trying to dodge our call to discipleship by saying, “It doesn’t matter what I do; God is in control”. He says, “… The truth, Christians friends: is that God is not in control of you. You are in control of you and God is asking you to be goodness and love in a way that tangibly changes the story we all find ourselves in.” May Jesus Christ, who calls us to this work, guide us, protect us, and accompany us on the Way. Amen.
John Pavlovitz, “Christian, Stop Telling Me God Is In Control,” February 22, 2017, https://johnpavlovitz.com/2017/02/22/christian-stop-telling-me-god-is-in-control/