Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 8, 2019
There are some Gospel texts that are super uncomfortable. Ya know, the ones that end and we say “the Gospel of our Lord” and “praise to you, O Christ” - and in our heads and hearts we’re thinking “The… Gospel… of our… Lord?” and “Praise to… you... um. O Christ?” And today’s Gospel lesson is certainly one of those texts. “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.” “The... Gospel... of our Lord.” “Praise… to you… O Christ?”
To those of you who are joining us as our guests today or who are joining us again after a summer break, I’ll admit that it isn’t the easiest text to come back to. To those of you who’ve been with us recently, we’ve had a lot of these texts lately. Sometimes we want a word of comfort. And we get this - a command to hate the ones closest to us - instead today. I know how tricky this text is; this happened to be the Gospel text for the Sunday of my first sermon at my internship site. It is super uncomfortable. I love my folks. I love my family. As I admitted in that first sermon on internship: I have a really hard time getting past Jesus telling me that, to be a good disciple, that I have to hate my Mom and my Dad. I have a hard time getting past that to the rest of the passage.
There are two approaches to dealing with these kinds of texts. One is to explain it away. “Jesus didn’t really mean that we should hate our parents. He’s using hyperbole.” Another is to dig in - into both the text and the discomfort - and figure out what the text is saying to Luke’s audience and to us. The problem with the first option is that it allows us to stay firmly within our comfort zones. Sometimes texts are intended to make us uncomfortable. Sometimes Jesus intends to make us uncomfortable. So when we explain it away, we often miss the point of the text. And the Gospel of Luke is really good at pushing us outside of our comfort zones. When Jesus pushes us outside of our comfort zones, our instinct is to walk, run, crawl as fast as we can back to what makes us comfortable. The temptation is to soften Jesus’ words so that we’re never really challenged.
My hope today is to take the second option. To sit in the discomfort a bit to try to see what Jesus might be telling us today. To be challenged by the Gospel. Because the Gospel both unsettles us and frees us. Often in preaching circles, we talk about how the Gospel - the Good news of Jesus Christ - afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted. And today, in this particular Gospel reading, we get much more of the afflicting of the comfortable. So today is an invitation to sit in the uncomfortable for just a bit. Sometimes to hear the Gospel - the good news not just for me but for all people - we need to be shaken out of our places of comfort. These words were and are challenging.
honor in the Kingdom of God belong to the people that we least expect. The table is for everyone, but especially the poor, the outsiders, the sinners, the strangers, and foreigners. The people that we might least expect to be around the table, not only are welcome there, but hold a place of honor. Throughout the Gospel of Luke, Jesus proclaims this Kingdom of God that turns the world upside down. Those currently with power and privilege will be brought down and the lowly will be lifted up.
As I said to those in the Adult Forum on Luke back in November, Luke’s lens on Jesus is one of social justice. It is a lens that says that we cannot be whole until all of us are whole. The ways of this world as it is, the ways of this empire are harmful and death dealing, especially to the most vulnerable around us. The Kingdom of God is one that brings wholeness and healing to the people and the places that need it most - so that we all can finally live in a world that God intended from the very beginning - one where everyone is in right relationship with God, with the fellow human being, and with all creation. This is indeed Good News. But it doesn’t sound like Good News for everybody. For those with power, for those who typically sit in places of honor, for those who have privilege, it sounds like very bad news.
And today, the Gospel can sound like very bad news. To dig further, I’m actually going to start at the end of the passage: “so therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all of your possessions.” And, in the context of this passage (and the Gospel of Luke), I think Jesus is talking more than about just material possessions. These are the things that we hold dear - particularly the things that can get in the way of following Jesus. I have a hunch that Jesus is talking about those things that we hold onto to that keep us tied to this world as it is, those things that lure us into the ways of this world rather than the ways of the Kingdom of God. Of course that can include material possessions, but includes so much more than that.
In Jesus’ world, following Jesus often meant leaving family behind. The first disciples left their nets (and all their familial commitments) to follow Jesus. In the community of the Gospel of Luke, becoming a Christ believer often meant separation from family and a rupture of family ties. Following Jesus meant risking alienation from the people closest to them. Families did not want their loved ones to follow Jesus. And in this time in Christian history, do you really blame them? There’s a martyrdom text from the early 3rd century, the martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas, in which we meet a jailed Perpetua. Several times, Perpetua’s father begs her to renounce her faith because he knew that the cost of following Jesus would be her own death.
Families knew that following Christ - this messiah who died on a cross - meant possibly meeting a similar fate. Because preaching about the Kingdom of God - this kingdom that brings down the powerful and lifts up the lowly - is a threat to those who hold power and who hold those places of honor. Jesus doesn’t end up on the cross because he was a nice guy; he was crucified because the message of the Kingdom ran against the message of the Empire, ran against the message of those with power. Who wants to be the one brought down? That kind of message needed, in their minds, needed to be extinguished - so that they can preserve their own place in the world. Thus family - mothers and fathers, spouse and children, brothers and sisters - could become roadblocks to following Jesus and roadblocks to living out the kingdom of God. This good news seems anything but good. They miss that, to quote one commentator this week, that “The way of discipleship is the way of life, real life, life that does not deny the reality of death but instead overcomes it through the power of resurrection. And that is good news that the world needs to hear” (Kathryn M. Schifferdecker, “Choose Life, https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5376). So while I don’t believe that Jesus calls his followers to literally hate their families, I do think Jesus is pointing to the risks of being a disciple. I do think that Jesus is calling his followers to turn away from anything that might hold them back from living out their call to be kingdom builders, their call to live out the freedom they’ve been given through Jesus.
While families or other relationships can still hold us back from living out our call to be kingdom
But whatever holds us back, the good news today is that Jesus comes to free us from those things as well. Because as long as we’re holding onto power, privilege, prejudices, we aren’t living out the Kingdom. But these things keep us stuck in the ways and the narratives of this world. We’ve already been given salvation. We’ve already been made right with God. These things keep us from being in right relationship with our fellow human and with creation. But because we have the promise that we are made right with God, we are free to turn out to our fellow human and to the stranger. Thus, Today Jesus calls us to give up those things that we hold onto, to be freed from those things we hold onto; this is a call to live into the freedom that God has given us through Christ. And that is the Gospel of our Lord.