by Ellen Sims
texts: Psalm 139:1-6; Jeremiah 2:1-6; Luke 14:25-33
The farther Jesus goes in his journey to Jerusalem, the more exacting he becomes. Although his popularity grows, Jesus does pander to the expanding enthusiastic crowds, and he goes so far as to warn them against following him unless they count the cost. In last week’s reading, Jesus insisted that only the humble could follow him; only those who’d give up the best seats for others and who’d let the lowliest go ahead of them could serve God’s realm. Today our provocative preacher makes following him even more daunting when he says the unthinkable:
Only those who HATE THEIR FAMILIES can be his followers (v. 26);
Only those willing to CARRY A CROSS can be one of his disciples (v 27);
Only those who GIVE UP ALL THEIR POSSESSIONS can help him usher in the kingdom (v. 33).
Somebody needs to tell Jesus to get a new speech writer and campaign manager.
But he has spoken the bald truth you and I must hear, we who’ve grown accustomed to a watered-down Christian faith. Maybe the recent precipitous decline in membership within Christian churches and the growing trend to declare oneself spiritual but not religious reflect a realization that an easy Christianity isn’t worth much. And maybe the remnant who are willing to count the cost of being part of the Jesus movement are sufficient for helping usher in the peaceful kingdom of God.
Let’s pay attention now to the three specific demands Jesus makes today, even though they may sound to us more like the fanatical requirements of a demagogue—and sounded even more extreme to Jesus’s original hearers. He says plainly, “If you don’t HATE your parents, your siblings, your entire family—you cannot be my disciple.”
Bear in mind this is not the first nor will it be the last “antifamily” saying Jesus makes in Luke (Tannehill 235). It may be the strongest, but this terrible saying is not an isolated remark. How is it possible that the man who preached love of even our enemies could require us to hate our families? How can we trust someone using cult leader tactics, forcing new recruits to cut family ties to replace their dependence on the family with a greater dependence on the cult? Is that what Jesus is hoping to do?
I don’t think so. Bible scholars explain that “in the ancient world the terms love and hate referred less to emotions than to behavior that either honored or dishonored someone else. Hating one’s family meant doing something that injured them, particularly by disgracing them. Life was family centered, and the honor of the family was highly valued. Every family member was expected to protect the honor of the family. If some members joined a suspect movement . . . this brought disgrace on the family” (Tannehill 235). Jesus is warning that those who follow him will dishonor their families. That’s because Jesus intends to violate conventions, resist the prevailing system, teach new values, form a new kind of community. Such a plan to destabilize familial, religious, and political systems will not only disgrace Jesus followers but also their families. And disgrace may have its own consequences. “Beware,” Jesus is saying to his future followers. “You may be disowned by your family.”
Now all of us at one time or another have embarrassed our families, right? If you were ever a 5-year-old, you embarrassed you parents, and if you were ever the parent of a teenager, you embarrassed that teen. Some of you have even experienced what it’s like to dishonor your family in a far more serious sense—in the very act of trying to follow your understanding of God’s call upon your life.
My own experiences of dishonoring my family and the consequences for me pale in comparison to what many of you have endured, but I can share some very mild instances in which I embarrassed my family in, what seemed to me, the pursuit of “the kingdom.”
Although my precious mother eventually became very supportive and proud that in mid-career I left teaching for preaching, she was initially–although she didn’t acknowledge it–embarrassed. And understandably so. Because she was raised to believe that only men could become ministers and lead churches. While I was in seminary in Ohio, she gently suggested in a phone conversation that I not tell her side of the family I was preparing to become a pastor. “Let’s not tell them you’re in seminary. We can say you’re taking some Bible classes,” she advised. I knew she dreaded what some of her family might think about my sense of vocation.
After seminary and my ordination in the American Baptist Churches, George and I moved back to my hometown where, surprisingly, an atypical Southern Baptist church here called me as their associate pastor. By then my parents had adjusted to the idea of their daughter having “Reverend” in front of her name. They proudly attended the church where I began to serve and never missed a Sunday when I preached. But within a few weeks the Mobile Baptist Association got wind that a local church had called a female as their associate pastor and voted at their annual meeting to eject that church from their body. At that meeting a stream of men lined the aisle at Dauphin Way Baptist to take their turn at the microphone in order to speak against the legitimacy of women in ordained ministry. After scripture quoters charged I was leading people to hell, they won the vote by a landslide.
That week the controversy I’d provoked hit the Mobile Press-Register, along with letters to the editor either in support of or against ordaining women. My decorous mother surely squirmed at her daughter’s notoriety. I hated that for her sake. When I eventually decided to leave that Baptist congregation to serve a more progressive, inclusive denomination, when I started gathering the first Open Table participants to start a new church, when I jumped ship to become a United Church of Christ minister, and when I made very public my commitments to affirming the LGBT community, my mother must again have worried and winced. By then I had wished many times that I was ministering in a different city so that I could follow Christ’s call on my life without embarrassing my parents.
Now the embarrassment I may have caused for my mother is not what Jesus meant about dishonoring families in his first century Mediterranean culture. And the small price I paid for following Jesus in that particular instance was nothing, nothing at all, compared to the price many of you have heroically paid to live authentically in spite of our own cultural taboos and oppressive religion. So I want to honor those of you who may have “dishonored” family at times and as a result have been ostracized by family—in order to live authentically as God the Potter created you to be. You heard God say, in the words of today’s Psalm, that you are “fearfully and wonderfully made”—and you believed that! But it cost you a great deal. Tragically, for some in the LGBT community, living authentically has cost them their lives.
Jesus followed his demand that his followers must hate their families—that is, not care if they bring dishonor to their families—with a warning that they must take up a cross. The cross is the terrible price to pay for living in a counter-cultural way, which is to say, the Jesus way. The cross means death: death to the old way of living and maybe even a literal death.
I predict the cross some of us may choose to take up soon is the cross that recognizes racism. In a few weeks we will offer a challenging curriculum in our 9:30 adult class on “white privilege.” It’s a topic that may not feel comfortable but will be handled with gentleness and respect for all. Some among us may currently associate the use of the phrase “white privilege” with a tactic for shaming or guilting white people. That’s not the intention of the study we’ll undertake. Those of us who are called to the often uncomfortable work of the kingdom—where the first are last and the last are first—are going to let down our defenses, open our hearts to others, listen to one another’s stories, and be willing to put to death on the cross ways of relating to one another that have been unhealthy—for us and for others. Theologian Willie Jennings “argues that discipleship in America is truncated by ‘racial faith’” that continues to honor “the imperialism of Christianity, of whiteness, of a way of life that imagines that [whites] are first and always teachers rather than . . . learners” (qtd in Lamar). Real disciples in America will open themselves to personal transformation.
By the time Jesus concluded the speech to the crowd, he named a third cost that may be even pricier than the loss of family and the cross of sacrifice: it’s the sacrifice of our material possessions, a theme throughout Luke. Friends, if we’re not making some financial sacrifices to care for others, we are not following Jesus.
I want to be clear here: I do not think the church should be the only recipient of our charitable giving. I also do not think the church should take money from poor church members—the story of the widow’s mite and the fact that we are not a wealthy church notwithstanding. But for those who do have some expendable income, I think the Jesus Way requires us to give financially and sacrificially for the furtherance of God’s kingdom, which the meek and poor will inherit. God’s new and just “kingdom” is inclusive of and contingent on a just economic system that we can support as we share generously with others but also that we can help reform through our gifts of intellect, imagination, and activism.
Some preachers from some branches of Christianity think the way to fortify the Christian faith and “count the cost of discipleship” is by refusing to compromise on the moral issues of the day. (Usually that means avoiding the “sex sins.”) They insist that being “all in” with Jesus also means reading the Bible regularly and literally–even though they actually pick and choose which scriptures to follow literally. Especially they insist that real Christians don’t capitulate to the culture–yet uncritically presume America’s economic and militaristic values would be sanctioned by Jesus. But I see in Luke’s Gospel themes of Jesus’s extravagant welcome to the excluded, of economic justice, and of radical peacemaking. It’s those values that must be championed in order for God’s kingdom to be finally experienced right here and now. The undeniable gift of God’s saving grace is no excuse for lack of commitment to Christ’s cause.
William H. Lamar believes today’s Gospel text “should be understood in the context of the imperial powers of its day, powers that demanded ultimate allegiance. Those powers demand much the same of us. . . Whatever direction this extraordinary text points, it is surely away from the cultural and ecclesial status quo.”
Here’s what Jesus did NOT require anyone to do in order to be an authentic follower: He did not ask them to profess that any particular statements about him were true. Following Jesus is not really even about HIM. It’s about joining him in helping to usher in the kingdom of God he preached and practiced.
Are we willing to accept the high cost of discipleship?
God, are we really following Jesus? Is it enough just to like his stories and admire his goodness? I don’t think so anymore. And I’m not sure I’m all in yet. I’d like to go deeper. I want to try. Amen.
Lamar, William H. “Reflections on the Lectionary” The Christian Century (August 17, 2016), 21.
Tannehill, Robert C. Luke: Abingdon New Testament Commentary (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996).