CHOOSE LIFE Deut 30: 15-20; Lk 14: 25-33
This Gospel lesson makes me wonder if I ought to place a question mark when I say “The Gospel of the Lord,” at the end of the reading. After all, Jesus tells his followers they are to hate their families. The Gospel of the Lord? Commentaries rush to explain that Jesus is speaking hyperbolicly here to make his point. He doesn’t really mean hate, he just means don’t put your trust in and loyalty to your family above your trust in and loyalty to the Lord your God.
Of course, we remember that Jesus says that the most important commandment is that we love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind, echoing what Moses urges the people to consider in the Torah. In today’s text from Deuteronomy he advises, “Commit, heart and soul and body, to a vibrant relationship with the God in whom you live and move and have your being.”
But I’m wondering if Jesus is also addressing what he called the second greatest commandment here: that we love our neighbors as ourselves. What if what Jesus means by hating family is that we should refuse to live by the usual narrow, exclusive ideas of what family is, especially when it comes to meeting human needs and contributing to the wholeness of all human beings?
After all, it’s in Luke’s Gospel that we find the parable of the Good Samaritan, a story that expands the definition of our neighbor beyond simply the people we prefer to promote a magnificent love that transcends religious affiliation, ethnicity, race, and all the other socially constructed categories we invent. Maybe what Jesus is trying to do when he tells us to hate our family is simply to widen the door of how we understand family, so that—as in last week’s text—there’s room for more and more people at the table.
It’s a risky proposition, this wider view of family. It asks us to take risks for the most vulnerable in society, to privilege the justice and love of God above our social and political positions, as well as other people’s well-being above our own aspirations to wealth and public applause.There are consequences associated with following Jesus, with conducting one’s life in the way that Jesus does. It may be what Jesus means when he tells the crowd that to follow him they will have to take up the cross.
I think it’s important to remember that Jesus says this long before anyone made any association between Jesus and a cross as a means of salvation. At this point in Luke’s Gospel, what the crowds might hear when Jesus calls them to pick up their crosses could be the call to carry the burdens of those from whom Jesus releases burdens. It could mean carrying the ministry of Jesus forward by seeing those whom the world overlooks. It could mean favoring and regarding the marginalized over the people we’d usually call family, even when that action might lead to oppression for us and our loved ones instead.
Jesus points out that often, in our quests for the security and comfort of those we call “family,” we negotiate and compromise when the cost is too great. He cites as examples a person who wants to build a watchtower but has to watch the budget, and a king who wants to go to war but ends up having to negotiate peace because his army is not strong enough. Jesus is clear that with God there is no compromising. God claims life – all of it. And that’s why many people refer to this passage from Luke as “the cost of discipleship.”
In fact it is texts like this that caused German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1937 to write a little book called, in fact, The Cost of Discipleship. By then, he and a small group of other German pastors opposing the policies of the Nazi Party were already teaching in a small, illegal seminary. You may know that he was imprisoned in 1944 and later transferred to the concentration camp at Buchenwald. He was hung as a traitor in 1945, just weeks before the Allies liberated the camp. But before all that, back in 1937, he had this to say about Jesus’ calling for our lives in The Cost of Discipleship:
The cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a person, he bids that one to come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Martin Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time – death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old person at his call.
I don’t know if anyone warned Dan and Jaqueline that was what they were signing up for as they officially sign on as members of this little faith community today. But, after all, it’s what we all sign up for when we call ourselves Christian.
Just to be clear, I’m not talking about earning our salvation or justifying ourselves by our works. Grace, eternity, right relationship with God — all of these are all gifts beyond either our ability or comprehension. Salvation is a done deal through Jesus. What I’m talking—what Bonhoeffer was writing about—is then what? And Jesus answers, “Leave all your possessions behind, and come with me.” The crowd he’s talking to doesn’t even know where he is going., but we do. He is on his way to Jerusalem for the last time. He is going to the cross—because Jesus never tells his followers to do something he doesn’t do himself. That is why we are called followers. Jesus does not let anything—not even his own life—keep him from drawing humans into God’s radical way of life and love.
But being a disciple is not only hardship and bleakness. Following Jesus not only about the cost of discipleship but also about the choice to be a disciple. When I think about cost, it’s all about what I have give up, sacrifice, and deny. But there is more to faith than that; it permeates every aspect of our days. When we choose to adhere to God’s unorthodox definitions of what a neighbor is, what a family is, we find that we don’t have less love or less richness in our lives. Instead we have a fuller, richer, deeper sense of family.
In our baptisms, we are put to death and raised with Christ. This is the cost and the promise of being God’s followers. Following Jesus is a lifetime of tracing how we use our money and our time and our energy—as individuals and as a church—in order to evaluate how we are spending our lives. We may need to make some hard choices in order to ensure someone else’s life is not diminished by the practices we opt for.
Our society encourages greed over giving, hoarding over sharing, and overabundance as a marker of social status over the elimination of poverty, and all those things lead us to be fearful, anxious, and jealous. Jesus wants to free us from that kind of enslavement. The joy of being of service to someone, of being allowed to partner with them in a difficult task or care for them at a time of need, is actually a profoundly holy experience. ULC’s project of making lunch and stocking the kitchen at Compass Housing is a sign of this kind of life.
We’ve all heard the studies about how people who volunteer and engage in charitable work tend to live longer, happier lives. But even when that’s not the case, there is a freedom that comes from not needing to compete to be on top. As Moses told God’s people way back in the wilderness, God’s radical hope is that those whom God redeemed would never again be slaves. The systems humans have created, we can eliminate by daily recommitting ourselves to the God who loves compassion, mercy, and justice and hates poverty, greed, inequity, and injustice. Christianity is more than just a way of thinking or believing. It is a way of being, a way of living, a way of doing things differently because we of live “in Christ.”
Through it all, we trust that the costs and challenges of aligning our faith and our choices is something we do in God’s embrace. We are like trees planted by steams of living water that keeps us sustained and growing. We are held by a God who always chooses life, and life abundant, for creation, who can create something out of nothing, can command the storms to cease, and can turn even something as formidable as a cross into a symbol of life.
Thanks be to God!
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