Get Real

Pastor Ingrid’s sermon from Sunday, September 25, 2016. Listen along here. Listen to Dr. Eddie Glaude, Jr.’s Westminster Town Hall Forum lecture here.

The gospel according to Luke, the sixteenth chapter:

19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24 He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25 But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27 He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29 Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ”

Word of God. Word of life. Thanks be to God.

I was seated at table number eighteen at a clergy organizing event this week. To my left was Bishop Richard Howell, Jr., the leader of Shiloh Temple on Broadway in North Minneapolis and overseer of forty other Pentecostal congregations scattered around the metro area. To my right was Pastor Billy Russell, the preaching minister at Greater Friendship Missionary Baptist Church—a predominantly African-American congregation not far from here on 38th Street. The conversation centered around poverty profiteering, race, and equity.

About ten minutes into our table conversation, Pastor Russell made his frustration known from my right, saying, “I’ve been attending conversations like these for 35 years; when are we going to get real?” Like surround sound, Bishop Howell echoed him from my left saying, “Mmm, mmm, get real. That’s good.”

Luke’s gospel story is so very real, isn’t it?

Here I’m not talking about the latter half of the parable which centers on eternal punishment and eternal reward. Someday I’ll spend more time on why I actually don’t believe in God’s eternal punishment, why I actually don’t believe in anything other than God’s eternal embrace, but today is not that day. No, today, I’d like to focus in on the reality of Luke’s story that is also our reality—that is, there is one guy living with too much and there is one guy living with far too little. One is covered with purple arrogance, the other with sores. The two men are separated by mere yards. The truth of the matter is that while they breezed by each other at the gate almost every day, the chasm that existed between them was considered impassible.

We know a lot about chasms. By chasm I mean the profound differences between people, viewpoints, feelings. [11:00 only – I’m going to take a risk here and ask y’all to name a few chasms aloud… I’ll start: Democrat and Republican…] I get the sense that we’re constantly encountering chasms right now, in our homes, our communities, and our world. And we, like the gospel writer, tend to believe that many of them are fixed. Democrat and Republican. Black and white. Citizens and police. Water and oil. Rich and poor. Men and women. Young and old. Lutheran and Pentecostal. The chasms seem so great—so impassable—so fixed—that we give up dreams of ever crossing them.

And when we give up dreams of crossing the chasms that, in fact, we have made, we end up living in a world like the one that Luke portrays. A world where the rich feast unaware and the poor are blamed for their own hunger. A world where the last never actually becomes the first. A world where love takes a backseat to both the well-founded and unfounded fear that dominates the public square. [Pastor Russell said it was time to get real. This is me “getting real.”] The temptation to give up on dreams of a new creation is so great. Lest we think it’s a temptation unique to this time and this place, Luke reminds us that the temptation to stop dreaming has always been the Achilles heel of God’s people.

But we are created to be a dreamer people. That’s the good news in Jesus’ parable. “Remember Moses?” he asks his listeners. Remember that guy that had the audacity to lead a people from slavery in Egypt into freedom in a new land? Remember Miriam’s song that imagined a new way forward? Remember how the Israelites crossed the chasm of the Red Sea? The Israelites weren’t our only ancestors with big dreams, of course. Jesus simply uses the story of the Exodus to call to mind all of the prophets and all of the people who have dared to make risky crossings, too.

Yes, we are a people with big dreams of a new creation. Our dreams are neither naïve nor are they unfounded; they arise out of the fact that we can look back and see the God in whom we place all of our trust continually transgressing social boundaries, building economic bridges, and closing chasms the world considers fixed. God does this work one meal, one conversation, one miracle at a time. //

If you haven’t heard the latest recording of the Westminster Town Hall Forum that featured Dr. Eddie Glaude, Jr., then I hope you’ll go home and spend 50 minutes of your afternoon listening to his wisdom. Glaude was born in Moss Point, Mississippi and is the chair of the Center for African-American Studies and Professor of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University. Whether you agree with his politics or not, his prophetic voice is one that absolutely needs to be heard in this time and place. I’ll put the link to the lecture on the Holy Trinity pastors’ blog after worship today.

Glaude began his Town Hall lecture the same way he begins all of his classes at Princeton, by quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said that “God speaks through our imaginations.” Glaude continued, saying, “We are experiencing a crisis of imagination [in America]. By this I mean something more than a failure to be creative. Rather, I mean something about who we are has gone out of focus…Imagination registers more than creativity. Imagination is something more.”

Quoting an English poet, Glaude said, “A [person] to be greatly good must imagine intensely and comprehensively. He or she must put himself in the place of another and of many others. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination. Here imagination involves the ability to see the not yet, a willingness to look beyond the opacity of now to see what’s possible. Imagination involves a kind of empathetic projection…[We need to feel] our way beyond the narrow consideration of ours alone to take up the concerns and aspirations of others.”

Democrat and Republican. Black and white. Citizens and police. Water and oil. Rich and poor. Men and women. Young and old. Lutheran and Pentecostal. The chasms seem so great—so impassable—so fixed. They require our most faithful imagination.

I like the image on the front of your bulletins because there is something rising, growing in the middle of the two seemingly opposing sides. It’s as if God saw a chasm and declared it a furrow—a perfect place for planting seeds that would prosper. It’s as if God looked beyond the opacity of now and saw a new creation. It’s an image that reminds us that God’s imaginative spirit goes before us, like she did with Moses and the Israelites, to show us a way even where there appears to be no way. We struggle to keep up with her; God’s people always have. But she won’t be deterred; she continues to beckon us, she continues to invite us, she continues to call us forth into life that really is life.

When are we going to get real? The Spirit’s answer to that question is always “now, right now.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Advertisements

A Crisis and a New Way. Jay’s sermon on a challenging parable.

Luke 16:1-13

1 Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2 So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3 Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7 Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?’ He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. 10 “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13 No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

I’ve felt this rich man’s manager approaching for some time now. In early summer, Pastor Ingrid and I discussed this and other upcoming passages. Shortly afterward, we met with worship staff, too, and we reflected on what message should be at the center of our service on September 18. I have read many interpretations by gifted scholars about the purpose of today’s parable, most of which I found compelling, inspiring, and also conflicting with one another. There are significant questions any reader must face: is the manager a model for us, or is he commended with a sense of irony? Is the rich landowner a stand-in for God, just because he’s the master, or is he more like the villain of the story? Is this a story of forgiveness and mercy or just about one man’s efforts to save his own hide? I asked those questions, and all the while I felt the manager approaching, knowing his story would be told and we would be left with the main question that we ask each Sunday, “Where is the meaning for us in this biblical text?” What is God’s word for us today?

It took me until Wednesday of this week to give up trying to figure out the absolute correct interpretation of this passage once and for all. So today, even more than usual, I am going to rely on your help and trust you all to do some interpretive work with me. And I will allow for the very real possibility that we will all leave worship today having heard something quite different than the person sitting next to us did.

That’s really not that unusual. I believe that the Holy Spirit is at work whenever we encounter God’s living Word and that our individual needs, experiences, and questions will all shape our hearing of scripture. It is good news that God meets us where we are—sometimes comforting the afflicting, sometimes afflicting the comfortable. And since I believe that—that there can be a diversity of responses to God’s Word—I’ve decided that it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that when Jesus first told his parables, they were heard in differing ways by his original audience, too.

Today’s parable of the manager could be a prime example. The story itself takes 7 ½ verses. To summarize: the manager finds himself in a crisis, accused of squandering his master’s property and about to lose his job. But while still employed, he goes to his master’s debtors and renegotiates the contracts with them, which allows the debts to be paid and, most notably, ingratiates the manager to the townspeople, the neighbors upon whose kindness he will soon be forced to rely. When the master learns of it, he commends him because he acted shrewdly. Whether he still lost his job or not, we don’t know. That’s the end of the story.

But the Gospel writer Luke has more to say. Depending on how you count, there are four to six concluding statements to the parable, which could be taken as interpretations or morals of the story, and I’m not sure they all fit with each other. They probably reflect a community, perhaps a lot like ours, that had different ways of making sense of the parable and putting together things that Jesus said. And any one of the interpretations could be enough to reflect upon in our worship today. “You cannot serve God and wealth” is provocative and true and worthy of our serious consideration. And yet such platitudes are not nearly as interesting as the story we read. So I keep coming back to the question of what could it be that the manager wants to teach us? More accurately, why does it matter to you that Jesus told this story?

I suppose it’s possible that it’s just a story, if there is such a thing, whose purpose was merely to entertain the disciples and pass the time as they traveled one of their long journeys by foot. I sometimes wonder what it would be like if someone overheard one of my impromptu bedtime stories for my daughters and tried to extract a theology from it. I’d be pretty embarrassed. Could that be the issue here?

No, not likely. And given that it was meaningful enough to include in the Gospel, I do think it’s worth our consideration. So let’s think through the story again.

“There was a rich man who had a manager.” Again, I can’t know for sure, but I expect the original audience would begin with a negative feeling toward both characters. It’s not just because they had money but because of the way the economic system worked at the time. The peasants in the crowd would have known what it was like to be in debt and the danger of being forced off of their family land because of it. They would have known that most rich landlords were loan-sharks, taking advantage of the low literacy rate among the public to use exorbitant interest rates and hidden fees in order to amass more wealth and land for themselves. They knew that land owners’ managers, or debt collectors, also found ways of adding extra fees for themselves. The Pharisees in the crowd would have known that such exploitation was in direct conflict with biblical law. And yet, this is how it was done. It was the way of the world.

Well, this isn’t hard for us to understand. We could take a walk around the corner to the nearest payday lender, as some of us have, and find out that the cost of a debt can compound very, very quickly. Would we ever expect such a lender to say, “Take what you owe, and cut it in half?” No, that isn’t the way it’s done. That wouldn’t be in keeping with the rules of their business model.

The same was true for the manager, this collector of debts. So what led him to break the rules of the game? He found himself in a crisis. The bottom fell out. The market crashed. His investments proved to be foolish. Whatever the details, he was about to lose his job. Would the peasants in the crowd listening to the story have felt sorry for him? No, I can’t imagine they did. He was getting what he deserved; let him suffer. That could have been enough of a story to entertain. Jesus could have said, “the positions of those who exploit and oppress are fleeting. The mighty will fall.”

But there’s more to the story. The man acted shrewdly. He knew he needed help, or he would be lost. He knew well enough that the master would not be merciful, so he looked downward on the socio-economic ladder. He saw that his only hope rested with the ones he had previously viewed as powerless, ignorant, and objects of his greedy exploitation. What if it could all change? What if there were some different rules by which we could organize our world? So the manager went to his neighbors and cut what they owed. Maybe it was his own fee that he removed. Maybe he was unveiling the senseless exploitation in the system. Sure, he was still motivated by self-interest, but in any case, through his creative imagination, he operated according to different rules, and he found hope for himself and his community.

Right before the telling of this story in Luke’s Gospel is the parable of the lost coin, the parable of the lost sheep, and the parable of the lost or “prodigal” son. Could it not be a fair interpretation to call this the passage today the parable of the lost manager? One who was believed to be lost to greed—his own and that of the system to which he had committed his whole life—even he could be found.

Or maybe this story is preparing us to hear the story of Zacchaeus, just a few chapters later. You remember that “wee little man,” don’t you? He was the tax collector who was known to have consistently defrauded his neighbors. But when he changed his ways, gave to the poor, and repaid fourfold all whom he had cheated, Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house, because Zacchaeus too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

So back to the manager: What a challenging parable it would have been if it meant that God was interested in finding and loving and saving people like an unjust manager. It’s as uncomfortable as the thought of loving our enemies. I’d understand why it would stick with people.

So now it’s your turn to work out what this parable means to you. You can let me know sometime, if you’d like, or just sit with it throughout this week. Are you like the land owner, knowingly or unknowingly supporting the rules of an unjust system even when they take advantage of others’ misfortune? Are you like the debtors, the unlikely and perhaps reluctant source of hope for someone in a crisis? Or are you like the manager, one who was lost but was found, one who was given the imagination to see his neighbors differently, to understand that their hope was bound up with his hope, and to seek a new way for life together.

However we hear the story, let us be reminded that God will not simply leave us to ourselves but is still working to turn the world upside-down, to challenge the assumed rules by which we live. Each of us, refreshed by God’s grace, has a part to play in this unfolding story.

A New Story. Jay’s sermon from Sunday on parables of a persistent seeker.

 

Luke 15:1-10

1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable: 4 “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 8 “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Tuesday morning there was a voicemail waiting for me on my phone. A woman who had attended a wedding here last weekend had called to say that she was missing a bracelet, and she believed she had left it here at church. I asked around about it. I went and looked in the parking lot. And then I called her back and said, “I’m sorry; it isn’t here. I’m afraid your bracelet is lost.” I kept her number, but I don’t have much hope that I’ll be using it. Maybe it will “turn up,” as we like to say, but chances are slim. Typically in situations like this, “lost” is the end of the story. Truthfully, if it hadn’t been for this Gospel passage today, I probably wouldn’t have given that bracelet another thought. Why waste time and energy on something like that?

But the Gospel invites us to think about lost things and even the nature of lost-ness itself. Specifically, it asks us to consider lost-ness as the beginning rather than the end of the story. In the first parable we heard from Jesus, it’s a sheep who has wandered away from the flock. In the second, one of ten coins has gone missing. Although to be more accurate, “wandering” and “gone missing” is not how the parables are told. Jesus doesn’t place the action on the part of the missing, as if they were somehow to blame. Instead, they are simply lost. Lost-ness, we are reminded, happens in life. Who could blame a sheep for wandering away, when looking for patches of grass to eat is what sheep are supposed to do? Even more, how could you blame a coin? No, this isn’t a parable of warning or judgment for those with a tendency to wander. Even the parable that follows it, the famous story of the lost, so-called “prodigal” son, is much richer than merely a cautionary tale against wastefulness or restlessness, as we discovered after spending a lot of time with that parable last spring. Lost can happen, often through no one’s fault, the result of a constellation of events and conditions. The real question left for us this morning, though, is do we consider lost to be the end of the story or merely the beginning?

For the past week, many of us have been reflecting on the life of Jacob, a boy who was lost so suddenly and tragically. Those of us who have lived in Minnesota these past 27 years have seen how strong a family’s love and hope can be for one who is lost. It was a hope that motivated them each day during the long period of waiting and wondering and searching, and it motivated others to join them. And even despite the sad developments we’ve learned about this week, the story of that hope has not come to an end. It is a hope that has already prompted other victims to tell their stories and to seek healing for themselves and others. It is a hope that informs the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center in its work to build a better, more compassionate world. In memory of Jacob, they’re asking people to commit to eleven things: “Be fair, be kind, be understanding, be honest, be thankful, be a good sport, be a good friend, be joyful, be generous, be gentle with others, be positive.” You can’t commit to pursuing these kinds of things in our world unless you possess a real, deep hope. This hope is bringing communities together in ways they haven’t before, and it continues to inspire many of us, too, as the family asks us to pray, enjoy one another, love one another.

This kind of persistent, loving hope is a defining characteristic of the God we worship. Our God never tires in seeking. Rather than leaving us and our world to chance or anything else, God persistently seeks each and every one of us in times when we are lost and disconnected from a relationship with God and with a community. This is what Jesus wanted people to know through his teaching and his example: what God is like. And after we’ve understood God in this gracious, hopeful, loving way, then and only then if there’s something for us to do suggested by the parables he told, it is to join the One who seeks. Look for others in their lost-ness.

There are many ways to be lost, so I don’t think we can neatly categorize people into lost or not. Any of us may have parts of our lives that need to be discovered and restored back to ourselves. Some of us may have guilt about something in the past, and so we remember God’s grace and forgiveness. But again, feeling lost is not always about something we have done. Some of us may feel a bit lost in grief. On this September 11th anniversary day, we may especially remember the thousands who lost loved ones in the World Trade Center or the Pentagon or flight 93. We remember how life changed for all of us, the fear we felt and might still feel. Some of us live with illness and feel isolated because of it. Some of us live with addiction or depression or poverty or a loss of meaning. Some of us feel overlooked by a society that privileges others. Any of these things can lead us away from the life God wants for us. But no matter what the situation, each of us is beloved by God and a valued part of God’s community. God continues to seek us out, especially in these difficult places of pain and loss. This isn’t to deny the feelings or the reality of the suffering, but God reaches out to us and invites us to carry all that we have back into a loving relationship and back into a place of authentic hope and even joy.

And the amazing thing is that God often does this work of grace through people like us. Even if we feel a part of ourselves is off wandering, we can participate in God’s seeking activity.

Luther Seminary’s Matthew Skinner wrote a blog post on Huffington Post saying, “I know what God looks like.” He described how a bookkeeper in an elementary school near Atlanta spoke to a troubled 20-year-old who showed up at the school intending to commit a violent act. Anoinette Tuff had “no choice but to be present to someone who was—on that day, at least—very lost.” She kept saying to him, “I can help you. Let’s see if we can work it out.” She listened to him. She told him about her life and what she was going through. And when it was all over, with the situation diffused, she comforted him, saying, “It’s gonna be all right, sweetheart. I just want you to know that I love you. And I’m proud of you…We all go through something in life.”

Skinner writes, “That’s what it’s like when God becomes present to someone who is lost…God looks like a person just doing what she can. No extraordinary talents. No special training. No obvious privileges. Nobody larger than life. God looks like someone who shows patient commitment.”

Given what we know about God, I think we can all say that we know what God looks like. It looks like a community that seeks justice and peace, nurtures relationships and faith, tries to build a better world beginning with ourselves. I’ve seen what God looks like in all of you. No, I’m not saying that we are a perfect community; no community is. Like any other congregation, we might fall short or grow impatient from time to time. But at our best, we seek one another out when needed. We worship together. We participate in Sunday School and confirmation and forums. We bake cakes and hotdishes. We listen. So as we begin another year together, we should expect nothing less than to experience God in this community, the very God who so patiently and lovingly seeks relationship with us.

Take a look around. Look at the people worshipping with you, sitting in your pew, behind you, in front of you. These are the people with whom and through whom we will experience God’s grace. That means your presence in this community matters. The more we’re in relationship, the more we’ll experience God.

I’m going to sit down now. We have a lot to do today during the education hour, and I want to leave plenty of time for it. But before I do, I just want to point out the recurring theme of joy in what Jesus has to say about God. The shepherd rejoices. The woman throws a party, probably blowing far more than the one silver coin she had initially lost. And there is joy in the presence of the angels and God when one who was lost is found. If we’re expecting to encounter God this year, then we should expect a whole lot of joy, too. In our life together, with all of its complexity and ongoing learning, to be sure, we will have reason to celebrate.

 

 

 

 

 

A Difficult Call to Life. Jay’s sermon for September 4.

Luke 14:25-33

25Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, spouse and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

 

About a hundred years ago, G. K. Chesterton famously said, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” I think we’d agree that that is especially true of the kind of Christian life described in today’s gospel: hating father and mother, spouse and children, brothers and sisters; giving up all your possessions, carrying the cross. Who of us is willing to sign up for this? I can’t say that I am. I’d give up some of my possessions, perhaps, but not all. I’m pretty grateful for a couch upon which to take a Sunday afternoon nap, not to mention the living room that surrounds it. And even more, I can’t imagine navigating life without the support of the people I call family. So these words of Jesus are not at all an attractive invitation. Calling them difficult would be putting it nicely.

If this passage were all we knew about the call to follow Christ, then I doubt many of us would be here in worship—on Labor Day weekend or any other Sunday. But it’s the fact that we do know more about Jesus and his invitation that makes these verses especially confusing. How can the one who asks us to love even our enemies then ask us to hate family, those who are often the closest to us? How can the one who assures us that God loves and knows each of us so well to the point of numbering the hairs on our heads ask us to deny our valuable lives? What do we make of these contradictions?

It’s important to remember the whole story this morning, and there are some pieces that require explanation. For one thing, I think we can recognize there is some attention-getting hyperbole at work here. These are big statements meant to shock the crowds into considering something very new, for preparing for a radical life transformation. Also, the way the word hate was used in the ancient languages of both Hebrew and Greek is not at all how we use the word today. Love and hate in this context refer to a sense of moving toward or moving away from. Loving one thing and hating another was a way of describing preference or order of priority rather than personal feelings. When the Old Testament says, “I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau,” we can assume that God did indeed love both brothers but that God chose one for a particular purpose. God moved toward Jacob especially in that particular instance.

And when it comes to possessions, while some Christian ascetics throughout history have tried to live without owning anything, it seems to me that this line, too, is mostly about our identity and what we value most, even how we understand our lives. Paul Tillich defined faith as one’s “ultimate concern.” If we are primarily concerned with wealth and possessions, then there isn’t much room left for faithful Christian discipleship.

So what these words of Jesus say to me in their shocking way is that as a follower of Christ, we need to be prepared to live a life that looks and acts and feels different than other lives. We need to expect that going in. Discipleship is an identity that shapes not just one hour a week but every hour, every day of our lives. It is an invitation to make faith in God our ultimate concern that informs everything else. So it’s possible that it could mean turning away from certain relationships and possessions and making personal sacrifices. That’s not because God wants to take away those things and make us suffer just for suffering’s sake but because that’s how the world works. As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “As long as the world opposes those who set out to transform it, the transformers will pay a high price.” Discipleship does indeed involve transformation—for ourselves and for the world.

This weekend I had the opportunity to co-officiate at a wedding with my father, a retired Lutheran pastor. The couple had chosen as one of their readings for the service the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst…” My dad—whom, I should say, I do not hate—suggested to the bride and groom that their partnership in marriage, while certainly about the love they have for one another, should also be concerned for the things for which God is most concerned. That is, their life together, should be on the side of the poor, the suffering, the oppressed, the hungry and thirsty. They should identify themselves with others, especially in places of suffering where God has promised to be present. They should remain open to learning about how God is at work among those on the margins.

Now, I don’t think that message is about denying one’s own life. It’s certainly not to lessen the celebration of their love for one another. No, I think God delights in their love and relationship, and God delights in all of our relationships and joys and celebrations. But God is especially interested in inviting us into a fuller kind of life through relationship with the poor and the oppressed and the marginalized. Standing with them, identifying ourselves with them, and learning from them is the difficult call to discipleship that is all too often left untried. It is difficult. It is countercultural. But it is also a path to life.

Theologian Karoline Lewis, who will present at our adult forum next Sunday, suggests that we should keep in mind that it’s not just Christianity that’s difficult; life in general is difficult. Life is full of difficult choices, of weighing the costs. Each one of us makes difficult decisions and sacrifices for those things we care about—whether it’s family, our jobs, our country, or countless other things. She wrote of this passage, “The cross is not unique but representative of what life is. To carry your cross is to carry the choices and burdens and realities of a life that has made a certain commitment – a commitment to a way of life that is committed to bringing about the Kingdom of God here and now.”

That commitment has many implications. It means keeping our eyes open to the world’s brokenness in need of healing and our ears open to the voices of our neighbors. It means showing hospitality to new immigrants in our communities and building healthy neighborhoods. It means considering the lives of the workers who made the clothes we wear, picked the fruit we eat, grew the coffee we enjoy in the morning. It means remembering that our lives are bound up with every other life of God’s creation.

Willie Jennings, a teacher at Yale Divinity School, argues that Christianity to a large extent has forgotten our interconnectedness. Religion has become intertwined with race and nationality and systems of power. He says, “We have lost the sense that we are to include others who are at the margin as fundamental to our way of life.” We, especially those of us who are white and are relatively comfortable, too often see ourselves as the center and the norm of life, and therefore primarily as teachers of the rest of the world. But authentic faith requires a different way of being. Jennings says it “will require a group of people who reject imperialism, not only the imperialism of a nation but the imperialism of Christianity, of whiteness, of a way of life that imagines that we are first and always teachers rather than being first and always learners. These people will open themselves to being changed.”

Could the Christian Church to see ourselves as learners first of all, following the resurrected Christ into transformative and life-giving encounters with others? Or will this call to discipleship be too difficult?