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?