This is one of those weeks when, after reading the Gospel lesson, you might feel like putting a question mark after the usual liturgical formula: “This is the Gospel of the Lord (?)”
After all, Jesus is advising “hate” for family members. “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.”
What do you do with a text like this? And especially on a day when many congregations are having “Rally Sunday,” beginning the program year—Sunday School, confirmation, Bible study, etc. What a day to talk about hating one’s family!
One thing to do with this text, of course, is to talk about the use of hyperbole—deliberate exaggeration to make a point. It is a rhetorical tool common in Jesus’ time and in our own: “He missed the shot by a mile.” “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.”
But be careful, dear preacher, not to soften too much the word of challenge in the text. While Jesus is not literally advising hate against one’s family members, he is warning his listeners about the risk inherent in becoming his disciple. It is a risk he spoke about in a text earlier in Luke, assigned just a few weeks ago:
Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” (Luke 12:51-53).
Becoming Jesus’ disciple is not for the faint of heart. It involves the possibility of alienating family and friends who cannot understand or support a commitment that seems foolish to them. Discipleship has a real cost to it, so count the cost, Jesus says, before making the commitment, just as a builder must count the cost of construction before beginning a project.
Commitment is not an alien concept to us, especially at this time of year. The school year is beginning or has recently begun. Your congregation members are getting back into the schedule of various commitments they’ve made—to sports clubs and music groups, book clubs and bowling leagues (yes, bowling leagues still exist here in the upper Midwest), taking children to piano lessons or picking up grandchildren from school.
Some of these commitments involve a good deal of sacrifice in terms of time and money. Many youth sports teams, especially traveling teams, consume the evenings and weekends of children and parents alike, as well as significant amounts of money spent on registration fees, equipment, and travel.
What about the church? What do you ask of your parishioners? Do you take whatever you can get of their time, adjusting worship and education times to fit their schedules?
Such flexibility is helpful, of course. Churches need to move outside of their own walls, meet people where they are, and minister to them there. And it must also be said that following Jesus does not necessarily equate with time spent at church.
Still, the challenge in this text is real. Christian discipleship is not something that can be done only in one’s spare time, after all the other commitments have been met. Jesus isn’t asking for our leftovers. Jesus wants us—our love, our time, our resources, our work, our commitment—in order to live out what we pray: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” And that kind of discipleship may very well put us in conflict, if not with our family members, than certainly with the expectations of many of those around us.
A couple of years ago, when my oldest daughter was beginning high school, she signed up for the school swim team. I dutifully went to the parents’ meeting at the beginning of the year. Standing in line with other parents to register her and pay the fees, I asked about the practice schedule.
“They practice every day right after school for three hours, and on Saturday mornings. Meets are every Thursday and most Saturday afternoons,” one experienced and rather zealous father responded. “And she shouldn’t miss a practice or she won’t get a perfect attendance award at the end.”
“I see. Well, what do you do about orthodontist appointments or church things?”
“We skip those or I schedule appointments during the school day. I’d rather have my daughter miss class or church events than skip swim practice.”
Another parent giggled nervously as I made a face, and though I didn’t say it, I thought, “I’m not going to drink that Kool-Aid.” My daughter worked hard and enjoyed being a part of the team that year, but she was not one of the girls who received a perfect attendance award at the end, and I was proud of that fact, as it meant that she did not miss classes or our church’s weekend confirmation retreat.
Jesus calls us to discipleship, and it is a counter-cultural call, in small ways (as in my example above) and in much more important ways. Indeed, for countless Christians over the centuries, following that call to discipleship has been at the cost of their lives.
The reading from Deuteronomy, like the one from Luke, offers both a challenge and a promise: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20).
Choose life. It is a radical call in a world so complicit in death (witness the horrible frequency of mass shootings in the U.S. and the callousness in many quarters towards refugees). It is a radical call in a world that also tries to numb the pain and the fear of death with endless distractions—entertainment, material possessions, digital devices, drugs.
Choose life. Because that’s what it means, after all, to follow Jesus. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:23-24). 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.
This text and this time of year provide you, working preacher, an opportunity to challenge your people to hear Jesus’ voice anew and to accept his invitation to take up the cross and follow him on the road of discipleship. Follow not out of guilt, but out of love for God. Follow because the way of Christian discipleship is a great adventure. Follow because, in the words of the old collect, “walking in the way of the cross, [we] may find it none other than the way of life and peace.”1
- Episcopal Church. The Book Of Common Prayer (New York: Seabury Press, 1979), 220.