Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost Lectionary Reflection
September 8, 2013
So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. Luke 14:33
“Really, Jesus? Really!? You can’t be serious about what you say in this week’s gospel reading. Can you? C’mon … hate my relatives, carry the cross, and give up ALL my possessions? Surely you don’t want this passage to be taken literally. You can’t mean what you say here. There must be contextual issues, hyperbole, overstatement, sarcasm, or something in your words to mitigate the sting of this directive.”
My fellow preachers, teachers, and bearers of the good news of Jesus Christ, have you ever had these kind of thoughts as you contemplate this week’s passage from Luke’s gospel? Have you ever been tempted to soft-pedal it, rationalize it, explain it away, or even flat out say, “Jesus doesn’t mean what he says here”? I know I have. I’ve also been very grateful when this week rolls around to be able to choose from three other lessons, thereby altogether avoiding any sticky scriptural wicket. What does it mean to carry your cross in 21st century North America anyway?
It means everything to those of us who would follow Jesus. With every year that ticks by, I feel more strongly that Jesus does mean exactly what he says here, and that we do need to wrestle with the cost of discipleship. Granted, most of us will not be called upon to give our lives for the sake of the gospel ala Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Manche Masamola, but we must consider the cost and decide whether we would be willing to do so.
What about hating one’s family? Does that mean we might have to choose between our family and following Jesus? Maybe. Are you willing to disagree with your parents, your spouse, or your children when it comes to your discipleship? The church of my childhood does not believe in the ordination of women or that a woman should speak, preach, or preside in the assembly. Discerning God’s call to ministry and following that call put me at odds with my mother. One of the great sadnesses of my life is that she could not in good conscience attend my ordination and that she does not believe I am following God’s will. Yet, despite our differences, we still love each other and remain in close relationship–agreeing to disagree about this and other issues of faith and justice.
How do we address Jesus’ directive about possessions? This is a tough one. Western culture teaches us to value stuff, often to the detriment of relationships. Just look at the amount of space and money devoted to storing stuff that won’t fit into our homes. Think about the huge edifices and shrines dedicated to consumer culture (malls, big box stores, factory outlets) and the concept of “retail therapy” as an antidote to almost anything. And here we have Jesus telling us to give it all up.
Yes, this is a difficult teaching, but a central one to the life of discipleship. Nothing–nothing at all–must come between us and our relationship with Jesus. Nothing should stand in the way of following his command to love God with everything we have and our neighbor as ourselves–not money, not stuff, not politics, and not family values. Following Jesus is a way of life that demands everything of us.
Here’s the kicker: We can’t do it alone. Even though we may want to follow Jesus, to be willing to give up everything, it is virtually impossible to do so. We can try, but we will likely fail. Instead of giving up and saying the cost is too high or discipleship is impossible and therefore irrelevant, why not remind people that it is the grace and love of Jesus that enables us to keep on going, to keep on trying, and to keep on believing that faithful discipleship is the way.
If we can open the conversation and allow people to wrestle openly and honestly with what it means to carry the cross, hate the ones we love, and give up all our stuff, then maybe, just maybe, we can admit our failure and inability to do so and instead lean on Jesus to guide our steps. It will mean taking some huge risks, it will mean expecting more of ourselves and others, and it will involve sacrifice. So, what do you have to lose? So very much depends on how each one of us answers that question.
Blessings on your preaching and teaching. And bless you for asking the hard questions and being willing to go to places that are tough and dark and difficult. May the Holy Spirit grant you words and will to speak the prophetic words that are needed in your context. Peace be with you.
If you preach on the gospel lesson today, consider including the hymn “O Christ, Your Heart, Compassionate” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship #722). The words are by Herman Stuempfle, Jr., and the tune is Ellacombe. Here’s a link to an uptempo version posted to YouTube. Pay particular attention to these words found in verse three: “We are your body, risen Christ; our hearts, our hands we yield that through our life and ministry your love may be revealed.”
How might this hymn become a prayer of renewal and commitment in your community, an opportunity agree to engage the tough questions, to rely on Jesus’ grace and mercy, and to walk against the grain of the world by grace through faith alone?
This week’s gospel lesson is a tough one, but don’t let that stop you from considering it with youth. Consider sharing it in terms of modern day martyrs. Westminster Abbey in London installed statues commemorating ten 20th century martyrs representing religious persecution and oppression on each continent. Click here to be taken to the BBC link that talks about the installation of statutes of Archbishop Oscar Romero, of El Salvador; Archbishop Janani Luwum, of Uganda; Wang Zhiming, from China; Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., of the United States; German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia; South African teenager Manche Masemola; Maximilian Kolbe; Lucian Tapiede, an Anglican from Papua New Guinea; and Esther John, a Presbyterian evangelist from Pakistan.
Some questions to consider might include these: How do the sacrifices of these Christians make you think about your own Christian walk? What kind of sacrifices do you think you may be called to make? Do Christians in the western world have to make sacrifices? Do we hold one another to a high enough standard as disciples of Christ? Do your sports teams or other groups put more demands on your life and time than your faith community? What do you think about that?
If you have a plant in your garden that has been particularly prolific this year, bring in some of the fruit of that plant. Bring your fertilizer in, too. Whether you use Miracle Gro, and organic fertilizer, or make your own from compost, manure, etc., talk with the children about the importance of providing good soil, fertilizer, adequate water, and sunshine. Read Psalm One to the children. Consider using the Easy-to-Read version. Tell them this psalm provides some good advice about how to “fertilize” and “feed” our faith life. Tell them that studying the Bible, praying, worshiping, and being active in the faith community will help them to develop deep roots, strong leaves, and good fruit. Our “Miracle Grow” comes from God, through Jesus, with the presence of the Holy Spirit. We were watered in baptism, fed on Word and meal, and strengthened in community to go out into the world and bear fruits of love, peace, service, and mercy.