Jesus carries us when we can no longer carry our crosses, or the crosses of others
The following sermon was preached by Jon Dumpys, LSTC M.Div. Senior, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Thursday, September 13, 2007.
There is no way to get around it. Jesus has some very harsh, difficult and challenging words in this week's gospel: "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even life itself cannot be my disciple." (Lk 14:26) Hate? Jesus must be talking about the Pharisees, or the religious or political elite, right? No, he drives a stake right through the heart of those people whom all of us would hold dearest in our lives—our family. I am very glad Jesus does not say, "if you do not disown your family, you cannot be my disciple." His words are not that harsh, thank goodness. But surely, Jesus was trying to get our attention, and I think he has it!
Jesus wants to be in relationship with us. As the embodiment of God, he wants us to become closer and more in touch with the love of God. He claims us as God's beloved. He wants us to know in this speech, I think, about how big God's love is. God's love is bigger than the love of those who have probably shown us love on a daily basis more than anybody else in our lives. But no matter how loving a family we are a part of, we all encounter those moments – and haven't we all had them? – when we would like a different family, just for a day…when we need a break from them, or are sick of them, or feel hurt by them. Whatever our experience, Jesus stands ready to welcome us with open arms. And the family that Jesus gathers—the church—is empowered by Christ to welcome us all.
So while it might be tempting to hear Jesus say "hate your family" and wonder "do I do that?" and focus on us, let us ask ourselves, "what do Christ's words here reveal to us about God's heart?" What I think Jesus says here reveals that God's welcome is even bigger and better than any welcome our families give us. Our families, after all, are human and sinfulness can still exist even in the healthiest ones. But God's love in Christ will never fail…will never falter. Nobody knew this moreso than the early followers of Jesus, who in fact did leave all their families, and possessions—everything that gave them identity and social status—all to follow and trust their lives in the one whom they could always call friend. And Jesus still welcomes us, and gathers us into this movement, this rag-tag collection of followers into a family called the body of Christ. Jesus stands at the center, and still opens himself to all with a radical welcome that sees us as beloved no matter what.
And where is there a welcome from Jesus amidst this hate language? In the parable immediately preceding it. I cannot see the words "hate your father and mother" except as alongside this story. It goes like this: A person hosted a great dinner and invited many guests. Yet when it comes time for the banquet, the guests give excuses saying they cannot come: " I just bought a piece of land." "I just bought some oxen." "I just got married." The angry host orders that the poor, crippled, blind, lame and anyone else who wants to come to come…so that the house can be full for the banquet. Jesus is the host…inviting us, and seeking out a place for us all at the banquet table, so that we might know bounty and belovedness. We are the guest…in need of a place of refuge, a table where we belong.
But this gathering of outcasts and sinners, of us, into the family of Jesus does not exist without rules. Like every family, there are rules to abide by, to keep the family together and to keep it healthy and vital. While the welcome to Jesus is freely extended, walking and following this head of the household is costly. "Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple" (14:27), Jesus says. We can pick up our cross…the cross that exposes our weaknesses, our pains, our deceptions…and bring them to Jesus. For it is in Jesus' arms that we will find forgiveness and dignity… where we had thought there would be only ridicule and punishment.
The risk of picking up our cross is tremendous, though. I am reminded of Dale, a man I encountered during LSTC's rural immersion J-term trip in northwest Iowa. Dale risked a great deal in a presentation he made to us about the Stephen Ministry program at his congregation. Seeming to be a very successful, polished music teacher with a great sense of humor, Dale shared with us his own struggle with clinical depression. He exposed probably the weakest part of himself to us, but as he admitted, being honest about his mental illness allowed him to get on the right meds, bring him closer to Jesus' love and give him the freedom to become a Stephen Minister care-giver to other laity who were also struggling with mental illness. Jesus, who exposes our crosses, also always stands ready to bring us to new life.
The family of Jesus—the body of Christ—also has another rule. No one lets each other carry their own cross in isolation. Being a part of this community of the beloved also means walking with, bearing with and standing with each other as we try to ease the weight of the crosses each of us carries. For in lightening the load of another, we get to share the lifting of our own crosses that Jesus has done for us.
But what about those times when this task of cross-bearing becomes too great? What about when our backs become so sore from the carrying, and our hearts are as dry as the wood we are lifting, that we find ourselves becoming lifeless and withered? Have you been to this place? I was there… about four and a half years ago. About halfway through a year of volunteer work, serving the homeless, I suddenly realized that no, I would not be able to "save the word" as I had thought I could. The continual stream of new homeless guests at the agency, the never-ending cycle of so many guests—from addiction…to losing everything…to improvement…and back again—had worn me down to almost nothing. And like anyone who has experienced depression knows, the weight of my own cross in addition to everyone else's crosses and of the crosses of the world, kept pushing me further into an abyss that made me want it all to just end. But thanks be to God that when we cannot carry anyone else's cross any longer…Jesus carries our cross for us. Jesus carried me and lifted me out of the darkness by saying, "it is enough. You have done enough. Let me carry you for a while." And where did Jesus meet me to say these words? In the midst of a flock of the family of Jesus…a place that welcomed me with open arms and no expectations, other than simply letting God's mercy fill me up, and receiving the free gifts of Word and Sacrament. And it was in being filled that I heard the call to serve and follow the leader of the leader of that flock—Jesus.
What kind of family of Jesus will we be as we enter into this year at LSTC? Jesus has welcomed us into his family here, and always has room for us at his banquet. Yet there are crosses all around us…people in need of healing, of visibility, of care. In what ways will we care for our fellow family of Jesus members who sit with us at the banquet table? As each of the MDiv classes starts this year without knowing the other two, will we only notice those we already know, or can we reach out to help lighten the load of a stranger? Jesus, whose love is bigger than we can imagine, who seeks us out to make room for us in this place, will not fail in sustaining us as we sustain others. Jesus will not fail in carrying our crosses for us, so that we can carry the cross of those around us. May Jesus, the One whose welcome never fails, empower us to be the community of the beloved, eager to take up each other's burdens, but also eager to return to Him whom we can return to for refuge when we find we can go no further. Amen.