by Raymond Pickett
Professor of New Testament
So, we begin the semester with challenging words from Jesus. Many if not most of you have left home, family, and friends, some the security of well-paying jobs and comfortable places to live to respond to a call to ministry. You may indeed be feeling pretty good about giving up relatively more than many who would claim to be disciples of Jesus, and then you hear these difficult words: “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.”
Perhaps we should add these words of Jesus to the baptismal liturgy:
- Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?
- Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?
- Do you hate your mother and father and the other members of your family?
Of course these sayings are not included because we are fairly confident that Jesus’ words are hyperbole and not to be taken as face value. So what is Jesus doing here, and what is he trying to get us to do?
Just before this passage in Luke’s story Jesus attended a dinner party at the house of a prestigious Pharisee where he offended the quests who were preoccupied with their own honor and status, and proposed that the next time they throw a banquet they should “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” You can imagine just how popular a dinner guest Jesus must have been.
In today’s passage we find him back on the road to Jerusalem accompanied by a “great crowd,” and he is no less agitational. People gathered around him not necessarily because he is pleasant and agreeable. Rather they came to him because they heard in his challenging words the possibility that life could be better.
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus the prophetic messiah is recruiting and forming followers who are unflinchingly and unreservedly devoted to new life in the world as God intends it, but his pedagogy is more Socratic than lecture style. Socrates referred to himself as a gadfly stinging people out of their complacency, and this seems to be the role Jesus is playing here. He certainly can’t be accused of false advertising here. Jesus address those would be followers who are intrigued with his vision and think that he is cool and want to hang out with him. He wants them to know that the world is about to turn and that will entail a turning in your own lives. God’s future can’t emerge while we are still living in the past. He also wants to know whether they are all in.
So these hard sayings about renouncing family and possessions aren’t about family and possessions per se. Rather they beg the question of who we are becoming and what we should be about. Otto Scharmer, who chairs the IDEAS program MIT and writes about social transformation says that his journey began with the recognition that I am not just one self but two selves. One self is connected to the past, and the second self connects to who I could become in the future. It seems to me that Jesus is agitating around the question of how attached we are to the “self” that has been, the “self” constructed around our attachments, be they possessions, credentials, ideas or whatever it is that may stand in the way of the new thing God is doing in our midst.
I don’t think Jesus is telling us to renounce our family or even our history as much as he is challenging us to let go of what we have been doing to open our hearts and minds to what the Spirit wants involve us in. Last weekend were driving back from seeing my mom in Ohio and I was listening on the radio to one of our best Lutheran theologians of everyday life, Garrison Keillor. At the conclusion of his report on Lake Woe-be-gone he said this: “I used to think that faith…was sort of like a building block, and you put all these blocks together, and you build a house, sort of like the little pig built that the wolf could not blow down. And now I get older and I feel that faith is a matter of surrender. It’s a matter of just giving up, and leaving that house and just walking out and experiencing the cold and the rain and doubt and confusion and trying to keep up your hope and some sense of gratitude. If you just keep up hope and gratitude, maybe that’s…all you need.”
Now surrender can be a dangerous thing; it depends on to whom or what you are surrendering. All that Jesus has every asked anyone to surrender to is the world that God is recreating, the kingdom. But in today’s Gospel he particularly poignant in telling us, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Jesus is inviting us to get involved in God’s new creation, but he also telling us that to do that we have to regard our life in the world as it is as finished. Lest you think that this all about what we have to give up to follow Jesus, there is an important addendum to what Jesus says here a few chapters later. Jesus tells has a ruler who asks him what he needs to do to inherit eternal life, “Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor” - another hard saying. “Who then can be saved?” the worried bystanders ask, and Jesus eases their anxiety a little, “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.”
Then good old Peter, who is either concerned or proud I am not sure says, “Look, we have left our homes and followed you.” Then Jesus says something sheds a little light on today’s Gospel: “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.” What is on offer here is nothing less than the community of the new age; redefined relationships and connections with people you never imagined. At the center of this community of the new age are the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame, and they are there not as the object of our pity or charity.
This summer St. Luke’s in Logan Square began offering “community meals” on Wednesdays. What they mean by community is not the congregation, but the people in the neighborhood. So between 50-70 people, most of whom are in need of a good meal and a few from St. Luke’s, gather around a meal prepared by someone in the congregation. The hospitality in itself is quite a remarkable thing to experience, but do you know what is even more remarkable? To watch the people of St. Luke’s engage the guests as if they were the most important people in the world. To be sure, the conversations at community dinners at St. Luke’s would be easier and less awkward if they were mostly congregants to talking to one another, but somehow they understand this is how you participate in the kingdom; that this is what the community of the new age looks like.
Sisters and brothers, all of you are here because you have “counted the cost” of responding to God’s call and have some idea of the tasks at hand at the start of a new year. If you don’t, don’t worry because we do. Even so, Jesus calls our attention to the kingdom as pure gift, something God does,that requires from us a certain amount of receptivity and risk that is often impeded by our attachments, even our accomplishments, and what we think we know. So as we begin the work of teaching and learning, the question before us is what are we becoming, not what will we make of ourselves, and what we are becoming has everything to do with what we let go of, our capacity to surrender and open our hearts, our minds, our very selves to what the Spirit is doing in the world.