Well – once again, here is Jesus being less than his usual charming self, and as a preacher I freely admit that his words have evoked my fight or flight response. Instinctively I imagine that we’re all cringing just a bit at what is undeniably one of his least appealing outbursts. However, there’s no getting around this one, and I’d like to propose that we look at this difficult text through the lens of the choices we all get to make in life…. because beneath the hyperbole I hear three distinct challenges, and something worthwhile on which to hang our spiritual hats.
Just in case you’ve forgotten, in a nutshell this is what, at least on the surface, he seems to be saying: “Hate your family! Hate your life! Carry a cross! Give everything away!” And then the clincher – in the form of a threat: “If you don’t you can’t be my disciple!” Quite the ultimatum, and not exactly motivating is it?
First on his chopping block is family. For most of us, the family is the place that nurtures us, forms a good part of our identity, and lays claim to a certain amount of loyalty. It’s where many of our values and opinions are formed. We’re social beings who need other social beings, but not to the extent that the family becomes a prison of rigid expectation or conformity or obligation. All those things can thwart our potential and blind us to the fact we are also called to function outside the sphere of our family’s influence, in a world where many cry for food, water, basic medical care, economic and political justice, and sometimes simply a healthy shot of compassion. So underneath the simple directive to “hate your family” lies this unspoken challenge: if given the opportunity to take a stand on some issue of justice, and you risk family opinion or tradition in the process, will you let the family influence your decision, or will you exert your own freedom to decide? That is, would you risk your family’s equilibrium in order to do the right thing, even if it means some degree of sacrifice? As a disciple, that’s the choice you have to make.
The second injunction, to hate our life and carry our own cross (put together since they seem to be related), is also a difficult one to hear…. but I have a personal window of understanding into this one. Many years ago while I was in seminary I found myself one day sitting in the chaplain’s office complaining fairly bitterly about the difficult and complicated process of offering oneself as a candidate for ordination. The academic demands were one thing, but the social undercurrents and theological wrangling at the school were another matter entirely, and I was feeling somewhat swamped and overwhelmed with it all. So after I had unleashed a flood of frustration, the chaplain just smiled at me and said very calmly and with great wisdom, “Who told you it would be easy? You can’t be a Christian and expect that the path will exclude a cross of some kind…. it didn’t for Jesus, and it won’t for you.” It was a sobering thought, and certainly not the kind of sympathetic response I was expecting, but it provided instant perspective….because being a disciple of Jesus means embracing the whole package, not just the “feel-good” bits. And while standing up for what our faith tells us is right and just may not literally cost us our life in this day and age, nonetheless the Christian path demands that we’re prepared to take risks and face consequences. Sadly, the cause of justice and inclusiveness and human dignity will always have opponents – and so in telling us to ‘carry our cross’ Jesus perhaps challenges us: if given the opportunity to act or speak out on an important issue where justice or simple dignity are on the line, will you feel the freedom to do it, no matter what the personal cost? Are you prepared to go where the Spirit leads you? What kind of cross are you prepared to carry? As disciples, it’s helpful to know the answer to that – just as a builder assesses his project before beginning, or a king his battle plan before entering the fray.
And finally to that delicate but thorny matter of possessions, those treasures that we squirrel away in safe deposit boxes or protect behind dead-bolted doors and costly alarm systems. Who owns what, and how we protect it, is a huge preoccupation in our culture, to the extent that it’s a fair question to ask if we own our possessions, or whether our possessions own us. Let’s face it – if we have more, far more than we legitimately need or can reasonably use, and if we’re weighed down with anxiety over the safety and security of our “stuff”, then our energy and our priorities are seriously misplaced. And so Jesus issues this third challenge: are you willing to let go of your preoccupation with wealth and possessions in order to experience a new kind of freedom? Can you take that energy and apply it to the Church and the world in new and life-giving ways?
Discipleship, as we’ve learned today, is essentially an invitation to travel light, to understand and to minimize those things that weigh us down or distract us in our walk of faith. It really helps if we hear the call to discipleship not in terms of what it costs, but rather as an invitation to a special kind of freedom that is totally enveloped in the grace of God. For this taste of liberation in Christ we give thanks and together say: Amen.
The Venerable Nancy Adams