Sunday, September 5, 2010

Jesus and the hard way of discipleship

My sermon today is based on Jeremiah 18:1-11, Psalm 139:1-5, 13-17, Philemon 1-21, and Luke 14:25-33.

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children cannot be my disciple.”
Yes, you heard that right.
And if you feel like you just heard this not long ago, you are correct. We heard a very similar passage three weeks ago.
We could turn to the other lessons today, but they don’t seem much better, and let me remind you again that I don’t pick the lessons.
It is tempting to avoid them – this one from Luke is known as one of the “hard sayings” of Jesus, and with good reason.
But let’s see what we can do here. First, I want to underline an obvious truth: How we tell our stories says a great deal about how we view ourselves, and how we view our relationship with God.
Second, I want to underline another truth that is less obvious: How we listen to stories – how we hear each other – also says a great about us and how we view our relationship with God.

I make those two observations to further point out that how we hear these ancient biblical stories says a great deal about us and how we view our relationship with God.
We can hear these stories at least two ways.
Here is one way: From the Prophet Jeremiah, we are told that God will bring evil against you unless you “amend your ways.”
From Psalm 139: “Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!”

You didn’t actually hear those words this morning because the drafters of the lectionary edited that part out. But, trust me, the slaying of the wicked is in the psalm.
Then to Paul’s Letter to Philemon: it doesn’t seem to fit much of anything, so we are going to leave aide for now and go straight to the Gospel of Luke:
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother…”
Then take up your cross and get ready to be crucified.

The image we get is of a wrathful, vengeful God who only allows a tiny number of worthy people to be admitted into his holy club. If you mess up, even a little, you are out.
That is the way much of our culture – and much of the religious world in general – hears these biblical passages, and then uses these passages to build religious social structures that divide people into the worthy and the unworthy, the elect and the non-elect.
But maybe there is another way of hearing these biblical passages that get closer to how Jesus intends us to hear them.
But be forewarned: this way of hearing the gospel might prove even more unsettling than the other way because it might push us out of our comfort zones.
From Jeremiah, we hear how we are like a piece of clay. God is the potter molding us into a beautiful jar. We are shaped, but we are not the shapers.
Then from Psalm 139 we hear about God who is with us from the time we are in our mother’s womb, who knows us in our sitting down and our rising up, in our journeys and in our resting places.
We hear about God who never gives up on us.
Then we get this extraordinary – and brief – letter from Paul to Philemon. The letter has no outward theological content, but don’t let outward appearances fool you. Paul is writing to a slave owner, Philemon, pleading with him to legally free his slave, Onesimus, who has escaped.
Paul sends Onesimus back to his owner, and Paul asks the owner see his slave as a “beloved brother” – to treat his slave as an equal – and then free him. Paul wants both slave and owner to be liberated from the brutal economy of humans owning other humans.
By the way, it is thought that this letter was kept and cherished by the early church because Onesimus was, in fact, freed from slavery, and went on to become a bishop.
And then we come to Jesus and his teaching to “hate mother and father.”
This really is not a recipe guide for creating a dysfunctional family. Rather, Jesus is attacking head-on the most violent social structure of his time – the allegiances of tribe and family that lead to blood feuds and endless cycles of retribution.

Think of the present-day tribal violence of Iraq and Afghanistan, and you get the idea. Jesus implores his people – his tribe – to abandon this way of thinking because it possesses them, strangling them.
You can’t be my disciple if you are going to keep living that way.
Such social structures are not so far removed from our own world, though sometimes they are more subtle.
Last Sunday, we heard University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan, in this pulpit, talking about how “humans take differences among people and translate those differences into enduring inequalities.”
In our daily life, we deal with social distinctions created by race and class, educational degrees, family connections, religious affiliations, gender, sexual orientation, just to name a few. Some of these social distinctions help us to maneuver through a complicated world.
But some of these social distinctions are unhealthy. There one distinction I particularly want to talk about today: the anti-Muslim fervor loose in our land.
We’ve seen a number of flash points recently, for example, in the debate over a proposed Islamic Center a few blocks away from “Ground Zero” in New York.
Or in Florida, there is a supposedly Christian pastor promoting the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks as a day for mass burnings of the Quran.
And my email burns with proclamations that President Obama is really a Muslim, and was not really born in the United States, and wants to impose Islamic law on the United States.
Let me be clear: I am not going to suggest to you how to vote, nor am I going to suggest how to write an immigration law or a zoning law in New York, or an arson law for that matter.
But I want to tell you that these are not just political issues; they are spiritual issues because they place us onto the uncomfortable ground of social distinctions based on religion.
And when we get onto that uncomfortable ground, we again hear Jesus telling us to upend social structures that lead to hatred and violence. Let them go; don’t let them possess you.
As Christians, we need to understand that there are people in this world who understand God very differently than we do.

What makes us think God can’t reach all people everywhere, in every language, and every culture? Are we so arrogant as to think only we hear God’s voice?
To be a follower of Jesus Christ requires setting aside our own tribal prejudices, and embracing all people with compassion, especially the poor, the immigrants, the weak, and the people who are not like us.
You can’t be a follower of Jesus while embracing religious and racial bigotry.

To be truly a disciple is to take the hard path of the Cross, to sacrifice for others, to live in community with people you may not like, and to commit daring acts of kindness, service, and humility, and then to worship together every week.
There are questions that should come out of this for each of us today: Can we free ourselves from the captivity of our human distinctions so that we might truly see each other as beloved children of God?

And can we trust God enough to trust each other? Can we see in each other the face of Christ, no matter our differences, our arguments, our politics, our outward appearances, and truly become the One body of the Living God in Christ?
What kind of disciples will we be?
We get a lifetime to answer. AMEN.

1 comment:

Karen Mawyer said...

I really appreciated this sermon. What would the world be like if we could all stop demonizing the other? If instead, as you say, we could see the face of God.