When I was in Alabama this week visiting my parents, I heard a few political commercials, more than one of which referred to “family values.” Now, I don’t know how you feel about the phrase yourself, but I assure you, none of those commercials used this particular quote from Jesus.
Hate your mother and father and wife and children? What?
That’s not family anything, Jesus.
One of the criticisms of the lectionary, our prescribed text for every week, is that it doesn’t deal with the most difficult texts in the Bible.
This is definitely an exception. It’s a hard text.
When faced with these hard words from Jesus, we have two choices: we can posit that maybe Jesus didn’t actually mean hate, or we can assume that he did. Now, the Bible study group last week was curious about the word that gets translated “hate,” so we looked it up, hoping for something other than, well, “hate.” No luck. The Greek is, actually, the word for “detest” and “hate,” and I don’t detect any sarcasm from Jesus here. I don’t think he was kidding.
So — one must hate one’s whole family to be a disciple?
Given this text, it would seem that moody teenagers are the world’s best disciples.
This text gets our hackles up and offends us, because what good person could possibly hate their family members? Looking after one’s family, whether you’re blessed with a blood family or whether you have chosen family, is a high value in our world. Looking after your family is just what’s done.
And look after them we do. Those of you with children: if anything got in the way of you taking care of your kids, or if God forbid anything threatened to hurt your kids, you’d resent — even hate — it for all it’s worth. If someone tried to convince you not to take care of your children, or if a flat tire kept you from picking them up on time, I’ll wager that you’d feel some hot anger and maybe even hatred at whatever was keeping you away from your kids. A parent’s protective love is special, but to some extent, we all feel it. Nothing gets in the way of us caring for our own.
I feel the same way about those that I love. Whether it’s a person or an institution or an inconvenience, I absolutely detest anything that keeps me from caring for the ones I love.
And by the same token, I would do absolutely anything to take care of them — move heaven and earth to save them from pain.
See — I think Jesus is trying to tell us something about the stakes of what we’re talking about here. You know how much you love your family? You know how you sometimes need to take care of them more than you need to eat or sleep, how you’ll sacrifice anything? Yeah.
If you can possibly imagine it, this kingdom of God thing is even bigger, even more all-consuming than that love.
I drove over to Parker’s to get my dog Diego last night. Since she lives in Saratoga Springs, New York, I drove over the Berkshires. Being a history person, I couldn’t help thinking of how during the Revolution, our forefathers in winter dragged stolen British canons across the frozen Hudson River and over the snowy Berkshires to Boston to help win our independence.
Man, I thought to myself. I don’t even like to get up to find the remote control.
I started to wonder if people back then weren’t just more committed to things than they are now. Are we really capable of this all-consuming commitment that Jesus is talking about, with greater pull even than family ties? Maybe we’re just not these days, I thought.
But then I thought about people I know. I thought about teachers, some of whom are in our own congregation, who get up early and stay up late and work hard to make an impact on the lives of young people. Of doctors and nurses and other medical staff who work long hours taking care of all of us when we’re sick or hurt. I thought of the nurses that I knew when I worked at the hospital who would drag themselves into our hospital chapel after a 12 hour shift to pray for their patients or just to sit and enjoy the quiet after all of the chaos. Or sometimes both.
I know people who are so committed to caring for others, giving of themselves for years, that they make dragging cannons over the Berkshires look like a game of four square.
It’s been through my years in the church that I’ve really learned what it means to give your whole self to something. Not only because I love what I do, but because I have the privilege of watching you all do what you do. And I don’t just mean your jobs — I mean everything that God has called you to do. Some of you care for others for a living. Others care for your parents, your children, your siblings, your neighbors. And today, in celebration of Labor Day, we’ll bless the tools of your vocations and we’ll bless your hands as they care for others out in the world.
But none of us can be committed all the time. The truth is that it’s practically impossible, save for a few unique humans, for anyone to be so committed to the Gospel that they actually hate their families rather than let them get in the way.
The truth is that I’m like lightning. I have brilliant flashes of being selfless and fully committed to finding ways of carrying Good News to all people, to showing love to everyone I meet. Sure, there are times when I feel like I’m right where I belong and I can stay up all night and God help anything that gets in the way.
And then it’s gone.
It’s gone and I’m back to my usual kind of selfish ways. Back to being consumed by the day to day — to taking care of only myself and those I love, doing my job, and going home.
And y’all know that it isn’t just me and it’s not just you it’s not just us. We’ve got this problem as a society, too. When a tragedy happens, we move mountains for people we’ve never even met to show love and care, to do good to each other. But then, time passes. Things wear on. We go back to our normal ways of just looking after ourselves and our own.
I’m reading this great book right now called Underground Airlines by author Ben Winters. The story is a good one. It’s set in the United States in today’s society, but it has one very significant twist: the Civil War never happened and slavery is still a reality in four states. And so, instead of the Underground Railroad, it’s the Underground Airlines that liberates and moves former slaves to permanent freedom in Canada. The main character and narrator is a former slave, now free man, whose life in freedom is a complicated one.
He remarks of the world he lives in:
“Sometimes it’s possible, just barely possible, to imagine a version of this world different from the existing one, a world in which there is true justice, heroic honesty, a clear perception possessed by each individual about how to treat all the others. Sometimes I swear I could see it, glittering in the pavement, glowing between the words in a stranger’s sentence, a green, impossible vision — the world as it was meant to be, like a mist around the world as it is.” (1)
I hear that. Sounds like our world, too. We’re always so close, but so far.
One of my home pastors, Beverly, interprets the “faith like a mustard seed” passage as Jesus being a little big sarcastic — as if Jesus were saying, “You could move mountains if you only had faith like a mustard seed — but you don’t.”
And so Jesus gives his very self to move the mountain of our own self-obsession, of our own salvation, for us.
We could be disciples if we were willing to leave everything and give our whole selves to the Gospel. But we can’t.
The reason that I love being a Lutheran is the concept of Law and Gospel. Law says that we couldn’t ever actually have this kind of commitment.
Gospel says that it’s okay — Jesus gave all of himself instead.
Try as we may, we’re too small for the challenge of discipleship. And so God has to show us how it’s done. Jesus gives his whole self to us — in his life, in his teaching about how we should treat each other, and ultimately, on the cross.
This message that he had was worth his life.
And every Sunday at this table, while we are all gathered here, he gives his whole self to us in bread and wine, so that just maybe, inspired by his love, we might be inspired to give more glimpses of that world as it’s meant to be, that world that surrounds the world as it is like a mist.
So when Jesus says “hate,” I really do think he meant it. He’s telling us just how high the stakes are. He’s telling us that the cost of this Gospel thing, this kingdom of God thing, this justice for all people thing, is high.
And we can’t do it. So he did.
So he does it for us so that just maybe, little by little, we see glimpses of it in ourselves.
Our Old Testament reading talks about Israel having a choice between life and death.
Over and over, humanity chooses death. We choose to hate each other. We choose to ignore the needy. We choose to not defend the vulnerable. We choose to look out only for ourselves and our own, sometimes even when it means effectively choosing death for others.
War. Crime. Violence. Indifference.
And so God gives God’s own life for us. So that the state of the world does not determine how things will always be. So that there is hope that someday even the death we see in the world today will be swallowed up in victory. And that crazy, far out hope is ours. We didn’t earn it and sometimes I find it hard to believe myself, but it’s done.
And through that, we can see another way.
So let’s gather and bless our hands as we go into the world. Because Martin Luther believed that it wasn’t just clergy who had a call from God — it was everyone. Just as you are mine to care for as pastor, there are people that you are called to love and care for. And so today we gather to bless each other’s ministries in the world, so that through us, the world may be a better place.
Let us bless the hands that go into the world in peace in Christ’s name. Thanks be to God. Amen.
1. Ben Winters, Underground Airlines. New York: Mullholland Books, 2016, p. 158.