Thursday, September 12, 2013

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

St. Luke 14.25-33

“Whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”

If I had to summarize Christianity in a few words, I think the words “new life” would suffice. What does the Christian Gospel promise to sinners? New life. What does it promise to the weak and elderly? New life. What does it promise to the young and perplexed as well as the full-grown and disillusioned? Again, new life. All the major feasts of the Church Year has this in common: they commend new life. Take, for example, Christmas. It is set to correspond to the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year. Human society living in its own light rather than God's light inevitably turns to darkness. The eternal Word becomes flesh in the grim midst of human sin and brokenness. At the moment of greatest darkness, the Light appears. Something similar could be said about Easter. On Good Friday we show God the worst we can be. In the crucifixion there is a monumental subversion of justice; there is a rejection of love freely given. All the ugliness of human sin is on display, and on that day we fully what the evangelist John meant when he said that he, the Word, came unto his own and his own received him not. There is a sadness and melancholy in these words that have their heart at the cross. We show God our worst, but he shows us his greater love, grace and mercy. On Easter Day, God overcomes sin and death by raising our Lord Jesus from the dead, which becomes for us the promise of new, resurrected life.

In the Gospel today we have one of what is known as the difficult sayings of Jesus. Customarily preachers are expected to explain these sayings, but the usual result of such attempts is to accommodate Jesus to the comfortable image we have of him. But that is precisely what our Lord is not doing in the reading this morning. He doesn't wait until he is with a handful of his unwavering followers to say that they cannot be his disciples unless they hate father, mother, wife and children. On the contrary he makes this devastating statement when he sees that “great multitudes” are with him. This is just the opposite of the way a cult works. In a cult, the strangest doctrines are reserved for those who are so far in they cannot imagine life on the outside. To outsiders, a cult tries to appear as normal and pedestrian as possible. Our Lord's teaching is the farthest thing from being secret in this sense. But why be so abrasive and why say that a man must hate his family? To the first I would refer to the words of the great 20th century novelist Franz Kafka who wrote that a good book is to be like an ice ax to break up the sea frozen inside of us. The truth is that most of us are sleep-walkers or the walking dead. We go though life thoughtlessly, without attention to the things of eternity, not knowing what we are doing or why we are doing it. Something or someone has to awaken us out of this slumber. Our Lord addresses these words to those who would follow him merely out of a following of the popular religious sentiment or out of an unwholesome religious enthusiasm.

What our Lord is describing is new life and discipleship. This new life is so radically different that it must involve a death, the death namely of you and me. In fact, if the New Testament is correct, this new life means a total reordering and altering of our current lives. New life is a turning of our world and the world upside down.

There are two prevailing religious attitudes or rather two attitudes to religion that cannot receive this message of new life. The first says that religion and church is one part of a well-ordered life. A university student was once asked what goals he had for his life. He thought for a moment and then said, 'well, I'd like to get married and have children, and oh yeah, someday go to heaven.” This attitude says that faith is one piece of the pie that is life, with say career, family, hobbies being other pieces. The message of new life says that faith is not a piece of the pie, but rather that it transforms the entire pie. True faith, new life will touch and transform every aspect of life.

The second attitude toward religion comes closer to the spirit of true faith, but it too cannot hear or won't receive the message of new life. This attitude says that I need real help but that help is best administered by me. This attitude represents those who treat faith as a form of self-help. People with this attitude come to church in order to cope with the stresses of life. For a person with this attitude the best church is the one that is most therapeutic, the one that makes me feel good. What we actually need, of course, is the truth even when it will be unsettling and difficult. Further, any attitude that treats religion as self-help misses the point that a makeover of the old you will not suffice. What we need is total transformation and new life. Not a makeover.

Imagine for a moment if someone in recovery tried to adopt one of these attitudes on the road to sobriety. Think of one who said, AA is a part of my life along with work and family. But true recovery will involve the transformation of every part of life from work to family. Think of someone else who said I have this drinking problem and I want to stop drinking but I don't really want to change any other aspect of my life. I want help but not transformation. Anybody in recovery knows that neither road, neither attitude, leads to sobriety.

Our Lord Jesus called the multitude to new life, and he is calling us today to new life. He is not calling you to religion or self-help but to resurrection, to complete transformation by his grace. The gate to this new life is through surrender and death, the cross. Our Lord says, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has, he cannot be my disciple. When our Lord speaks of renouncing all that we have I do not think he is referring solely to material possessions. He is also, I believe, speaking to our relationships. In our fallen condition we view the world through the lens of our ego. My spouse exists to comfort me, my children exist to carry on my image, my parents are present to be my heritage. You are the protagonist in your own self-written and self-directed drama. To the world this attitude is normal, but in the new life the ego must die. New life means you love God more than even your family. It also means you love your children for who they are rather than for how much they resemble you. You love your spouse not for what comforts he or she can bring but because you have pledged your troth, your solemn vow to this person. You love your parents not for what they can give you but because you're finally able to see them as they truly are: broken and sinful people whom God loves just as much as you. The world and even our families may not know how to account for such transformation. Without the ego as the center of gravity such love appears foreign and strange. Part of what is difficult about this love is that it is a love first-most rooted and directed to God. I believe this is what our Lord means when he speaks of hating mother and father, spouse and children—and when he speaks of taking up our cross. It is to this death but also this new life that we are called this day and forevermore.

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