Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost - 09/04/2016

In what has been a series of difficult gospel texts, on this unofficial last Sunday of summer, we perhaps get the worst one of all as it is a text that makes discipleship sound impossible. You start with Jesus saying that to follow him you have to hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, even life itself, strike one, and not only that, but you have to take up a cross and carry it, strike two, and added to that is “You can’t be my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions,” strike three and you’re headed back to the dugout. This text starts by saying that large crowds were following Jesus, but after what he says, you wonder if the crowds weren’t so large anymore.

From a preaching standpoint you really can’t win with this text. The temptation, of course, is to explain it away and say Jesus didn’t really mean it the way it sounds and to a certain extent you can sort of get away with that: in the hate all your relatives part you figure that the same one who said “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” can’t possibly mean that we should hate those closest to us. It doesn’t make sense and, in this case you can explain it away to some extent as the verb translated hate actually doesn’t mean hate the way we think of it, but instead means to love less. With that, you can conclude that it is OK to love your relatives but you have to love Jesus even more. That does soften it but in a culture where caring for one’s family is pretty much seen as the ultimate good it’s still a tough sell. In principle you might be able to agree that Jesus should come first, even before family, but in reality, for most of us, it’s not likely to happen.

As far as taking up your cross, that’s a less clear, more metaphorical statement because I don’t think Jesus is talking about crucifixion, about the kind of cross that he himself would take up. Metaphorical or not though, it still suggests that suffering might well occur if one wants to follow Jesus and our normal inclination is to avoid suffering if at all possible so it’s another statement we don’t really want to hear.

When it comes to selling all your possessions, it just doesn’t make sense and it isn’t going to happen in part because it would only serve to create another problem as the one who did so would become incapable of taking care of him or herself. We can probably all agree that we’ve got too much and downsizing wouldn’t be a bad idea but none of us is going to get rid of everything because we do kind of like our possessions. So again we explain it away, concluding that Jesus is using hyperbole, overstatement to make a point about something.

Explaining it away is the most convenient path for the preacher but it’s not really a sermon worth giving because it doesn’t say anything; it’s neither law that convicts us nor gospel that gives us hope, just excuses making for a lost Sunday. But…what if you’ve been doing this for twenty years and it’s the sixth or seventh time this text has come up so you decide this year, I’m not going to explain it away, I’m going to assume that Jesus said exactly what he wanted to say and that he meant it. Well, that approach is also doomed to failure from the get go because you would tune me out after strike one, hate your family so I might as well not waste my time on strikes two and three because no one is paying attention anyway; trying to preach this text literally would also amount to a lost Sunday.

Can it be saved though? Can this Sunday and this text be saved? I can only try, starting by saying that what we have is an example of a text that should be taken seriously, but not literally. Jesus wasn’t dispensing practical advice here but he wasn’t expecting to effectively be ignored either with people walking away either totally discouraged on the one hand or feeling like nothing had to change on the other. Whatever he’s getting at here, Jesus is clearly leading us away from the status quo and proposing an alternative way to be in the world and I think in terms of getting something from this text, that’s the starting point.

For us, maybe the best thing to do is to imagine ourselves in that large crowd that Jesus addressed and think about how we might have reacted on hearing what Jesus said. One would guess that there had to be a fairly large contingent who said, “Well, that’s interesting, Jesus is interesting and he’s done some pretty amazing things, but if that’s the cost of discipleship, I guess it’s not for me. I’ll wait for the next wandering mystic to come along and see if I find their message more agreeable.” You would think that the crowd following Jesus would have gotten smaller.

There might have been some, though you would think not very many, who would have thought, “I can do this. There is something about this Jesus that I find so compelling that I will drop everything, leave it behind and follow him. I can do it.” There might have been some. This is a text that is thought to have inspired some monastic communities to more or less leave the world behind and live a life devoted to prayer. There might have been some.

If I’m in the crowd though, I don’t think I’m in either of those groups. I’m not ready to just say Jesus is interesting and then just walk away. I don’t see myself in group one. As far as group two, as much as I admire the ideal of a monastic community and enjoy visiting such places, I’m personally not ready to leave family and possessions behind and join them. I don’t see myself in that group either.

I think there had to have been a third and larger group who heard Jesus and said, “Wait a minute Jesus. I can’t do all that, but you’re not getting rid of me that easily. I’m going to follow you, imperfectly to be sure, but I’m going to follow you because you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God. You have what I need; you are what I need.” I then imagine Jesus with a little smile and a twinkle in his eye saying, “Come on. Let’s see where this leads, but remember…it’s not business as usual.”

It’s hard to know for sure what the right way is to interpret this text, but the wrong way, for sure, is to assume that it’s all just overstatement that calls you to do nothing. We are justified by God’s grace, that’s true; we don’t earn our way. On the other hand, there is a life to lead and with the kinds of things Jesus says here, he is pointing us toward that life.

It’s a life that invites us to come closer to being who God wants us to be. Many of the early church fathers made the statement that God became human so that humans might become divine which at first might sound odd, but they weren’t talking about the essence or the inner being of God which of course is beyond us, but that we can share in the energies and attributes of God such as love and grace and compassion and forgiveness for all people. By nature God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is those things and does those things. By grace, we are able to participate in that divine energy and in that way to become more like God. Transformed by Christ, we become not who God is, but what God is.

To share in those attributes does call for a reexamination of our commitments and priorities though and such reexamination can call into question things that we might value highly, the kinds of things Jesus raises in this text, things like family and possessions. On a literal level what he says is disturbing; on a serious level it’s a call to reorder our lives more closely around Jesus himself, again not to earn our way but to respond to what’s been done for us with things like faith and love and kindness, thus coming closer to being human beings formed in the image of God. Our human nature and our desire to have things our own way prevents us from ever doing it perfectly, but strengthened in prayer and in worship, being fed in the sacrament, a transformation does take place.

Our following of Jesus is always imperfect, but we follow nonetheless, confident that by grace Jesus can make perfect our imperfection.

Rev. Warren Geier
 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
sent me.”
 
 

 

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