One of the things I enjoyed about living on Long Island was the directness of communication. Now do not get me wrong, having been raised in the South, I know all too well that when your mom says, “You’re wearing that?” or if your grandma says, “Don’t you want to wear lipstick?” or if your friend says, “Well those new shoes are utilitarian,” they are not actually saying what they mean. On Long Island things are much clearer. Instead you’ll be told, “Don’t wear that,” “Put on some lipstick; I’ll show you which one,” and “Those shoes are awful.” The words always sting, but at least you know you what people think.
Today’s gospel has me convinced some of Jesus’ relatives were from Long Island. In these short eight verses, Jesus says if we want to follow him, we will need to sell our possessions, carry our cross, and hate our parents, spouse, children, siblings, and even life itself. I have to say, on this Rally Sunday, on the day we return to the fullness of Hickory Neck, and we feast and laugh and worship together, I could have used a little more southern-speak from Jesus today. At least Jesus could have saved the hard sell for Stewardship season!
But as we start putting our calendars together for the fall, as our children sign up for the extracurricular activities, and as we think about what ministries we may want to try at Hickory Neck this fall, I suppose there is no time like the present to get real. This is a season of hard choices. I know in our household alone, there were two awesome opportunities for afterschool activities that fell on the exact same time and day. And so we had to make a hard decision. As I have mapped out my own calendar, I have realized that there are things I can say yes to and things to which I have to say no. And on the really tricky days, there are times when our family has to bring in a third adult to help us juggle four people’s commitments. This is a season of hard choices and consequences. This is a season of priorities.
I do not actually think Jesus is being harsh today. I know we sometimes get so used to the inclusive, loving, embracing God that we forget that following Jesus is not all rainbows and sunshine. Jesus, like our beloved Long Islanders, is not harsh – just honest. And Jesus is not saying there will be no health, healing, and wholeness; no justice, mercy, and grace; no forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. But Jesus is saying those things will cost us. All those rainbows and sunshine we will receive come at the cost of redistributing wealth, of being faithful even when being faithful gets us ostracized from our social circles, of being intolerant of injustice even if doing so risks our most valued relationships with others.
If we can agree that Jesus is just being honest, understanding why he is setting such a high standard can be helpful. Starting with one of the trickier things Jesus says today may be best. Jesus says in the final verse today, “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Though money is a taboo subject for most people, Jesus talks about money perhaps more than any other subject in scripture. Jesus talks about money so much because Jesus knows the power money has over us. Jesus tells us to give up our possessions, to stop worrying about what is mine because my obsession with owning, possessing, or claiming things as my own can make me think ownership is my exclusive, inviolable right. Jesus knows having possessions can make me think all things are my own: my money, my time, my comfortable lifestyle, my political or religious beliefs, my closest relationship, my independence. Jesus knows when I get possessive, I cling to things that are not God, and create habits in myself leading me to smother, not love; to exploit, not steward; to hoard, not appreciate.[i]
On the podcast “On Being,” Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie retells an old Talmudic parable. In the parable there is “a ship that is sailing, and there are many cabins. And one of the people in the cabins on the lower floor decides to dig a hole in the floor of his cabin, and does so, and sure enough, the ship begins to sink. And the other passengers suddenly discover what’s going on and see this guy with a hole in the floor. And they say, ‘What are you doing?’ And he says, ‘Well, it’s my cabin. I paid for it.’ And down goes the ship.”[ii] What this parable and what Jesus are trying to do is help us see that possessions tempt us to live like the man in the cabin – to believe our ownership negates our relationship to others. Our possessions can create an obsession with “me, me, me,” with a disregard for the “we” to which we belong as followers of Christ.
Jesus also says in verse 27, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Part of Jesus’ cross is a redefining of the “we,” we were just talking about. If you have read your September Nuggets, our newsletter, you know one of the rallying calls of stewardship this fall is going to be “We are Hickory Neck!” When I thought about that call, I immediately thought about the movie We Are Marshall. In the film, the rally call “We Are,” answered vigorously by “Marshall!” is a definitive moment about not letting tragedy overcome goodness – not letting death squash life. When we start our own rallying, “We are Hickory Neck,” we probably all have things about Hickory Neck that are dear to our heart, that inspire our belonging here, and motivate our involvement here. One of the things we are doing in the call, “We are Hickory Neck,” is also defining who the “we” is in that call. In carrying our cross as Jesus invites today, we are not just talking about personal sacrifice. We are also asking, to whom and for whom we are responsible. We are widening the circle of “my people,” to consider who the people are we will love, welcome, serve, and for which we would make sacrifices. We are taking on the task of widening our “we” to be broader and riskier than we have previously embraced. By taking up our cross, we are saying the whole ship, not just my cabin on the ship, but the whole ship has an irrefutable claim on my life.[iii]
Perhaps the hardest thing Jesus says comes right at the beginning, in verse 26. Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Hate is a strong word – a word we have banned in our home, especially when talking about other family members. I will not be going home today and telling our children they can pick up that word again. But I do think Jesus uses a powerful word because the power of discipleship will involve taking on some powerful experiences. We will need to be willing to hate some things about this life. We will need to ask which customs, beliefs, or traditions we have inherited we need to renounce in order to follow Jesus. We will need to look at what baggage we need to abandon, what ties we must loosen, what relationships we must subordinate. What scholar Debie Thomas says is “Jesus spoke his hard words about ‘hating’ one’s family in a cultural context where the extended family was the source of a person’s security and stability. Jewish families in first century Palestine were self-sustaining economic units. No one in their right mind would leave such a unit behind in order to follow a homeless, controversial preacher into some uncertain future.” What Thomas asks us to consider is what sources of modern-day security and stability we trust more than we trust God.[iv]
So if this is what discipleship looks like, where is the Good News in Jesus’ challenge today? Why would we do all this hard stuff? We do all the hard stuff of discipleship because of the rainbows and sunshine. We give up a sense of possession, we take on crosses, and we renounce things we have loved because we have experienced the rainbows and sunshine of Hickory Neck: we have experienced life-altering community here; we have experienced love, joy, and blessing we did not know we needed here; we have found purpose, meaning, and value here. We also take on Jesus’ intense notion of discipleship because we have experienced the rainbows and sunshine of the world around us: we have experienced the profundity of loving our neighbor as ourselves; we have experienced the blessing of seeing God in someone we thought unworthy of our love; we have experienced being transformed by walking right out of our comfort zones into life-giving discomfort zones. We accept the invitation of illogical discipleship because of the more cosmic rainbows and sunshine of faith: of being known and accepted by a loving, living God; of the promise of forgiveness of our most heinous sins; of the reality of eternal life made possible through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Once we start thinking about the rewards of the life of discipleship, the cost seems surmountable. Once we look at the depth of Christ’s rainbows and sunshine, letting go of possessions, taking up crosses, and hating the stuff of life that only brings death seems much less scary. Once we realize we may not be able to do whatever we want to in our cabin, we realize we have a ship full of people ready to hold our hands as we take on the burden of discipleship together – because the burden is easy and the yoke is light. Amen.
[i] Debie Thomas, “What It Will Cost You,” Journey with Jesus, September 1, 2019, as found at https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2346 on September 4, 2019.
[ii] Amichai Lau-Lavee, “First Aid for Spiritual Seekers,” On Being with Krista Tippet, July 13, 2017, as found at https://onbeing.org/programs/amichai-lau-lavie-first-aid-for-spiritual-seekers/ on September 6, 2019.