Thompson’s Sermon from Sept. 5, 2010

September 9, 2010

Strong Language
Luke 14:25-33

25Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26“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. 27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

Jesus says you can’t follow him unless you hate your family and give up all of your possessions, but you can belong to a church and hold on to everything.

In fact I read in the Arkansas United Methodist Newspaper last week that Jon Stewart had used the ease of being a United Methodist as the butt of a joke not long ago. I didn’t see the segment, and I’m really not sure how much he went on about it, but he said something to the effect that becoming a United Methodist is a lot like getting an online degree from University of Phoenix.

Now I generally find Jon Stewart pretty entertaining. And I generally agree that becoming a United Methodist is a pretty easy thing to do, but it makes me mad that he decided to pick on us. I’m probably as critical as anyone of the way our denomination tends to function, but when someone on the outside becomes critical of us I tend to feel pretty defensive of my homies.

I know what he said is true on some level. We make it easy to join our body, and we aren’t very demanding on one another in regard to the way we live out our discipleship. This isn’t the formula for success in regard to generating a powerful organization, but I don’t like the alternative. I wouldn’t be able to function in a body that’s highly demanding and overly judgmental. Some say we have more questions than answers and I say amen. I know that we are a dysfunctional denomination in many ways, but I’ll always take dysfunction over fundamentalism and in some ways I think those are our options.

Especially when the one we seek to follow says things like what we’ve read this morning. Jesus is all but impossible to follow.

This is a tough passage of scripture. What a bad sound bite. I mean there aren’t many deranged cult leaders who talk about hating mothers. It seems unchristian to say such a thing. What was he thinking? There he had a multitude of people following him and wanting to be close to him, and he turned to them and uttered these ugly words about hating their own people. We aren’t told how the crowd reacted, but I would guess that it dampened their enthusiasm. Saying to that crowd of people that it would be necessary for them to hate their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, wives, and children was a sure way to offend everyone’s senses.

And of course these words aren’t just for those people who were following Jesus around on that particular day. I’m sure that crowd wasn’t nearly as loving and insightful as we are, and it could be that he would have used softer language if we had been the ones pushing to be close to him, but we are invited to act as if these words are directed at us. It may be easy to be a United Methodist, but following Jesus is nothing like getting a degree from the University of Phoenix.

One reaction I have to this passage of scripture is that I just don’t qualify as a disciple. I don’t consider myself to be an exemplary son, brother, husband and father, but I don’t hate any of these people in my family – at least not in the sense that I usually understand the word hate to be used, and I have no intention to develop hatred for these people.

So in one sense you could say that I don’t qualify to be a disciple. Because I don’t hate my close family members I don’t have enough raw materials to build the tower, and my army is no match for my enemy. I guess I could use this as an excuse to forget the whole thing, but I can’t. I’m sure I’m like a lot of people in the crowd who continued following Jesus on the day he uttered these words – I know I don’t have all it takes, but I can’t turn away.

Now the note in my Bible says that what Jesus was doing when he used the word hate was expressing some hyperbole. And I’m not wanting to turn Jesus into a United Methodist and water his words down into some kind of palatable soup, but if this was an exaggerated truth, what is that truth? What is it about our families that we need to resist? In some ways the answer to that question probably varies from family to family, but I don’t think it’s the various dysfunctions that Jesus was addressing when he uttered these words. There was probably a pattern in existence in his day that gave his words a distinct meaning.

According to some Biblical scholars, family roles were very clearly defined in Jesus’ day, and who you were depended upon your position and role in the family. The value of your life depended upon the reputation of your ancestors, the order in which you were born, your gender, and your age. Their societal structure didn’t really appreciate individuality or creativity. The economic system was well defined, and it was maintained through the traditional family structure. The family system didn’t exist to enable an individual to best develop into an authentic servant of God, individuals existed to maintain the economic and cultural traditions of the system.

Self-understanding and authentic spirituality are never encouraged by systems, and all cultures have powerful systems at work that exist at the expense of individuals. It’s hard to resist the claims of these systems on our lives. To live a spiritually authentic, creative, and obedient life is to appear foolish in the eyes of most conventional societies, but this is the type of life that Jesus lived and the life to which he was calling his disciples.

This is the source of abundant life, but it’s not a life that’s readily rewarded in material ways. Jesus wanted his disciples to know how costly it would be to stand with him in the tradition of authentic spirituality, and that’s why he used the strong language that we read this morning.

It’s hard to break out of powerful systems, and when people do break free from established systems their actions can be interpreted as forms of hatred for the people they were supposed to love and respect. We live in a confusing world, and it’s not easy to know how best to resist dehumanizing trends. I consider it nothing less than an act of God when someone does find a clear way to stand in resistance to a dehumanizing system and in solidarity with the true community of faith.

This is a huge issue for us. Now there are Christian communities who take very bold actions to exhibit their positions on things. I just heard of some Christian group in Florida that’s going to burn Quran’s next week. Jon Stewart can’t make fun of them for being wishy washy, but I’m inclined to believe that the things most threatening to us are not so simple. People of other faiths aren’t our problem. Even the violently misguided members of other faiths are not our biggest problem.

I’m convinced that the challenge for us is to try to understand the ways in which we’re owned by powerful individuals and systems and how we play up to those who seek to use us in Godless and dehumanizing ways.

I consider it to be somewhat of a miracle when I become conscious of the way in which I’m embracing something that should be resisted. Or to use Jesus’ word, when I realize I love something that I should be hating. There are many agendas in this world that need to be resisted, but it’s important to note who Jesus considered to be the most threatening people of his day. He didn’t point his finger at the political and religious power brokers of the day and tell the multitude to hate them, he pointed to the people with whom they most closely associated, and he included in that list their own selves.

What Jesus did when he turned to the crowd and gave them this warning was to remind us all that there is a dangerous connection between attachment and spiritual death. Our biggest spiritual threats come from the things and relationships to which we are most attached. It’s easy for us to fall into the mode of allowing other people, things, and systems to define who we are.

I knew a student at UALR who once read me a poem about his desire to stay wild all of his life, but the way he used the word wild wasn’t in the manner we generally think of young people behaving. He didn’t imply that he wanted to live a life of partying and craziness. I can’t recall his exact words, and I hate that I didn’t get a copy of his poem, but what I understood him to be saying was that he wanted to remain unowned by any system or person that would program him to behave in a predictable manner.

I don’t think his concept of staying wild is far from what Jesus said we must do if we wish to be his disciple – we’ve got to resist becoming attached to anything other than the uncontrollable, extravagant, and gracious love of God. Every other allegiance is short sighted and spiritually dangerous.

Most of us are probably much better at being good United Methodists as described by Jon Stewart than we are at being faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, but even as the flawed followers that we are, I think we know that Jesus was pointing to something we want. We want to be in touch with something more significant than the roles we play in the dysfunctional and dehumanizing systems that rule our world. We want to love God and to resist everything else that seeks to rule us.

Jon Stewart may very well be right in ridiculing our mediocrity, but we are at least looking in the right direction. As harsh as Jesus’ words may be, by gathering together today we are showing that we haven’t departed from the group who was trying to follow Jesus, and I consider this to be a sign that there’s hope for us yet.

I may be wrong, but as far as I can tell, this is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.


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