Now the great multitudes accompanied him; and he turned to them and said to them, “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build, and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and take counsel whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends an embassy and asks terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Luke14:25-33.
The Gospel for this Sunday [September 8] looks like the worst possible challenge for a preacher. On its surface there is one contradiction after another: we are to reject our loved ones, calculate the odds for making any changes in our lives, give away the things we treasure, and then take a leap of faith so we can follow Jesus. As my children used to say, “Big Whoop!”
As I said, on the surface all that sure looks to me like a contradiction -- not only to the values of the teaching of Jesus, but the heart of who we are as families. But after struggling with this Scripture for a long time, it seems to me that the key to this Sunday’s gospel and to much of our lives as Christians may be in that last word about our “possessions.” Note that the word is not “belongings,” but possessions. Or, to shift to the subjective pluperfect subjunctive (I’m kidding) it is about the things that possess us. I’m pretty sure Jesus is talking about the things in our lives which possess us, which work to diminish our identity, our authenticity, our God given vocation as human beings.
As an almost frivolous example, many years ago I inherited a lovely piece of furniture, a Queen Anne Highboy. But whenever I moved, and was looking a new house, the first question was always, “How will this house accommodate the Queen Anne Highboy?” The obvious question arose, “Did I own the Highboy or did the Highboy own me?”
On a more critical level, sometimes it is our children who possess us. There are parents of children who have quite clearly chosen a path toward self-destruction; parents who will sacrifice everything for that child, with the result that both parent and child end up with . . .or being nothing. My Senior Warden in Madison, Wisconsin had adult son who for years was drunk or shooting up one substance or another -- and in the process had run through a good bit of her money. He was, of course, always repentant: “Honest, Mom, this is the last time.”
One December night, though, when the time was 2 am and the temperature was 12 degrees outside and it was snowing, Henry was knocking on her door. He just wanted a warm place and a few dollars. Natalie said, “No.” The only way to love him was to reject being possessed by him or owned by him. And that can happen with any aspect of our lives.
Every level of our lives: note Jesus uses the word “hate,” not despise. He is talking about all those ties which more than bind. They choke our life, our possibilities, our souls. And it’s not that these things are imposed on us. Sometimes we create them out of own need. Shortly after my wife, Ann, and I were married and trying to sort through all the complications of a blended family, Ann noticed something in my pattern of raising my own children. So she remarked, “You know something, Tom. Our job as parents is to raise our children to respect us, not to love us. If they end up loving us, that is a wonderful bonus, a gift. But when we raise them to love us, we cripple them for a lifetime. So, too, when we clergy or teachers condition our parishioners, our students to love us, we cripple them.
All this is not unlike those who volunteer for one thing after another out of a sense of guilt or duty. Make no mistake about it, the recipients of their care know what is going on. It’s no secret. The worst thing about that is that it ends up as Sloppy Agape. It’s not about loving or caring: it is about being loved . . being affirmed. . and being relieved of guilt.
Some would say that one of the requirements of tough love is detachment -- of not being possessed by. It’s refusing to idolize anything, anyone – not even the church, not even Jesus. That’s true. Sometimes we are tricked into wanting to be just like Jesus and we lose sight of ourselves and our unique place in world, in the kingdom.
This church was born from two traditions which, in the cause of being fully engaged with the living God, claimed the reality of Protestant, from the root meaning of “protesting.” The Lutheran and Anglican churches are committed to protesting everything that is less than or a distortion of the vision, the life of being in Christ.
There is a rhythm to our time together in worship. We begin with our confession of sin, offering up all those ways our lives are possessed by the things, patterns, commitments, and emotional states that keep us from living lives of love and fullness and deep joy – lives for which we have been created by God. Week after week, there is that process of confessing, letting go. And then, with open hands, we receive the sacrament of Holy Communion, opening ourselves to God’s loving support and empowerment – empowerment for growing into our full authenticity and completeness. Week by week it is letting go and receiving: letting go and receiving.
So let us step back. Is Jesus saying that we can’t love our children, parents, friends? Of course not. But we are not to possess or be possessed by them. We don’t own our children, our spouses, parents, friends. They come to us as gifts, as all things come to us, as gifts. It should never come down to a matter of control. .but gratitude.
To be a disciple: in my experience, one of the reasons we call Jesus “the Christ” is that in his words, in his ways, in his presence we see. . or surmise a quality, a depth of life and living that is far beyond anything that the world can offer. We see in him, I think, an invitation for living and loving, of integrity and the joy of serving. It is an invitation to a life of standing over against all that is life sapping or life denying and standing with the poor and those who struggle or are beaten down. There is nothing like it.
So how to sum it all up, put it all together? I think if I had to choose one character (not from the Bible) as an example of vocation in the kind of world we are living in, it would be Murray, in Herb Gardner's play, "A Thousand Clowns." Murray does not sound very religious, but a wise person would say that he is talking about life as it is given to us, and speaking deeply about the things of the spirit. Because Murray has been a pretty unconventional guardian for his young nephew, a social worker has come to see about taking the boy away.
At one point, the social worker speaks sharply to Murray, saying "Murray, you've got to come back to reality!" Murray responds, "Well, O.K., but only as a tourist," echoing St. Paul’s words about our being citizens of heaven, ambassadors from another world. Then Murray talks about the child's future and in these words we may find something of our own vocation:
“And he started to make lists this year. Lists of everything: subway stops, underwear, what he's gonna do next week. If somebody doesn't watch out he'll start making lists of what he's gonna do for the next ten years. Hey, suppose they put him in with a whole family of list-makers? He'll learn to know everything before it happens, he'll learn how to be one of the nice dead people. .I just want him to stay with me till I can be sure he won't turn into Norman Nothing. I want to be sure he'll know when he's chickening out on himself. I want him to get to know exactly the special thing he is or else he won't notice it when it starts to go. I want him to stay awake and know who the phonies are. I want him to know how to holler and put up an argument, I want a little guts to show before I can let him go. I want to be sure he sees all the wild possibilities. I want him to know it's worth all the trouble just to give the world a little goosing when you get the chance. And I want him to know the subtle, sneaky, important reason why he was born a human being and not a chair.”
That's the crucial thing about living, all of living. Along with all that troubles or delights us from day to day and all the crises that befall us, it is the reaching for that subtle, sneaky, important reason why we were born human beings and not chairs that mark us as disciples of the Lord of Life.