Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 1
Philemon 1-21
Luke 14:25-33

 

On Friday morning, I flew to Spokane to officiate at the wedding of our friends Lisa and Peter. Lisa is a young university professor, Peter a young doctor. And they share a deep enthusiasm for life, for friends, for family. It is a joy to be around them.

One of the privileges of officiating at a wedding is that you tend to get invited to the rehearsal dinner, to an event that is geared towards the closest of friends and family. Peter and Lisa’s rehearsal dinner took place on the rooftop patio of a restaurant downtown. A guitarist whom they know from a local farmer’s market was playing. And the sunset was a spectacular medley of reds and pinks, the sort of sky that would push the limits of credulity if you saw it in a painting. It was perfect. Or it was perfect until a raft of ominous dark clouds rolled in and it began to rain. Spokane rarely drizzles for hours on end the way that Portland does: it rains – hard – and then it gets it over with. So we had the choice of getting inside or getting soaked.

We got inside, sheltering in a tiny conference room beside the rooftop. And there a different kind of perfection happened. Because Peter and Lisa asked for our attention. And then they began to tell all of their gathered friends, one by one, what each of them had taught them about love. It was a moment that probably wouldn’t have worked in the spaciousness of the patio outside. The cramped, awkward hiding-from-the-rainedness of, well, that upper room somehow allowed for intimacy, for truth-telling. Peter and Lisa went around speaking to and of each person: you taught me of persistence in love; you taught me that love is never complete, that it is an ongoing project; you taught me about loving by being fully present.

The moment was nothing like what they had planned. And it was perfect.

There were more than a few tears.

Today we encounter Jesus on the road to Jerusalem. And as happens more and more often the great city draws nearer, Jesus is being followed by a crowd.

Jesus turns to the crowd. And it’s pretty clear that, much as in modern English, the Gospel of Luke is using “turn” in two overlapping senses.  The first is the literal or the descriptive: Jesus stops going the direction that he is walking and pivots one hundred and eighty degrees in order to speak. And the second is the figurative: Jesus turns on the crowd the way that certain breeds of dogs can turn on you, so that you are suddenly standing on a table while a snarling animal tries to tear at your ankles.

Jesus’ words are startling, both in their harshness and also in what we might call their scattered rapidity: he leaps from metaphor to aphorism to mini-parable, so that he is now talking about towers and now talking about armies and now talking about hating your family and, yes, even life itself. It’s not hard to imagine him red in the face and shouting, perhaps even crying, as he berates the crowd.

There are at least two well-worn strategies available to the Christian when Jesus talks like this. The first, and perhaps most common, is to simply ignore him: I don’t like Angry Jesus, so let’s just move on to something more positive. My guess is that, in all of the years that people have rendered a favourite scriptural passage in calligraphy or in needlework or, these days, in tattoos, almost no one has chosen to preserve the words, “Unless you hate life itself, you cannot be my disciple.”

The second strategy for dealing with words like these from Jesus to assume that he is speaking hyperbolically, that he is exaggerating for effect. And this strategy is more intellectually and theologically defensible, it takes scripture more seriously than ignoring it. Hyperbole is absolutely part of Jesus’ toolkit (remember when he tells us to pluck out our eyes and cut off our hands if they offend us – that is full-on hyperbole). This strategy says that we should understand “hating” and “taking up the cross” using the same sort of lens that we use when someone tells us that his friend was so upset that he “just exploded.” We generally don’t say, “That’s terrible. How did they clean up all of your friend’s pieces?”

Today, however, I would like to neither ignore nor to assume hyperbole. Rather, I’d like to assume with you that Jesus is quite serious when he speaks of hating father and mother, wife and children, brother and sister, yes, and even life itself. And I’d like to do that by zooming out and then zooming in on this passage. In other words, I’d like to look at where this passage sits within the wider Gospel of Luke – zooming out – and I’d like to focus on its final sentence – zooming in.

Zooming out. This tumultuous interaction with the crowd comes directly after the reading that we heard last week, in which Jesus’ tells his rich host that, next time he throws a party, he is to invite the poor and the marginalised instead of people who have the wealth and the social capital to reciprocate his invitation. As we talked about last Sunday, Jesus at the party is teaching about hospitality and humility, about radical welcome, about opening your heart.

What comes next in the Gospel of Luke (although we won’t hear it in church next week – the architects of this passage chose to save this jewel for Lent) is one of the most beloved and famous stories in all of scripture, it is the one that we know as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Jesus’ harsh admonition to the crowd on the road, in other words, comes sandwiched within the context of two passages in which Jesus calls us to transform and grow our relationship to our neighbour, in which Jesus calls us to transform and grow our understanding of the bonds between family members, in which Jesus calls to transform and grow our understanding of love.

It is within the context of these stories of amazing, wondrous, impossibly generous, topsy-turvey, almost reckless love that Jesus teaches the crowd about hate.

Zooming in. Jesus’ final sentence begins with the word “therefore.” And we reasonably deduce that the words which follow represent a summation of what he has just said. Even though it comes at the end, this final sentence is what your Grade 10 English teacher would call your thesis statement: it is the sentence that explains what your overarching argument looks like.

Therefore, none of you can become my disciples if you do not give up all your possessions.

Paul Nuechterlein argues that, when moving this passage from Greek into English, there is equally defensible way of translating this sentence, one that substitutes verb for noun. Nuechterlein suggests that Jesus might be saying:

Therefore, none of you can become my disciples if you do not give up all your possessing.

Suddenly, this statement is not limited to the realm of “stuff,” of possessions, of things. Following Jesus is not simply a matter of giving up your flat screen TV and your car and your bank account (actually I probably shouldn’t be using the modifier “simply”: for most of us, there would be nothing simple about the idea of ceasing to have belongings). Following Jesus is about giving up a possessive way of being in the world. It is about loving in a fashion that in no way resembles a contract; about loving – like the Dad in the Prodigal Son – in spite of unfairness, in spite of betrayal, in spite of being hurt; about loving – like the banquet host who invites people who can’t invite him back – without any guarantee of getting anything in return; about loving while renouncing the possibility that you own what you love.

I’ve heard it said that there are certain aboriginal people who, when speaking of those of us who live in the privilege of the First World, call us People of Closed Hands. We are people who clutch onto our possessions, onto our friends, onto our very lives. I suspect that this closed-handedness is what Jesus is getting at when he uses this startling word hate. When he says hate your Mom and Dad and Brother and Sister and Wife and Child, I suspect that what he means is let them go, stop trying to own them, stop your possessing, so that they are free to love you if they want to. I suspect he means the same thing about hating your life. He means releasing our grip on our lives, stop acting like they a possession that we can own and control.

I began with a story from my trip to Spokane, a story about open-handed love. And I think that is where I shall end as well. During my visit, I stayed with my friend Jenny. Jenny, who is the wake of a big loss: her beloved friend, Pam, died way too young. And Jenny is trying to reconcile herself to this loss, to figure out what life will look like now. In the time since Pam’s death, Jenny has connected with a number of other people who also had close relationships with Pam. And in doing so, Jenny has learned that Pam loved, and was loved by, way more people than she had ever guessed.

In light of this new knowledge, Jenny realised that she was faced with a choice. She could be angry about Pam’s many friendships, she could say, “But I thought that she was my special friend. But it turns out she was friends with everyone.” She could understand the breadth of Pam’s love as a betrayal. But Jenny chose – is choosing – to do something different. She is choosing to see Pam’s many friendships as evidence that her friend was even more extraordinary than she thought, even more generous and kind than she thought. She is choosing to receive this knowledge of her departed friend as a gift.

Stop all of your possessing. Let go. Let go, Jesus tells us, of the grip that we have on our stuff on our friends on our family and the world and our lives. Let go and discover, that just maybe, when we hold our hands open, God will place in them freedom and joy beyond our imagining.