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10.00am Sunday 8 September
May I speak in the name of the Living God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I recently had an experience I’ve never had before: I bought a house. And in order to do this, I put myself at the mercy of numerous estate agents. What a charming bunch they are! I really appreciated the ones who use brutal honesty as a sales tactic, they were my favourites. But the ones who were capable of persuading us that a tiny box room could, with careful rearrangement of furniture, easily be used as a double bedroom – they took my breath away.
So now that we’ve moved into the house we eventually bought, and most of its ‘original features’ have turned out to be polystyrene – … – I have been reflecting on the tactics of sales people and how very skilled they are.
And it strikes me, on reading today’s Gospel passage, that Jesus was a terrible salesman. Truly, awful. For someone who was clearly gathering supporters to himself in their thousands, his sales pitch still needed work.
Take today’s Gospel passage. Three times Jesus suggests something that’s really hard to do, a hugely unattractive prospect, then tells the people that unless they do this thing, they cannot be his disciples.
So, what is Jesus’s three-point sermon on how to be his disciple? It’s quite simple really. Hate your family, prepare to die, and give up everything you own.
Remind me why we’re doing this again?!
Perhaps we’d better have a closer look. Hate your family, Jesus appears to say. Well, tragically some of us might find that rather easier than others… but I don’t think Jesus is really telling us to break the fifth commandment! Biblical scholars, commenting on this verse, assert that in Hebrew understanding the concept of hate was closer to a re-alignment of priorities: that which one loves comes first, with that which one hates coming second. The word ‘hate’ has become stronger in meaning over time. But does this different interpretation let us off the hook? Jesus is calling on the people – calling on us – to realign our priorities, to reorder our relationships, to give precedence to him. He’s asking us to rethink what ‘family’ and family relationships mean to us. We live in divided times. Times when we seem to be encouraged, by those in power, to give voice to our bias and feel justified in our prejudice. I wonder whether we are here being invited, by Jesus, to think again about what we mean by ‘family’. To cast the net wider than our little nuclear family and to start including our friends, our neighbours, and also – most challengingly – those we find difficult. Those we find threatening. Jesus was all about love, so perhaps when he says ‘hate your family’ what he means is change your priority, stop focussing exclusively on the people closest to you and start loving the people you find it most difficult to love.
It’s radical and challenging and uncomfortable. It’s counter-cultural and goes against instinct. Jesus is saying that in order to free ourselves to follow in his way; his way of love, we mustn’t let anything, even those people we love the most; even our love for ourselves and our lives, come between us and him.
I’m not sure what this looks like in our real lives. I’m not sure because the thought of putting anything before my family feels uncomfortable to me. But I also know that I’m a better, calmer mother when I pray more. I’m a better, kinder wife when I have God at the centre of my life. I’m a more open and generous neighbour when I put Jesus first. I know that if I try to practice what Jesus says it turns out to be better for my family and those around me, not worse.
Jesus didn’t come to make things easier for us. He came to make them better, in ways we can barely imagine.
The second of these hard sayings of Jesus tells us that unless we carry the cross we cannot be his disciples. I don’t know about you, but I’ve grown up singing Anglican hymns exhorting me to ‘Take up my cross and follow him’, and attending Faith Walks where a slightly smaller than average cross is handed round for participants to carry for a while. So there’s a bit of me that thinks I’ve got this bit covered. I’m good with this. For the people hearing Jesus say this ‘live’, it would have been horrifying because they saw, regularly, people put to death in this manner, and would do anything to avoid it. No one knew, at this point, that this was how Jesus would die. But crucifixion was used as a tool of terror to keep the people oppressed and compliant.
How can we understand this now? Perhaps it’s a bit like Jesus saying, ‘just stare down the barrel of this loaded gun, while you follow me.’ He is inviting us to let go of the desire to preserve our own life, to stay safe. He is inviting us to accept the inevitability of our death, in order that we might truly, richly live. You know how people who have had a brush with death often say that it has taught them to live more fully now? Perhaps this is your experience. Jesus wants it to be the attitude we all have: let go of fear, of procrastination, of waiting for life to start, and live it as if you are about to die.
So to the third of Jesus’ hard sayings. ‘You cannot become my disciples,’ he says, ‘if you do not give up all your possessions.’ Well, speaking as someone who recently moved house there is certainly some temptation here. We live in materialistic times, and we own a lot of stuff. Really a lot. It certainly focusses the mind to see how many boxes are needed to fit it all in once it’s off the shelves and out of the cupboards. Do we need it? Probably not. Are we attached to it? Yes. Whether because it has an emotional value, or it confers a certain status, or it’s just easier to keep stuff than go through the process of getting rid of it, we do become attached to our possessions. If we didn’t Maria Kondo wouldn’t be a best-selling author, and Ikea wouldn’t have a reputation for providing excellent storage solutions.
But at the end of the day it is just stuff, and as any refugee will tell us, when your lives are at stake you’ll be glad just to take your family and the means for survival with you. Stuff can be replaced.
As ever, I suspect that Jesus is aiming for something even harder here. What else do we possess that we might need to let go of? Perhaps you hang on to an image of yourself that’s hard to let go – seeing yourself as professionally successful, or physically attractive, or a really great Christian; perhaps conversely you see yourself as a failure, someone who can’t be trusted with anything, and derive a certain comfort from feeling useless – and this self-image, positive or negative, has become more important to you than Jesus himself. Perhaps you have a tendency to see your partner or children as possessions, and need to set them free to be themselves. What is it that you are clinging to, that’s getting in the way of making following Jesus your priority?
Jesus’ sales pitch might be brutal, but at least it’s honest. He recommends to his followers that they count the cost. After all, who starts to build a house without working out first whether they’ll have the money to finish it? Actually, if you watch Grand Designs you’ll know that a surprising number of people do just that! Don’t be like them.
Or who starts a war without working out whether they have a reasonable chance of winning? It really focusses the mind on peace. I probably don’t need to draw the comparison with our own nation, and our ability – or not – to take the consequences of our actions into consideration. I’ll leave that for you to ponder.
Jesus is not trying to hide the fact that following him is hard. He’s not trying to persuade anyone that polystyrene features are the real thing. Count the cost, he says, then make your choice. Jesus ‘calls people to a kind of discipleship that is not cheap (akin to Bonhoeffer’s aversion toward “cheap grace”), not easy, and not to be entered into without deep consideration of the consequences and costs.’ (Jeannine K. Brown Professor of New Testament Bethel Seminary St. Paul, MN)
But what would we be choosing? If we count the cost and pay the price, will it all be worth it? Yes. Yes, because what Jesus is offering is life, life in all its richness. His are words and questions that offer life. Isn’t that why we showed up here today? We want life. We want to be fully alive. We want to be real and authentic. We want to be like Jesus. Even with his terrible sales pitch, his brutal honesty, there’s something about Jesus that makes us trust him; that makes us believe: We can do this. He has made it possible. So let’s not lose the power and gift of his words. Let’s not lose this moment. Let’s not leave here the same person we were when we came in. What is one thing, just one thing, large or small, that you could do or give up that changes your priorities, that reorders your relationships, that gives precedence to Christ? Choose that and you leave here today a different person. Choose life.
(Last paragraph adapted from a sermon by Revd Michael K. Marsh, US Episcopal Church)
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