We are faced again this week with one of those hard texts. There have been a lot of them lately, Gospels in which Jesus is portrayed doing and saying things which made the people of his time, and us, uncomfortable, confused and even angry. He has been seriously pushing the comfort level of his hearers about what it is that is expected of those who chose to become disciples. And again today in some very stark words Luke gives an opportunity for what we call in my day job “informed consent” on the cost of discipleship. “If you’re going to follow me,” Jesus says, “don’t do it blindly. Count the cost. Think it over carefully, because it is not easy, this disciple life. It will require sacrifice…it might even kill you.
Sometimes language can be such a tricky thing. We read this Gospel and see that first line and that word “hate” and our minds go all sorts of places. Maybe it’s: “Well Jesus can’t possibly mean that can He? Jesus, who is God, is all about love, so there must be some mistake here, so therefore I can just skip this whole take up your cross, self-sacrifice thing altogether.” Or sadly, like other scripture passages, it may have been twisted to mean things it was never intended in some of our lives, ways that have gotten people tangled up into strange and unhealthy kinds of practices masquerading as spirituality that are anything but. Ways that have wounded us and made us skittish about even thinking about making a deeper commitment to Jesus.
But obviously we want to engage with the Word this morning, not find reasons to avoid it. So perhaps for starters a language lesson would be helpful about that troublesome word hate. As it was understood by Jesus’ hearers, the word “hate” meant something rather different than the way we understand it. They would have heard it to mean something like, “to prefer less than” something else, or to “be less attached” to one thing than another. With that translation then, maybe we can hear Jesus saying: “you must let go of some of those attachments to the things of your life, you must detach and prefer those things less,” than you do following me. Does this change it a bit? I think so. Why am I saying this? Is it to sugar coat the message or to get us off the hook? No, that is not my intention. I am telling you this because I think it is essential to the understanding of the message before us. That message that tells us that whatever it is that separates us from God, that impedes us in our conscious, connected relationship with our loving creator has to be “hated” by this definition, if we are to call ourselves Christians and followers of Jesus.
What are some of the things that come to mind when we think about attachments in our own lives? Well one of the first things I think about is my “stuff.” I don’t know about you, but I have managed to accumulate a really frightening amount of stuff in my life. And I am really attached to it! I find this out whenever I try to get rid of any if it. When I moved here five years ago, I was mortified when I realized that it cost me almost as much to get rid of the junk I wasn’t keeping as it did to move the stuff I was. And yet, to this day, whenever C and I decide we are going to clean the basement or the garage, I begin with the best of intentions, always thinking THIS TIME I am going to end up keeping almost nothing. HAH! And then I find myself horrified by the idea of losing my stuff, letting go of my stuff. And somehow, a lot of it stays attached to me.
And that is just the outward, material things. When we start thinking about the inward “stuff” we all hang on to, we have another whole layer of complexity. Every single one of us, just because we are human, has things that we are attached to, tied up with, sometimes tangled up with, in some pretty amazing ways. Our relationships is the one that Jesus points out….fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, wives and husbands, partners and children. The web of complexities that make up our most intimate lives and all the daily dramas that we interweave there. Our lives, and all the things that are connected with that…lifestyle, comfort, ease. What else are we attached to? To our status in the world? To our identity? The status quo, things just as they are, to the way we have always done things? To being in control? To getting our own way? To success? To perfection? To our pride? To achievement? Are we attached to not seeing things as they really are, determined to hang on to our own unique version of reality? Are we attached to old resentments, to certain hurts and slights from others that we simply “cannot forgive”? Are we attached to staying numb and not allowing ourselves to feel? Are we attached to our pain and suffering?
Attachments. We all have them. They are part of the human condition. And each of them comes with a whole host of supporting practices and sub-attachments and distractions and rituals and behaviors that are needed to keep them alive and functioning that take up our focus and our time and our energy.
Every one of these attachments, and the ways we practice keeping them alive and well in our lives is standing in the way of our relationship with God, is standing in the way of our discipleship. Is standing in the way of the radical hospitality that Jesus calls us to. Because when we are “preferring more” our own image or status or way or outcomes or truths or version of reality, when we are possessed by our need to be in control, to not see, to not feel, we cannot be available for God’s work. When we are focused more on the drama or our own life than we are the needs of others we are not really present in the way that our faith commitment demands. We cannot be disciples, which literally means “learners or students” because we are not open at that time to what God might teach us.
Which brings us to the “how” of this. As a colleague pointed out recently, Jesus really does set up some difficult if not impossible, requirements for discipleship. Letting go of these attachments, these possessions of ours requires the taking up of the cross in a very real and personal way. It requires, in fact more than we are even capable of on our own behalf. Because we all know that we are holding on to the stuff we are holding on to, be it the stuff in our garage or the stuff in our souls for good reasons, or at least what seems like good reasons to us. We are holding on because we believe we need it, because we are afraid for some reason to let it go, because it has become its own little godhead in our lives, or simply because it’s habit and maybe we just haven’t thought about it. It’s just unconscious.
Theologian John Sanford says that Jesus was the most conscious person the world had ever known; that while fully human, Jesus had become spiritually and psychologically transformed to the point that in Him God was fully exemplified and revealed. In asking us to follow Him Jesus is inviting us also to work toward becoming conscious, encouraging us to get out of the way in our own lives the things that stand between us and participating in the reality of God as He knew God. In the incarnation, Jesus provides for us a way to experience both who God IS and who humans can BE, the great both/and. In doing so, we have more than just someone to model or exhort us to these changes. We have in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ the emergence of a new consciousness, the transformative cosmic event that made it possible for us to join with Jesus in becoming true disciples, co-creators in bringing about God’s kingdom here on earth. And with Pentecost we have the Spirit as our Advocate to be constantly with us in this process. As we gather each week in community we are fed again on God’s Word and in the Eucharist to be strengthened and enabled to take up this cross with Jesus, to do this thing with God that we humans alone cannot hope to do. Remember, it is not much farther in Luke’s Gospel to Jerusalem. On Good Friday, it was only Jesus who was crucified. But because we know the “end of the story” and are a Resurrection people, we also know what happened in Acts, that the very disciples who had cowered in fear on Good Friday suddenly were going forth and letting go of their attachments and following the Great Comission, all because they were allowing God to do God’s co-creative work for the good of the kingdom in them.
Our liturgical guidelines encourage us occasionally throughout the year to reaffirm our Baptismal Covenant at the point in the Service when we would normally say the Creed. Since that covenant asks us the questions of discipleship, and more importantly, asks us to answer in a way that reminds that God is with us at every step, it seemed that it would be appropriate for today’s service. So I would ask you then to join with me in discipleship as we renew our baptismal covenant.
Sanford, J. A. (1993). Mystical Christianity. New York: Herder & Herder.