I will be the first to admit: this is not exactly a cheery scripture reading. I’m sure we could have come up with something a lot better, a lot more fun and hopeful and encouraging, for our first regular Sunday of the fall, the first day of church school classes.
I looked in my files and I could be wrong, but I don’t think I have ever preached on this passage before. Which seems odd, because it is a well-known passage and I have been doing this for a while now. The problem is that Jesus’ words just sound so harsh – so rude. “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.”
Are you serious? Being a Christian means we hate our family? Hate life itself? I thought we were supposed to honor our father and mother. I thought we were supposed to love and protect and care for children as we raise them in the faith. I thought we were supposed to choose life.
Clearly, Jesus is using hyperbole to make a point, but still. It just feels a little over the top and, well, inappropriate.
To “hate” is a Semitic idiom meaning to turn away from or detach oneself from. It does not mean that you detest and despise a person – it had nothing of the feeling of “I hate you.” Jesus is saying that in our network of loyalties and commitments, our commitment to Christ and to the gospel takes precedence and in fact redefines our other commitments. Compared to following Jesus, we have to “hate” these other things.
“Hate” is a strong word, but we can use it in the same way. Like some of you, I play fantasy football. In a nutshell, you draft a team of NFL players and then get points based on how these players actually do in real-life games.
I am in a league with some friends – it has essentially been the Grizzard family + Dave league, and this year we needed another player. So Susan agreed to do it if it would save the league. The day of the draft, she was wondering how it all worked, so I suggested she do a mock draft. If you are really serious about it, you can do mock drafts to practice selecting the players for your team. Before the NFL season started, you could go to the ESPN website any time of day or night, and within a couple of minutes be in a practice draft with 9 other random people who might live anywhere in the world.
Well, Susan took my suggestion. I told her to just click on “mock draft.” A minute later, she asked, “Do I click where it says ‘live draft?’” and without looking at her computer I said, “Yes.” Which of course was the wrong answer. She hadn’t intended to, but Susan had joined another fantasy football league with 9 guys she didn’t know who, it is pretty safe to say, are into football more than she is.
Now, I should say that she came out of her draft with both the highest rated running back and the highest rated quarterback. She won her first game easily, with more points than anybody in her league. She also drafted a team and won her first game in the league she meant to be in with me - which is more than I can say.
If you are really serious about it, there are all kinds of blogs and articles about fantasy football. One popular column is called Love/Hate. (Finally, some relevance to the sermon.) This involves players that the writer, Matthew Berry, either really likes or really doesn’t like for that week.
He will love these players and hate those players. But he is careful to explain what “hate” means. It simply means that it may be a tough week for them, maybe they have a bad matchup and he doesn’t think they will do as well as they generally do. So when he says he hates Eli Manning and Joe Flacco, it doesn’t mean he thinks they are terrible people, or that they are not great football players. It just means that in his opinion, it’s not going to be their best week.
Now, I never thought I would use a fantasy sports analyst to explain Jesus, but if Jesus wrote a Love/Hate column, every week he would say the same thing. This week, I love God. I hate my friends, my family, my kids, my colleagues, my job, my car, my house, my boat, my fantasy football team – you get the idea.
Does Jesus want us to throw mom under the bus? No. Does he want wives to push husbands over a cliff, as a newlywed bride is accused of doing in Montana? Definitely not. Does Jesus want us to care for our families, be faithful friends, and loyal and dependable members of our communities? Of course. Jesus’ teachings make all of this clear. But all of these things must take second place. Following Jesus has to come first.
Jesus was clarifying – for both the newcomers in the crowd as well as those who had been following him for a while now - just how total the commitment to him must be. Faith in Christ leads us to love others -- family and friends and strangers and enemies and outcasts -- with the same all-in, self-sacrificial love that Jesus showed. But that deep, committed faith in Christ that leads us to love others has to come first.
One of the keys to this whole story, it seems to me, is the very first line. “Large crowds were following him.”
Jesus knew that big crowds were not necessarily an indicator of success in his ministry. Jesus was becoming a kind of celebrity, and crowds were coming out because it was the “in” thing to do. Folks were jumping on the bandwagon. Jesus was going viral. He was the most searched for term on Google, the most popular hashtag on Twitter.
If we started having overflowing, capacity crowds here at First Baptist, standing room only, I probably wouldn’t start a sermon series on hating your family or dumping your possessions. But Jesus didn’t ask for my advice. Jesus is a truth-in-advertising kind of guy. Big crowds are showing up, and Jesus wants people to know what it is they are signing up for. He wants them to know what following him really involves. He didn’t want hangers-on who were there because of the crowd, because of the coolness factor. He wanted followers who were truly committed.
There is a price we pay for most everything we do. Choosing one thing means not choosing something else, and there are costs and consequences to our decisions. Jesus wants us to know up-front what the cost is.
We weigh the costs of our actions and commitments all the time, even if we don’t give it much conscious thought. Jesus gives two examples of this. The first is from rural life – a man builds a tower. Towers were often built in vineyards to watch for thieves and for predatory animals. Before building the tower, he has to make plans and figure the cost. How much for materials, how much for labor, is the cost worth the value of having a tower.
The second example is of a king planning for war. He considers the size of his army, the probability of victory, and if it doesn’t look so good he presses for a peace agreement.
Whether you are a farmer or a king, you have to be able to estimate the cost. And so do we.
A student goes to class, and the first day is just awful. She decides that a course with this professor would be a huge mistake, and she drops the class. The transmission is starting to go out on your car, and you decide it is not worth sinking another dime into your 96 Impala. You are invited to serve on a board. What is the first thing you do? You ask how often it meets, how much time is involved. We all weight the cost.
A couple of weeks ago a subway line in Brooklyn was shut down because of kittens playing around the rails. They stopped the trains to save the kittens. City workers had a heck of a time corralling these kittens – it was like, well, it was like herding cats. Think about the cost of that decision in terms of commuting schedules of hundreds of people, not to mention the economic impact. As you can imagine, there were those who estimated the cost differently.
On a national and global basis, we are weighing the costs in regard to Syria. What is the cost of continued diplomacy, what is the cost of targeted strikes, what is the cost of trying to negotiate an agreement on turning over chemical weapons? For whatever place a person might come out, there are the same questions: Is there enough cause? Enough weaponry? Enough political capital or will? What is the cost of doing something and what is the cost of doing nothing? Are there possible unintended consequences? What is the cost in terms of innocent lives? We are all the time determining the cost.
A few weeks ago, a young man named Michael Hill walked into a Georgia elementary school. He was off of his medication for a mental disorder. He had an AK-47, more than 500 rounds of ammunition and nothing, he said, to live for. He took a staff member named Antoinette Tuff hostage.
You have probably heard the story. With amazing calm in the face of great danger, Antoinette Tuff talked Hill down in her school office. She spoke calmly to him and she empathized with him. She told him how she had thought about committing suicide a year earlier when her husband had left her, and that everybody has bad days. She started by calling him “sir,” and in a short while, she was saying, “It’s gonna be OK, baby.” She may have had a chance to make a run for it and save herself, but doing so likely would have meant that others, probably children, would be killed. The care and concern she had for this young man were very genuine, and when he finally laid down his weapon, she said, “I’m proud of you.”
She counted the cost, and as Jesus puts it here, she “hated” her own life – meaning she was willing to set it aside to save others – and indeed to save this troubled young man. But it wasn’t just on that particular day that Antoinette “counted the cost.” She had no doubt been “counting the cost” day after day, for many years, making one choice over another in as she formed the kind of character that would see her through when she needed it most. Antoinette Tuff said that what got her through was her faith – what she had learned at her church. She had learned how to stand strong and prevail even in the midst of pain.
That kind of strength does not just come overnight, but through a lifetime of making choices. Prayer over going it alone. Gathering with others for worship and mutual support and accountability rather than choosing one of the countless other options available to us. Choosing to see the world through the eyes of others rather than choosing self-absorption. Choosing to see a troubled person as a child of God rather than as a worthless individual. Choosing to consider the lives of children and teachers and staff rather than just her own life.
We do it all the time, estimating the cost as Jesus asks us to do. And there is a cost of discipleship. There may be a cost in terms of ease and comfort, in terms of wealth and possessions, in terms of relationships, even with those closest to us. There may be a cost in terms of personal security or popularity or professional reputation. Because Jesus asks us to make all of these things secondary to living the gospel – to following Jesus’ way of loving God and neighbor.
Jesus is not talking about earning our salvation through hard work and sacrifice. God’s grace is a gift we cannot earn. This is about the character of our lives. Jesus is saying that like anything else worth doing, discipleship takes time and energy and practice and hard work.
Jesus is asking us to look at the long arc of our lives and determine what really matters, what is really important. And the thing is, when we seek first the kingdom of God, as Jesus puts it elsewhere, then rather than throwing mom under the bus, we so often find that this commitment to Jesus and to Jesus’ way of self-sacrificial love improves the quality of our relationships. When we are not trying like crazy to accumulate stuff, when we are willing to let go, so often we find that we have enough and we are freed from being controlled by our possessions.
These are not the easiest words of Jesus. They are hard to digest. But you know, we sacrifice for all kinds of things. For our jobs, for our careers, for our kids’ soccer teams, for our friends, for our GPA, for a tolerable living situation with our roommate, for peace in the family. We sacrifice for a new car or a beautiful house or a fabulous vacation.
Jesus is asking us to sacrifice for the sake of what truly matters. Jesus is asking us to sacrifice for his sake, for the sake of the gospel, and that when we do that, we will have the proper perspective and be better able to deal with all of these other concerns.
Lancelot Andrewes was a scholar and bishop in the Church of England in the 16th and 17th centuries. He wrote concerning committing ourselves fully to Christ, above all other concerns:
I give myself to you Lord, I give myself to you.Lancelot Andrewes' words of long ago were restated in that modern day classic, "The Hokey Pokey." To really be Jesus' disiples, we have to put our whole selves in. Amen.
All that I am
All that I have been
All that I hope to be,
I give myself to you Lord, I give myself to you.
In joy and in sorrow
In sickness and in health
In success and in failure,
I give myself to you Lord, I give myself to you.
In darkness and in light
In trouble and in joy
In time and for eternity,
I give myself to you, Lord,
I give myself to you.