September 4, 2016, Making the Leap – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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Having been here at St. Philip’s for five years, I have come to know how devoted the people of our church are to their families. I have seen so many of you make sacrifices, big and small, for the people you love. I have seen you put your own needs on hold and give selflessly to your husband or your wife, or your parents or children, in times of illness or loss, or any of those difficulties that we face as human beings. A big part of being a real, mature grownup person is the ability and willingness to make those kind of commitments and sacrifices. Being a responsible human being, as well as being a faithful Christian, means that we have learned how to set the needs of others above our own needs and preferences: we have established a circle of priorities, with our highest commitments at the center. And it is basic to our life as human beings that family is in that center circle. It is built into our human nature as we have been created by God that love for our mother and father, our husband or wife, our children and brothers and sisters: these take precedence over every other commitment.
And that is the words of Jesus that we read just now are shocking to us, because they come crashing headlong against every instinct and feeling and truth we know, and every choice we have ever made. “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,” he tells us. And everything inside us rebels or turns off or tries to explain it away. We can go on to the next verse and talk about carrying our own cross, which is challenging but not offensive. But the last thing we want to do is stop here and linger over that one verse.
And of course that means we should do exactly that. Because Jesus doesn’t say things that should be ignored or passed over. And he doesn’t say things that are destructive or meaningless. His words give us life. And we don’t want to miss out on any of them.
The first thing to do in understanding a hard verse is generally to figure out what it doesn’t mean. Here, we can be absolutely clear. Jesus does NOT mean that good Christians turn against their families. Faithful disciples of Christ are NOT called to abandon their children or leave their spouses or neglect their aging parents. We can say that with certainty, because the rest of Scripture is crystal clear on this point. In the first place, we know we are never called to hate anyone, family or not, because the highest of all commandments is to love everyone. And specifically on the issue of family repsonsibility the teaching is clear.
Jesus lambasted the Pharisees for building provisions into the law that allowed people to donate to the Temple what they would have used to support their elderly parents. “You hypocrites!” he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God (to honor your father and mother) in order to establish your own tradition!”
And then throughout the whole Bible the faithful love of husband and wife, and the loving care of a parent for his or her child: these are earthly echoes of the perfect love of God for us, his people. “Is it even thinkable that a mother would forget the child at her breast?” Isaiah wrote. And the rhetorical answer is of course not. “But even if it were possible,” he went on, “I will never forget you.” And Paul wrote, “The mystery of married love is profound. But I am saying it refers to Christ and the Church.”
Clearly the natural love we have for our family is a God-ordained love. So if Jesus is not telling us to hate our mother and father and brother and sister, what is he telling us? There is always the need in reading the Bible to understand the way people used language in that time and place. It was a very Jewish way of expressing something strongly to use what we call hyperbole. We do it ourselves sometimes, especially in times of raging emotions: we understand that if our child says “I hate you!” in the midst of a temper tantrum they are only expressing their emotions. But in Hebrew writing and teaching hyperbole was a common, accepted means of expression: to say something in an excessively strong way to make an important point. God used it himself in the Old Testament. “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated,” he said, though we know he is a God of love, and we know that he showed loving care for Esau. The point was that he chose Jacob to be the bearer of his promise and not Esau, though Esau was the first-born and should have received the blessing. It was important that God’s intention and purposes be understood. So here, too, Jesus is making a point as strongly as he can make it.
If we read this verse in its context then (which is the only sensible way to read any verse) it is clear that the point Jesus is making is that following him – discipleship – involves the strongest possible commitment – a commitment that goes even deeper than the deep commitment we have to our family. “Don’t even begin to follow me,” Jesus says, “until you count the cost. Because the cost is everything.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Christian who was killed by the Nazis during the Second World War for opposing Hitler, wrote a book called The Cost of Discipleship. The grace of God is a free gift, he wrote, but it isn’t cheap. It costs exactly everything. And that is what Jesus is saying here. “None of you,” he says, “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
But we misunderstand if we think that Jesus is asking us to take stock of our own abilities. Are we brave enough to face death for our faith like Bonhoeffer? Are we generous enough to sacrifice ourselves in the service of others like Mother Teresa? Are we selfless enough to give all our stuff away to the poor? Are we reliable enough to maintain our commitment to the Church on top of family and work and everything else in our lives?
If that’s what Jesus and Bonhoeffer meant by counting the cost of discipleship, we would all of us be pretty much up a creek without a paddle, as it were. Because which of us can say beyond the shadow of a doubt that we have the faith and the wisdom and the courage and the goodness, in and of ourselves, to stay the course no matter what happens? We can’t even say beyond the shadow of a doubt that we will remain faithful to the family and friends that we know intimately, let alone to a God we can’t even see. If that’s what it means to count the cost, we will all fall short.
The good news is: that is not even remotely what it means. A better image might be this:
Have you ever known a little child in the phase of life when he takes the greatest delight in leaping off of anything and everything – the back of the couch, or the fifth step up the staircase, or the porch railing, or the hood of the car – into the arms of his father? It is a little terrifying for the father, because he has to be constantly vigilant for the likely event of a small, warm body flying suddenly through the air towards him, expecting without the shadow of a doubt that he will be caught safe and sound. But for the child, it is an act of complete and utter trust.
And trust is just another word for faith. What Jesus is telling us in such shockingly strong terms is that following him means letting go, loosing our hold, giving up control, of everything – everything, even those people that are infinitely dear to us – and trusting that we will land safe and sound in his loving arms. He isn’t telling us to stop loving anyone, or to neglect them, or to turn our backs on them. He is telling us that if we are willing to let go they are all in his loving hands. To count the cost is to answer God’s question, “Do you trust me?” Discipleship is making the leap.
But it isn’t a blind leap. Hear the words of God that speak to our greatest fears of letting go:
When we are afraid of being alone, hear the words of Psalm 139, “Lord, you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You trace my journeys and my resting-places and are acquainted with all my ways.”
When we are afraid that we won’t have what we need, hear the words of Jesus, “I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on…Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
When we feel weak and helpless, hear the words of Psalm 46, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.”
And when the future looms threatening before us, as it often does, hear the words of our Lord, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.”
Discipleship is not a brainless leap of faith in the dark. And it is not a test to see who is good enough and pure enough and holy enough to stay the course. Discipleship costs us exactly everything: it requires us to let go of everything we are, everything we have, and especially everything we love: our beloved family, our dear friends. But the choice depends only on one thing, the most sure thing in Creation – that our Father, who holds all things and all people, past, and present, and future, will catch us safely in his loving arms. When we choose to make the leap into discipleship it is not because we are brave or holy or good; it is because there is nothing wiser, nothing more sure, nothing more sane, than trusting all that we love, and our very selves, and the whole course of our life, into the hands of God.