September 4, 2022, Making the Leap, Luke 14:25-33 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
Having been here at St. Philip’s for almost twelve years, I 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. 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 learn how to set the needs of others above our own needs and preferences: we establish a circle of priorities, with our highest commitments at the center. And it’s normal, it’s instinctive, to our life as human beings that family is in that inner 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’s why 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’ve 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 against that, or turns it 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 at least not offensive. But the last thing we want to do is stop here and linger over that one verse.
And of course that means that’s exactly what we need to do. Because Jesus doesn’t say things that should be ignored or passed over. And he also 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.
But it’s a hard verse, and 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. Devoted 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. 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 responsibility 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 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 to express strong emotions. 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. God expressed it in those words because it was important that his intention and purposes be understood.
So here, too, Jesus is making a point as strongly as he can make it. 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’s what Jesus is saying here. “None of you,” he says, “None of you can become my disciple if you don’t give up everything you have.”
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, faithfully and flawlessly, 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 can anyone here say beyond the shadow of a doubt that they have the faith and the wisdom and the courage and the goodness, in and of themselves, to stay the course and follow Christ perfectly, 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 what Jesus is asking of us. A better image might be this:
Do you remember when your children were in the phase of life when their favorite thing was to leap 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 their Dad or Mom? For the parent, it’s a little terrifying, because they have to be constantly vigilant for the likely event of a small, warm body flying suddenly through the air towards them, expecting without the shadow of a doubt that they will be caught safe and sound. But for the child, it is an act of complete and joyful trust.
And trust is just another word for faith. What Jesus is telling us in such shockingly strong terms is that following him, discipleship, means letting go, loosing our hold, giving up our 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 will all be safe in his loving hands. To count the cost is to answer God’s question, “Do you trust me? Just me?” Discipleship is taking that leap of faith.
But it isn’t a blind leap of faith. Hear the words of God that speak to our greatest fears of letting go: When we feel alone and lost, hear the words of David in Psalm 139, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar…Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I climb up to heaven, you are there! If I lie down in the place of the dead, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the remotest parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall keep hold of me.”
When we feel weak and vulnerable, hear the words of Psalm 46, “God is our hiding place and our strength, a very present help in our troubles. Therefore we will not fear even though the earth gives way, even though the mountains fall into the depths of the sea, even though the waters of the sea roar and foam, even though the mountains tremble at its swelling. ‘Be still, and know that I am God. I will be honored among the nations, I will be honored in the earth!’ The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our place of refuge.”
And when the future looks dark and threatening and hopeless, as it sometimes does, hear the words of our Lord, “Be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the world.”
Discipleship is not just for the ones who are good enough and pure enough and strong enough and holy enough to stay the course. And it’s not a brainless leap of faith in the dark. Here’s what Jesus tells us about being a disciple: discipleship costs us exactly everything. Being a disciple requires us to let go of everything we are, and everything we have, and especially everything we love: our precious family, our close friends, our self-importance and our security. But that letting go rests on just one thing, the most sure thing in the whole world – that our Father, who holds all things and all people, past, and present, and future, will always 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 entrusting everything and everyone that we love, and our very selves, and the whole course of our life, into the hands of our God. +