SERMON 4 SEPTEMBER 2016
We are going to go on a journey back in time, 2,000 years or so. You are sitting in the synagogue, or maybe, if you are a man, in a Rabbinical school. You are listening to the rabbi expounding on a theme and it’s quite amusing because, as is customary, he greatly exaggerates and enhances the story to make his point. Stories are always told like this - it would be very dull if they were not – and you have grown up in a culture of story-telling. It helps you understand life. You are used to there being rather extreme examples.
Now, back here, on this first Sunday of September 2016, we are rather more restrained, perhaps even given to understatement, though the society around us seems to increasingly go in for exaggerated statements and we are used to advertisements that dress everything up, even photo-shopping images. Politicians go in for extremes, but it isn’t what we expect to hear on a Sunday morning. I have started like this because I think we need to hear Jesus’ message today partly against the background of his culture. He was, after all, regarded as a rabbi, a teacher and one who had his own disciples, followers who were there to learn from him. In today’s reading he seems to make some statements that are very hard for us to deal with: all that business about hating one’s family and carrying a cross.
Let’s remember that right from the start Luke has shown us Jesus as one who would turn things upside down, reverse the accepted order. Think of the Magnificat. Just last week he talked about inviting the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind to the banquet. Jesus is a prophet who is proclaiming God’s kingdom of justice, compassion, healing and renewal. This morning he seems to be warning his disciples about the cost that is involved in all of this. They are, after all, on their way to Jerusalem. Just a few weeks ago we heard that Jesus had “set his face” towards Jerusalem. We know, from our vantage point in time, where all this was leading, and it wasn’t good. Remember also that back then people well knew about the image of “carrying one’s cross” because crucifixion was a terrible, common sentence and those charged were made to carry their own cross to their place of execution. So there is no escaping the seriousness of all of this talk of Jesus’.
So how do these words about hating one’s family and carrying one’s cross connect with us, who are not persecuted, who rarely have to make a choice between being Christian, followers of Jesus, and our families? We live in a time and place where individual freedom to follow our own faith, to read what we want and learn what we want are greatly valued. This month, September, is also designated as “Interfaith September” in the Uniting Church, and we are encouraged to be open to sharing our journey of faith with others whose journey is different. We have that possibility.
What then does carrying our cross mean if we are to be true to that as core to our faith while respecting others for whom the cross is an alien idea, a crucified God an impossibility even? What does hating our families mean if we are to respect and care about those who are not even in our families and who are different?
Let’s not make it seem impossible, because it isn’t meant to be. But these words of Jesus are about taking our commitment of faith seriously. We should note that there was a large crowd following Jesus. No doubt they did so for a whole variety of reasons, all of which would relate to the hope that he seemed to offer. But by no means all of these stayed the course. Jesus was telling them what was required of those who wanted to become disciples. That word, disciple, means a learner. I always remember the very first words of Latin I learned from the text book: “Discipuli pictoram spectate” - “Pupils, look at the illustration”! There was so much that those who were serious about following Jesus had to learn, time and again. So many of the people around Jesus were indeed faced with making choices about leaving behind their families in order to join the community of his followers. It seems that there were probably quite a lot of young people there, since there are the words about hating ones parents as well as wives and children. This couldn’t be done lightly. There had to be a sensible weighing up of what this commitment entailed, just as plans have to be made for constructing buildings or military campaigns. Our services of confirmation hardly compare with the choices people had to make back then.
And yet they do, in our world. We know that there are still people who make a costly choice, day by day, to stand up and be counted as Christian. I was reading just last week about Nigeria where students had been killed for their faith. The response from their community of faith was to come out in great numbers and fill their church. Can we imagine what that decision must have been like? There were so many women and children in that church. It was Deitrich Bonhoeffer who wrote about “The Cost of Discipleship” as his journey of faith in Nazi Germany led him to stand against Hitler and refuse to call him “Fuhrer”, since, as he said, he only had one Lord. You may well know that he was implicated in a plot to kill Hitler and was imprisoned and eventually executed for his faith. As Bonhoeffer said, faith is often costly.
But again, for us here, not persecuted, Jesus’ words still hang over us. The cross remains the defining symbol of our faith. One image for the commitment of faith is like a child learning to swim. The parent stays alongside the child in the shallow end as he or she gradually gains confidence. Then the parent moves towards the deep end. The child begins to panic until the parent tells them that the water may be deeper but they can swim just the same. Much of the time we prefer to swim about in the shallow end, but sometimes life digs the ground out beneath our feet and we are not sure that we can cope. Is our faith enough? We don’t know until we have tested it, and it is that decision to allow ourselves to be tested, not to retreat, that is the moment of commitment. It is the commitment itself that leads to transformation.
Think of the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. So many ordinary people made frightened decisions to join in, not knowing whether they would cope or not, nor what the consequences would be. It was a very costly decision for many. It brought about change, however slowly.
We see around us lots of other examples of commitment: musicians and athletes who dedicate themselves to train, to practice, to become the best they can be. Think of gay and lesbian people who decide to “Come Out’ and face discrimination and hatred, possibly even from their families. There are lots of different kinds of commitment. The commitment to a life of faith is no less important. It is about living with integrity, as we are able, the life of compassion and justice, of challenging values and counter-cultural expectations that Jesus showed us. An example of how that might play out in life is seen in that lovely but revealing letter that Paul wrote to Philemon, gently suggesting to him that to regard his runaway slave now as a free and forgiven brother is part of his commitment to following the way of Christ.
The cross may be the sign of this commitment, but, and it is a big “but”, let us never forget that this is also a joyful commitment to a community of faith where everyone is made welcome, where there is no honour system or discriminatory practice. This was the community that surrounded Jesus, into which those who had given up everything were welcomed and supported. Remember some time ago we heard about the women who, so untypically for the time, were given freedom to belong and were valued for who they were as individuals.
This is the challenge for our churches today, to be faithful representations of prophetic living, through our inclusiveness, our values, our welcome, our offering of support and prayer, our making space for people and showing hospitality. It is the symbol of the cross that defines our commitment to following Christ and we take that seriously. It is the cross that marks us out as Christian among our neighbours of other faiths. But it is also the cross that reminds us to cross over, to be open in hospitality, to love, to learn and not to judge, to respect and value everyone as a child of God, however they see themselves.
It is as we take our commitment to following Christ seriously that we rediscover, again and again, what it means to be a community of his people together, where we continue to learn, to be “salty” for the sake of a world that needs the flavour of life, lived joyfully, and that carries within it deep meaning, grace and glory.