I do not hate my father, and I never will. I love my father. I admire and respect him, too. He is a retired appellate-court judge in Minnesota. He has a lifelong interest in family law, and has written eloquently on the rights and needs of children under the law, an issue that carries great importance during these hard times. He taught me to study the scriptures seriously, and carefully. He was and is a great father to seven children. His generous spirit revealed itself most fully every Christmas morning, but it was always discernible, always present in some form, throughout the year. He loves to read. He and his wife Sandy dote on their sweet little Westie dog, named Finnegan. My father is temperate, balanced, reasonable, just. He loves a good funny story. He honored his parents and was a lifelong friend to his older brother. He taught me how to be a good husband. He inspires my midlife interest in health and fitness. He has spent his life practicing the rare art of skillful kindness: he is kind, but not haphazardly so, not in a fluffy or silly way. He is thoughtfully kind.
And so I feel vexed, at least on first hearing, when our Lord says, “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.” If Jesus means hate the way we usually mean it today, then he is asking the impossible; he is asking me to do something I cannot, and will not, do; he is going too far.
I do not hate my father, and I never will.
So let me reassure you quickly about the Good News we hear this morning: you are not being asked to hate your family. Jesus isn’t even talking about emotion at all, let alone asking us to manufacture a conflict or cut-off from the people we love.
That said, there is a challenge in his words for us today. To understand it, we have to first understand what “father and mother” and all the rest truly meant to the first people who followed and listened to Jesus. In his time and place, family was not just the group of relatives whom you love (or find it hard to love). Family was a central building block of the regional economy. Family was a survival strategy. It was terrible to be an orphan or a widow in ancient Palestine not just because you might feel sad or lonely, but because you had no sure means of survival. If you lost your husband, you also lost your property, your access to food and shelter, even your name. If you had no parents, then no one drew you into their circle of protection. There were no social security numbers or social welfare agencies. There was no Child Protective Services. No one would have dreamed of something like “Medicare” for old folks. Your family was your lifeline. Your family was how you ate and drank, slept and worked; your family was how you knew who you were.
In light of all that, the decision these humble fisherfolk make to drop their nets and follow Jesus is a serious decision indeed. It is a life-threatening risk to take. But Jesus makes it even scarier, because he soon “sets his face toward Jerusalem,” as Luke phrases it, which means he begins to move from the safety and familiarity of Galilee through the hostile and dangerous region of Samaria, all the while making it clear to the Samaritans that his destination is Jerusalem, their rival city, the city where those people, the Judeans, live. And once he gets to Jerusalem, he directly confronts the political and religious authorities, and is arrested and killed. No wonder it is so difficult for his followers to accept his predictions of his Passion and death. He must be exaggerating, when he tells us that he will be killed. How could this get any worse?
Today, the words of Jesus come to us in a radically different economic and political environment, and we hear them after twenty centuries of Christians have heard them before us, and tried in their own ways to follow this scary, radical teacher, to take seriously what he was asking of them, and apply it to their own place and time.
Here are two ideas about how it might make sense for us today.
First, we know that over the centuries, many Christians have heard these words of Jesus, and they have adopted prayer practices to enable them to set aside important concerns—even life-sustaining concerns—that would distract them from God’s purposes for them. They led lives of prayer and devotion that kept them centered in the Now, centered on God. Some even founded or entered monasteries to deepen their discipleship with Jesus.
Here is a more contemporary example of a prayerful attempt to be centered in the Now:
In my first few weeks here, I have had some mixed, complicated feelings about being here. Specifically, the feelings are an odd mixture of deep happiness and light sadness. I feel sadness because, as you all know, I cannot be here after next May, and my job title reflects the transitory nature of my time here: I am assisting the interim rector. Next May, I will set my face toward Seattle.
But the happiness I feel is uncomplicated, even downright cheerful: this place seems to be radiating health and energy. There is life here; God is palpably here; this is a good church. Even in an interim time, when lots of churches lose energy and seem less engaged and satisfied, St. Andrew’s is going strong.
And so, in light of all this, the words of Jesus this morning might mean this: I must “hate” Seattle and take up my cross and be a minister here. Now, I love Seattle, and I’m excited about my future there. But I am not there. As far as I am concerned, God is here, not there. Yes, God is in Seattle right now, but God is there for other people, not me. Yes, I am in an interim position here, but there is nothing interim or transitory about God’s presence here. So I must not indulge sad feelings about how the Now will be gone when the Then happens. One way to rise above these feelings is to remember that all ministries are transitory. This is “Kick-Off Sunday,” and our many ministries begin their “program year” of activities and events. But next summer they will pass out of season again. Sometime in the new year, St. Andrew’s will choose a new priest, but that person eventually will move on to another position. Heaven and earth pass away. Only the Word of God is eternal. Therefore, in the here and now, and in a particular, non-emotional way, I “hate” Seattle, with quotation marks around the word hate. God is right here, right now.
And here is a second way to understand the words of Jesus for us today. What he says is so colorful, and so startling, that we might have missed the little detail that large crowds are traveling with him. They’re hearing about the growing Jesus Movement, and drawing alongside him and his friends as they travel the Jerusalem road. Jesus now has to warn an ever larger horde of people what following him truly means. You and I today are a little like this crowd. We are joining the movement after many, many others have joined it. We need to know what we’re in for. And this is what we are in for:
Jesus wants us to put him first in our lives. Yes, I love my dad and always will. But as much as I love him, and as much as my identity has been shaped by him, my deeper identity, my true self, is shaped by Jesus in Holy Baptism. In Holy Baptism we are “sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.” That little phrase in our baptismal rite proclaims an astonishing truth: Jesus is first in our lives. We are Jesus followers before we are parents, before we are children, before we are siblings and teachers and spouses and scientists and politicians and officers and architects. We are even Jesus followers before we are church volunteers! (Otherwise, why volunteer for church at all?) We are marked as Christ’s own forever, which means we are joined forever with Christ in his compassion for the poor and the oppressed, his determination to engage the forces of evil head-on, his willingness to give away his whole life in self-giving love. We are meant to follow Jesus not just in our prayers on Sunday morning, and not even just in our family, work, and civic lives. We are meant to trace his cross upon our hearts, to say “I follow Jesus” as the first and most important answer to the question, “Who are you?”
All of us are gathered in the Here and Now, and in a few moments, all of us will be invited to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, which strengthens us to put Jesus first. Let your friends here help you trace the cross on your own heart. Let them show you what that might mean. Offer them your own ideas about it, too: we need to know how you feel, and what you think. And then, when we have finished our meal, we will be sent from here to do the work God has given us to do.
We will go forth to live the hard but wondrous lives of people for whom Jesus comes first.
Proper 18C, preached at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Burke, Virginia, on September 8, 2019.
Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17