The text for this day was: Luke 14:25-33
I would have hoped that the gospel for my first sermon here would’ve been a little more hopeful. It would’ve been nice to be asked to preach from a story about Jesus healing a sick person, or giving the Pharisees the “ ‘ol what for,”
they could’ve given me a real gift and asked me to preach on Psalm 23 “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want/ He makes me to lie down in Green Pastures/ he leads me beside still water/ he restores my soul…”
But I didn’t get any of that,… what I got,.. and what we now have before us today is Luke 14, Jesus at his confusing, complicated, and insensitive best. What we have is Jesus seemingly telling us that unless we do what he says, we can’t follow him, we can’t be his disciples, his students, we can’t learn from him.
Now that’s alone sounds pretty harsh , but then we go ahead and look at what he’s telling us to do. Give up all your possessions, hate your entire family, break all bonds of relationship in your life. And there you have it… there’s your message… there’s your proscription for the day, nothing short of everything that makes you who you are.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is out on the road and there’s a huge crowd of people with him. These are people that have come to Jesus’ side because they’ve heard his message of redemption and welcoming, they’ve come to hear him say that their sicknesses, physical, mental, and spiritual will be eliminated, they’ve come to hear Jesus say that everything is going to be okay…. Well that’s not what he gives them…. Instead he says, in essence: Don’t get too comfortable just yet, don’t think that this is all there is to it. And then he gives what is possibly the most mind-blowing and completely baffling instruction in the entire New Testament “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.”
To make matters somewhat worse Jesus then gives two illustrations that seem to be telling us that we should all stop and think about whether or not we can really fulfill these steep expectations before we even begin to try. And of course, for good measure, Jesus concludes his little point by telling us that we only have to give nothing less than everything we have, in order to be his disciple. Don’t be fooled into thinking that Jesus just wants your car and all your furniture… The Greek word that is translated here as “possession” essentially means everything you have, including your very being… Jesus is asking here for your entire self.
Now I don’t know about you but this seems a little less than comforting. I imagine that those people who are following Jesus waiting for that message of ultimate comfort, the promise that it’s all going to be okay, are a little disappointed. I imagine that they felt much like I feel after hearing these words and that is…. well… pretty hopeless. It seems as though Jesus is asking quite a lot and I don’t know if I’m capable of giving him what he asks for. I bet they’re thinking that too and I’ll guess that some of you are also feeling that way. Can we, as people who live in community with our families, our friends, our neighbors, our church… reject all of that, pledge to hate it, in order that we can call ourselves disciples? That sounds awfully difficult…. Can we give up everything we have, our whole being, to follow Jesus? Well, when we put it like that… I’ll have to say No!.... no I don’t think I can, I and really I don’t think I want to….
So then the question we have before us, the question that I will spend the rest of my time with you today answering is: What then do we do?
Well the first thing that I’m going to do is tell you a story about a boat. This is a simple little boat, it could be a little sailboat, or maybe a family yacht, it even by a trash barge… but for elegance sake let’s pretend it’s a little sailboat. This little sailboat built to race in the wind out in the open ocean is sitting in the harbor just watching the days go by. Safe inside the walls that keep out the waves and the surge, the boat just floats lazily in the gentle water as the tides come in and go out, days break and nights fall. Now I want you to imagine that that boat has a calling, what do you think that calling might be? I think it is something similar to what it was built to do, the calling for that boat, the life that boat was built to lead is to be out on the ocean riding the wind and dancing in the tide. Here in the harbor that boat is safe, but that isn’t what this boat was made for….
You may have heard this saying before; I’ve heard it as “A ship in a harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships were made for.” And the point is that there is a part of what it means to be ship that requires that the ship be out on the ocean, outside the safe confines of the harbor.
So then… what can this little sailboat tell us about ourselves today? Well I think that it’s easy today, after hearing this gospel to feel a little bit like this sailboat. Sitting here in under this roof hearing Jesus give us these demands we might feel like Jesus wants us to leave this safety, to let go of everything that is familiar and comfortable and walk out into world in search of what it means to ‘follow.’ But we know that here we are safe and we are comfortable and we know, because we can see the cross that our salvation does not depend on our answering that call. In other words: we have heard the story of Good Friday and of Easter that Jesus has conquered sin and death and we are now able to live knowing that we are right with God, our salvation is assured. And none of that will change if we decide that this call to discipleship is too much for us. Thanks to the promises of the life, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus, we are free to just sit in our harbor to ignore the words that Jesus says today because the cost is too great.
Now… I don’t know about you…. But that just doesn’t feel like it’s good enough for me… you know? I feel like I can’t in good conscience just ignore Jesus today, just brush him of and say something like “Oh Jesus! You’re so dramatic!” Nope… that just doesn’t feel right. So then… What if we think about answering this call? What if we think about leaving this harbor? What is that going to look like? What is that going to mean?
Well the first thing I can tell you about this is that it’s not going to be easy, no in fact this is going to be quite hard. That’s where we started today isn’t it? That this call that Jesus issues today sounds really tough, and I tell you… it is. It is going to be really tough but not, probably in the way you think.
Despite the upfront appearances, I don’t think Jesus is calling us to ‘hate’ our families/our loved ones in the way we might think of the word. One of the things we do a lot of in seminary is look at the original Greek that the gospel was written in. In this case the word that you heard as hate doesn’t mean to loathe, or detest… it is a little more active than that… meaning something more like reject, or persecute. Now that doesn’t sound much better I know, but if we remember that Jesus, especially in the Gospel of Luke, likes to speak with a lot of drama and passion, then we can hear this the way the crowd would’ve heard it and we can hear this call to hate as something more along the lines of detachment or a simple letting go of. Now remember that Jesus has already made it clear throughout Luke’s gospel that he knows and understands that people are sinful… Jesus knows our sin, so when Jesus tells us to “hate” our loved ones he does so knowing about all the times that we have, through our own weakness hurt the one’s we love. Now…. I want to be very careful hear because I think this might be the most difficult part of this whole sermon…. We are broken and sinful people… and Jesus knows that. Jesus does not judge us for it… or look down on us for it, he joins us right in the middle of that brokenness and he loves us all the more because of it, but he also doesn’t ignore it. Jesus makes a call for us to reject and persecute those around us knowing that we already do, and when we recognize that, the call becomes, not a call to further rejection and persecution but a call to admit, to him and to ourselves, what we are guilty of, to take ownership of it and then NOT to be defined by it. To love all our neighbors friend and enemy alike and then to let go of our need to be identified by anything other than the one who creates, redeems and sustains us.
Well that sounds pretty good… right? Not so bad… How about another story…?
When I was a Senior in college I took a trip to New Zealand. I left the cold bitter winter of Northeast Iowa in January and flew with 20 or so of my classmates to the middle of summer on the South Island of New Zealand. We then spent the month traveling around the island getting class credit as we went backpacking, mountain biking, rafting, camping, and sea kayaking... I don’t know how many of you have ever been sea kayaking, I don’t imagine there are a lot of opportunities around here, but it is very similar to canoeing which some of you Midwesterners might have done. Essentially you sit in a very small boat, that is very low to the water and you paddle, and paddle, and paddle, and paddle…. In a place with a lot of natural beauty, like New Zealand, it is a fantastic experience, it is also a breathtaking experience… I was out of breath pretty much the whole day. Yes it is a very tiring sport; it has all of the continuous movement of biking or running, but in muscle groups in your arms and back that don’t appreciate being asked to do that much work.
So at the end of my second day in that boat, I was ready for things to be a little easier. Well wouldn’t you know it there happened to be a storm swell moving in that afternoon, and what that meant, in case you don’t know, was lots of pretty good sized, pretty fast moving waves. My boat buddy and I(it was a two person kayak) were about a mile and half to 2 miles off shore when we noticed that these waves were really starting to pick-up just a few dozen meters to our left.
I say that they had picked up off to our left because we were in a kind of channel where the water was significantly deeper so that the waves were far less pronounced. When you’re that far off shore the waves are essentially just ‘hills’ of water moving toward land, and they can be much smaller or larger in size depending on the terrain of the sea floor, which of course we couldn’t see.
Well, I knew a little bit about wave dynamics, being a senior in college, and knew that if we left our protected/calm little channel and got out into the bigger waves… we’d probably be able to ride them on into the beach. Brilliant idea right!?!
Well yes… actually… it was…. right up until the point that, after about 5 minutes of joyriding we found ourselves turned sideways to the wave and sitting, underwater, in an upside down kayak… still at least a mile off shore. Now, you can clearly see that the story does not end in tragedy because I’m up here talking to you all, but it was not pleasant.
I’ll spare you the details because they really don’t apply to our purposes here but basically my friend and I spent the next 30-45 minutes, after we got ourselves righted and back in the boat, trying to paddle a kayak that was now full of water in that same rough sea over that last mile until we both finally made it to solid ground and collapsed, exhausted in the sand.
I tell you this story, not just because it is entertaining… which I think it is… but also because I think it illustrates something very important about the call to discipleship. This call to discipleship is not as horrible as it sounds initially, we’re not called to abandon our lives and loved ones and walk out into the desert. But it is still difficult and you’re still risking something when you do it. When I was sitting in the channel, in the relatively calm water, I was just like the ship in the harbor. In leaving that safety and engaging with those big waves I was risking a lot more, and, in the end I paid the price.
This is what our call is today. Jesus is calling us to leave the safety of the harbor, to enter into a life of discipleship that requires us to bear the cross, and let go of our possession of safety and security, to let go of our attachment to our own self definition.
I wish that I could be more specific than that… I wish that I could tell you that Jesus is asking you to give this much money to the church, or to feed this many homeless people, or to…. Choose the rough seas over the calm.
But it isn’t as simple as that. The call is to carry the cross. It is a call that can look different to everyone who hears it, and we probably won’t know ahead of time what it requires of us. All we can do is remember that at our very deepest core we are the children of God and we are defined by that. The life of discipleship to which we are called today is the life that is defined by that identity. If we remember that and let that be the core of how we view ourselves than the choices we make will be the choices of the disciple. We will live the life of discipleship as a natural extension of who we claim to be.
I must reiterate, though, that this will not be easy. Earlier I said to you that the call that we hear today is a hard one, and that’s true. It was not as hard to follow as maybe we first thought but… it is hard in a different way. It is hard because there is no recognition for it, there is no reward, there is no prize at the end. I suppose that when you stand at the pearly gates you might get a pat on the back from St. Peter but beyond that we are not promised that anything will be different, should we choose the path of discipleship, it might be harder and it might be less comfortable and we might find ourselves upside down in the water, but I tell you that can happen in the harbor as well. The good news is that whether you are in the harbor or out on the ocean you are still in the water and you can never leave that, you are and will always be a child of God. So no matter what happens, we have a whole history of promise, a whole book, that tells us that in the midst of the brokenness and the despair, the pain and the loss that we are all but guaranteed to suffer we will we reconciled, made whole, we will be led to the cool still waters, made to lie down in the green pastures and lifted up on the wings of eagles. And that promise will be fulfilled regardless of anything you choose to do in this life.
So then… knowing that we are children of God, and knowing that we are redeemed, do we rest in the harbor, or do we answer the call of the open ocean….. I say unfurl your sail and grab a paddle…. AMEN!