(Sermon for September 5, 2010 || Proper 18, Year C, RCL || Luke 14:25-33)
The rain is so heavy that I feel like I’m driving through a carwash. I can barely see out the windshield, and I keep thinking that I’ve missed Furnace Brook Parkway. But just when I decide I need to turn around, I spot the sign reflecting green in the dim glow of my headlights. I turn left and five minutes later I park across the street from the Coffee Break Café. I make a mad dash for the dryness and warmth of the shop, but the rain still manages to soak my jeans during the ten seconds I’m out in the elements.
The moment I step into the café, however, I forget the dangerous drive. I forget the torrential downpour. I forget the soaked jeans and the English language and my name and how to walk correctly. The woman, whom I planned to meet at the café, stands before me wearing patterned rain boots, holding a steaming cup of tea, and smiling. And I forget everything about myself except for the fact that she is there to meet me – me of all people.
That was a little over five months ago. A little over five months from now, she and I will be married about ten feet over and four feet down from where I’m standing right now – right over there. Leah and I will hold hands, and Margot will direct us to look at one another and speak our vows. I will say, “In the name of God, I, Adam, take you, Leah, to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.”
In February, I will promise to love and to cherish Leah for the rest of my life. You might have guessed that I’m pretty excited by that prospect. And so, when I listen to this morning’s Gospel reading and hear Jesus say that to be his disciple I have to hate my wife, I’m just downright confused.
Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve known that hate is a bad thing. In fact, I learned this lesson during my daily viewing of Return of the Jedi. Near the end of the film, Luke Skywalker finds himself standing before the twisted and evil Emperor Palpatine. The Emperor doesn’t want to kill the Jedi; he desires Luke to fall under the seductive power of the dark side of the Force. Palpatine has Luke’s lightsaber, and he tempts the young Jedi saying: “I am defenseless. Take your weapon. Strike me down with all of your hatred, and your journey towards the dark side will be complete.”
Even as a young child, I knew that Luke could not give in to his hate because then he would have been corrupted. He would have joined the dark side, and the film would not have ended with smiles and embraces and happy dancing Ewoks. I learned the lesson well. Hate is a bad thing. If you are anything like me, you were brought up learning the same lesson. So how do we encounter these words of Jesus? He 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.” How do we obey a command that just seems so wrong?
The first thing we need to do is to make sure that we don’t ignore Jesus when his words sound wrong to our ears. When he says something that makes us uncomfortable, there is a tendency to skip over the offending words. The trouble is, skipping those bits is exactly the opposite reaction than Jesus is going for. When Jesus turns to the crowds and says these words, he employs shocking rhetoric in an attempt to make the crowd understand just what life following him looks like. In Jesus’ day, following spiritual gurus around was something of a pastime, akin today to following the Grateful Dead on tour. Most of the people making up the large crowds were following him because he was a local celebrity. When Jesus tells them that they can’t be his disciples unless they hate life itself, I imagine many of them left to find a less demanding guru.
So we shouldn’t ignore Jesus’ words when they sound wrong. But this still leaves the fact that they sound wrong. Now, please don’t interpret the rest of this sermon as an attempt to explain away Jesus’ tough words. Rather, permit me to reinterpret the word “hate,” and hopefully, when I’m done, the toughness of Jesus’ words will have remained intact.
In between last week’s passage from Luke 14 and this week’s, several verses fell through the cracks. Just before Jesus turns to the crowds and speaks today’s Gospel, Luke narrates Jesus telling a parable. In the story, all the people invited to a great dinner make excuses and fail to attend: “I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it”; “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out”; “I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.” The host of the dinner becomes angry with these no-shows and sends his servants out into the streets to fill his house with all the people who wouldn’t normally be invited to a party.
Right after this parable, Jesus tells the crowds that to be his disciple they must hate father and mother and wife and children and life itself. The three people in the parable who made excuses were obviously not following this difficult command. Instead, they decided that land and livestock and spouse were more important than the great dinner. The word “hate” jolts us with its emotional connotation; but, based on the parable, I’m far from convinced that Jesus desires us to indulge in the emotion of hate. Rather, he uses the word “hate” to show that every person who isn’t Jesus is never meant to take the place of Jesus. Unlike the three people in the parable, those who come to Jesus cannot be his disciples unless they make him more important than everything else. Therefore, becoming Jesus’ disciples means putting Jesus ahead of all the other people in our lives.
Of course, this is incredibly difficult. But the incredibly difficult things that Jesus asks of us also turn out to be incredibly important. With his tough words about hating life itself, Jesus offers us protection from the most common sin in the book: idolatry. In the parable, the would-be guests make excuses to avoid the great dinner. The land, livestock, and spouse are their idols. In our lives, idols are those things that we turn to when we should turn to God. We let our parents, spouses, children, jobs, cars, computers, smartphones, and addictions invade the territory that should be God’s alone. We begin to look to something other than God for salvation. We mistake the creation for the Creator.
This is not bad just because our idolatry breaks one of the Ten Commandments. This is bad because when I set up another person as my god, my idolatry will eventually destroy both the other person and myself. If I made Leah into an idol, I would rely on her for everything. I would run her ragged trying to see to my needs. I would suck the life and the love out of her. And when there is nothing left, I would starve. Sooner or later, every idol ceases to be enough, and it’s usually not until this time that we realize our idolatry.
So let’s go back to those words that Leah and I will say to each other at our wedding in February. In all the good and bad times, I will promise to love and to cherish her. There is absolutely no way to fulfil this promise without the very first phrase I will say during my vows: “In the name of God.” God is the foundation of every healthy relationship. Loving God first is the only way to be able to love another. Cherishing God first is the only way to cherish another. We can only be Jesus’ disciples when we finally rid ourselves of any idea or notion that our ability not only to love, but to exist, comes from nowhere but God alone.
When I wed Leah, I will strive to remember that God formed us in our mothers’ wombs and God brought us into each other’s lives and God knit us together and God will continue to sustain us. God is the beginning, the middle, and the end. Cutting God out of our relationship – indeed, out of any relationship – simply ignores the reality that God is the foundation of all relationships. Cutting God out allows the sin of idolatry to creep in.
Jesus tells us that we must hate life to become his disciples. With this, he sets us the difficult task of putting him before all else. Accomplishing this difficult task means that when we cherish our loved ones, we remember that we are capable of that action because God cherishes us. When we love them, we draw upon the unrelenting outpouring of God’s love. And if we forget everything else – the English language and our names and how to walk correctly – we still remember that God somehow puts each one of us first. And so we thank God and ask for the grace to put God first. Everything else will find its proper place atop God’s sure and steady foundation.