Sermon for Sunday, September 4, 2016 || Proper 18C || Luke 14:25-33
The date is March 29, 2010, just over one month since I moved to Massachusetts. 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, turn left, and five minutes later, I make a mad dash for the dryness and warmth of the Coffee Break Cafe.
The rain still manages to soak my jeans during the ten seconds I’m out in the elements, but the moment I step into the café, I forget the torrential downpour. I forget the dangerous drive. I forget the soaked jeans and the English language and my name and how to walk correctly. The woman I planned to meet stands before me wearing houndstooth 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.
Eleven months later, this woman and I held hands, and I said, “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.” (Thankfully, she said it back.)
On February 12, 2011, I vowed to love and to cherish Leah for the rest of my life. And so, when I read to this morning’s Gospel lesson 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 hate is a bad thing. You may recall my daily childhood viewing of Return of the Jedi, which I’ve mentioned before. (Have I reached my quota of Star Wars references yet this year?) 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 Luke couldn’t 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, and I’m sure you did too. Hate is a bad thing. 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?
First, we have to realize these words are Jesus’ sales pitch. 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.* Most of the people in the large crowds followed Jesus simply because he was a local celebrity. When Jesus tells them they can’t be his disciples unless they hate life itself, I imagine many of them left to find a less demanding guru.
Indeed, this sales pitch was designed to attract fewer followers, not more. But before you head for the exit, let’s reinterpret the word “hate,” and hopefully, when we’re done, the toughness of Jesus’ sales pitch will have remained intact.
In between last week’s Gospel and today’s, several verses fell through the cracks. Just before today’s lesson, Jesus tells a parable about people invited to a great dinner who 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 writes off these no-shows and sends his servants out into the streets to fill his house with 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 decided that land and livestock and spouse were more important than the great dinner. Yes, 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 Emperor Palpatine’s favorite emotion. Rather, Jesus shocks us with the word “hate” to drive home his point that everyone who is not God is never meant to take the place of God. 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.
But why? Jesus knows that when we put anyone or anything else before God, we exile ourselves to the wasteland of idolatry. In the parable, the land, livestock, and spouse are the would-be guests’ 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.
So why is idolatry so bad? Well, 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 my 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, she would be an empty shell, and I would starve. Sooner or later, every idol ceases to be enough.
That’s why the first five words in the wedding vows are so important. There is absolutely no way to fulfill my vow without them: “In the name of God.” God is the foundation of every healthy relationship. Cherishing God first is the only way to be able to cherish another. Loving God first is the only way to be able to love another, for all love flows from God’s eternal abundance. We can only be Jesus’ disciples when we finally rid ourselves of the notion that our ability to love comes from anywhere but God alone.
In our marriage, I strive to remember that God formed Leah and me 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 of it all. Cutting God out of our relationship simply ignores the reality that God is the foundation of all good relationships.
Jesus tells us that we must hate our families to become his disciples. With this confusing sales pitch, he sets us the difficult task of putting God before all else. When we cherish our loved ones, we remember that we are capable of that action only 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 God somehow manages to put 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 built upon God’s sure and steady foundation.
* Monty Python’s Life of Brian has a great scene illustrating this, by the way.