Sermon - Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost (9/8/2019)
Deut. 30:15-20; Ps. 1; Phil. 1-21; Lk. 14:25-33
“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. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
Sometimes Jesus can be very confusing.
I thought that the Great Commandment was to love God, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. To love our neighbor, to love even our enemies, to love everybody the way that God loves everybody. Our fathers and mothers, our spouses and our children, our brothers and sisters, surely these people – at least – are our neighbors, and I thought we were supposed to love our neighbors, not hate them. Even if a parent or a spouse or a child or a sibling harms us, even if they are an enemy for a time, or maybe longer – even then, aren’t we supposed to love them, not hate them? What on earth is Jesus talking about?
And this part about hating life and taking up the cross – this also does not sound like Jesus. Isn’t the whole point of Scripture that God created us for life, that God’s gift of life is good, that God wants to give us the fullness of life in God’s new creation? Doesn’t Moses, in the first reading, set before the people of Israel as they are about to enter the Promised Land, the choice between two ways: the way of love and justice that leads to life, and the way of self-seeking and enslavement to powers that are not God, which leads to death? And doesn’t Moses say, “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days”? Moses sums up the whole message of the Bible: Choose life! Now Jesus wants us to hate life and take up the cross? This is very confusing.
To clarify matters, Jesus tries to tell some parables about people who have to make choices – to build a tower, to go to battle. When people have to make choices, Jesus says, they weight the costs and the benefits. And there are always costs. Any choice we make has costs, if only the cost of forgoing the alternatives we don’t choose. And people only choose things if they think the cost is worth it. For Jesus, the reward of going to taking up the cross and going to Jerusalem is so great, the power that will come from following his path gives so much life and healing, that it’s worth any price he will have to pay. And for those following Jesus on the road to Jerusalem, Jesus invites them to learn from him about the road that leads to life – and he warns them that there will be costs. But this is a path that leads to love and to life, and so even if the cost is high, Jesus wants his disciples to be willing to pay them.
So when Jesus says to hate your neighbor and to hate your life and choose the cross, he is not contradicting himself or the Bible. He is telling us to choose love and to choose life – and to be willing to accept the cost of doing so, even if that cost involves hate, even if that cost involves a cross, because this path leads to love and to life and that’s what really matters. We are supposed to choose love, not hate; we are supposed to choose life, not death. What God gives us is love, not hate; what God bestows on us is life, not the cross. In the imperfect world we live in, enduring a season of hate or death is sometimes the price that has to be paid, but neither hate nor the cross are – in themselves – good things we want to choose or things God wants us to experience.
I know that there are some Christians who will say that God positively wanted Jesus to die on the cross. There is a whole theology that says God wants to be able to love human beings but can’t get past the fact that human beings are sinful and that sin requires a sacrifice, so Jesus provided the sacrifice that God wanted and needed in order to love us. As if God were some sort of bloodthirsty monster who wants death and suffering! The prophets tell us the word of the Lord: “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,” and the gospels record Jesus quoting that Old Testament passage not once, but twice.
I really don’t believe that God wanted Jesus to die on the cross. I believe that God wanted Jesus to enact the Kingdom of God, to live a fully human life, with compassion and love for everyone, to bring justice for the oppressed and sight to the blind and healing to the sick. I believe that the powers of this world were so threatened by the fully human life of Jesus, so threatened by the power of a life actually lived the way God wants all human beings to live, so disturbed by the power of a love that fully reflects the love and mercy of God, that they put Jesus to death. But it was human beings who wanted Jesus to die on a cross, not God.
What God wanted is for Jesus to be faithful to his mission of living God’s life and love to the fullest, and if that meant accepting the cross, so be it, because the life and the love of God are worth it. Even crucified, Jesus never stopped showing us in human flesh what God is like – by forgiving the human beings who crucified him. And on Easter, God gives the gift of life that is stronger than death, the gift of love that is stronger than hate. This is God always wanted, and what God still always wants: life and love, not hate and the cross. If hate and the cross come, because that’s what the world wants, that’s fine, it’s a price worth paying for the kind of life and the kind of love that only God can give.
I think it’s important to stress this because people so often take the words of today’s gospel as if God actually wants us to hate some people, as if God actually wants us to experience suffering and death. How often do people say, “Well, I guess that’s my cross to bear” – or even worse, “Well, I guess that’s your cross to bear.” As if crosses were sufferings that God inflicts on us! The reality is, while there may be hate and suffering and death in this world, what God wants for us is only love and life. If, in loving God and loving our neighbor, there is a price we wind up paying, so be it. Because in Jesus God shows us that God is willing to pay any price, carry any burden, make any sacrifice for our sakes. And in Jesus God invites us to be ready to pay any price and carry any burden and make any sacrifice in order to love our neighbors as God has loved us. Because the love of God, the love of people who know God and who love God and who are putting that love into practice in their lives, this is a life worth sacrificing for. This is the love that we as Christians receive here at this table, in memory of Jesus. This is the love that we put into practice in our life together as a people of God.