Church of the Incarnation
Hating People and Giving up your Possessions ... What are you on about Jesus?
This morning’s Gospel begins with a bit of a zinger: “Now large crowds were traveling with Jesus; and he turned and said to them, "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.”
Jesus goes on in the Gospel to give two examples of contemporary life where people must weigh the possibility of accomplishing their goals and then use wisdom rather than simple knowledge, in accomplishing those goals. When building a tower or going out to wage war, first one must consider the cost to determine whether one has the capacity to complete construction or win the war.
Here’s the implication of these passages: If one wants to meet God, one needs to figure out what the cost of doing so is going to be. One cost is, what in my life has to change to be able to see and hear God and to follow or enact what it is that God gives me to do. Now the passage about family gives us an interesting starting point. Does one have to literally hate one’s mother and father and spouse and children and brothers and sisters? Surely not. To do that would be to contradict other parts of Scripture.
But go a little bit deeper. Jesus pits hating family against carrying the cross and following him. Why? I’d suggest that the heart of this has to do with God’s critique of Israel best captured in Jesus’s admonishment of the Pharisees and Sadducees: you prioritize the rules and customs of your family traditions, of the ways and thinking of your family and your culture, that have become a habit for you because you unconsciously soaked them in as a baby, a toddler and a child, you prioritize these ways even over my ways. You have made yourselves, your own personal conditioning an idol and this has blinded you to me.
To hate one’s family isn’t a literal direction. Rather it is asking you to stop and think about how you speak and act - is this God’s way, or is it a way that I have been conditioned to by my personal circumstances of family, or culture, or of the struggles and trials and frustrations that I’ve faced throughout my life: what or who guides how I act now, if my goal is to follow God? Take up your cross and follow me. Leave behind the person who needs to be buried, leave behind your fish, and I will show you how to prioritize all these things in accordance with how I made all things. For your ways are not my ways, says the Lord. And your ways have brought the world into disorder. So let go and focus. Let me unbind your ears and eyes and hearts so that you might see things by the light of grace and then do not put a bushel of your old ways over that light again.
In other words, no one can become Christ’s disciple unless they give up all their possessions, all their old ways, just as we recite in our baptismal liturgies. That is how one begins to count the cost, to weigh the cost of following God: it is a simple accounting, yet in the negative: what possessions stand in the way of me living a life that makes me a conduit, a catalyst, through which Jesus Christ might be seen by others?
It’s important that we realize that Jesus isn’t simply talking about physical possessions, money or wealth, or even power, or control. Certainly he is addressing these as he states explicitly and implies implicitly throughout the Scriptures. But those things are usually actually external manifestations of deeper possessions that enslave us in our old ways: inherited customs and habits of thought that often grow out of shame and fear; ways that are transferred from one generation to another or that grow out of insufficient love and nurture of a child; unprocessed grief about people and things and the anger, bitterness, cynicism and gossip that can grow out of experiencing intensive grief without relief; lament or regret about things we have done or not done in the past; things cling to us and distort our ability to let God guide us in responding. They keep us in a withdrawn or combative state, or worse, an arrogant dismissive position of ignorance, fear and anguish rather than allowing us to open ourselves to God. The result is that we turn into increasingly frail and brittle branches on a tree that is incapable of bearing good fruit. Such trees usually rot or are burned up by the sun. So too can the hearts of human beings who do not allow these old ways to be burned off like chaff, be hardened so that what others encounter only drives them away leaving them feeling alienated and often blaming or even lashing out at others. It is a sad state of spiritual dryness.
Following God is about letting go of our possessions - thoughts, words and ways - so that we can learn to love appropriately. To love appropriately, we must begin with following and so knowing God, only then can we discern how to prioritize what is best for ourselves and our neighbours. And this is an ongoing process for we are finite and sinful creatures: it is so easy to value our own ways over helping others get what they need.
Yet it is also easy to disparage ourselves, as a colleague, Sam Greenlee, pointed out in a reflection on Augustine’s notion of love, when we don’t, “recognize that [our] own safety and health is more important than another person's vulgar satisfaction in having power and control over [us].” Sam writes, “This understanding has proven to be consistently useful in my own self-reflection, diagnosing what root cause has lead me to do harm or act selfishly, and provides a helpful guide in making the necessary turn toward that which is life-giving.” It is this deeper awareness of, coming to terms with, and finally getting help with and addressing the things that constrain us, blind us, motivate us, cause us pain and fear, that finally allow us to let them go so that we can turn to God and follow him; so that we can turn to God and become part of the light of grace for others to find hope, joy and peace. My friends: have you taken stock of your own house, as it were? Have you taken stock of what barriers still keep you from knowing Christ more deeply, not intellectually, but down at the very root of your being? I’d encourage you to spend some time in prayer about this. AMEN.