A DIFFICULT Sermon for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost
Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother cannot be my disciple.” Is there any harder thing we can imagine coming from Jesus’ lips? Where did the love go, Jesus? Isn’t Jesus’ message about reconciliation and forgiveness? What is this about hating? Doesn’t this contradict many other things Jesus has been saying all along?
When we hear Jesus’ words, we may envision an angry daughter tearing up a Mother’s Day card or a grandson walking out on the family’s Thanksgiving Dinner. But I assure you, Jesus’ words are far heavier than that!
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate wife and children cannot be my disciple.”
Is this Jesus talking? The man who celebrated the wedding at Cana!
Jesus’ words strike us as harsh, no room for negotiation. We want to say, “But wait, Jesus…”
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate even life itself cannot be my disciple.”
Wow, Jesus, I’m trying to find the “good news” here.
Have you ever wanted to change a radio station or change the TV channel when you hear an interview turn uncomfortable or a debate become nasty? That’s the kind of feeling I get when I heard words like this come out of Jesus’ mouth.
Truth is, Jesus’ words would have been even harsher to the ears of his listeners in the day that he spoke them than we can even begin to hear. Imagine a society where the family is the primary organizational unit, providing place, status, and power. You identified with your family, your extended family and clan, more than any other marker in their culture.
The men, of course, were on top – fathers and then sons in decreasing rank. Women had no power. People understood their place in society through their family. This is why widows and orphans were to be pitied, and lone individuals like John the Baptist were such an anomaly.
All that you did, your career, your education, your marriage, it was all for the family. There were very few decisions you could make without the obligations to family coming first. The rabbi you followed was very much a matter of family choice, well, the patriarch’s choice. The father determined whether a family was to follow the teachings of Hillel or Gamaliel, for example.
Now Jesus has appeared on the scene – another rabbi. I love the note, “Now large crowds were traveling with Jesus.” I wonder if he wasn’t striking a very heavy note to thin out the casual followers. Or, could it be that in this crowd were families, fathers bringing their sons to hear the new, controversial rabbi.
Might Jesus be demanding that their attraction to him, their loyalty, be genuine, not based their family’s identity or their father’s choice?
In this crowd, Jesus saw faces of people who were in a system that left them very little freedom. Jesus knew that their hands were tied. So many of their decisions had already been made for them – who they were going to marry, what profession they would have, where they would live.
Jesus numbered among his disciples men who had walked away from their families. Peter and Andrew, James and John, and perhaps others, had abandoned the family business – fishing. Surely Jesus’ disciples heard his words with a sting of recognition.
I believe Jesus is laying down a fundamental principle of what God’s kingdom, God’s commonwealth was going to be like. The system of patriarchy and loyalty demands of family was at an end. It was as if Jesus was drawing a line in the sand, telling this large crowd, if you cannot leave behind the system of tribalism and conformity that you have been raised with, come no further. With me, things are going to be different.
This is how radically counter-cultural Jesus’ message was. We cannot hear it quite like they did, but it is important for us to try.
The first Christians learned what it meant to count the cost to follow Jesus, to stand against the family systems and loyalties that could often be unjust. In Jesus’ new order, money and possessions would not be the priority. People would not be cast out or made to feel that they were less or least or last. The poor would not be overlooked. Gentiles and women would be welcomed in. People would begin to understand who their neighbors truly were.
Many of the first Christians lost their families. Following Jesus had meant they had to walk away from their loyalties and the demands placed on them. Many of them may have been counted as dead by their fathers and mothers.
This beautiful epistle reading we have this morning – Paul is writing to a leader in the church, Philemon and those who were in Philemon’s church family. Paul writes to the church in his house. Paul calls him “brother.” Familial language. The letter seems to have been brought to them by Onesimus the young man mentioned in the letter, who was once a slave, but is now free. Paul is sending Onesimus to them, bearing this letter, pleading with them to take Onesimus back in, but not keep him forever.
There is a context here – “formerly he was useless to you, but now he is useful…” We don’t know the story or the context, but we do know this much. Paul has adopted him. “I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.” He even refers to Onesimus as “my own heart.”
It is a remarkable piece of scripture. It is very short. We have it here almost in its entirety. It’s called “Philemon” simply because that’s who it’s addressed to. Philemon is numbered among Paul’s “pastoral” epistles – not spelling out doctrine or settling arguments but truly being a pastor. What has become of the parents of Onesimus? We don’t know. Being a slave, it is quite likely they were separated early on. They could be dead. We don’t know. But we do know that he now has a home, has a family.
Is this what Jesus envisioned when he warned his followers how divisive the gospel would be? Did he or his disciples know then that they would have to become family to each other?
Jesus’ words are harsh and unsettling. If these were the only recorded words of Jesus, we might think him a divisive figure, trying to break up the families and clans in ancient Isreal. But we know that this is NOT Jesus’ last words on the subject of loyalties, nor is this sermon my last word.
Just like the time I dared to preach on “Wives be subject to your husbands,” I have waded into troubled waters this morning. These words push our buttons.
For some of us, we can be thankful that our families have been loving, supportive, welcoming places of refuge in a troubled world. For others of us, our families of origin may have been places of turmoil themselves. But again, I don’t think we quite hear the word “family” quite like the original audience did.
When was the last time that we, American Christians, were called upon to sacrifice for our faith? Giving money in the offering plate doesn’t count. When was the last time we truly suffered for our faith? I dare say very few of us in this room can say that we have.
Very few if any of us have had to leave behind everything in order to follow Jesus. Christianity is the establishment religion in this country. It would cost more for many in this country to renounce Christianity than to take it up. It would alienate us from our families and our heritage.
So I don’t think we can know what Jesus means here, not really. We can gain an inkling, but not, I believe the full meaning. We are typically tempted to make scriptures like these about us, first. Instead, think of the context and the crowd. Jesus isn’t speaking to us, not primarily, he is speaking to a people in captivity, not just to the Roman Imperial presence in Israel, but in bondage to many cultural norms and systems that kept them under patriarchal authority, no questions asked.
What does it say to us about the cost of our faith? Will we have to take up our crosses or give away all our possessions? We can understand that truly following Jesus isn’t a casual pastime, something to do because we are bored or it’s just a habit. Faith makes demands on us how we structure and prioritize our lives. It affects how we vote, how we give of our time and our money. What causes we support. I believe behind how live our lives is something more than just whim or circumstance. I’d like to believe we are here this morning is for something deeper, something costly. We could be in bed, or golfing, or doing the New York Times crossword over a cup of coffee with NPR on in the background.
But we aren’t. We are here. Now, let’s ask ourselves, why?
Yes, Jesus’ words are difficult. They are hard for us to hear. Some of us may feel like changing the channel. Still others might feel like walking away. But we are here. We hear these words. If they trouble us, we must own that feeling and keep listening, keep trying to understand what they mean for us, for all of us.
I cannot let us leave this text without first acknowledging a place for further exploration. If we had Bibles in the pews, I would say, “Please turn to the 14th chapter of Luke.” We don’t, so we’ll have to make do with the printed text in the bulletin. What immediately follows this discourse in the 15th chapter of Luke? The Pharisees and Scribes start to ask Jesus why he eats and spends time with Tax Collectors and sinners. Jesus tells them parables – among them, the Prodigal Son.
I literally sat back in my chair and marveled at this juxtaposition. First we hear about hating father and mother, and almost immediately in this gospel, we hear of a father taking in his lost, rebellious son. I haven’t fleshed out this juxtaposition yet, but I’m working on it – stay tuned. So, is this the last sermon you’ll hear on this text – probably not. Are these the last thoughts I will have on the subject – not even close. Are Jesus’ teachings much more complex and challenging than just black and white proof-texting. You bet.
Where does this leave us? We need our family, the family of God. God’s table is about to be set, set with bread and wine, blessed with words of welcome and forgiveness and, most of all, reconciliation. Sometimes faith puts up boundaries between people. Sometimes we are called to leave behind family systems and ways that aren’t God’s way, aren’t part of Jesus’ vision. Let this place be a refuge for those who have lost family and friends, whatever the reason. Sometimes reconciliation isn’t possible. Sometimes it isn’t wanted. But we are God’s people, God’s children. Let this meal remind us of the life God promises to give us if we, with Jesus, count the cost of our faith. Amen.