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Sep112019

The Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost - September 8, 2019 - Rev. Matthew Stewart

For the last month or so, we’ve been looking at some of the hardest teachings of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. And perhaps we’ve hit the climax here this Sunday, Sunday School Kickoff Sunday, with Jesus saying, “To follow me you have to hate your kids and your momma.” And as if that wasn’t rough enough, he also says give up all your stuff.  

 Now, sometimes we preachers can dodge the homiletical bullet by just choosing to focus on one of the other Biblical texts we heard. But this week in Jeremiah, we hear God threatening evil against Jerusalem for its misdeeds and the little New Testament letter Philemon is Saint Paul is asking a slave owner to be kind as he sends an escaped slave back to his master.

 So, oy, I guess we’re back to momma hating. What’s Jesus up to here? How does what he says make any kind of sense alongside of Jesus elsewhere saying we should love God and love neighbor and even love enemies. On face value, it seems Jesus is saying we should love everybody with the exception of our family whom we should hate. 

 Now, Jesus is trying to shock us here. But I think it is a bit more palatable, or at least a little more comprehensible, when we take a deeper dive on how he is using the word hate.  It is still contrasted with love but remember, in the Biblical world, love is much more what about what you do than what you feel. Much more about where your loyalty lies and how you shape your life around those loyalties. One commentator put it this way, “What is demanded of disciples is that in the network of the many loyalties in which all of us live the claim of Christ and the Gospel not only takes precedence but, in fact, redefines the others. This can and will necessarily involve some detaching, some turning away.”

 So, hate here isn't the same sort of deal as how we use the term today. Jesus’s, what we might call holy hating, has absolutely no relation with how white supremacists treat people of color in this country or how folks in Washington respond to immigrants and refugees or how those espousing “Straight Pride” talk. That kind of hate and its associated brands of violence and cruelty is absolutely at odds with what Jesus teaches. 

 No, the kind of hate that Jesus advocates. It’s much more about a sharp committed detachment. Not an enmity or  spite. Not about a fear-driven refusal to be compassionate. Not about demonization or callousness. 

 No, when Jesus says hate your family as well as give up all your possessions, he’s saying part of what we all need to do with those that things that matter to us in this world is to let them go. Even to some extent let go of the people in our world that matter to us. Let go because often the way we cling onto particular people or things isn't really love. Or, it's not a particularly great brand of love. A love muddied by our brokennesses and fears. In the time of Jesus, you clung to your family because they were the only safety net there was. 

 Love of family was very related to love of possessions in Jesus's day. A love born of a need for financial security and safety for your life. In other words a love fueled by a fear for one's own well-being not a purer love rooted in affection and care.

 Our loves are no better. We parents sometimes hold back our kids out of our fears or push our kids too hard out of our failed dream. Romantic relationships where neither partner flourishes because insecurities don't allow space for a healthy balance of individuality and interconnection. All kinds of doubts and fears and pains often hide in the structures, rules, and values of family systems. As they say, the turn of phrase dysfunctional family is redundant. 

 So, I think when Jesus says hate your family he is not only challenging us to put God first, although that's certainly part of it. But even more, he's challenging us to do the very hard work of restructuring our lives to open our hearts to the Spirit that is always opening us to a better brand of love. This kind of focused, strategic hating is so we can love better. So we can join in God's work with us, freeing us from what the Jesuits call disordered attachments. Probably our Buddhist friends understand the importance of detachment better than we Christians do but it always has been part of our tradition as well. Early Christian thinkers drew on the Stoic value of apatheia, apathy, for their sense of what part of a healthy spirituality looked like.

 Nowadays we value passion and drive and counsel people to lean in or be “all in.” And there is absolutely something to that. But sometimes being too close makes us lose perspective. We can't really see what we love when there is not some level of critical distance. We get so close that we miss out. 

 Sometimes we need to step back to really love. Sometimes we need to let go to really love. Sometimes we need to step away from something that is wonderful and good so we can have a more wide-ranging experience of God's blessing. Followers of Jesus are invited to love their family, and their neighbor, and their friend, and the stranger. They are invited to love those similar to them and those different. And they are invited to love the world. And they are invited to love God. And, while it does involve difficult choices with our time and resources in the moment and sometimes it requires us to act like we hate things and people important to us, in the end, it's a unitive joy-filled kind of affair. We can love everybody and the world and God and ourselves. And the dividing lines between those things blur and we find ourselves free to love in this big expansive way that we didn't think we could-- a kind of huge, wild love that isn't just a few folks and things in our lives. It's this big love that has no boundaries. Or to be more theologically precise, when we choose to open ourselves to God and God's unbounded love then that love becomes our love. Our messed up love is transformed to be very love of God. And then we become better all the way around for others and for ourselves. Life becomes easier and brighter. We become more ourselves. We live seeing others not as rivals to be compared against but partners whose well-being is wrapped up with our own well-being. God's inclusive, generous, expansive, and connecting love can blot out everything that keeps us down. Everything that keeps us separated. Everything that keeps us afraid and in pain. God's love truly can make our lives better and the whole world better.  

 But we do need to make difficult choices to live into that love. We’re not wired that way by default. We need to take the risk to step away from our familiar safety nets to live into that bigger love. We need to step out in faith so that our love is always more and more transformed by God's. Jesus said, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”