I’m a little confused about the verses from Luke’s gospel. It’s not that I haven’t heard them before or thought a lot about them. After all, I’ve been a Christian for nearly 50 years at this point and by my calculation I’ve preached on these lessons at least eight times. But the truth is that I could never get beyond the dramatic saying about hating your family that Jesus unloads on the crowds at the beginning of this address.
Early in my life as a convert to Christianity, I related to this personally. Raised as an atheist, my family was both confused and appalled when I became a follower of Jesus at age 17. It didn’t help when I tried to convert them as well! Just as I was making a break from living at home and becoming more and more certain that I knew and understood everything better than my family did, I hear Jesus telling me that it’s okay to reject my family and embrace a new family of choice, a fellowship of unconditional love and acceptance. Yippee! I was so young. So self-centered. So arrogant.
Even if the Semitic phrase for “hate” means to turn away from and to detach without the emotional content we normally assign to the word, I was all for it. I took the simplistic approach that being a Christian meant that I didn’t have to listen to or consider my biological family any more. This was one biblical “proof text” I was willing to take literally (at least when I was angry with or upset with my family).
As radical as that saying of Jesus is, he has a couple of other doozies today. “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” In the centuries we’ve been considering this, most Christians have not literally been faced with a wooden cross or even with martyrdom. The phrase has often been used and misused to describe what are really minor annoyances, as in “It’s just my cross to bear.” Woe is me! Yet it’s clear from what Jesus knows that carrying the cross is certain to result in suffering, rejection, failure, ridicule and loss. Asking his followers to voluntarily submit to these outcomes is a pretty radical instruction.
Finally, he sneaks in the requirement for disciples to give up all their possessions. This is definitely not the “prosperity gospel,” promising wealth and success to those who simply believe they deserve it. I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone who actually has actually divested themselves voluntarily of everything.
These are extreme, radical, risky behaviors for would-be followers of Jesus. It seems like the person who took these literally would be reckless, fanatical, unfit for the real world.
And this is where I get confused by Jesus. In the middle of these difficult instructions, he tells two parables about what it’s like to consider being his disciple. The first involves carefully calculating the cost of construction for a tower and the second requires a careful assessment of personnel and troop strength before waging war.
I don’t know much of anything about waging war, but in the past five years I’ve learned an awful lot about calculating the cost of a building project. St. Luke’s is ready to embark on developing our property to provide 120 units of affordable housing as well as market-rate apartments, parking and space for the church to use for worship, programs and mission.
We’ve spent 3 years in research and planning and 2 years working with real estate professionals, attorneys and construction advisors on what it will take for a small congregation without a lot of financial resources to pull of such a huge undertaking. Through it all we have kept our eyes on the vision of building a community that is open and welcoming to people of different economic status as well as one that is inclusive of LGBTQ and BIPOC folk. We’ve put the mission of feeding people at the forefront so that we can find a way to continue our Edible Hope Kitchen as it meets the needs of the most vulnerable. And we’ve planned to cover the cost of the construction and building maintenance for future generations so that the congregation will be able to concentrate of its core mission and purpose rather than on the upkeep of property.
This process has been an education! We’ve been thoughtful, careful and conservative in our estimates. We’ve checked it out along the way with experienced people in the field and presented our plans multiple times to the Diocesan Board for review and approval. On August 18th they gave their full support and assent to a 75 page ground lease document with 6 additional appendices. Many of you have seen the sign boards on our property announcing the process of applying for the permits from the city to begin construction in the next 18 months to two years.
What does all this financial calculation and development planning have to do with the radical, risky, sacrificial nature of discipleship? How does hating family, carrying the cross and giving up possessions compare to undertaking a multi-million dollar construction project? Can the two even co-exist?
Let me return to family. It turns out that Jesus had a lot more to say about family. He was pretty clear about the obligation to love and honor family, to care for those who are weak, to forgive those who have hurt us, to be faithful in love to the very end. By not making family our main source of worth or love or affirmation, it turns out we can love them better. By not placing family as the most definitive part of our identity, we are now free to accept them for who they are and to voluntarily and sacrificially care for and love them, not for what we receive in return but because we are called to love them as our neighbor, as we love ourselves.
The same principle works with our possessions. By not placing them in a primary position of defining or demonstrating our worth, we are free to use them to live out what we value, what we consider to be of greatest worth. We can let them go, if necessary, share them, give them away. We begin to experience a radical generosity that does not hoard or hold onto possessions but uses them for the sake of God’s dream for the world.
In order to do so, we need to count the cost. How can what we own bless others? How can we use material wealth to create spiritual health? What will we give up in order for others to flourish, with shelter, services, community and resources that they might otherwise be unable to access? What do we give up in order to see the dream of God in our church, our neighborhood, our city?
Finally, about that taking up your cross. The only way I can really make sense of this paradoxical, contradictory, extreme passage is to look at Jesus. He lived a life of sacrifice. He was at odds with his family and they with him. He literally had no home of his own. He experienced suffering, rejection, betrayal, denial, pain and death. And yet, his was a life of abundance and of lasting impact. He calculated what it would cost to be true to God and to his calling and he knew it was worth it.
The life of discipleship is the life of Christ, lived out in you and me. Following Jesus will put us in contact and connection with people and situations that are far beyond our comfort zone. We will be called to love people (even our own family) even when they hurt us and certainly when we don’t understand or even like them very much. We will give up things that are precious and valuable to us and yet, we will never be poor in what really matters. In turn we will receive treasure that can never be taken away from us.
And at the end, like Jesus, we will have poured ourselves out for love’s sake. There will be nothing left but that which is eternal: the love we have shared, the good we have done, the relationships we have nurtured, the vulnerable we have cared for, the future we have built for those who come after us. As the author/philosopher Hunter S. Thompson said, “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”