Filed under: Sermons | Tags: Immigration Reform, Jesus, kingdom of God, Lutheran Disaster Response, poverty, Puerto Rico, Sin
In the midst of busy lives, it’s not often that we step back and look at our lives critically. How often do you think, “why do I do what I do?” or “why do I think this way of acting in this situation is the right way?” or “why do I expect such and such a reaction from this person if I do such and such a thing?”. We go about our days, accepting that things are the way they are, and that everyone should know the right way to act in any given situation.
For many people, it takes leaving their normal routine and living arrangements to realize their expectations and assumptions about the way things are. Often traveling is this kind of eye-opening experience.
The very first time I travelled somewhere new was in the middle of my sophomore year of high school. I went to Puerto Rico. Sounds like a great destination in the middle of a Midwestern winter: warm sun, tropical breezes, palm trees, lush rainforest, and the sparkling blue ocean. It might have been very relaxing if I had spent my time at a beachfront resort, but it wouldn’t have been much of a memorable experience.
I went with a small groups of folks from Milwaukee, including my dad, to work with Lutheran Disaster Response because a hurricane had hit the island. Lutheran Disaster Response had been at work for quite a while already and they were wrapping up their work. However, there was still plenty for us to do. One of our projects was fixing up a home that had been damaged. It was in a whole village of squatters, living on the land, waiting until their homes were legally recognized and the village incorporated. Their homes were small, and often roofed with corrugated metal, which was punctured when tarps were nailed onto them to protect from the rain. We worked hard and made great progress with the one house, but there were so many other homes that really could have used some help.
Even though I don’t speak Spanish, I could hear stories of faith and welcome from the people with whom we served. I was astonished that people who have so little could be so welcoming, generous, and happy. Their faith was so important to them, and worship was too- the service we attended was 3 hours long! Their living conditions were a sharp contrast to my own. I attended a small private school surrounded by my classmates’ huge mansions overlooking Lake Michigan. I had a nice home, with a full pantry and refrigerator, a garage with working cars in it, and never had to wonder about the quality of my tap water or if my electricity would go off.
My greatest surprise came on the drive to our building site. Just before the turn into the village of squatters, who had no legal water access and no garbage disposal, was a huge complex of multi-million dollar mansions. If you lived in one of those mansions, your front window might look out over the ocean, but you’d have at least one window from which you could look down on the hundreds who lived in desperate conditions just across the street and beyond your gates. Where I grew up, there were poor people, and run down neighborhoods. The thing was, I didn’t see them every day. The lower-income neighborhoods and higher-income neighborhoods were separated, and one of my girlfriends even lived in a complex of townhouses behind a locked gate, so that no one uninvited would come near. I can’t imagine enjoying a comfortable home while seeing someone struggling to survive right outside my window.
It’s this proximity that reminds me of today’s gospel from Luke. The rich man sits in his large dining room, wiping the chicken grease off his hands with a scrap of bread that he throws to the dogs. Those same dogs gather around poor Lazarus and lick his oozing sores. These two men are so close to each other. Yet something stands in the way of their connecting. Surely the rich man must have known of Lazarus’ need, and yet he does nothing to help him.
When they both die, their positions are reversed. The rich man is in torment. Poor Lazarus is honored in the presence of Abraham. Good news for the poor and oppressed. Scary for the comfortable and rich.
The people who first heard this story from Jesus would have been surprised. For them, riches and good health are signs of God’s favor, whereas poverty and disease are signs of God’s disfavor and righteous punishment.
The kingdom of God conflicts with our expectations. We don’t expect God to value people differently than we do. We don’t expect to hear from Jesus stories that cause us to question our way of life. This parable is another of those jarring visions of the kingdom of God.
The Gospel of Luke’s explanation of the kingdom of God always has to do with reversals: the poor being uplifted, the hungry filled. In the kingdom of God, those who are typically pushed aside and kept out will be welcomed and honored. We hear at the beginning of the Gospel of Luke Mary’s song of reversals: “you fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty”, echoed here with “you received good things and Lazarus… evil things.”
More than simply reversals of comfort and wealth, this parable points to relationship and responsibility.
When the rich man recognizes Lazarus in comfort with Abraham, he calls up to Abraham. He asks Abraham to send Lazarus into the flames of Hades with a drop of water for his comfort. It doesn’t seem that his punishment has changed the way he treats Lazarus. To the rich man, Lazarus has always been poor and unimportant. If anything, Lazarus exists to serve him. Even when he sees Lazarus honored with Abraham, still he thinks he can have Lazarus ordered around.
During his life, the rich man kept his distance, never acknowledging a relationship with the beggar outside his window. He never accepted responsibility for Lazarus and his condition during his life. Feeling no connection, he never took action to comfort Lazarus in his need. When his death leads him to the flames in Hades, he expects Lazarus to comfort him and warn his brothers. As he did in life, in death he still feels entitled to being served. To the rich man, Lazarus is never a real person, deserving of respect and dignity, he is simply something to be used when useful and ignored when not.
Although this story speaks of the chasms separating Lazarus and the rich man: social custom and the rich man’s gate in life, and fires and comfort after life, in Jesus, chasms are closed together. The apostle Paul writes about the one body of all believers in Jesus Christ. He writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. (Gal 3:28) Jesus Christ destroys the divisions between people, so that there is no more rich and poor, divided by social class and wealth.
In the kingdom of God, relationship is based in Jesus Christ. As members of the body of Christ, we are bound to each other. We have responsibility for ensuring the well-being of every other member. If this were the case in the parable, the rich man would have seen Lazarus as a part of him, and cared for his needs. In Jesus, those who live on oceanside mansions are connected to those in shantytowns outside their windows. In Jesus, we are connected to those in poverty both next door and around the world. We are called to ensure the well-being of all the members in the body of Christ. There should be no divisions between rich and poor, not only in our hearts and Christian fellowship, but in the new way of being, the kingdom of God. Jesus is a kingdom in which there will be no division because there will be no disparity of wealth.
What does it take to call us into living the kingdom of God right now? The last line of the gospel, spoken by Jesus’ lips is haunting, “Abraham said to the rich man, ‘If your brothers do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” The rich man thought it would have only taken the appearance of a poor man who had died. He hadn’t changed from the witness of Moses and the Prophets, but perhaps a miracle might inspire change from his family. As Jesus tells this parable, does he know what he will do to try to change people? Jesus will die and come back from the dead. Will the first community to hear this story know all too well how even a messenger back from the dead will not be enough to change the hearts of many? We not only have Moses and the Prophets, but we have Jesus, who died and was raised from the dead, all so that the kingdom of God would be made real in our midst. We will allow God to change us?
We all grow from opportunities to experience life in a new way that allows us to take a different perspective on our lives and expectations. My trip to Puerto Rico was once such opportunity for me. Jesus’ parables are opportunities for people to reflect on their own expectations and ways of living from a new perspective. Without going anywhere, we are invited to consider whether we create divisions between us and others, or whether we have ignored the voice of Moses, the prophets, and Jesus by ignoring the needs of the poor.
If your scrutiny uncovers truths that are difficult and condemning, remember that Jesus lived, died, and was raised from the dead for you. Jesus willingly took on the suffering of the poor and outcast to welcome you into the kingdom of God, whether you also experience that suffering, or if you live in blissful ignorance. As Jesus closes the chasms between all the children of God, Jesus also closes the chasms that would trap us in the torment of our sin. Jesus is at work to change us and bring about the kingdom of God in our midst. But Jesus has already accomplished our salvation.
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: atonement, congregation, debt, ELCA, elca sexuality, Jesus, money
If there’s one thing most pastors are terrified of talking about, it’s money. So often people feel like churches just keep asking for money and more money. You work hard for what you earn, and then the church tries to put a guilt trip on you just so that they can fill their coffers. If it’s the pastor asking for more money, it comes off as greedily demanding to be paid even more. It’s led some churches to avoid talking about money at all.
The problem is that Jesus tends to talk about it a whole lot! Wealth and discipleship are often put at odds in Jesus’ stories and speeches. Jesus calls people to give up all they have, to choose to between God and money. Jesus tends to favor the poor and judge the rich harshly. Jesus’ judgment comes to our ears and points out how we don’t deal with wealth as God desires. It’s incredibly uncomfortable to hear what Jesus says about money. So we try not to talk about it. (After all, I want to keep my job… and my paycheck.)
Today’s lesson from the Gospel of Luke is an especially difficult one. We hear of a dishonest steward, entrusted with his master’s estate. We hear of debtors, perhaps tenants -large commercial farmers, who owe the master a substantial portion of the crop. The master fires the steward when he learns the steward is squandering the wealth. But before the debtors hear that he is losing his position, the steward meets with them and reduces their bills. The steward is hoping that by doing this, the debtors will owe him a favor. When he loses his job, income, and home, he’ll have made these debtors his friends, and secured a new future.
The story twists unexpectedly. Instead of firing him, the master commends the dishonest manager for acting shrewdly. Perhaps the master sees a new talent in his employee and hopes for him to use that shrewdness to increase his wealth. We could understand that, but then Jesus also seems to agree with the lying and cheating shrewdness of the steward, and I can’t understand how that could be right. Is Jesus telling us to cheat each other?
No, Jesus isn’t giving us a mandate of how to act towards each other in our business dealings, but a parable describing the way the urgency of the kingdom of God changes our priorities. Jesus is focused on the end gain. He’s talking about getting out of a moment of crisis. The steward faced a moment of crisis when his boss said he would be removed from his position. Instead of accepting his failure, the steward did what he could to ensure that he would be provided for. The disciples are about to face a moment of crisis. The kingdom of God is coming near. Jesus is bringing in this kingdom, and in this kingdom, values are different from that of the world. Wealth and power will be good for nothing. Judgement will be passed based on actions rather than possessions. The end of regular life, with its work and wealth, is about to come. It’s a matter of life and death. This crazy parable encourages us to use whatever means are at our disposal to do what we can for the kingdom of God.
Jesus addresses the disciples with a black and white epilog: “You cannot serve both God and money.” We who seek to be Jesus’ disciples would be wise to listen these direct words from Jesus. I think we find it easy enough to say that in the end, only God matters, and at your death, you can’t bring anything with you. The difficult thing is to realize that Jesus has something to say to us right now, in the midst of our daily work, budgeting, and grocery shopping. Even now the kingdom of God is here, and we can choose God- or not. This was Jesus message to the disciples in this difficult text.
Adjectives turn in this text, so that we come upon a difficult truth: wealth is dishonest. All that exists is a gift from God; our food, paycheck, homes, clothes, and money are in themselves not bad. But because they are all part of a system in which profit is made off the expense of someone else and in which some are poor while others rich, they become things that are not of God. Wealth is dishonest because of what we let it do to ourselves and our society.
We are not righteous in our dealings with wealth. We use money for our own gain. We are devoted to wealth and possessions rather than being devoted to God. We long for what we don’t have, we envy our neighbors, and we are never satisfied. We are held captive by our need to earn money and bound by our need to compare what we have against our neighbors. Jesus’ parable is about using wealth for the kingdom of God: to gain friends in really high places.
But rather than using our wealth for the kingdom of God, we use it more often for power and self. Our culture caters to those who have money, because money equals power. When we use money to gain power over another person or to control the group, we are trying to put ourselves in the place of God. Sadly, this happens even in our churches:
When I was in high school, I served on the church council. Council meetings became tense as conflict entered our community. Money was running low and love for our pastor was wearing thin. In a small church, everyone’s giving was important. We thought those families who gave more were more important. When people got upset, bigger givers could throw their weight around. If they threatened to leave, everyone would try to make them happy by doing whatever they wanted. But in the end, no one would be satisfied. All but a handful of people left. Our capacity for mission was destroyed. We who once were on the verge of building a large addition because the pews were overflowing and who were hosting concerts for the neighborhood, feeding the hungry, and talking with the homeless as we served them at the shelter, were lost. In our sinfulness, we allowed money to be the power that led us rather than the love and mission of God.
When people use their status as givers to direct the church, we all lose sight of the kingdom of God. It happens more than we’d like to admit, and it’s happening often across the ELCA right now. Maybe some people think they’re doing as this parable suggests, using money to steer a group onto the “right” path. That could be a reason why some across our church have chosen to keep to themselves money they otherwise would have given as mission support or benevolence. But I don’t see the work of God’s kingdom being done in it. Coupled with a severe recession that’s been affecting our sister synods more than ours, this use of money has crippled the ministry of our church. Campus Ministries wonder if they’ll be able to stay open. Our missionaries fear they won’t be able to stay in their sites. I don’t often talk like this, but when I see good, Christian people using money this way, I only see the work of Satan being served.
This isn’t the type of talk we’re used to hearing in our church. But the urgent plea to choose the kingdom of God over the priorities of the world would be familiar to the early Christ-followers. Throughout these mid-chapters of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus often talks about money and its affect on our discipleship and judgement. It doesn’t look good for those who are rich and who like their possessions. Those who use their wealth for their own comfort and power are found lacking when the time comes for God to judge them.
I tend to avoid talking about, or even thinking of, judgement and giving an account to God. My sense of God’s grace always seeks to soften the blow of God’s righteous condemnation. Sometimes, this can get in the way of my recognition of the crisis that is before us now. We live as those first disciples did, as the kingdom of God is coming near. We can choose to recognize it and do whatever we can to make sure we’re a part of that kingdom: making sure we don’t let anything get in our way, and joining in the effort to make that kingdom real in our midst. If that’s what we want, it will take some changing in our relationship to God and to money.
When we seek to give an account to God, God will find us in the red. Our debts are too high and our righteousness too little. Thankfully, we will not need to give an account only of ourselves. Jesus Christ has been faithful for us. Jesus will put his own righteousness onto each one of us. Jesus will make an account to God for us, and Jesus will not be found lacking. Even with all our self-centered actions weighing against us, Jesus’ sacrifice will tip the scales. Jesus has paid our debts in full.
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: best friends forever, body of Christ, community, Jesus, Sin
When I was in middle school, I usually had one or two best friends. These were the girlfriends I stayed up all night giggling with, dreaming about the future, and talking about school, parents, and boys. We’d mark our friendship by sharing a set of special necklaces with a heart charm on it. The heart charm said, “Best Friends Forever” and was broken in half: a broken heart, made whole when we each pressed our pieces together.
Throughout our lives, we have many different relationships. Some of our relationships deepen and strengthen as we change and grow, while others become stagnant and distant. Tangible signs like my “Best Friends Forever” necklace are reminders of relationships that are able to withstand change, distance, and conflict, or of a past that has faded. Sometimes a physical sign or symbol of relationship is the necessary reminder that keeps that relationship going.
In our relationship with God, we have many signs and symbols, but as we sang, our God is “immortal and invisible,” beyond our realm of comprehension and ability to hold on to. As a people, we tend to be drawn towards what we can see and hold. Have you heard the expression, “Out of sight, out of mind?”
This became a problem for the Hebrew people led by God and Moses out of slavery in Egypt. Where we pick up their story in Exodus this morning, they’ve been at Mt. Sinai hearing from God through Moses. Moses was the interpreter between God and the people. This God self- identifies as the one who brought them out of slavery in Egypt. Moses has spoken some of God’s commands to the people. Then Moses climbed up the mountain to be in God’s presence and receive more of God’s instruction for the people. When we meet this people, it’s been 40 days and 40 nights since they’ve heard or seen Moses. The one who has been connecting them to God is gone.
The people go to the next best person, they go to Aaron, to try to feel connected to God once again. The people are upset, feeling leaderless and godless. They demand of Aaron, “Come make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Aaron leads them in creating a golden calf and an altar, declaring “these are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” and “tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” The people have been craving something tangible and they create something they can claim and control; they have given themselves up to self-reverence and self-indulgence.
The LORD sees all that is happening below the mountain. God is not happy. What follows between God and Moses is an argument that might sound similar to one in your household.
In mine, it might go like this:
Setting: The Davis Kitchen and Dining Room
Opening Scene: Puppy Iggy has his paws on the table, loudly sniffing and licking, dirty plates conspicuously missing food, a fork and ripped napkin on the floor. I enter carrying two glasses full of water. Pastor Jeff is upstairs playing guitar.
Me: Jeff! Get down here! Look what your dog did! I spent all this time cooking and your dog ate all our food. You weren’t watching your dog! Get your dog out of here!
Jeff: He’s your dog too!
Me: You’re the one who wanted a dog. You’re the one who found this one. Now look what your dog did!
Jeff: Remember how much you love your dog! And remember that he is only a hungry dog, after all!
What we hear in Exodus sounds strangely domestic and emotional. This God vs. Moses argument isn’t how we tend to picture God. Exodus shows an angry, fed-up God, who is ready to destroy all the people God just freed from slavery and start again from Moses in an act reminiscent to what happened with Noah and his family and neighbors.
What is key in this argument are the shifting possessive pronouns. God begins, “Your people (Moses), whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt…” and Moses counters, “your people (God), whom you brought out of the land of Egypt.” Moses continues, “…do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self.”
Moses reminds God of God’s promise-relationship with these people. God has promised to be their God. This promise has been established in God’s relationship to three generations of their fathers before them: Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, also called Jacob. As a result of Moses’ argument and reminder, God changes God’s mind. God chooses to remain faithful to God’s promise-relationship, despite the fact that the people have not been and will never be faithful.
Our God is a relational God. God chooses to have relationships with people: the Creator with the created. Throughout the Bible, we see that God’s people often fail to live up to that relationship. Although there are instances of God’s anger, we see the depth of God’s commitment to strengthen that relationship in Jesus. Jesus lives among people, loves them, and teaches them. Jesus works with twelve chosen disciples, one of whom betrays him. Even when they all run away in fear for their own safety, Jesus is faithful to them and to his mission for them. Jesus loves them and us so much so that he dies and returns to comfort and forgive his scattered disciples when he is raised from the dead. In his death and resurrection, Jesus opens to all people a relationship with God that is based on his own faithfulness and not our own.
We are grafted into that historic relationship between God and the chosen people through Jesus. In Jesus, a new relationship is formed among us. We have been made children of God, and we have been brought together as the body of Christ. It’s not just a personal, self-centered relationship that is established between each one of us and God. Jesus creates a new relationship with all of us as a community. To go back to the possessive pronouns, it’s not about “me and my god” but about “us and the God who comes to us.”
It’s difficult to be an “us.” We are still the broken people of Exodus who so easily forgot God and Moses and sought to create something they could control as their god. We are still the broken people of the Gospels who ran from Jesus’ side as he was being arrested, questioned, and killed. With such brokenness, we are not able to create perfect relationships and communities.
We are people created by God to be in life-giving relationships, and yet we are so broken we always seem to get wrong that life-giving part or even the relationship part! We sin! We cause the break-down of relationships! We don’t want to be held down by responsibility to each other and to a community. We want to pin all our problems on another person and their faults. We are not honest, forgiving, and present for each other.
We often choose the easy route of self-gratification and self-protection. As the argument between God and Moses shows, it’s not easy to keep relationships strong when there is betrayal and hurt. It often seems easier and justifiable to break with those who disagree or disappoint.
But that isn’t the way we are created to relate to each other. In Jesus Christ, God forms the bonds between us, and God makes possible life-giving relationships. We who are gathering here this morning are a special community, the body of Christ. This is the season when many people return to church after a summer of vacations and lake weekends. It’s time for us to reconnect, to welcome, to comfort, to forgive, and to join in worship and service.
(OS) This morning at Our Savior, we share signs of this reconnecting season. Students will receive Bibles as a tangible sign of God’s relationship with them, and the relationship of the whole congregation to these young people. We commission teachers who are the first welcomers, establishing relationships with our Sunday school teachers. We eat together, giving thanks for the WELCA serving team and the company and cooking of all in the congregation. We begin a new campaign for the health and cleanliness of many in need around our world.
(TRI) This morning at Trinity, we gather marked by the death of another from our community. We give thanksgiving for Jo Baker, saint of God, who has died. As we hear God’s promise to be with us, to be our God and our savior, we remember all we have loved and who have died. The changing of those relationships is always real to us, every time we gather. We miss the voices of those who have died, once raised here in witness and song. Today, as we remember Jesus has united us in a new relationship, as a community in his self, as children of One God, remember that, in Jesus, these relationships are not broken by death. Our praise joins the praise of those who sing today in the heavenly presence of God.
Our weekly worship and special occasion rites are occasions for God to form us into the community we are created to be. We are the assembly who promises to pray for the baptized and the newly married. We are people who, every time we gather, pray and promise to God that we forgive those who sin against us. We are people who confess our sin to each other and to God, and who share with each other the peace the Christ makes possible. We could not be a community who loves and forgives without the power of Jesus in our midst.
I think of my inability to create and sustain life-giving relationships picturing “Best Friends Forever” necklace. No matter how carefully my friend and I laid our pieces tightly together, to form the whole heart, the heart was still broken, its jagged edges could not melt together. This is as far as we can get relationships together on our own. Only Jesus can make them whole. Jesus takes on all of our jagged edges, our sin, our anger and betrayal. Jesus seals our hearts to God and to each other. Our relationships will truly be forever in Jesus.
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: bonho, Cross, discipleship, Jesus, kingdom of God, martin l, thecla
There was once a beautiful young woman named Thecla. She was young, with all the hope of a bright future. She had a strong family. She was engaged to be married. She had people who would take care of her. She had all anyone could want, all anyone would need to be happy.
One day she was sitting outside and heard a new teacher speaking. He spoke of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who had come to forgive people of their sins and make them children of God through his own sacrifice. His words made her heart burn within her. The Spirit stirred her to want to dedicate her life to this Jesus. Among other things, the teacher taught that people who were seriously dedicated to Jesus, which people ought to be, should remain virgins if possible, or choose celibacy if they were already in relationships.
It was the first century AD, as news about Jesus was just beginning to spread. Most people didn’t agree with this new religion. They saw it destroying their way of life: their family structure, their society, and their relationship to the government.
When Thecla heard Paul speaking, she heard God calling her to follow. She left her comfortable life, her family, and her fiance. She was dedicated only to spreading the gospel. Her family didn’t celebrate their daughter’s decision. They and her fiance saw her rejecting the obligations she had to fulfill her role as daughter and wife.
Thecla left her family and followed Paul, sharing the gospel. She left a comfortable life for a difficult and dangerous one. She was persecuted by the many people who found her actions and her faith dishonorable, outrageous, and blasphemous. Stories about her tell of her being miraculously saved. People tried to burn her at a stake, but a rain came and quenched the flames. Another time they set her before wild animals, but a lioness ran forward and protected her.
Thecla took seriously the call to follow Jesus, whatever the cost. In the Gospel of Luke, we hear Jesus speaking to the crows who followed him, seeking to choose him as their teacher, to be his disciples. Jesus warns them that it is not easy to be his disciple: in fact, it costs your whole life. He begins this speech saying that any who wish to be disciples must hate father and mother, spouse and children, sisters and brothers, and even their own lives (14:26). Thecla’s story shows us what that means. To hate one’s family for Jesus’ sake isn’t about being mean or spiteful, it’s about your actions and choices. Thecla takes seriously her faith and her call to ministry. Her family isn’t convinced by the gospel and thinks she ought to perform her familial duties. To fully follow Jesus and his call to join in spreading the gospel, Thecla hates her family as she leaves them, abandons her engagement promise, and follows Paul out into the world to preach.
It’s hard in our culture today to hear Jesus saying we should hate our families! So often we talk about Christian family values, and these teachings go against what we hear is the foundation for our living out our faith in Jesus. Thecla’s story is helpful for us to get a picture of what this teaching means.
Following Jesus as a disciple is costly. Throughout his ministry, crowds have followed Jesus, hoping to see or receive a miracle, out of curiosity for this new teacher, or just to be a part of a group. The crowds come and go. But among them are people who want to be more than a fickle follower. They want to really be part of Jesus’ movement. They want to be disciples.
As much as Jesus opens up the kingdom of God to the outsiders and unholy, his community of disciples is so closed to any who aren’t fully committed. Jesus is teaching about and bringing in the kingdom of God through his own actions. The kingdom of God is about welcoming the outsiders, proclaiming good news to the afflicted, and forgiving the sinners. What Jesus does to bring this kingdom is teach, heal, and die. Jesus’ ministry leads to his death. Disciples follow the teacher, so Jesus, knowing the danger and sacrifice of his ministry, warns those who would follow him that they need to be likewise aware and ready to give up their lives.
Luke records Jesus talking to a specific crowd. We hear this gospel coming through the centuries to meet us today. How does it meet us? We are in a different place and world than those crowds following Jesus. We are not in the immediate time of being able to follow Jesus in his life and path towards death in Jerusalem. We live in a country where Christianity is the religion with power: the religion of presidents and popularity. As we see so often in news today, it can be more costly to not be a Christian!
What does it mean for any modern would-be disciples that Christianity has become the easy social option? What has changed so that it’s no longer the sacrificial and dangerous path Jesus warns about?
Part of the answer has to do with a trajectory that began in 313 when Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity a legal religion and continued in 381 when Christianity became the only legal religion in the Roman Empire. The legitimating of Christianity by the government led to a very different relationship between civil power and Christianity, as Christianity became institutionalized, a very different reality than its beginnings in the first followers of Jesus. In more recent years, America was a place where some Christian groups came to flee persecution and to establish religious communities, built on their understandings of Christian order and values. By the founding of the United States, Christianity was widely practiced throughout the country. When Christianity is connected to and favored by government and mainstream society, then there is something we call “Christendom.” The assumption that people know about and practice Christianity is a sign of “Christendom.” Although many people say we are living at the end of Christendom in this country, signs of its hold in this community are seen in these examples: that junior high students typically don’t have sports practices on Wednesday nights because of Confirmation, the law that allows students to receive religious education during school, the coinciding of school vacations and Christian holidays, and the general expectation that events and sports shouldn’t be planned during “church times.” These realities of Christendom show the assumption that people should be Christians and that society should favor Christianity.
Christendom is a very different reality from that found in the Gospel of Luke. It’s the difference between Christianity as social expectation and as sacrificial living. Our reality today as part of Christendom makes Jesus’ command to hate family and leave possessions sound absurd. Why would we need to break connection to family or give up our lifestyle just to be a faithful Christian?
For many of us today, it’s comfortable to be a Christian. When we read a passage like today’s from Luke, and it doesn’t fit our reality of what it means for us to follow Jesus today, I see at least a few options for us.
In the first option, we take what Jesus says to that gathered crowd to be meant for those among them who wanted to be disciples. Any disciples that followed then would follow Jesus towards his death. We live on the other side of the resurrection. We believe in Jesus’ power over sin and death. We believe Jesus has already gained the victory. Perhaps we should have an easy life as a Christian.
In the second option, we spiritualize what Jesus said about hating family, life, and possessions. We remember to prioritize our life with Jesus on top and all these gifts: family, life, and wealth, as gifts of God. As long as we give thanks to God, we can enjoy all we have without feeling the need to do anything more. We have been blessed with much, so there is no need for drastic sacrifice, only to give thanks.
In the third, we take seriously what Jesus says about his disciples needing to follow him by sacrificing everything: family, possessions, and even life itself.
I believe we need to spend some more time thinking about that third option. Although the first two sound good: surely Jesus has won the victory, and indeed, all we have is a gift from God, the kingdom of God is still in process. The root of sin is in our own self-absorption, and so we are always challenged to look outside ourselves and the gifts given to us for the path towards Jesus. That discipleship path towards Jesus is not always easy. There are opportunities for us to live out this costly discipleship every day.
In your relationships with other people, you can sacrifice yourself for the kingdom of God, to follow Jesus. Have you ever been talking with a group of friends when conversation turns to gossip about a certain person? Or joking becomes closer to hate speech related to differences in appearance, income, gender, race, or sexual orientation? Or teasing becomes bullying? You have the opportunity to follow Jesus and speak up in defense of one so attacked. You can see Jesus with the outsider and put an end to hurtful speech and behavior. If you’ve ever tried, you may know that your attempt to follow Jesus can backfire and instead of stopping the hate, you simply encourage people to redirect it onto you. You get crucified.
In your relationship to work, wealth, and possessions, you can sacrifice yourself for the kingdom of God, to follow Jesus. Your work practices reflect your faith. Do you choose to provide decent wages for your employees? Do you consider the impact on the environment? Your check book and credit card bills attest to your path, towards God or towards yourself. How much has been spent for the good of those in need? How much has been given away or given back? Have you ever gone without something you wanted so that you could give more away?
Following Jesus today can be just as costly as Jesus first warned the would-be disciples in the crowd. It can be just as costly as it was for Thecla, saint of the early church. It can be costly in ways experienced by Martin Luther King, Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Mother Theresa. It can be costly for you even if no one will recognize your sacrifice.
Whatever your sacrifice, or lack thereof, the Jesus you follow is the one who has already sacrificed everything for you. Jesus died for you. Jesus was faithful in his sacrifice to bring life and wholeness to you. Jesus didn’t wait to consider whether you or any in the crowd would be willing to follow him in sacrificial discipleship. He had already chosen his path. Jesus has already been faithful in creating a kingdom to which all people are welcomed fully and freely, whether or not they have been chosen sacrificial discipleship.