“So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Luke 14:33
I once worked with an assistant principal who was fond of saying, “Fail to plan; plan to fail.” It got a little tiresome, but I get what he was telling us. It’s important to make plans for things that matter. Wherever you went on vacation this summer, I bet you didn’t just wake up one morning and decide to hit the road. You took days off, you made reservations, you bought tickets, you mapped out an itinerary. You had a plan.
Nobody started school this week without some preparation. You had to buy supplies – a lot of supplies. You got your kids registered. A few of you went to an orientation and walked through the schedule. Others picked out a first-day-of-school outfit. You had a plan.
Football season is finally here, and I have yet to see coaches and players cancel practice, show up for a game and say, “Hey, let’s see what happens. We’ll just make it up as we go along.” No. They prepare. They have a playbook. They practice. They have a plan.
For the serious planners among us, that process of preparation always involves calculating some costs. Sometimes it’s the literal costs – do we have the budget to do this? But we also weigh the potential risks ahead of us, sometimes even spinning out into worst-case scenarios. What if we have a flat tire? What if we miss our flight? What if someone gets sick? What if no one sits with me at lunch? What if I fail math? What if my team actually plays as if they have never seen a playbook in their entire lives? We would like to know the hardest parts of what the future might hold.
Today Jesus lays out some pretty significant costs for those who might consider becoming his followers. Hate your family. Carry the cross. Give up all your possessions. Sometimes I think he’s deliberately exaggerating how hard it will be, in the way of a college professor who makes the class sound extremely hard on the first day so that some students will drop out, and the class will be smaller and easier to manage. Large crowds have been following him, after all, and he’s probably aware that not all of those folks will be able to make the necessary commitment. Remember that his first followers have had to give up a lot, leaving behind jobs and homes and families to wander the countryside, often unsure about where they will find the next meal. Along the way they will encounter both needy supplicants and harsh critics. It’s not a path for the faint of heart.
I’m not going to say much this morning about carrying the cross, in part because I’m not sure Jesus’ listeners would have had any idea what he was talking about. Crucifixion was a form of execution in the Roman Empire, of course, but Jesus’ own death on a cross had (obviously) not yet happened, so I suspect the significance of that particular statement sailed right past them. I do want to say that modern-day notions of “having a cross to bear” are never an appropriate justification for someone to stay in a harmful or abusive situation. The biblical notion of taking up the cross is about the reality that following Jesus can lead to some dangerous places, but it is not about God desiring our suffering or victimhood.
So let’s ponder hating our families and giving up our possessions. Jesus gives it to us straight: “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.” Being a follower of Jesus will exact a price in our personal relationships. I checked the Greek because I so wanted it to be a word other than “hate.” But it’s the Greek word miseo, translated “hate,” from which we get words like “misogyny” and “misanthrope.”
Jesus is talking quite starkly about the fact that his way of doing things will mean prioritizing that commitment above all else – even our closest relationships. Which will inevitably lead to some challenging places.
I know that many of you have faced tensions within your families because of issues related to your faith and the values that your faith teaches you to honor. Those conflicts can be painful, and while I’m not suggesting that you should hate the relatives with whom you disagree, know that you are not alone in experiencing that struggle. Jesus expected it to happen almost 2000 years ago.
Being transformed by Jesus is not without consequence. What he comes to show us and teach us – the very way he comes to die for us – is so powerful that it will reverberate in every corner of our lives.
About a week ago I heard an interview with one of my favorite poets and theologians, an Irishman named Padraig O’Tuama.[i] The Irish people know something about the ways that faith can fuel conflict. For several years Padraig led Corrymeela, a Christian community that is Northern Ireland’s oldest peace and reconciliation organization. For a long time they’ve been doing the difficult work of bringing people together across differences for difficult conversations and the work of reconciliation – even people who have been deeply traumatized by the years of violence there. Corrymeela describes itself as a place that is “engaged with the world at its points of fracture, faith, and potential.”[ii]
In this recent interview Padraig had a way of describing the work of peacemaking that I found intriguing. He said:
I think sometimes people misunderstand peace. Peace looks like an argument that doesn’t turn to threat and violence, but it’s still an argument. People disagreeing enormously…[It’s about] witnessing people with great courage, with great fortitude, and with great truth say things to each other…the kind of things that often people just say about each other…
Think about that. Peace looks like an argument that doesn’t turn to threat and violence. It’s not some wimpy approach that means we concede everything that we believe. But peacemaking requires something of us. There’s a cost – and part of that cost is being willing to engage deeply with all kinds of other people, including those who do not see the world as we do.
Padraig goes on to say that a crucial element of these conversations is that we come to them with genuine questions to which we do not already know the answers. Real dialogue and real reconciliation are inconvenient because they undo some the assumptions that we bring to the conversation. In his words:
We need to turn to each other using language to say surprising things and find strange things connecting us…I’m fairly uninterested in common ground when it comes to conflict resolution. What I’m really interested in is uncommon ground, where a person discovers something new and finds within them the capacity for curiosity toward people toward whom they had previously had no curiosity.
Padraig gives us some difficult tasks. Finding uncommon ground. Discovering new things about each other. Having a capacity for curiosity about other people. Those sound like powerful ways to approach both the work to which Jesus calls us – and the conflicts that will inevitably arise when we do that work.
When Jesus tells us to give up our possessions, I believe that to be literally true in the sense that when we really care about the way of Jesus, we offer our financial resources in support of it. But this morning let’s consider that he might also be calling us to give up something more – to give up some assumptions, to give up our desire to see the world in an either/or, “I’m right and you’re wrong” sort of way. To give up our avoidance of those hard conversations that can lead to uncommon ground.
Nobody said that following Jesus would be easy, including Jesus. It is both hard and wonderful. It’s also the way to the truest kind of life, the life that only Jesus can give. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i]For a few more days you can listen to the full interview in the archives of the BBC’s religion program “All Things Considered”: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m00082p5