Proper 18, Year C – Luke 14:25-33
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
September 8, 2016
The audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
We are used to hearing Jesus tell us in the gospels to love. I’m not sure about you, it is always tough for me to hear Jesus say these words: “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.” This is a really difficult thing for us to hear, for Jesus is telling us that in order to follow him, we must distance ourselves in some way from those to whom we are naturally closest and most loyal.
Jesus’s command to hate our family members is analogous to his next statement: “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciples.”
The cross wasn’t a cute piece of jewelry made of gold or silver that people wore around their necks. To those who heard Jesus say this, the cross was a tree on which people were executed by crucifixion. A piece of jewelry didn’t come into their minds. Rather, an instrument of death.
And then, as if the command to carry around an instrument of death were not enough, Jesus tells them that none of them can be his disciples unless they give up all their possessions.
Is he actually telling us to hate those with whom we are the closest? Is he telling us to physically carry a cross? To literally sell everything we own?
While his may be speaking in hyperbole, his ultimate message isn’t much easier to hear. In order to be his disciple of Jesus Christ, you must die. And that, friends, is what Christianity is. An invitation to die. To die to our own desires, to die to the need to be praised for our good works, to die to the need for our outward piety to be seen by others. To be a disciple of Jesus, our loyalty to Him comes before our loyalty to anything else in life whether that’s our family, political party of preference, our country, our parish church, and even our spouse.
This sounds pretty straightforward, but the waters can get muddied. What should you do when my extended family plans an event at the same time an important church event is already planned? What happens when you’re on vacation with friends and you know you need to go to church but hesitate because you know your fellow travelers are atheists? What do you do when someone you know is in need asks you for money, but you know that you’re already going to have a hard time making your mortgage payment this month?
I’m going to be honest with you all about something I’ve struggled with my whole adult life. I struggle with daily prayer. Many mornings (maybe most morning), I’d rather read a few more articles in the New York Times than pray Morning Prayer. Or get a head start on my emails for the day. Or whatever. I mean, I’ve spent enough time in intentional prayer to know in my head that I’ll be happier if I pray instead, and that loyalty to Jesus demands that I do it, but the struggle is real.
In your life, where do your loyalties and priorities come into conflict with Jesus’s call to take up your cross?
No matter how literally we take Jesus when he says to hate our family, carry our cross, and sell our possessions, God is calling us today to die to ourselves and live for Him. He’s calling us to make the choice that we made (or that was made on our behalf) at our baptism today and every day.
This is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Each and every day, each and every moment, we must learn to give up our things, our need to acquire more things, our yearning for success, our petty jealousies, our demeaning stereotypes of each other, our prejudices and hatreds. For these things distract us from devoting all that we have and all that we are to the One who went all the way to the cross for our sake.
Why should we do this? Is following Christ worth the cost? The choir sang this bit from the psalter:
Lord, thou hast searched me out, and known me. Thou knowest my down-sitting, and mine up-rising; thou understandest my thoughts long before. Thou art about my path, and about my bed, and spiest out all my ways. For lo, there is not a word in my tongue, but thou, O Lord, knowest it altogether.
The Lord knows all that there is to know about me, even my desires, and to sum it up, I am a sinner through and through. I am not worthy to gather up the crumbs under God’s table. No matter how hard I try to clean myself up…no matter hard I try, I simply can’t make myself worthy in God’s sight.
But thanks be to God, his property – his character – is always to have mercy. God loves us to much that he gave his only-begotten Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. And despite my sinfulness, despite your sinfulness, he wants to know that he loves us and to experience that love.
And so, we are called to die. Daily. By choosing to die to self and follow Christ, we follow him to his death. But by following him to his death, we are raised with him to newness of life.
Jesus’s message may seem negative and even depressive, but I truly believe that taking up your cross and following Christ is worth the cost. It isn’t just my head that tells me that I’ll be happier when I choose to pray over just about anything else, it’s my heart. Moment by moment, with each choice to follow Christ, God transforms me little by little into Christ’s likeness…into the image of God seen in our forebears Adam and Eve, before we were marred by sin and death. Each daily choice to follow Christ gives me the strength and courage to look outside of myself and turn my attention to the needs of those around me even when I don’t want to.
I already see so many signs that you all are denying yourselves and taking up your cross daily. I see the fruits of discipleship in the hard work of the reception committee to make our coffee hour as hospitable as possible, and in the folks handing out food to the homeless at Downtown Outreach, and in your generous stewardship in giving the first fruits of your money back to God in the offering plate, and in the sharing of your musical gifts to lead us in worship. And I see this in the little things like the unnamed saint who handwashes and irons all of our communion linins week after week. These signs of self-denial give me hope and encouragement in my own spiritual journey.
Today, as we begin our program year, I invite you to look inward and ask yourself, “What is one area of my life where am I see a conflict of loyalties? What is God asking me to sacrifice for the sake of the gospel?”
Friends, I wouldn’t ask you to make this costly choice without making every attempt to make the same choice myself. Christianity isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s costly and difficult.
By giving up all for Jesus, we get to experience unconditional love and grace that is almost unimaginable. And by giving up all for Jesus, God gives us everything we need to share that love with a lost and broken world that so desperately needs it. Amen.
The sermons preached at High Mass at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!