During my second year of seminary, a friend of mine and I started talking about the price of our faith journeys. I complained about the difficulty of the life I had chosen. About all that I had given up to enter seminary. Then my friend told me his story. He had been a successful executive for the long-distance phone company, MCI, long before that company had gone public or grown into the multi-billion dollar entity that it became. At one point, he said, he calculated that if he had not left his job to seek ordained ministry and had stayed with MCI that his stock options alone would have been worth well in excess of $1 million. Knowing what he had given up, some in his family had actually written him off as a fool and a religious fanatic. He had lost his wealth and even his relationships with some family members had suffered. Hearing my friend testify to what he had given up to follow Jesus shook me up and made me realize how petty my complaints seemed. My friend knew the price he had paid, but his answer to that sacrifice was simply, “I’m happy here.” He insisted that he was glad to give it all up for what he trusted God would do with him in his life.
Every once in awhile, it seems that life, or maybe God, gives us a proverbial “slap in the face” to wake us up and help us get our priorities straight.
They are those moments in life that
help to clarify and focus for us just what is really important, what is really
true. This morning’s Gospel reading is
just that kind of slap in the face.
Now, I have to be honest with you, I often cringe when this particular passage comes up in the Sunday lectionary. My first thought usually goes to newcomers arriving in the church, thinking, hey, this is a pretty special place. The people are welcoming, the worship is uplifting and meaningful. We sing a few hymns, hear a few readings, and then comes the Gospel reading. And the reader of the Gospel gets up and reads that Jesus commands us to hate our mothers and fathers. Now that’s an appealing message. Really makes me want to join a church.
But actually, when we take a closer look at this reading, that is precisely what this reading is intended to do. It is, in a way, a wake-up call for those who are seeking to discern whether Christian discipleship is something they are called to. Is Jesus telling us literally that we must “hate” our parents? Of course not.
What he is telling us is that part of Christian discipleship means getting your priorities straight. It entails deciding where your loyalties lie and what you are willing to sacrifice for your principles.
I used to have a great-aunt named
Ellen, who lived in South Carolina. She
died in 2006 at the age of 96. My last
trip to visit her was in 2002. It was
important not just because it did turn out to be the last time I saw her, but
because during that trip I had an experience that brought me to a deeper
understanding of her and of myself.
I loved my great aunt Ellen very much and I was looking forward to that trip. It was going to be a chance to hear once again about our family history, to share in the adventures of my great-aunt’s life, and to just be together again. But it was also only the second time I had actually visited her in her home. And it was to be the first time I was to have the experience of meeting some of my aunt’s friends. That, unfortunately, was the undoing of my time in South Carolina. Because by visiting my aunt in her home and meeting her friends, I encountered a very ugly side to her world. Racism.
Now, I don’t want you to think that I’m naive about the realities of racism in our country. The history of racial division in America, and especially in the South, is deep-seeded. It is simply a reality. And I also know that living in an environment like that long enough can affect anyone’s thoughts and beliefs. But I was shocked and even angered by comments made to me during casual conversation. Comments like “We used to love living in that town, but it was very clean then, and, of course, all white.” Or, “My sister finally decided to leave that town. She didn’t like what was happening, you know, with all the Mexicans moving in.” Or, the clincher for me, “Oh no, we won’t be attending Good Shepherd Episcopal Church tomorrow, we’ll be attending Holy Cross Episcopal Church. Good Shepherd is in the ‘black’ part of town.”
These comments, made as easily and as matter of fact as I would talk with you about the weather, were my “slap in the face.” I was suddenly reminded of what Christian discipleship means.
When Jesus said to “hate your mother and your father” he was not telling his followers to literally hate their parents. But he was giving us a warning about what the cost of discipleship might be. For me, that realization was that as much as I loved her dearly, I just was never going to be as much a part of my aunt’s life as I would have liked to be. As anyone who knows me well will attest to, family is extremely important to me. But I could no more accept the views of my aunt and her friends than I could cut off my right arm. Because to do so would be to deny the life that I believe Jesus calls us to live. And though I didn’t verbalize it to my great aunt during my visit, I found myself that day separating myself from part of my family.
And if you think the bonds of
family are strong today, you should read up on how strong they were in ancient
societies. In Jesus’ day, the loyalty to
family outweighed anything. The family was not only the group of people
you grew up with, it was the place you looked to for your very
identity—everything about you was determined by who your family was and what
they believed. And to suggest that being
a disciple of Jesus Christ might entail rejecting your family was beyond
But the life to which Jesus calls us is a life that responds to God’s identification with us, with our pain and with the pain of others. Our faith calls us to empathize with the plight of others, not to draw distinctions between us and divide us into the “ins” and the “outs.” Because it is only through caring for others that we can rise above the debilitating effects of human traits like racism. And that doesn’t come easily. So the question to ask ourselves today is, what sacrifice will God ask us to make for our lives of discipleship?
It has been my observation that even the holiest of people have grown in wisdom and grace over time by paying a price . . . every day, living a life of faith.
The disciples are a good example. What a bunch of misfits they were . . . and they grew to be the apostles of the Church. Because they paid the price. They understood Jesus more and more clearly as God prepared them to receive the Holy Spirit. Their lives as a whole were a powerful witness, but it was their daily work that we need to seek as our model for living out a faith journey. Daily lives of striving to live out our faith. Certainly failing, but just as certainly getting up again and starting back on that journey.
Not many of us will rise to the
fame of Ghandi or Martin Luther King, Jr., or Mother Theresa. But all of us are called just the same to
live daily lives of faith. And part of
that daily living is to learn to set our priorities. Priorities based on the
work of God in the person of Jesus Christ.
Our faith is that which brings joy, peace and happiness to troubled hearts. Hearts in search of purpose and meaning. It is our faith that opens the door to seeing each and every person as a cherished and beloved child of God. That is good news for us and it is good news for the world. Our faith is the promise of a kingdom where all are welcomed—where all share in God’s love and grace. And my prayer for us this day is that we may each learn to make that daily investment in living a life of faith. And that God may bless us now and always with love and peace.
Let us pray.
Gracious and eternal God, we have come together this day as friends to worship you and praise your name. We have heard something of what you expect from us as your disciples. As we go from this place, may we take the hope and peace of Christ with us in all that we do, and not be deterred by what it may cost us. For knowing that we are living in your spirit and in communion with you is its own reward. Help us to remember that each and every day of these precious lives you have given us. Amen.