My sermon from September 8, 2013
“Mom, I hate you.” I know the day is coming when Nathan will say that. And I have a sneaking suspicious that at some point Nathan, a child of two clergy parents, will be saavy—and audacious—enough to point to today’s gospel reading as justification. “Mom, Jesus said I had to hate you if I wanted to be his disciple. Sorry. I mean, you want me to be Jesus’ disciple, right?” I will no doubt groan and bang my head against the wall.
I struggled with the circumstances that assigned this Gospel—seeming to be pretty anti-familial relationship—for a day in which we are blessing the backpacks of children who are returning to school this week. Would it have been too much to ask for “suffer the little children to come to me?”
But so let’s tackle it: "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.” Challenging words—seeming to contradict every attitude we would expect to hear about family life from a Christian pulpit. “Whoever comes to me and does not love father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sister, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” That sounds better, right? The gospel is all about love!
The gospel IS all about love…. But let’s think about what we know Jesus lives and says about families in the Gospels:
His mother was a poor, teenage pregnant girl who got someone who wasn’t the father of her baby to marry her.
Jesus left his birth family and then publicly denied them in favor of his disciples—a new familial unit, formed on the basis of friendship rather than blood relationships.
Jesus doesn’t appear to have been married (though there’s no way to be certain) which would have been his familial obligation. And he doesn’t seem to have had children—again, there’s no way to be certain—but having children would certainly also have been a familial expectation and obligation.
Family life in general in the first century was something very different from what we would consider family—if you want to know more there’s a wonderful book called Jesus’ Family Values by Professor Deirdre Good from the General Theological Seminary. Among other points she makes is that there is no word in Greek for “family”; the closest is oikia, which is closer to household. A household would include blood relationships, but also slaves, adopted children, and clients.
Paul elevates singleness above married life, and that is interesting because in some way, what Jesus is saying here is that you must be as if you were single—and did not have children, or were attached to living parents—in order to follow him. He’s not saying that only single people can be his disciples, but rather that whatever our familial and household ties are, in order to follow Jesus we may need to give up our primary attachment to them, because our primary attachment will now be to him.
Jesus talks a lot about being “born anew” and part of that new birth is—in a way—getting a new family. It’s getting the family of the church—our brothers and sisters in Christ, as we are adopted as children of God. And in order to be adopted by the new Christian family, some family relationships had to be altered—the disciples occasionally say longingly to Jesus that they have left “everything” to follow him; and certainly they are depicted as leaving their parents and livelihoods and hometowns. Perhaps only temporarily, or for a season. But just as we expect our children to love us parents most when we are young but hope that when they become adults they might find a special adult to love more intimately; we can expect that we—and our children—should grow to love Jesus more than us.
Which brings us to the backpacks.
Because this gospel isn’t just about families, it’s about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. We aren’t blessing backpacks today because it is cute and the kids are adorable—though both of those are true. We’re doing it because we want our children to be disciples of Jesus and have a relationship with God like that depicted in Psalm 139. We want these children—who belong to all of us because they are part of the Christian family—to know that Jesus doesn’t just live at church, and you come visit him every Sunday (or occasionally on a Sunday). Jesus is with you at school. Jesus is with you at home. Jesus is with you when you’re scared. Jesus is with you when you’re excited and happy. When your parents love you—part of that love is Jesus. When you love someone—part of that love is Jesus. That deepest darkest secret you have inside of you that you don’t want anyone to know because if they knew they’d hate you? Jesus already knows—and he still loves you. That part of your body that you don’t like and that embarrasses you and you try to cover it up so one notices? Jesus made that part of your body, and he thinks it’s beautiful. You are marvelously made by God, and you are his disciple. Being a disciple is costly—but it is so worth it.
What would happen if our children actually became disciples of Jesus lived the life depicted in the Gospel today? A lot of parenthood currently seems to be focused on “What if I fail?” What if we changed the question around and asked, “What if we succeed?” What if our children were Jesus’ disciples—more than we are—and they did take up their crosses and follow him… what if they DID give away ALL their possessions to follow Jesus? What if they did love Jesus more than they love us?
A friend and I saw the movie The Butler on Friday night, and it was a striking example of this interpretation of the passage. Both the title character and his son believe in the full equality of blacks and whites; but because they approach it in radically different ways, their relationship is sundered. The father is gentle and patient, asking respectfully and repeatedly for a raise for the serving staff of color at the White House (which he doesn’t get until the 1980s), and determined to avoid the dangerous racism of the deep South; the son full of urgency and risk-taking, a freedom rider who risks his life in protests and deliberately dedicates himself to challenging the status quo of the deep South. They are so angry at one another for so many decades that it would be fair to say that they hate each other.
It isn’t until the end of the movie—a Hollywood ending, but if you can’t have them in Hollywood films, where else can you count on them—that the father really comes to realize that he has been incredibly successful in raising his son, and that the real values he sought to instill in his son really did take—it’s just that those very values led him down a different path than he ever would have chosen for his child.
May that be true for us, too. I hope that Nathan does love Jesus more than he loves me; I pray that he will take up his cross courageously, even if it leads him into greater risk than I, in my love, would want for him. And I pray that I will be enough of a disciple to trust him and God.