Six years ago this week I was preparing my very first sermon for my very first ministerial position as student chaplain at a retirement community. It was National Grandparents Day, and the passage the lectionary gave me to preach was “hate your father and your mother.” NOT the message I wanted to have to preach on my first Sunday in a room full of grandparents and great-grandparents! I survived that encounter, and I learned a lot. Of course, that was sort of inevitable since I was working in a community full of retired ministers and missionaries and pastors wives, including Doug’s parents.
This is a difficult passage. First, let’s look at what it doesn’t say. Jesus says “hate your family”? How can this be when Jesus always said love everyone? This is easier to understand when you realize that he was using a teaching tool commonly used by rabbis of his time – hyperbole. Making a point by exaggerating it. Not hate, precisely. But rather, don’t allow ties to other people prevent you from discipleship. If you are called to travel – as missionaries are, for example – don’t let your family keep you from following that call. Remember, Jesus’ disciples at the time were asked to travel as missionaries, carrying very little, often gone from their families for long periods of time. If they had stayed at home because of family ties, the Good News of God’s Kingdom would not have gotten very far.
And what about giving away all your possessions, really? After all, Jesus was supported throughout his ministry by people who had possessions – homes and wealth and even his tomb. We’ve come to understand that it isn’t wealth by itself that he preached against. It was allowing the accumulation and possession of things to come between you and God.
And then there’s the bit about carrying your cross.
Often preachers using this passage talk about bearing the cross of personal, financial, emotional or physical problems without complaint, with faith that God will carry us through any difficulty. You’ve surely heard people say something like “Yes, I have constant pain from my arthritis, but it’s just the cross I have to bear.”That’s not really what this passage is about either.
More often this passage used to reckon up the cost of discipleship – what we must suffer and endure if we are truly Christian. We use examples of people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer – both great men, both spoke out and acted against oppression – racism in America and Nazism in Germany. They both walked forward faithfully through difficult and dangerous times, knowing that their very faithfulness could lead to their death. They both gave their lives for those who were oppressed, as Jesus did. That is a piece of the meaning of this passage.
This passage does tell us that Christ must come first in our lives. Following Christ, being a Disciple, means that we are first Christian, then whatever else – child, parent, partner, employee, citizen – whatever. The Cross that we carry is the Cross of being a Christian.
One of the Revgalblogpals asked “So what are you preaching this week – Jeremiah, or Paul or that heavy cross?” And it struck me that there was something wrong with this question. Think about it. Why is it we only seem to talk about the burdens involved in following Christ, and never about the JOY of carrying our cross?
Let me point out that Jesus’ very disciples, the ones who spent all their time, waking and eating and sleeping, in his company, the ones who listened to every word he spoke, weren’t able to follow him to the Cross. When he was arrested they panicked and ran, they hid themselves from the Romans and the Temple guards. And in the case of Simon Peter, denied even knowing Jesus. It wasn’t until later – after the resurrection – after their joyous reunion with Jesus – that they were able to truly follow him – to preach his message, to carry news of the resurrection and the life everywhere in the known world. They faced trouble – Yes. And Yes, they would later face persecution, imprisonment, even death. But they followed him, not as a burden they bore, but as a joyful vocation.
Think about the things you do joyfully – things you do because you can’t not do them.
The image this passage evokes most powerfully for me is the image of the young man who arrived at the doors of Father Flanagan’s Boys Town, with his younger brother across his shoulders, and saying, “He ain’t heavy Father. He’s my brother.” Carrying his brother was hard work, undoubtedly. But it was hard work he did with joy, knowing that at the end of the journey was warmth and safety for both of them. He did it because the most important thing in his life was the love he had for his brother.
Luciano Pavoratti is probably the only opera singer in history who was able to bring opera into the lives of people who typically wouldn’t ever hear it. Most opera singers wouldn’t have been caught dead singing pop music, or appearing in comedy films, and even on Saturday Night Live? He had a gift he joyfully shared with as many people as possible. In an interview he said “this isn’t work – this is what I do because I love it.” He had to work hard – practicing and traveling and taking care of his voice – but he couldn’t stop. To the end of his life he shared his gift with the world, because singing wasn’t his job – singing was who he was.
Teachers – the good ones - don’t become teachers because they’ll get rich doing it. They teach because they love to teach – because it is their vocation. Even when they retire they find ways to keep teaching. You should see Marsha talking about Alternative Christmas with our preschoolers. And Stasi teaching them crafts – these retired teachers continue teaching because it is what they love. They really can’t help themselves. They just kind of fall into teacher mode. Teachers everywhere work really hard, they may be driven crazy by paperwork and administrative stuff and in some places they are in real physical danger when they go to work. But they are teachers, all the time, because that is who they are.
And Ministers – I don’t know any retired ministers. I know a lot of ministers who no longer serve a congregation, or do any ministry for which they get paid, but they never quit being ministers. At Robin Run I watched ministers in their 80s and 90s spend all their time doing some kind of ministry. I know they spent quite a bit of effort helping a certain student chaplain learn what she was doing. A minister’s work isn’t easy. Some of what they do is difficult or emotionally painful or just aggravating, and in the case of missionaries it can be extremely dangerous. These folks serve joyfully to the end of their lives, because they can’t not serve. Being a minister isn’t a job. It is simply who they are.
Some of you know that I watch the occasional football game, and that I kind of like the Indianapolis Colts. When Tony Dungy arrived in Indianapolis to become the head coach of the Colts the very first thing he did, before he even looked for a house, was to look for a church. And this wasn’t something he tried to keep quiet – he brought it up at a news conference! According to an article in Christianity Today, he said that in his college football playing days he was a hotheaded jock, not a mature Christian by any means. But today he is a Christian first. He is very different, as head coach, than the stereotypical cursing, hard driving, abusive head coach. His understanding of how to treat his comes from his understanding of how Jesus would have him behave toward all persons. Apparently, treating football players with respect and love works pretty well. The Colts have a great reputation in Indianapolis and elsewhere – they work hard in the community to do good, they don’t make headlines for drug use or spousal abuse or fighting. And they do win football games.
That’s what Jesus calls us to be in this passage. First, follow him. First, be Christian. Then be whatever else we are. Be Christians in the same way that young man was a brother, Pavarotti was a singer, teachers teach and ministers minister. Be Christian because we can’t not be – because it is who we are. Like Tony Dungy, our Christianity should form the way we do our work, the way we treat other people, the way we act in every aspect of our lives.
Where ever we go in life, we need to go there as Christians, carrying the cross of God’s love, joyfully and with much praise and rejoicing. Where ever we go, we need to follow Jesus along our way. Where ever we go in life, we know we are not going alone, not as simply an individual, but as part of the body of Christ. And even if we’re not certain about the direction, we know there is one who can lead and guide us on our way, who goes before us, who has already shown us the way to go. Join me now in asking him for guidance.
Sing - Lead me, guide me.