In a cemetery in Hendersonville there stands a quite famous marker. It’s famous because of the writer Thomas Wolfe, although it is not his resting place the beautiful angel marks. Sometimes she’s called the Thomas Wolfe Angel or even the Look Homeward Angel because of her place in Wolfe’s book Look Homeward Angel. I really like this statue, not just because she’s beautiful but because in a way that’s what I feel we do in a cemetery; look homeward. Not to the earth or even to the sky but homeward. Cemeteries have never been scary or sad places for me. They always seem full of history and family; returning to where you are from.
Oh how much family history is recounted in one cemetery or another! I remember a few childhood trips to visit cemeteries near my grandmother’s home in Asheville during the summertime and the long and interesting stories the women in my family would tell as we strolled along in the cool shadows of the ancient sheltering trees. Soft earth underfoot. Grey-white stones, some shinny and new, others dressed in moss and vines. It wasn’t a sad place to be at all. It seemed alive with memory and family. For who are we if we do not know who we come from and cannot, somehow, walk among them, learn their stories and hope to someday see them face to face? Perhaps that is a Southern thing, with our strange near-worship of long dead relatives made possible by the liturgy of history. Southerners are famous for such things. But I doubt it is only a Southern thing. I think it is a human thing.
With all of this thinking about family, home, relatives and origins, it brings into sharp focus the difficulty of the first questions with which our Gospel lesson confronts us: who are we without our families? Whom do we claim as our people and who claims us as their own? And who are we if we are not a part of them?
Jesus says: “‘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.” Wow. That is pretty powerful stuff! Especially here, in this part of the country, where everyone wants to know who you know, who you are related to, who your “people” are. Actually, whether we love them, are frustrated by them, miss them or are happy to escape them, or have a whole mix of emotions about them, most people care a great deal about who their family is or was. And Jesus seems to say that none of that really matters. I think this is, as they say, a hard teaching.
And then, to make matters even a bit more difficult, Jesus follows this up with “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
Who are we without our stuff? What do we claim as our own, those things to which we are loyal? And who are we if we are not defined, at least in part, by our allegiances and commitments to them? We are consumers. We are brand-identified. Our patterns of consumption define us, and project who we are. Some of us like to project success, and others of us like to project social responsibility with what we have purchased. We are PCs or Macs; Blackberries, Palms or iPhones; Nike or New Balance; fair trade or free trade. Organic or fast food and let’s not even get into soft drinks! We are Ford, Chevy, Honda, Toyota car owners. And then there are those who own Jeeps—a breed of their own. We support breast cancer research as we buy pink or AIDS research as we buy red. We know how cool we are based on the brand, style or intentional lack of these as a resistance to popular culture.
Believe me, I am not exempt from this either! I have my brand identification and consumer consciousness as well. I shop at the small independent bookstores and restaurants and I’m proud of it, and I can still justify going to Target when I need to. I love the farmer’s market and World Market. Sometimes it isn’t even about the THINGS we buy and consume that matter to us but about which and how we get them. And sometimes, these are really important statements to be made. Our economic power can and is often used for good. But when Jesus says what he does, and does so in his typical, mince no words style, it makes me wonder who it is we are without our stuff.
Some of my favorite parts of the Gospel witnesses are in Luke. He writes favorably and often about the women who were touched by Jesus and participated in his ministry. He also portrays Jesus as someone who does love to eat and drink and socialize. However, there are parts of this Gospel that make it difficult to swallow. Repeatedly, Jesus talks about the need to let go of and, quite literally, give away, material possessions. Not just once or twice and not just when he speaks to the wealthy. He says it a lot and to nearly everyone. And today he is telling his followers—including us—that we should not only relinquish our hold on material possessions but also our families as well. For many of us who place great value on family, history, and ancestry, this is a very difficult thing to get our minds and hearts around. In the same way, it is difficult for those of us who also place value on the things that make life more secure, stable, safe and comfortable.
Last week we heard Jesus’ comments on how to behave at social gatherings and how to host a party; advice that goes far beyond day to day things and commends to us a way of life that is humble and conscious of the God-given and God-redeemed human dignity we have. He was speaking at that time to a well known Pharisee and his banquet guests. Today’s text shows Jesus ramping things up a bit. He’s speaking now to the growing crowd of people who are following him as he travels. These are people who’ve committed to Jesus in some way or who are seriously interested in what he is doing. Therefore, Jesus is giving them a fuller understanding of what this all means. Following him comes first, before family, things or even before your very life. He is, actually, encouraging those who are following him to count the cost in advance. He uses the two little parables about the wisdom of calculating the price of building a tower and the likelihood of success in waging war.
A pet peeve of mine is the tendency in Christianity to make faith in Jesus out to be the very best self-help, success for life program the world has ever seen in order to convince people to buy into the church. Well, it’s just not. Faith in Jesus Christ is not a program to teach morals to our children or to society. It is not a framework or a tool that a politician or a government can use to teach the populace what is right and wrong. Our faith is not a plan that will give you financial prosperity nor will it make all your days filled with glassy eyed, giddy joy. The bible is NOT Life’s Little Instruction Book. It is not an insurance policy that will prevent the storms of live from ever battering at your door or even seizing you by the throat and turning your world upside down. And it is, above all of this, not about a God who is like a Santa Claus in the sky just wanting to give us, if we behave very very well and are good little girls and boys, what shiny new thing we want so we can just be happy, spoiled children.
And if, for even a moment, we mistakenly believe it is these things, Jesus is quick to remind us that it is not what he is all about. Give it all up, he says. Everything. Trade it all in. Your family, your friends, your possessions, your life. Let go of it all. For me. For what I give you is greater than all these things put together.
Several years ago, during a time when there were not military actions or potential actions in which we were engaged around the world, enlistment in all branches of the US armed forces hit a dramatic low. Each branch of the military faced this challenge differently but most interesting was the way the Marines addressed the problem. Instead of lowering entrance requirements or offering more money for signing on or any of the other ideas that made a military career look more appealing, they did the opposite. They raised their requirements, emphasized the difficult involved in becoming a Marine and highlighted the sacrifices made by Marines throughout history. Rather than pointing out how good life could be as a Marine and all the many benefits an individual could receive by joining up, they emphasized how much sacrifice will be asked and how much these sacrifices truly mean.
This is, in a manner of speaking, what Jesus is saying to us. He is not telling us how much fun we’ll have as Christians or how much following him will help us out and make our life better. In fact, he’s quite bluntly saying that we will be picking up crosses along the way. We will be bearing burdens along the way and he is most assuredly emphasizing how much sacrifice truly means, though in the end, it is not our sacrifice that is most valuable but his. It is his sacrifice for us in bearing his cross and, truly, our crosses, his sacrifice for us in his suffering and death on the cross; the cross that is made up of all the others. His sacrifice for us in giving up his life for love of us.
It appears that Jesus’ point may be that the commitment of discipleship, the commitment to following him, is far beyond any other experience of commitment we’ve had in other areas of our lives. Our commitment to our families and friends, to our homes and possessions, to the things and places to which we feel loyal, to the whole of our lives, all these commitments pale in comparison to that of discipleship.
I often think that this gospel lesson ought to be paired with something from the book of Job. In that Old Testament story, Job loses all those things that Jesus tells us in our gospel lesson are less important than he is; family and possessions. And yet, he never looses God. It always makes me think of the verse in A Mighty Fortress: If they should take our house, goods, honor, child or spouse, though life be wrenched away, they shall not win the day, the kingdom’s ours forever.
The truth is that this Gospel lesson is a hard teaching but it does not stand alone. It is not the whole of the bible. We are not called to this commitment without first being given God’s grace to guide and support us. It is one of Jesus’ teachings to his disciples, his followers, to us, about what the life following him is like. There are other places we hear Jesus say that whatever we lose in following him is restored to us many times over. We hear his words of mercy and blessing. Next week, in fact, we hear of Jesus’ ceaseless searching for those who are lost, lonely, afraid in the same way that a shepherd looks for his lost sheep. We learn through the study of the whole of scripture, that in our baptism we are made one family, one new family, in Christ and that the most powerful thing in all the world that has claim upon us, that goes beyond our ancestry, our things and even our ability to be loyal to God is God’s claim upon us. God’s loyalty and devotion to us is far greater and more precious than all of it. While today’s text speaks of our sacrifice, of our call to place loyalty to Jesus above family loyalty and the love of possessions, we see in the whole of Jesus’ ministry that we are, before any sacrifice of our own could even be begun, showered in God’s amazing grace, mercy and love through his great sacrifice for us.
So our lesson confronts us with this: Who are we really? Ultimately, who are we? Who are we apart from our families and friends and our stuff? Who are we apart from all those things to which we claim allegiance and which claim our lives? If our commitments define us, and they often do, then are we the daughter of so and so, the grandson of someone, the one who drives the Jeep, the one who buys organic and shops local, the mother of three, the guy who shops at Walmart?
Or are we, before and above and beyond all these people and things, disciples of Jesus?