A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on September 5, 2010
Psalm 139:13-18; Luke 14:25-33
Maybe Jesus had an anti-megachurch bias. He didn’t like big groups, or didn’t trust a crowd mentality. Perhaps Jesus was suspicious of many of those who followed after him, especially the ones who appeared to be in it for what they could get out of it. Or, it could be that Jesus was an introvert and preferred to be by himself.
Judging by what he said in our gospel reading earlier, he certainly wouldn’t have gone in for an evangelistic crusade, would he? Too many people in one place for Jesus. Large crowds were following him, so he stops and puts an abrupt end to that. Just at that point when the crowds began swelling in number, Jesus ratchets down the requirements for being a true follower. And oddly enough, in doing so, he uses the word “hate.” Father, mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters... life itself! If you don’t hate them, Jesus says, you can’t follow him. You can’t be a participant in the kingdom.
Read it from the King James Version, the Revised Standard Version, the New English Bible. Regardless of where you go in scripture, the word is still hate.1
What in the world is that all about?
Oh, I get it. He’s using hyperbole. You know what that is, don’t you? Hyperbole is overstating the case in order to make a dramatic point. “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times...” Not really. Maybe a dozen times, but not a thousand. “When he walked into the room, he looked nine feet tall!” Look, he may have been tall and good-looking, but nine feet? C’mon, he’d be a freak! Hyperbole. Overstating the case to make a point.
So Jesus doesn’t really mean it, that you have to hate your family members, not to mention your own life, before you can follow him. Surely, he doesn’t mean it. Does he?
And this stuff about carrying a cross. Remember, Luke is recording this a number of years after Jesus had died on one of those things. Wednesday night, we gave some consideration in our Letters from a Skeptic dialogue as to when we think Luke might have recorded his gospel. But regardless of when it was, this story wasn’t exactly as fresh as the morning newspaper. There had been some time for reflection, not to mention editing. They’ve had at least four or five decades to try and figure out what that means, to carry one’s cross as a symbol of self-sacrifice... which is what Jesus called on his disciples to do, give of themselves in service to him and the kingdom he came to embody.
But you’d also think that in that span of time they would have figured out a way to soften the message, make it more palatable, easier to swallow. Tone down the hyperbole. You can’t grow a movement, certainly one in the midst of persecution, if you make such extreme demands. Can you? But for some reason, Luke hasn’t done that, has not watered down Jesus’ difficult message. I mean, for crying out loud, he uses the word hate! I wonder why Luke tells it in such a tough way. Do you wonder why?
And does it make any difference to you? Probably not. This is just another text for you to think about in worship this morning and then forget about this afternoon. After all, you’re going to live your life pretty much as you’ve been living it. You didn’t come to church this morning to make any drastic changes in the way you go about your daily routine. Did you? Why, you’ve already got the rest of the day planned, may have even filled in your personal and professional calendar for the rest of the week, made plans for the football season (Go Hogs!), and to be honest it doesn’t leave any room for carrying a cross around with you.
No, you’ve come to worship this morning hoping that when you leave this place you’ll feel better about yourself than when you got here. Isn’t that what church is all about? Making you feel better about your religious faith?
As most of you know, Janet and I were in Georgia last week, keeping our grandsons while their parents were in Hawaii on an anniversary trip. In Macon, we saw a church sign, one of those electronic things that flashes messages. I do admit it caught my eye. This is what it said... “Got a couple of dents in your car? Got a couple of rips in your jeans? Then we’re the place for you!” Then in big letters, the sign said, “It’s all about YOU!”
I know, I know, they’re just trying to reach a hip crowd that ordinarily wouldn’t touch church with a ten-foot pole. Marketing and all that stuff. More power to them. But is it gospel? Would the Jesus who climbed up on one of those crosses – did the Jesus who climbed up on one of those crosses – ever tell anybody, “It’s all about you”? Tell you what... you find that in the Bible, show it to me, and I’ll highlight it, mark it in red, and put it on a sign outside our church. It may not be on an electronic sign, but I can paint with the best of them. Is following Jesus all about you... and me?
Maybe the answer to all this is found in the example Jesus offers about building a tower, or the king who contemplates going to war. Before you do either of those things, you sit down and carefully count the cost, decide if you have the resources to pull off what you’ve been thinking of doing.
But before we go into that, let’s conjecture as to why so many people have been following after Jesus. “Now large crowds were traveling with him,” Luke tells us. Perhaps that is because, up to now, Jesus has spent the bulk of his time and effort performing miracles and either feeding multitudes in the wilderness or being invited to dinner by influential people. That will attract a crowd in anybody’s town, don’t you think? Give people what they want, have your picture published in the society section of the paper, your life story told in High Profile. After all, it’s all about you.
It’s almost as if Jesus has all he can take, and then turns to the crowds and says, “Okay, that’s enough. I can’t take it anymore. Life in the kingdom is not about miracles and meals, popularity and pleasure. It is about running counter to everything you’ve ever been told is important, and yielding yourself to the ultimate purposes of God. That means counting the cost, realizing there will be those who oppose you and persecute you when you advocate for the poor and stand against the systems of the world that take advantage of the least of these. From now on, I’m going to call it as I see it. If you want to follow me, you will have to do the same, and because there is a cross in my future, there will no doubt be a cross waiting for you as well.”
Boy, Jesus really knew how to clear a room. Those folk can’t get away from him fast enough. Well, that’s not in the gospel story, that people stopped following him. But my guess is that his remarks, if nothing else, really threw some cold water on everybody’s enthusiasm. We are told that those who are attracted to him, after he said what he said about hating family members and one’s own life, are the notable sinners, the tax collectors and others on the wrong side of respectable society... people who don’t really have anything to lose. Jesus had a way of attracting those kind of folk.
But he could clear the room of those who were following him for what they could get out of him, who were unwilling to make the sacrifice. And if that is indeed the case, the question could be asked, then why are we here? If you’re married, chances are you came with your spouse. Maybe you’re going to lunch with your mother when worship is over. Or, you may plan to spend time this afternoon with friends. If you take Jesus literally – even seriously – won’t you have to give up all these relationships?
Is it possible for Jesus to ask too much of those who would follow him? After all, it’s not as if we don’t have other obligations. Who of us seriously is willing to give up our possessions as Jesus says we must do? Let’s get real. We work too hard to put food on the table, mortgage a home, and educate our children just to give it all up in some weird desire to be a Christian; at least an extreme Christian. Save that kind of behavior for those folks on the fringe, the strange ones who go chasing off after raptures and such.
You know what? This is where it appears that the church – and by the way, that’s you and me – just may be the enemy of Jesus. How are we going to re-roof this building if we all give up our possessions? Is giving a good chunk of your life to the life of the church the same thing as giving it to Jesus? If so, that ought to be enough, right? And do you think a tithe of nothing is going to get the job done? Don’t think so.
We’d be a whole lot more comfortable if Jesus hadn’t said these things, if Luke hadn’t recorded them, and if we hadn’t decided to use it as our gospel reading for today. I’m as tempted as you are to forget the whole thing, pretend we never even brought up the subject, and go about doing what we normally do. We’ve got enough problems without having to deal with the burden of all this.
But this is the passage for our consideration today, and I’ve already dug myself a pretty deep hole here. So, I guess I better let you know what I’m going to do with this really difficult, uncompromising, and uncomfortable demand of Jesus. I can’t ignore it, and if I do my job today, I will convince you that you can’t ignore it either. I can’t explain it away, because to do so would be a denial of my calling. I have to honestly and squarely tell you what I think of what Jesus had to say to these large crowds that were following him, and why he said it. Then, I have to make it apply somehow to the way you and I live and the manner in which we call ourselves Christians. I have to do that, so give me just a couple more minutes, please.
Luke has made it clear that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. You know what he says, don’t you, that Jesus has set his face to go to the Holy City? Bound and determined, that’s what he was. He can’t go marching into Jerusalem with large crowds of people at his heels. This is not a parade, though, as we all know, he got one anyway. Jesus has to make his way into the city with those he knows, that when the going gets tough, are fully committed to him and his movement, not for what they can get out of it but for what they can give to it. In order to follow Jesus in this manner, they have to be willing to give up that which means the most to them.
So when Jesus turns to the large crowds of people and starts talking about hating one’s father and mother and sister and brother – and yes, even life itself – he’s really telling the people to go home.2 They won’t be of any use to him in Jerusalem, not unless they are willing to do what he knows he will have to do. And that involves a cross.
By telling them to go home, Jesus is really doing them a favor. But if they go home, will they have eternal life?
I’ve gone over this and over this, grappling with this passage from Luke’s gospel, trying to find a window through which I can see clearly what Jesus might have meant when he cleared the room. But there is no clear window into Jesus’ mind and heart. We have, at best, that dim mirror to which Paul referred. We can only say this is what we think Jesus means, but we can’t be entirely sure.
I realize that I’ve asked more questions – far more questions – than I have provided answers. In one of my seminary preaching classes many years ago we had to prepare a sermon manuscript. When my sermon was graded and returned, written at the top of the first page was the remark, “You didn’t ask any questions.” Are you interested in how I reacted? I thought that was the absolute dumbest thing I’d ever heard. If I was going to be a preacher of the gospel, it was my responsibility to have the answers, not ask a bunch of questions.
But I was young... and stupid. I have since learned that life, especially life in Christ, is filled with questions. And more often than not, asking the right questions is far more important than having the right answers. So this is what I suggest we do...
When our worship is over this morning, let’s go home... not until after we’ve participated in First Sunday Lunch, of course. But eventually we will have to go home. When you do, sit down, as Jesus says we should do, and count the cost of what it means to follow him. Figure out for yourself what it means and what it will take, for you, to take up your cross. You don’t have to die on it, but you will need to be prepared to carry it.
Chances are, if you do that, you won’t find yourself in a large crowd. Crosses just don’t attract the masses, not if you’re the one carrying it. But Jesus will be there, and he will help you lift it... on your way to eternal life.
Lord, show us your way, whatever the demands may be, and walk with us that we might follow you even when there are no crowds around. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.
1Wendell Berry, “The Burden of the Gospels,” The Christian Century, September 20, 2005, p. 24.
2Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith (San Francisco: Harper, 2006), p. 229.