Hard Words

Jesus has some hard words for at least some in the crowd that followed him... but is it all or nothing?

Proper 18c 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

In this morning’s gospel, Jesus has some hard words for the large crowds that are following him. In addition to the challenge about carrying the cross and giving up all of their possessions, he calls for a complete separation from ordinary family life: “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.” These words are shocking to us now — even though we’ve heard them more than once in our lives. So imagine how shocking they must have been to the crowds who followed Jesus, and who heard them for the first time.

These words are perhaps all the more shocking because Jesus himself criticizes the Pharisees for neglecting their parents as they perform their religious duties; and in his conversation with that rich young man he cites the commandment to honor your father and your mother. Is Jesus talking out of both sides of his mouth? This passage warrants a much closer look before we come to any such conclusion.

First of all, let’s pay attention to the fact that each of these things — forsaking family, carrying the cross, and giving up all of one’s possessions — are set as the conditions for becoming a disciple. Jesus is speaking to crowds who are following him, but says, “If you want to be my disciple you have to do these things.” This raises the question, Is Jesus talking about anyone who simply puts their faith in Jesus as a Christian, or is he referring only to those who are called literally to give up everything to follow him — the real “disciples” — the apostles and the others who traveled with Jesus on the road? Not just coming out for a day or two to hear what Jesus had to say, but who would follow him for the rest of their lives. If these are requirements just to be a Christian, then precious few would qualify! I know I wouldn’t.

Secondly, it’s helpful to look closely at that first qualification for discipleship — probably the hardest for us to understand in light of the scriptural commandments to love and honor one’s parents, to be faithful to one’s spouse, and support one’s family.

If we look at the whole of Scripture more closely we will find that there are particular exceptions to those general laws regarding loving your father and mother, caring for your spouse, and caring for your children. For example, in the book of Deuteronomy (33:9) a blessing from God is pronounced upon one “who said of his father and mother, ‘I regard them not’; he ignored his kin, and did not acknowledge his children.” And in the book of Numbers (6:7) a rule is laid down concerning deceased family members, “Even if their father or mother, brother or sister, should die, they may not” go near them to do the usual and customary funeral preparations. Finally, a similar rule concerning the dead is described in Leviticus (21:11), “He shall not go where there is a dead body; ...even his father or mother.”

Obviously these exceptions did not apply to everyone — that’s why they are exceptions. So to whom do these exceptions apply? The first — about the one who said of his father and mother, “I regard them not,” who ignored his kin, and did not acknowledge his children — that is part of the farewell blessing bestowed by Moses upon the tribe of Levi — the tribe of the priests, who have no property in the land of Israel, and instead lived dispersed throughout the land, and have to be provided for by the rest of the people of Israel, for they have no property to hand down to their children.

The second is part of the rule for a Nazarite: that is someone who has taken a dedicated vow to serve the Lord in a particular way for a period of time, separated from normal society by means of strict regulations.

And the third is part of the rule of life of the high priest himself, a member of the tribe of Levi but set apart even further and regulated more severely than his brothers.

The Jewish believers who followed Jesus, that crowd that came out following him during his ministry, they would have recognized his demands as a reference to these portions of the Law of Moses. They would have understood that these are not general rules for the Christian life, but special requirements for those who are indeed prepared to give up everything and serve him as disciples — whose life would be as different from the normal life of most Christians as the Levites , the Nazirites, and high priest would be from ordinary Israelites.

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Now, before we get too relaxed and imagine that we are off the hook of having to despise our families, crucify ourselves, or give up all of our possessions — because not everyone is called to be a disciple in the sense of following Jesus on the dusty roads of Palestine — let us also remember that there is another kind of discipleship that involves following Jesus on the dusty sidewalks of the Bronx!

It is also helpful to know that there is one more passage in the law of Moses concerning the kind of harsh treatment of one’s own family described by Jesus. It relates to the passage from Deuteronomy we heard this morning — the choice between serving God and serving idols, described by Moses as choosing a blessing or choosing a curse; choosing life and prosperity, or death and adversity.

For earlier in Deuteronomy (13:6-10) Moses had laid down a law concerning the worship of idols: “If anyone secretly entices you — even if it is your brother…, or your own son or daughter, or the wife you embrace, or your most intimate friend — saying, ‘Let us go to worship other gods,’ ... you must not yield…. Show them no pity or compassion… you shall surely kill them; your own hand shall be first against them to execute them…. Stone them to death for trying to turn you away from the Lord your God….”

Strong words! Stronger indeed than those of Jesus who only called for separation from family — not their slaughter. But those words of the Law of Moses must also have echoed in the minds of the Israelites who heard Jesus that day, those crowds that went out to follow him. And they echo in our minds today as we consider that sometimes family does get in the way of being even an ordinary Christian believer, much less a disciple. Possessions and belongings do sometimes get in the way of the ordinary practice of Christian generosity and charity. And don’t each and every one of us want to be a disciple of Christ in the truest and the purest sense of that word — to follow him with all of our heart and mind and soul and strength?

If so — and I think it is so for many of us here — we had best also take to heart the advice that Jesus gives, to consider, to count the cost. Will we will be able to follow through on this commitment once we begin? No one wants to spend time and effort to build half a tower or to fight one battle and then surrender. The path of discipleship of this sort is not an easy path — and perhaps not all are called to it. But if you think you are, my friends, then consider it carefully — and if a member of your family or a close friend tempts you away from serving Christ as you think you ought to serve, have the courage to shake the dust from your heels and move on. The sad fact is I know — you may know too — there are plenty of people who haven’t spoken to a brother or sister, a son or daughter, in years because of some small slight, some passing insult or neglect — would the same person have the courage to do so — to cut them off — if they drew them away from a call from God to a path of discipleship?

It is the same with possessions — and only each of us can know in our own hearts whether you own the things you have or they own you! I will be candid and say that there are times I think I spend too much time tending to my computer and its needs than it does to serving me! And don’t get me started on smart phones. I’m not sure who’s really smart. Maybe it is the phones! I think they are the smart ones and we the dumb ones. I sometimes wonder who is in charge — but when I do I am called to remember that neither I nor Microsoft nor T-Mobile are the rulers of my life.

Like Moses, my friends, I set before you this day a choice — to forget it all and go about your life without allowing God to be a part of it, or to strive each day to live your life in such a way that God’s Name will be honored and the people of God served. Consider, my friends, which path you choose. But as Joshua said in similar circumstances, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (24:15)+

Taking a Chance

The apostles cast lots to choose a successor to Judas, and churches have been having raffles ever since 2014 but is that the best way to make Godly decisions? A sermon for Easter 7b.

SJF • Easter 7b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one… As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.

There is a scene in an old W.C. Fields movie in which the comedian plays a card-sharp who makes his living cheating people at poker. In this scene Fields invites a sucker to join him in a hand of the game, and the prim gentleman protests, “Say, this isn’t a game of chance, is it?” To which Fields responds, “Not the way I play it.”

Well, I don’t know about poker, but how many of you here have ever bought a lottery ticket? I won’t ask for show of hands. How about a raffle ticket? Ah — let’s be honest enough to acknowledge that raffles play a venerable part in the history of many churches! If you have done any of these things I don’t want you to feel bad about yourself by any means — for you are in the excellent company of the apostles themselves. For the apostles, as we see from our reading from the Acts of the Apostles this morning, when they felt it necessary to choose a successor to fill the empty seat of Judas among the Twelve, did just that. They laid out requirements for candidates, they nominated two — but then instead of voting, offered a prayer to God and cast lots to determine who would be numbered among them.

This was not, of course, precisely a game of chance — it was not a game at all, but serious business. So serious, in fact, that the apostles simply didn’t want to trust their own judgment in this matter and used this as a way of turning it all over to God. By casting lots it was not their personal choice that mattered, but the short straw or the name drawn out of a hat — and they saw the hand of God at work in the selection, rather than their own personal preferences or choices.

This was not the first or the last time when people earnestly seeking direction from God would turn to such a method to make a decision. Many times faithful people would turn to some decision-making process that did not rely on their own judgment, but rather some random method of selection. Ancient Israel, for example, made use of something called the Urim and the Thummim. We don’t know exactly what they were, but we do know how they were used. Several times in the Hebrew Scriptures, we are told how decisions were made by casting lots with the Urim and Thummim. They may simply have been a black and a white stone, hidden in a bag or in a box, into which the priest insert his hand and draw one or the other out — and if that doesn’t remind you of a raffle, I don’t know what else to call it!

It might seem odd to us — steeped as we are in the political season — to leave important decisions up to such a random process — but what other way is there to ensure that this isn’t simply fallible human ambition or politics at work? The important thing, as in the case of the selection of Matthias, is that both he and Justus were qualified to hold the office — and rather than getting involved in personalities or politics, the apostles prayed and then cast lots.

I very much doubt that the church today would trust to such procedure in choosing its bishops — and perhaps that shows our lack of trust both in the people who are nominated and in our own faith that God will provide a faithful and appropriate leader from among those nominated. In the long run, it takes a great deal of courage to leave it up to chance, and trust. We would rather, it seems, trust our own wisdom and powers of discernment sometimes, than on the grace of God determined through means that are not under our control. It takes courage, and it takes faith to trust in grace.

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The apostle John, both in his gospel and in his epistles, emphasized the need for faith — primarily faith informed by prayer, and ratified not by human authority but by the Spirit of God, by the presence of the Spirit of God, the Comforter, to whom John so often calls the Spirit. Thus, in the epistle today he does not entirely reject human testimony, but neither does he rely upon it. What is important is the ultimate source of the testimony: that it comes from God. Even if it resides in human beings, this testimony resides there because the spirit of God dwells in human hearts, has spoken into human hearts — into the hearts of those who have trusted and believed, and received the testimony — as we heard last week — the testimony of the water and the blood.

John also shows us that Jesus himself had this kind of trust — Jesus was willing to take a chance and to send his apostles out into the world — a dangerous world, a world where the evil one was at work — and yet Jesus had the trust and the faith to send them forth into the world to carry forth that testimony, trusting that God would protect them, and praying that God would protect them and support them in their work of spreading the good news. He prays that they will be sanctified.

And next week, on Pentecost, we will celebrate the remembrance of that sanctification — the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came down upon the apostles and filled them with complete and certain knowledge, giving them the strength to rely not merely on chance — but on that indwelling Spirit alive in their hearts and minds.

It is interesting to note is that after Pentecost the Apostles are never again shown to cast lots. They no longer need a method of chance to determine God’s will — for the Spirit of God dwells in them, and when they speak as the apostles of God speaking in God’s name. it is because God has spoken to them inwardly, and through them outwardly. We never again hear of Matthias, for instance — and in one sense the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost might seem to be a gentle rebuke to the Apostles for their impatience. Jesus had told them that the Spirit would soon come upon them; and perhaps in their anxiety they jumped the gun with their decision to elect a successor to Judas. Perhaps the Spirit was saying that no such successor was needed, for as we will hear next week, the Spirit would soon transform the church and enlarge it beyond their former imaginings, not just twelve, not just a hundred and twenty, but on that day of Pentecost three thousand were added to the body of the church, and the Spirit would soon be poured out on all sorts and conditions of people, on young men and maidens, on old and young together, on slave and free, on men and women, on Israelites and on the people of many nations.

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So don’t feel bad if you buy a lottery or a raffle ticket. Don’t feel bad if you are having trouble making some decision in your life — it’s O.K. to say a prayer and then flip a coin to get you out of your indecision. But I will show you a better way: say a prayer and then listen, listen to your heart — for that is where God will speak to you if you take the time to listen. Be patient with the patience that God provides — and take a chance on God. God dwells in your heart — and if you put your faith and trust in God, God will give you guidance. Grace is not a game of chance — at least, not the way God plays it!+