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)+

Seen and Unseen

Flesh and blood 2014 eyes and family ties 2014 fade in comparison to the Spirit and the vision of faith. A sermon for Proper 5b

SJF • Proper 5b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
We look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen: for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

As someone who has had a variety of eye problems since I was young, and sadly even up to the present day; and who worked while in high school as a volunteer at the Johns Hopkins Hospital Osler Eye Clinic; and later in the period just before starting my seminary studies at the New York Lighthouse for the Blind; and as one who is even now an Officer of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, whose main work is the support of the Eye Hospital there in the Holy Land — given all of this I’ve learned a good bit about vision and vision problems in my day.

And one thing I’ve learned is that vision is not only about the eyes, but about the brain. There are forms of blindness which are caused by damage to the visual cortex of the brain — which ironically is at the back of your head — in which a person who may have perfectly sound eyes may be completely blind. Conversely, some marvelous new inventions are being designed that can allow people whose eyes are damaged beyond repair, to learn to see by means of direct electrical stimulation of portions of the brain, there at the back of the head. Geordi LaForge from Star Trek Next Generation may not have to wait ‘til the 24th century to get his visor.

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All of our Scripture readings today deal in part with the difference between seeing with the eyes and knowing in your heart and mind what you see — the difference between the inside and the outside. What is seen by the eye is not always understood by the brain, even when everything is working as it should. We’ve all seen optical illusions or puzzles where the eye can be fooled and it takes time to figure out exactly what it is you are seeing. Sometimes what you are looking for can be right in front of your eyes, but for some reason you just can’t “see” it. As my grandmother used to say, “If it was a snake, it would’ve bit you!”

And speaking of snakes — recall the promise that the snake made to the man and the woman in the garden: “Your eyes will be opened and you will be like God!” Of course, their eyes were open all along, but they didn’t realize what it is that they saw. Remember: they could see. The woman, when she saw the apple and the tree, said it was pleasing to the eyes. They had seen each other naked from the time God first woke Adam up and presented him with the one he greeted as a helper suitable to him, who was bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. It was only with the bite of that apple that they realized what they were seeing — their own nakedness — that it was in any way, shape, fashion or form unseemly, and they tried the first cover-up in history: stitching leaves together and then even going so far as to hide in the underbrush. The vision of their own frail nakedness was too much for them — and in their nakedness they also saw — and felt — their shame. In one sense, they did not become like God, but rather fully human, at that point, and they tried to hide their frail humanity from the eyes of the living God himself.

They had made, you see, the mistake that all human beings are likely to make — we who see not as God sees; that is, looking at the outside — all that our eyes are able to do. For surely our outer form is weak and wasting away. But fortunately, our true humanity lies not in our outward form, our merely biological existence as what anthropologist Desmond Morris called the “Naked Ape.” Adam and Eve were rightly shamed by the frail flesh that they were — that ‘earthly tent’ as Saint Paul calls it — seen in the stark light of God’s own judging presence. But there is more to our humanity than just our naked outside. There is an unseen part, an inner nature that is unlike that of the animals. This is the part of us that is able to reason, and above all, to love. As Saint Paul assures us, this inner capacity is renewed day by day by God’s grace, even as the outward form is wasting away in aging, sickness and death.

Our human nature, as made in God’s image, allows us to have that God’s-eye-view, to look to the inside. This is why we look beyond what can be seen with the eyes of flesh to see with the eye of faith. There is more to us than merely animal biology — our flesh and blood, the earthly tent of our outward nature. We are also creatures of spirit, made in God’s image at the first, though our eyes of flesh got us into trouble when we first started using them, startled to discover that we were naked. We failed to realize at that beginning point, that there is ever so much more to us than our skin and our flesh.

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And more than our flesh and blood, as the concluding portion of this morning’s gospel passage reminds us. Jesus’ mother and siblings are worried that their son and brother is heading for trouble — people in town are saying he is crazy or even possessed (much the same thing in that time.) And so they’ve come to take him in hand, and get him out of harm’s way, away from the crowd and the religious authorities who have come down from Jerusalem. And when the people tell Jesus that his mother and family — his flesh and blood — are asking for him outside, he makes the astounding statement that it is the people in the house, those there around him, who are his mother, brother, and sister. Whoever does God’s will is kin to Jesus, kin through the Spirit. It is not the flesh and blood relationship that matters — the relationship we may or may not have with each other through biological descent or inheritance or kinship — but the relationship that each of us has and all of us have with God, through God’s Holy Spirit dwelling within us, and among us.

And notice once again how this relationship is portrayed as being inside rather than outside: the biological family, the family of flesh and blood, is outside the house, seen by all in the public square; but the true family of God is inside, inside the house with Jesus, gathered around him. It is here, here in ‘this house not made by hands’ — the house which is the new temple of God’s Holy Spirit, which is made up of all of the members of the church — it is there, “here” as Jesus says, that the true family is to be found.

So work, my sisters and brothers — and I do not call you that lightly, for we are all members of God’s true family — work to keep your inner eye, your eye of faith, focused on the place where truth and mercy dwell, with our Father in heaven. Study to see as God sees, guided by the Spirit into the truth of God’s grace, God’s love, and God’s glory.+

Family Values

SJF • Proper 28c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends...
There appears to be a contradiction between two of the Scripture readings appointed for today. The prophet Malachi says that God will send the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes, and that he will turn the hearts of children to their parents, and parents to children, so that he will not come and strike the land with a curse. But in the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus says that before the temple is destroyed, a time of testing for the disciples will take place, in which even parents, brothers, relatives and friends will betray the believers into the hands of kings and governors, and some will be put to death on account of their faithfulness to Christ. Both prophecies concern the people of one’s own household — parents and children — with Malachi prophesying what sounds like a happy meeting of minds and hearts, and Jesus speaking of betrayal and treachery. So which is it?
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Well, my friends in Christ, that is not a trick question! Nor would I pose you such a puzzle if I didn’t think there was an answer. In fact, I want to use these passages as a warning against careless Scripture reading — and taking isolated texts out of their context. In short, what I want to help you to see for yourselves, is that the texts are not contradictory — although understanding their harmony involves knowing a bit more about the scriptures, and the broader context, with greater depth. As the poet Alexander Pope wrote in the early 18th century, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” and we had best, as he suggested, “drink deep” if we are truly and well to understand. He was speaking of secular knowledge — but the advice goes double for Scripture! And I hope you will not mind this sermon taking the form of a bit of Bible study, in keeping with the collect for the day, with its mandate to read, mark learn, and inwardly digest the Scripture. And I hope we don’t end up with indigestion!
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Let us begin by taking a look at these texts in their historical context. Malachi is the last book of what we call the Old Testament. On the basis of the situation Malachi describes it likely comes from the time of the reconstruction of the nation after the Babylonian captivity, the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. So when Malachi refers to Elijah, and foretells his coming — he is harking back to a figure from the time when the kingdom was divided and the kings both north and south, were, as my grandmother used to say, no better than they should be. He is harking back to a heroic figure who spoke out against corruption in high places some hundreds of years before. This would be like an American referring to George Washington or a Haitian to Toussaint L’Ouverture.
The return of the prophet Elijah was to mark a new beginning for Israel. And Malachi prophesies that Elijah will come “before the great and terrible day of the Lord.” How long before, however, remains the question. But one thing the new Elijah will do is “turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents.”
When we turn to the Gospel, we find the disciples asking Jesus when the temple will be destroyed. He tells them that the precise hour is not known, and further that they are to trust no one who tells them that they come in his name and proclaim that the time is near. He further warns them not to be terrified when they hear of wars and revolutions taking place — these are not signs of the imminent end. As he goes on to say, nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be earthquakes, and famines and plagues, and even portents and signs from heaven. But before all of that happens, Jesus promises that many among them will be arrested, persecuted, imprisoned and tried — in some cases betrayed by parents and brothers.
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Obviously Jesus is speaking before the destruction of the temple, as that is the topic of the disciples’ question. Some suggest that he is speaking generically — not of a specific destruction of the temple but of the general fact that whatever humans build will one day fall to dust. For instance, I can promise you — I prophesy! — that one day the Empire State Building will no longer stand, and I cannot tell you the day or hour of its fall; but I can tell you that some day it will not be there any more; and the same goes, might I suggest, for the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine, where we had our diocesan convention just yesterday; in fact, because it’s built directly over a major fault, I can guarantee you it is going to fall to ruin, some day. It reminds me of what the old hymn says,
Mortal pride and earthly glory,
sword and crown betray our trust;
though with care and toil we build them,
tower and temple fall to dust.
But that Jesus should be making such a general observation of the frailty of all human efforts seems unlikely to me — for Jesus surely would have clarified he meant that when his disciples asked, “When will this be.” It is much more likely that Jesus is referring to a much more violent destruction, as actually took place in the next generation. The temple was burned by the Romans in the year 70, which brought an end to its use for worship. And then the whole city was leveled in the next century, and a Roman temple, a pagan temple, was built on the site of the Jewish temple — a desolating sacrilege indeed.
Now, this historical placement of the texts still leaves us with a bit of a puzzle — and conflicting “family values” so to speak. As is so often the case, it isn’t merely the historical, but the biblical, which will set us on the path to understanding.
One of the great gifts of Anglicanism to Bible study through Archbishop Cranmer, back in the days of the Reformation, was to advocate using one portion of Scripture to help understand other parts of Scripture. That turns out to be the case, right here. It isn’t just the historical, but the biblical itself that will set us on the path to understanding. The key is the figure of Elijah himself, whom Jesus affirmed had already come in the person of John the Baptist. Luke makes this explicit in the first chapter of his Gospel, right on the first column of text, where the angel appears to Zechariah and promises him a son who will act in the spirit of Elijah, and then the angel even quotes the very passage from Malachi we read this morning. It is also worth noting that in Hebrew Malachi means “angel.” And so the angel redelivers Malachi’s message about the one who is to come in the spirit of Elijah. So from Luke’s perspective, Malachi’s prophecy has been fulfilled. Elijah has come — in the person of John the Baptist.
This allows us to establish a kind of time-line: Elijah, that is, John the Baptist, comes — and he does indeed preach a baptism of repentance, to families, parents and children, and all of the society, to reconcile and embrace a life of service and obedience and fairness. Then Jesus takes up his ministry of preaching the Gospel of love, and telling us again and again that our true family is not the family of blood and guts, but the family of the Spirit, the family of God. Then Jesus is betrayed, crucified, and most importantly, raised from the dead. And after his ascension, but before the destruction of the temple, comes the beginning of the persecutions — which Luke will go on to record in the second half of his work, the Acts of the Apostles.
It is a hard time, a time of betrayal. It is a time when families once again forget John’s teaching and Jesus’ teaching, and start to turn on each other, and eager to save themselves, or divided over what is the true faith, betray children, parents, brothers and sisters to death. The apparent contradiction in the prophecies is resolved as a sequence of how people — people as individuals or as families — will act differently under different circumstances.
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Different times and different pressures can and do make people and families act in different ways — the same people who may act virtuously with kindness and love one day may the next turn vicious — as resources grow short, as different temptations arise. The moral point in all of this is that the family itself ought not be the focus of our virtues, of our values. Yes, you heard me right — the family itself is of no absolute moral value: there are good families and bad families, families who act well, and families who act poorly. There are families who will love and protect and turn their hearts to one another, and there are those who will harden their hearts and betray each other, depending on the circumstances — and sometimes, sadly, it can be the same family! Like the temple itself, like the church itself — if a family is not doing God’s will and providing a context for doing God’s work — it is of no intrinsic, absolute value. It is what we do, and how we do it, as members of a family or of a church, that is of value.
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As that hymn I quoted earlier continues, “But God’s power, hour by hour, is my temple and my tower.” Put not your trust in earthly things, temples or towers, or people, or families — but in things heavenly. If you want your family or your church to be a place of virtue and love, set your mind on God, and God’s will — whatever the pressures of the day. Hold fast, keep hold of that anchor line to God, who is steady and firm, and a sure foundation for your faith and your life. As Paul counsels the Thessalonians, addressing them as members of God’s new family, the church: “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.” Base all of your actions upon the love of God and the love of neighbor — including the closest neighbors: the members of your own household — and you will be expressing the family values of the family of God. And at the time of testing, because you have placed your trust in God first, and loved your neighbors as yourselves, you will be safely brought through the great ordeal, to rejoice forever in that temple not made by hands, the temple which is the Body of Christ himself; to whom we give eternal praise and glory, with the Father, through the Holy Spirit.+