This summer I’ve been going to an exercise class at the YMCA that combines cardio and strength training; I’ve tried to go twice a week – three time when I can. I’ve enjoyed the class, and I can tell that it’s been helpful in getting more fit. But it’s meant a time commitment, even though a small one. I’ve had to keep an eye on my schedule.
Now a friend who is a fitness coach has invited me to be part of an on-line challenge group that she is hosting, and I have signed up. So for three weeks, starting tomorrow, I’ll be doing a thirty-minute work-out video every day, planning out my meals, and checking in with my coach and the challenge group. For me, that means I’ll need to get up about forty-five minutes earlier most mornings to get these work outs in. It seems a little daunting, I have to say, but I know it will be a good step to becoming more fit and staying healthy, which is a good priority.
Our Gospel reading this morning is all about priorities, and Luke puts it in the most stringent language – as he often does. In fact, 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. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple (NRSV). Yikes! Harsh words. Another translation puts it slightly differently, but still worded strongly: Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters—yes, even one’s own self!—can’t be my disciple. Anyone who won’t shoulder his own cross and follow behind me can’t be my disciple (TM). How are we to understand this? How does it apply to us as we follow Jesus in our own lives?
When we decide to make something a priority, that means we give it importance, a weighty matter for us, we carve out time and energy for it. That doesn’t mean we always succeed, but it means we keep it in focus, keep coming back to it, we don’t let other things crowd out our priority and choke it off. Certainly that is true with fitness. If you’ve ever had a health scare, and your doctor has said that you need to make changes in your habits and physical well-being, you know you need to do it, or be prepared to pay the health consequences. Similarly, if you have learned to play an instrument well, you have discovered that you can’t just sit down a play a piece with beauty and confidence on the first try – even if you already read music. It takes many hours of playing scales, and agility exercises, and technique practice, as well as learning the piece itself so that it begins to inhabit your body and soul. You’ve made your music practice a priority.
The same is true with faith, with following Jesus, being a disciple, living the baptized life. Faith is a priority, and Jesus is asking us to make it THE priority, the foundation and cornerstone on which everything else is built. Our relationship with God and the practical day-to-day living of it is what being a Christian is all about. It’s so easy – once we’ve started – to get distracted, tired, discouraged, overwhelmed, wander away. How many of you know that construction site in the Meadowlands called the American Dream? It is intended to be a mall and entertainment center. But it has been under construction for thirteen years. The ownership keeps changing, funding for the project keeps running out, and meanwhile the shell of the complex just sits there, rusting in full view of the Turnpike. Well, sometimes our spiritual lives can be like that construction project: we get started, but then something else comes along that absorbs our loyalty, we stop putting time and effort into it, we limp along on a few memes we come across on Facebook or half-remembered Sunday School lessons from childhood, and our relationship with God stalls out.
In the last twenty years or so the word “spirituality” has come into common use. At its best, the word tries to embody the way we experience God, as opposed to a dry knowing about God. Spirituality has always been a part of the Biblical and Christian record – that’s why the Psalms speak so deeply to us, and why various Christian writers describe different approaches to prayer, and worship, and Scripture reading. Some approaches hit home and resonate with some people and not with others. But in recent years, the word “spirituality” has sometimes become disconnected from anything larger than me, myself, and I; and we fall into the trap of thinking that God is there only to make us feel better, to get us through the rough times, to attend to our own personal wants and needs and those of our families.
That’s part of what Jesus’s hyperbolic words about “hating” family members and even our own lives is about. God does not want us to hate anyone or any part of his creation. Our families are one of God’s gifts to us, our life is God’s gift to us. But we musn’t mistake the gift for the Giver. We can’t put anything in God’s place of ultimate priority and loyalty – not even or families, as difficult as that may seem. There always has to be a place in our heart, and mind, and energy, and schedule for God and God’s concerns – some time for learning and growth, for prayer, for worship, for loving service.
But there’s another aspect to being a disciple that Jesus touches on here, which we could spend a great deal of time on, and which is important not to lose sight of. When Jesus speaks of carrying the Cross and following him, he is not speaking about the burdens and difficulties that naturally come in any life. We need to remember that in the first century, crucifixion was a form of torturous punishment by the Roman empire for crimes against the authority of the state, including law and order. In order to increase his public shame and humiliation, the prisoner was made to carry the wooden horizontal cross-bar through the streets to the place of crucifixion and ultimate death. Jesus’ hearers would have witnessed these kinds of executions, and known what they were about – an attempt to coerce and threaten the public into submission, as in: ‘if you don’t want to suffer the same fate, you will be sure to follow our rules.’
So Jesus holding up this image of disciples carrying the cross is putting those who would follow him on notice. There will be times, Jesus is saying, when my priorities and values and those of the Kingdom of God will come into conflict with those of the surrounding culture and the political authorities, and you need to be prepared for that. Not just prepared to follow a different way of life, but to know that there may be real-world consequences to your faith and discipleship. It might mean needing to break off a friendship, it might mean taking a public stand for justice and being ready to accept the consequences, it might mean feeling led to follow a course of action that is potentially dangerous because it threatens malign powers-that-be. The German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was part of the WWII resistance movement, and the Episcopal seminarian Jonathan Daniels, who was a white civil rights volunteer working to register black voters in Mississippi after the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, were both killed because of their work on Christ’s behalf. Jesus’ words are a reminder that following him will not make us safe and secure, as much as we would like that to be the case.
But following Jesus will lead us to truth, to love, to partnership with God, to greater meaning and purpose in life, to strength, and wholeness, and joy. And that is worth our time and attention and effort each and every day.
Let us pray.
Day by day, dear Lord, three things we pray: to see thee more clearly, to love thee more dearly, to follow thee more nearly, day by day. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 4, 2016