Sunday, September 09, 2007

Pentecost 15 - Year C

What is a disciple of Jesus?

A few years ago some of us heard a bonehead preacher at Break Forth make a distinction between a disciple of Jesus and a follower of Jesus. He divided those Christians between those who were completely, whole-heartedly dedicated to Jesus, and those who were just along for the ride.

And he used today’s gospel to prove the veracity of his argument. Either you were in or you were out. Cut and dried. No wiggle room. No slipping out the back door when the boss isn’t looking.

But I think he was hammering away too hard at the point Jesus was trying to make. And that’s quite the feat given the granite-like density of today’s gospel reading. In other words, this is a hard teaching.

Back in Christianity’s early days, the church had a way of breaking families up that would make James Dobson cry in his coffee.

Early Christians joined the church not because of their families but despite them. Numerous Greek philosophers argued that Christianity could not be true because of the family divisions it caused. Households were sawed in half. More than one husband-to-be was told to keep his hands to himself because his wife-to-be said, “I’ve decided not to marry you and adopt your religion. I’ve become a Christian instead. And you should become a Christian too.”

Some women became martyrs that way.

Those early Christians would have understood what Jesus was talking about. Jesus’ words of the cost of discipleship were more than a tight little theology that lived only on parchment. They would have seen Jesus’ words fly from the page and come at them with a knife.

And while you may not be facing martyrdom for your faith, my guess is that many of you know the cost of discipleship in your families as well.

The cousins who roll their eyes when you insist on saying grace at family reunions.

The son or daughter who lectured you against those corrupt preachers every time you wrote a cheque to the church.

The dad who sermonized on facing economic reality because you refused to buy mangoes that were grown in countries that used child slaves.

Or, you may have a different story, but a story nonetheless. Most Christians do. You’ve been willing to put a lot on the line in your service and love of Jesus. And maybe you haven’t yet had to carry a cross, you’ve given up much to follow through on your faith.

But Jesus places a special emphasis on possessions. Luke seems obsessed with it. Luke shares more of Jesus’ sayings on money and possessions than any other gospel. Jesus says that family, possessions, even our very lives must be tossed in the trash to be able to follow him. He demands full allegiance. No tourists allowed.

St. Paul makes a similar point in his letter to Philemon. Onesius, Philemon’s slave has run away from his master, and while spending time with Paul, Onesius decided to become a Christian.

So Paul, as his pastor, has a problem on his hands. Paul wants to stay in Philemon’s good books, but has his friend’s runaway slave as his parishioner. A scenario they never prepared us for in seminary.

So Paul sends Onesius back to his master with a promise that Paul would provide restitution for any financial loss that Onesius had caused. At the same time, Paul is asking Philemon to release Onesius as a slave.

So Onesius goes back to Philemon with his heart in his mouth. After all, Philemon could kill him on sight. But Paul is asking Philemon to give up his possession – the slave Onesius – and to welcome him as a brother in Christ.

Paul was saying that God wanted Philemon to take a huge financial hit to enlarge the family of God. Echoes of Jesus.

But I don’t think that Jesus was bashing possessions. And I don’t think his issue was materialism.

I think Jesus was sick of the comfortable, suburban religion that fit nicely into peoples’ lifestyles, and he finally blew a gasket.

I think Jesus was tired of institutional religion that the religious leaders were peddling that kept people in chains, a religion that had nothing to do with the God of heaven and earth, but the God of earthly blessing for the powerful, and Jesus thought his head was going to explode.

Jesus was tired of listening to people pay lip service to God at worship but forgetting who God was the other six days of the week, and he felt his heart would shatter into shards.

He was sick of religion that either feathered the beds of the powerful or cost little or nothing in the lives of the believers - grace on demand – and he couldn’t “stands it no more.”

And the way Luke ramps up this argument is by stacking story after story of Jesus getting more and more irked until his anger detonates all over his listeners.

The stories in Luke leading up to this passage are:

1. Jesus healing on the Sabbath and the synagogue leader completely missing the point.

2. The story of great dinner where the rich and powerful are invited but decline the invitation, so the host asks his staff to gather up the homeless, the sick, the blind, and let them sit at his table, and kick out any rich and powerful interlopers who end up at the door.

The point being that those who are privileged religious experts don’t get what God is up to in the world. Only those who were left behind by official religion were open to God.

So, Jesus was getting himself worked up into quite the sudsy froth until he blasts his listeners with an impossible standard to live up to. At least for the comfortably religious.

But for those UNCOMFORTABY religious, those genuinely looking for God, those who knew something’s wrong but couldn’t poke their pinkies on it, this provided a beginning. Something new. They weren’t given a little pat on the head and sent away. They were taken deathly serious.

They were told that it wasn’t what they could buy that made them important. It wasn’t what their family was like or even what kind of life they were leading. They were told that none of that matters.

They were told that God loved them just the way they were. God loved them just like they were when they came into the world: naked, vulnerable, crying.

So forget all about what you buy, what you own. Even forget about the gene pool you were born swimming in.

God wants your life because your life is your most valuable possession.

I don’t know about you, but I find this the most difficult of Jesus’ sayings. I like my stuff. Especially technology. I go to the Future Shop and they have to wipe up my drool off the counter.

I just picked up an mp3 player so I can listen to the news, ministry podcasts, and sermons while I work out. And I was giddier than a little boy at an NHL game when I got it.

But it sounds like Jesus is telling me to throw it in the trash. Not because the mp3 player is evil or because God is a luddite. But because God says that our stuff is unworthy of us as followers of Jesus - unworthy of us as human beings. And it may in fact get in the way of growing in our faith and maturing as his disciple. Our stuff keeps trapped in a sinking car.

But that’s not only why this passage stalks my soul. I’ve been told since day one that I get out of life what I put into it. I’ve been told to leave a legacy, to build something that will outlast me, to leave this world better than I found it.

But Jesus is saying that none of that matters. Everything I build, everything I worked so hard to acquire, everything I’ve down to leave my mark means nothing. He says that he doesn’t want me to make the world a better place. He said that he is renewing the world

Building collapse, names become forgotten, marks are erased. So God is saying that I am most holy when I have nothing. When I am naked.

That’s a hard message. At least it is for me.

This is a message I can’t spin. I can’t put lipstick on it and send it out to shake its money maker. I just have to let it tell its story.

Jesus is saying that we are to live a different life than the one we may have been taught, a life that’s an assault on the values of our culture.

Where the culture is obsessed with power, Jesus is into poverty. Where the culture demands brand loyalty, Jesus breaks those relationships. Where the culture rewards self-interest, Jesus asks us to be self-giving.

I hope no one ever told you it was easy to be a Christian.

Jesus is saying that, to be a Christian, means gradually, Sunday by Sunday, to be absorbed into a different story, a story different than the one we create for ourselves or that the culture creates for us. A different movie of where we have come from and where we are going. A story called “gospel.” A story called “good news.”

Christians are the ones growing into Jesus’ story. Where your story, and our story, are immersed in God’s story.

Our congregation will be talking about that story over the next little while because we’ll be talking about what it means for us to be Jesus’ disciples in our world. How are we different from the world? How does God want us to live? How is our story going to change?

So I’m asking you to pray about this. Pray that God will open the scriptures to us and show us what this passage means for us today.

And may we be given the grace to tell God’s story. Amen.


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