Sunday, Sept 4, 2022
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church
Full disclosure here: The following message has been highly influenced by the fact that Bob and
I celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary yesterday. Never thought I’d be able to say that.
Neither of us ever even dreamed that was possible. But, by the grace of God it has come to pass:
50 years ago, two hopeful but scared young people, both of us already once divorced from other
people, stood before a Lutheran pastor and we promised to forsake all others and get through the
rest of our lives together, no matter what. As you know, that’s not exactly what the marriage
vows say. But from this lofty perspective of 50 years later that is, in very succinct terms, what
we were committing ourselves to try to do. God knows most of us don’t have much of a clue
what the reality of our commitments will require of us.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus confronts this very human inability to face the reality of our
commitments. He’s walking along with the Twelve he’s already called to be his disciples, he’s
already spent time in conversation with them, and he’s already told them what was ahead for him
in Jerusalem. Of course, they hadn’t understood what that really meant, and they wouldn’t until
long after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.
The context of this anniversary in Bob’s and my life is related to today’s gospel, at least in my
thinking. Because in my own slow walk toward facing the realities of marriage, I’d say it has
taken me about 50 years. And so, it is with our commitments to Jesus. Please hear this at the
beginning before I go any further, it takes many of us, maybe all of us, a very long time, maybe a
lifetime, to come to grips with the reality of what Jesus asks of us.
So, Jesus is walking along with the Twelve and a crowd is following along behind. A mixed
multitude no doubt. Possibly the original groupies. Some out on a lark because there wasn’t
anything else to do, some hoping for a free meal, some no doubt attracted to the strange but
winsome words of this new style of Rabbi, many no doubt desperate for healing or relief from
oppressive lives, and some simply risking that they’ll find some hope.
Jesus stops walking, turns to this large crowd of people, and begins to speak to them, not to the
Twelve, but to the hangers’ on and starstruck groupies and the desperate. The text doesn’t say
this, but I imagine that Jesus might have been a little impatient. After all, the Twelve weren’t
understanding what he was telling them, and he’d already devoted all kinds of time trying to get
his message across. How in God’s name, literally, could he get this group— whose reasons for
traveling with him ranged from selfish and casual to serious seekers— to begin to really listen to
him, let alone begin to understand what they were committing to by traveling with him?
So, to make a point and to get their attention he begins with hyperbole. “Whoever comes to me
and does not hate father and mother, spouse and children, brothers, and sisters, yes, and even life
itself, cannot be my disciple.” To hate someone, in the Hebrew and Aramaic expressions of
Jesus’ day, meant to turn away from, to detach from someone. To de-tach from a close
relationship in order to at-tach to someone else. As in Genesis, “a man shall leave his father and
mother and cling to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.” A new relationship of priority
requires some process of de-tachment. As in marriage, whoever does not forsake all others
cannot, is not able to stay married. Simple as that. For following Jesus, whoever does not turn
away from, whoever does not de-tach cannot at-tach as a disciple of Jesus. Whoever does not,
cannot. If you do not, you cannot.
At a much younger, more fundamentalist time in my life of following along in the crowd behind
Jesus, I can imagine Jesus saying something like this to me: “If you knew me better, you’d know
I’m not asking you to hate anyone. If you knew me better, you’d know my message is all about
love. I’m trying to get you to stop and think about just who I am, just who it is you think you’re
following. Because Mary, if you do not, you cannot be my disciple.”
Jesus continues speaking to the crowd, telling them they will have to bear their own cross. He
knew full well, that if the Twelve weren’t getting this concept of the cross, this crowd certainly
wouldn’t either. But still, he had to lay it out there, hoping that someday when they faced some
major challenge in life they wanted to avoid, they’d remember that he’d said that bearing your
own cross is part of the deal. Whoever does not, cannot.
After a couple of illustrations on the importance of thinking through the implications of one’s
commitments, Jesus ends with another zinger: “If you do not give up all your possessions you
cannot become my disciples.” At a much younger, more fundamentalist time of my life of
following along in the crowd behind Jesus, I can imagine Jesus saying to me: “If you knew me
better you’d know I’m not calling you to a life of poverty, but to a life of stewardship. I’m just
saying, Mary, if you’re going to follow me you have to be willing to give up everything, even
your own best plans. If you do not, you cannot.”
Jesus was offering the crowd that was traveling with him a summary of his course in
Discipleship— the course objectives of what could be expected if they chose to stick around for
the course of a lifetime, the course that would last a lifetime. And he states clearly his
expectations for the successful completion of the course: If you do not, you cannot. If we do
not, we cannot.
If we do not live with God as the priority relationship, we just won’t be able to follow Jesus.
If we are not willing to give up everything, we hold dear, everything we hold closer in our hearts
than God’s will for us, we just simply won’t be able to follow Jesus.
The costs of discipleship are hyperbole in the literal sense. And when we’re trying to grapple
with what discipleship costs us personally it truly feels like hyperbole, exaggerated beyond all
reason and common sense. Surrender of ourselves to God always feels like hyperbole to our
human egos of independence and control. Jesus asks us to respond with thoughtful intent on our
part, and not only thoughtful intent but active participation. Jesus wants us awake, involved.
Passive, asleep at the wheel, on remote control won’t cut it. Jesus wants active participants in
the work of transforming us into his disciples.
This Church, attempting to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, echo’s his intent for people to be
fully conscious of what is required in making solemn commitments to God. Thoughtful
preparation is required for everyone who would enter into the solemn vows of baptism and
confirmation and reaffirmation and reception and marriage and ordination. The Church wants a
crowd whose commitments are not entered into “lightly or unadvisedly,” as the Marriage liturgy
says, but commitments entered into “reverently, deliberately.” For every baptism, every
confirmation, reception, or reaffirmation, every marriage, and every ordination, the community
of witnesses is asked to uphold the people making those commitments. “Will you who witness
these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?” What is our
answer? We will, with God’s help.
There you have it folks. That is the work of the church. The Church will always be a mixed
multitude of a crowd, a community made up of mixed motivations for even being here. A
community with varying degrees of recognition of God’s presence, and most definitely varying
degrees of recognition that it is by God’s grace that we are able to keep any of our commitments.
And lastly, I’m pretty sure there’s at least one more thing Jesus wants: a crowd of companions
who are walking, not behind him, but right alongside him, doing all our work together with
Jesus. I’m just saying, if we do not walk with Jesus, we cannot do the work we are called to do.
If we do not, we cannot.
The Rev. Mary Green