Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Bernard Jean Delcourt, OHC
BCP - Proper 18 C – Sunday 09 September 2007
Lord Jesus, may your teachings and your example help us to count the cost of discipleship. You are the Way. Help us to choose to follow you knowingly. Amen.
Today’s readings make it pretty onerous to love God. Discipleship is dear indeed.
These readings leave us in no doubt. If we want to be Christians, we can’t carve out little niches in our lives where we’ll continue to do business as usual and sacrifice to our other gods; our family, our lover, our wealth, our power games, our personal appearance.
If we want to be Christians, none of these will be allowed to stand in the way of loving God first and foremost. We will need to love everyone as He loves us. Everything else has to recede in the background.
Are we willing to do that? Are we able to give up our idols of consumerism and individualism? God seems to think we have it in us.
Two weeks ago, I returned from an extensive family leave. I thank my community for that. I stayed for three weeks with my 79 year old parents in Belgium. Their health had recently deteriorated markedly.
Initially, my stay in Belgium had been planned as a vacation with mini-trips to favorite spots, lots of visits to friends and a few extended family occasions. Less of that occurred than we had expected.
As it turned out, my parents benefited from my presence to organize extra help at home. Nurses will come more often; professional family-helpers will come in and do some shopping, cooking and errands; friendly neighbors will look in on them more frequently and will offer respite by taking one or the other out for a while. This should enable Dad and Mom to fulfill their wish to remain together in their own home as long as their situation will allow it and preferably to the end of their life.
Over the 46 years of my life, I have developed a deeply loving relationship with both my parents. We have had ups and downs but deep down we wish the very best for one another and we do what we can to make that happen. That’s one definition of “agape”, the Greek word often used for love in the gospels.
So it was startling to read today’s gospel in preparation for this sermon. It features one of Jesus’ “difficult sayings”; the bane of many preachers. However, the more I studied and prayed the text, the more I became convinced that it is a beautiful text that helps us understand our priorities as Christians.
So 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.”
The word “hate” (“misein” in Greek) is used more than once in the Gospel according to Luke. Most times, it is used in opposition to “agape” (love). Both verbs in Greek refer more to a course of action than to emotional states, as would be the case in English. But still, “hate” is “hate”.
My understanding of its use here is that Jesus used it as a hyperbole, an extravagant exaggeration of what he meant as a way of making the message stick. That was not unusual in Jewish rhetoric. And it worked! We do remember this passage.
My understanding of Jesus’ message here is the following: “You cannot be my disciple, a follower of mine (that is, a Christian, in our present language), if you put any other relationship before your discipleship. You cannot be my disciple, if you are unwilling to also meet and confront the difficulties that will come your way because of your following me. Some of those difficulties may be that you will be pitted against those or against that which you feel love for.”
Then Jesus adds parables about counting the cost of doing things. He seems to tell us: “Think about this before setting on the Way; I am the Way.”
I can’t say I didn’t have thoughts like that when I set foot in Brussels airport to return to the monastery. I was leaving behind beloved, aging and now frail parents.
Yes, I have put following Jesus before serving myself and my family. But you know, at times it hurts – maybe that’s part of the cross I must carry. I did not believe that staying in Belgium would solve all of my parents’ issues. But it was tempting to throw myself entirely in that. And make that the “meaning” of me for a while.
The day before my departure, Dad, Mom and I went to a nearby Carmelite convent where they often attend Mass. We sat on the uncomfortable wooden benches with kneelers.
Despite his frailty, Dad insisted on getting up and kneeling when expected. I tried to quietly convince him to stay seated. Progressively, I realized he emotionally needed to make the efforts required for what Robin Williams refers to as “pew aerobics”.
During the sermon, he softly tapped his fingers on his knee as he listened attentively. I grasped his hand and he squeezed mine. We didn’t speak but I thought he was telling me: “I’ll be OK, whatever happens. And just like these Carmelites your Mom and I love, you have to do what you have to do.”
All this to say that: it is harder to follow Jesus than to agree with him from a distance. It’s easy to admire his ideas and include a few chosen ones in our way of life. Living according to the Judeo-Christian ethics is what a great many of us try to do.
But if we are to be Christians, we should no longer be engrossed in connections with loved ones and in much enjoyed occupations. We need to set our sights further than that.
In the process, we are building the most extensive family of all (His brothers and sisters, the human family) and we are involved in the best occupation of all (building the Kingdom of God here and now).
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus, make us count the cost of discipleship; help us to be serious about following You even if we know the personal cost of doing so.
Holy Spirit give us the courage and the fortitude to be about the love of God - above all else.
O God, help us the see how vast a family you are giving us in all the brothers and sisters who are on the Way, Your Way. May we always help one another to move towards You.