Tuesday, September 7, 2010

RCL - Proper 18C - September 5, 2010

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. James Dowd, OHC
RCL - Proper 18C - September 5, 2010

Jeremiah 18:1-11

Philemon 1-21

Luke 14:25-33

Hating Your Loved Ones

Every time I hear some pious politician talk about “protecting marriage” or “family values” I think of the passage that we just heard from the Gospel according to St. Luke, and I have to chuckle just a little to myself. Nothing like Jesus telling us to hate our families to get FOX News all worked up.

The readings we heard today from our Scriptures are difficult, to say the least. But they are crucial readings for a deeper understanding of the Christian life and, especially in the case of the readings from Jeremiah and Luke, particular insights into the monastic life as well.

Let's start with St. Luke, and that verse that just blares out at me every time I read it or hear it: “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.” The notes in the NRSV – the translation of the Scriptures that we use, state that, really, St. Matthew's version of this passage is the more accurate meaning to Jesus' words. Matthew says “Whoever loves father or mother more than me, is not worthy of me...” (Mt. 10:37). The notes in the New Jerusalem Bible say that the word “hate” is a Hebraism, which is defined as a “linguistic feature typical of Hebrew occurring especially in another language” (The Free On-Line Dictionary). This can actually refer to either Hebrew or Aramaic. In other words, the Aramaic word for “hate”, which Jesus would have spoken in, does not translate well into Greek, which is the language St. Luke wrote in, which then got translated into English. Our English word for “hate” just does not mean what the Aramaic word for “hate” means.

OK...that still didn't make me sleep any better this week. This bothers me, and always has. I've heard the explanations many times before and, intellectually, I accept them. But something has always bothered me about how easily we seem to sweep this under the rug. In our time we seem to desperately want to rid ourselves of the meaning of this passage.

A recent edition of The Christian Century (8/10/10) had as its lead an article entitled “Our God is Too Nice.” Its focus was on how we adults are passing along our faith tradition to our teenagers. The emphasis, in this rather progressive bi-weekly, was that in recent decades we have just gone too far in softening up both the language and the message of Christianity, in an attempt to reconcile the language of our ancient faith with the rather contemporary language and message of the therapeutic culture so evident in Western society at this time.

The author of the article, Kenda Creasy Dean is a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, and she quotes the National Study of Youth and Religion that sees “an alternative faith in American teenagers [developing] that feeds on and gradually co-opts if not devours established religious traditions. This faith, called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, generally does not and cannot stand on its own.” Teenagers would not be getting this stuff if we adults hadn't already, to a large extent, bought into it.

So what is being devoured? Well, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism espouses a philosophy, I'll not call it theology, that teaches that God is nice and wants us to be nice too. It teaches us that the main purpose of life is to be happy and fulfilled, and that most, if not all religions, teach basically the same thing.

Now, let's go back to that Gospel passage. Hate your father and mother. Hate life itself. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. Give up all your possessions.

Doesn't sound very nice to me.

Now the truth is that I don't believe Jesus meant the word “hate” the way we understand the word “hate” in our language. Jesus was clear throughout the Gospel that he had come to fulfill the Law, not break or destroy it, and the Fifth Commandment requires that we honor our father and mother – not hate them. So I am not so hung up on the specific word “hate” but rather on the whole passage. It is not nice, it is not therapeutic, it is not about happiness. And sometimes when I hear this particular passage, like some teenagers I have known, I want to stamp my feet and storm out of the room, yelling “it's not fair, you're mean”. But if I behaved that way, my guess is that the Superior would want to have a little chat with me.

I don't think Jesus is mean, but I do think Jesus is tough. And his call to discipleship is really tough. Nothing about our calling as Christians is meant to be nice or happy. Loving God more than our closest relatives and friends, giving away our cherished possessions, being willing to carry our cross and die, if necessary, is not about our therapeutic needs. It is about being totally immersed in this man-God, this Jesus Christ.

This total immersion is a kind of clinging to God, in Christ Jesus, that enables us to become Christ's Body in the world. This clinging is not of this world, rather, clinging to God in Christ Jesus is an attempt to incarnate the wisdom of the Gospel into our very being. To allow the Word to become our flesh.

Now the monastic tradition has a good deal to say about this. Some examples: About the year 400, John Cassian teaches us in his First Conference that the great desert father, Abba Moses, stated that “to cling to God unceasingly and to remain inseparably united to him...is impossible for the person who is enclosed in perishable flesh.” But he goes on to say “but we ought to know where we should fix our mind's attention and to what goal we should always recall our soul's gaze.” Because it is there, in our very souls, “that the kingdom of God can be established in us.” (Conference 1: XIII.1-2).

St. Seraphim of Sarov, one of the great Russian Orthodox monks who lived in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries was heavily influenced by Cassian and taught that “the true goal of the Christian life consists in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God (Boosalis: The Joy of the Holy, p. 35).

In the early Twentieth Century, another monk, this time in the Benedictine tradition, Blessed Columba Marmion, the Abbot of Mardesous Abbey, expanded on this theme when he wrote, rather simply, “never forget this truth, a man is worth that which he seeks, that to which he is attached. Are you seeking God? Are you tending towards him with all the fervor of your soul?” Or, are “you seeking the creature – gold, pleasures, honors...” etc. (Marmion: Christ the Ideal of the Monk, p. 598). That which you seek, you become.

I think that's what St. Luke meant by hating your relatives, giving away all your possessions, carrying your cross and even being willing to die. We are called to cling, to be attached, to one being – Jesus Christ. If we are to be Christ's disciple, then we are to count the cost as one building a tower and that cost can be dear. To cling to Mom or Dad, spouse, children, or even your own life indicates that the relationship you cling to is of more value to you than your relationship with God. To cling to a possession, means that the possession is of more value to you than God. As I said, tough stuff.

Why does God require us to strip away all that we cling to? Well, the way God put it to Jeremiah was to invite him down to the potters house where he could see the potter making a clay vessel, which as it turned out, was spoiled. The potter worked and reworked the clay into another vessel – one that seemed good to the potter.

God is the potter. We are the vessel. The vessel of God. He desires to rework us in such a way that the Word can become flesh within us. He desires to mold us in such a way that in giving up our attachments to all worldly relationships, ideas, and possessions, thus becoming a disciple of Christ, we find the exquisite beauty within our souls, known as the kingdom of God.

The path to letting go of these attachments is prayer. Abba Moses, St. Seraphim, Blessed Columba, and virtually every other monk you could ever meet, will tell you that prayer is the only way to travel this path. Prayer styles and approaches vary from time to time, community to community. But prayer is meant to transform us into the disciples that Christ calls us to be. Our discipleship does not require that we hate our family. Our discipleship does require that we would be willing to give up our life for all of God's family. That could mean literal martyrdom, or it might mean what use to be called a white martyrdom – a dying to self so that Christ could live within us.

In the wisdom of the Gospel, the Good News is that to be Christ's disciple, isn't hate, it's love; and it isn't therapy, it's healing; and it isn't death, it is life. To die for Christ, either figuratively or literally, is for Christ to live in you.

I have struggled, and wrestled and fought with this text for a long time now. And I will continue to struggle, and wrestle and fight with it. This passage from Luke's Gospel is an important one, and I am not willing to sweep it under the rug. I want to struggle with it. I want to come to a deeper understanding of what it means for me to cling only to Christ Jesus, to be willing to die for him. I think this is our call as his disciples. I encourage you, no implore you, to struggle with me as we continue on our journey of love, and healing, and life, together.

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