Psalm 150 (Choir Anthem)
Let me just start with a question: Does Jesus mean what he says? Just raise your hand. Ok—here’s another question. Do you think Jesus wants you to hate your mom? Just raise your hand. Does Jesus want you to hate your mom? He says so—“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.” Says it right there. Luke 14:26. When I preach, I assume that Jesus means what he says, because if he doesn’t, it would mean that we’re all pretty much wasting our time here, although the music is generally worth your time. And there were pancakes earlier, too, so maybe it’s not so bad, spending the morning hearing good music and eating pancakes. But you probably didn’t count on these words from Jesus. I’ve been thinking about them for days, and I’m still not ready to hear them.
My sympathies, as always, lie with Kierkegaard. I don’t want to be the pious and tender-minded exegete. Jesus makes me uncomfortable. If it weren’t for my upbringing, the distance of time, and the hoary old voice of Scripture, I’d probably think Jesus was crazy. His own family thought that. One time, when Jesus was teaching, Mark tells us that his mother and brothers came to talk to him because they had heard that he had gone crazy. Mark says they went out “to restrain him.” While he was teaching, somebody said to Jesus, “Your mother and your brothers are outside. They want to speak to you.” And do you know what Jesus said? He looked around him at the crowd and said, “Who are my mother and my brothers? Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” That’s a hard passage, too. I’ve always thought that response was harsh. I don’t know—is it hateful?
The Jesus Luke tells us about is very clear: nothing can come in the way of being a disciple, except a cross, which you must pick up and carry along with Jesus. In particular you must give up family, safety, and possessions and exchange them for strangers, suffering, and poverty.Part of me really wishes that these were not the texts for Rally Sunday. Aren’t we celebrating our children? There are guests here. These words are indecent. We should have been given texts like, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Except when you think about those, they aren’t that different from this. Your neighbor is the person before you, whether you like him or not. And the Scriptures says love the Lord your God with all—all—your heart and soul and mind. All of it. Love your God will all of what and who you are, with all of what you have. In one of our offering prayers, we say, “Merciful Father, we offer with joy and thanksgiving what you have first given us—ourselves, our time, and our possessions, signs of your gracious love.” And thus question comes to us again—do we love the gifts or the giver all good things? Perhaps we prefer the gifts less than the giver. And does a good giver ever ask us to give up the gifts? Perhaps the worst of all is that Jesus’ words are not for other people: he himself left his family, took up his cross, had no possessions. And his disciples also left everything to follow him. We live 2000 years later, in a culture those disciples could not have imagined. So what to say?
Well, here’s a way to think about it. Think about your great-grandparents, or maybe your grandparents. Maybe they lived in Iowa in the late 1800s, or maybe in the Hill Country of Texas in 1937. If so, they did not have electricity. In 1937, Texas Power & Light did the math, and the math said it was not profitable to provide the small towns in the Hill Country with electricity. So the water had to be hauled, 40 gallons or sixty pounds at a time, from a well. If you wanted to cook, you had to chop wood and then put the wood in a stove, which was hard to control, coughed ash and smoke, and for the five hot months of the year gave the home a foretaste of the heat of hell. There was no vacuum cleaner, no fridge, no ceiling fan much less A/C, no iron. There was wash day, but it meant using that stove to get hot water and turning to the washboard. There was no wash machine. Not even in 1937, because there was no money in getting electricity to the hill country. As Robert Caro tells it, all that changed when FDR got elected and established the Rural Electrification Administration, and a young congressman named Lyndon Johnson went door to door to convince every farmer and rancher to give up five dollars he didn’t have to form a cooperative that could secure a loan. And, then one day, the lights came on and everything changed. No more smoking wood stoves. Electric pumps for water—indoor plumbing. Radios. Refrigerators. All because FDR, Sam Rayburn, and LBJ got power where it wasn’t profitable to go. It changed lives. It probably saved lives. Austin is now one of the most desirable places to live in the nation. But when the lights came on in the Hill Country, Stella Gliddon, who grew up there, said, “people began to name their kids for Lyndon Johnson.”
Power changed everything. The use of fossil fuels has a direct correlation with the economic prosperity of a country. We’re used to it now, and we take all this power we have for granted. We even have to remind ourselves to turn the lights off when we leave a room. Electric power saves lives, makes those lives better, more comfortable. The industrial revolution was great for those that were born into industrialized countries.
But fossil fuels are going to destroy this planet. Hate your father and your mother, Jesus says. Unless you give up your possessions, you cannot be my disciple, Jesus says. If you do not carry your cross, you cannot be my disciple. Prefer fossil fuels less. Actually, hate them. Hurricane Dorian would not have been so powerful if it weren’t for global warming. Hurricane Harvey, the same. Superstorm Sandy, the same. The way we get our power is killing us. Dorian was the strongest hurricane ever to hit the Bahamas. Of course the most important thing to do is to get the power on first, to get fuel to the trucks and the cars.
Perhaps nothing in human history, other than the normalization of democratic rule has been so beneficial for us besides power. But power from fossil fuels has to stop. So when we hear Jesus saying, “Give something up or you cannot be my disciple,” there’s only one thing to do. To give it up, however we can.
These sorts of choices, these choices between good things and God, are not foreign to God’s people. Today, we hear God’s words to God’s people at the verge of Jordan: “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity…Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” This, for our time, no longer needs to be interpreted spiritually, but literally. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live. In fact, Al Gore chose this verse as the epigraph for his book, Our Choice. Choose life. That’s all we have to do. We didn’t know it was so hard, and what we had to give up.
But the good news is that God never gives up on us. God didn’t give up on the Israelites, even though they did choose death, just as God didn’t give up on the descendants of Adam and Eve. God showed God’s love for this whole world by sending Jesus, his Son, so that all who believe in him know that life is possible. We can choose, because God chooses us. Thanks be to God.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack