Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 5, 2010.
Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, MA

Deuteronomy 30:15-20 Philemon 1-21
Psalm 1 Luke 14:25-33

Choosing life

Many years ago, when my son Sam was a small boy, he asked a question that I found quite perplexing. I can’t remember what we had been talking about, what we were doing, or what else was going on, but I do remember my surprise and confusion when he looked up one day and asked, “Hey, Mom, whom do you love more, me or God?”

How do you answer a question like that? Perhaps the safest reply is simply to parry the question with one of your own. “Why do you ask?” you might say to your child, or, “Do you need a little loving right now?” I remember that his question left me stammering, groping for words, as if suddenly faced with an existential riddle. How do you explain to a small boy that God is not an object – even a very big object – that we can set beside another object, compare with it, and then say, “I like you more, and I like you less”? How do you convey to a kid that the sacred mystery we call ‘God’ is not a thing at all, but abides within all things, and beyond all things, and is the source of all things? How do you tell a child that loving God and loving someone else is not a zero sum game in which more love for God means less love for you?

But Sam’s question was a good one. It is tempting to try to dodge it, because it makes us feel awkward. I mean, come on – do we really have to rank our loves, to choose whether loving God or our family-members comes first?

Well, as a matter of fact, the answer is yes. We do.

That is what we hear in today’s Gospel, with its strong, stark words from Jesus. Large numbers of people were traveling with him, an enthusiastic crowd that apparently had no idea what it meant to follow Jesus, or what the cost might be. Rather than welcoming them in some light-hearted, easy-going way – “come one, come all; the more, the merrier” – Jesus turned and challenged them to choose. He made three strong statements and offered two short parables to make his point. In the first sentence: Whoever does not hate family members – even life itself – cannot be my disciple. In the second sentence: Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me, cannot be my disciple. In the last sentence: whoever does not give up all possessions cannot be my disciple.

“Think it through!” He warns those eager, would-be followers. “Consider the cost!” As he explains in the twin parables, if you were building a tower in your vineyard, you would be wise to consider carefully in advance whether you had sufficient resources to finish the job. Again, if you were a king whose forces were heavily outnumbered by the enemy’s, you would be wise to negotiate a peaceful settlement.

In other words: if you want to follow Jesus, you have to let everything else go, everything you love, everything that is dear to you, perhaps even life itself. If you want to follow Jesus, you have to put God first. Are you ready to make that choice?

Jesus is stiff-arming the over-hasty crowds, and I am reminded of the stories (apocryphal or not) of monasteries where the seeker travels a long distance to reach the monastery gates, knocks on the heavy door, and seeks admission as a novice. The gatekeeper takes a look at him, says, “No, go away,” and slams the door shut. The seeker refuses to leave and waits outside. Days go by, and he knocks again. Again the door closes in his face. Time passes, and the seeker’s resolve only becomes more firm, his intention more clear. He sits through storms, cold nights, and a blazing sun. At last he knocks a third time, and only now does the door swing open. Evidently a casual seeker will not gain entry, but only one who has considered the cost and whose hunger for truth is strong.

Many of us start out as rather casual Christians: maybe we hang around, we show up at services, we select what we like and ignore the rest. But quickly or slowly, the more we gaze at Jesus and the more we learn to see what he sees and to love what he loves, the stronger grows the pull to give ourselves fully to God, just as Jesus did, and to love God with our whole heart and mind and soul and strength. The paradox, of course, is that the more fully we open our hearts to love and to be loved by God, the more generously, wisely, and freely we are able to love our own self and the people around us.

Let’s be clear. When Jesus declares that we must “hate” father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even life itself, he is not asking us to despise our families or the gift of life. He is expressing, instead, in the strongest possible terms, the need for detachment. If in this very particular sense we “hate” the people around us and “hate” our lives, then we are set free from the burden of people pleasing, set free from the anxious compulsion to look good and make a good impression, set free from the compulsive need to be perpetually liked or praised. If our deepest commitment is to love God and to follow Jesus Christ, then we can relate to our family members and to everyone else with both love and a healthy detachment. We won’t have to cling to anyone or anything in order to know that we are loved, for we will know that our ultimate source of love comes from God. We won’t have to manipulate or control other people, to fuss over them too much or to fret too hard, for we will be confident that their ultimate destiny is not in our hands – it rests in God. We will be given grace to forgive when someone disappoints us, for our disappointment will be a reminder: oh yes, that’s right! That person is not God! Only God is God!

If we love God first and follow Jesus, then we can also relinquish our excessive attachments not just to people but also to other things, too – to money and prestige, to possessions and power, to comfort and habit, to regrets about the past or anxieties about the future. We will learn to enjoy the things of this world with gratefulness, delight, and a healthy perspective, both appreciating them and being willing to let them go.

Loving God is like stretching the roots of our soul deep into the ground. That is what prayer is like, sometimes: we sit alone in silence, maybe keep our attention on the breath or on a sacred word as the tendrils of our being reach out into the dark. Our thoughts grow quiet, our attention is focused and searching, filled with love and a wordless desire for we know not what, and we touch something like a great pool of water, a stream of love that is always being poured into our hearts. The more we sink our roots into that deep stream, the more we rise up, as the psalm says, “like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither” Psalm 1:3. Contemplative prayer is one way to practice relinquishing our possessions, for that kind of prayer is a perpetual act of letting go everything we possess – our thoughts and ideas, our opinions and judgments – and simply accepting each moment as it comes to us, just as it is, without grabbing on to anything, without changing anything or pushing anything away.

Jesus’ call to radical detachment – to love God first and to let lesser things go – is a call not only to radical prayer, but also to radical living, as well, especially in these perilous times when we are beginning to see the consequences of business as usual. By now you may have heard that researchers in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirmed in July that we have just “come through the hottest six months, the hottest year, and the hottest decade on record.” As Bill McKibben writes in an online essay for this Sunday’s readings, “What a summer we’ve witnessed, a summer like no other in human history… Seventeen nations have seen new all-time temperature records, which is in itself a record. In late May, in Pakistan, a new all-time record for all of Asia was set, when the mercury reached 129 degrees. That’s. . . hot.” 1 Meanwhile, too many of us are out of work, and wars over religion, water, and fossil fuels are being waged.

Yet Jesus has promised that he will be with us. The Spirit he sends us will lead us into all truth, giving us the words to speak and the strength to make decisions that serve the common good. Jesus tells us that we can face whatever is wrong with our families, the nation, our planet, and ourselves, and stay confidently rooted in the love and peace of Christ.

Our call today, and every day, is to choose life, as Moses urges in this morning’s reading from Deuteronomy: “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” Deuteronomy 30:19a. But we have to want it, we have to hunger for life, real life, and the choice will not be easy, as Jesus’ words make crystal clear.

It is good news when we love God first – good news for the planet and good news for the people around us. Only then do we have the courage and capacity to exercise appropriate self-restraint. Only then can we consider carefully and with detachment the sacrifices that choosing life requires. Only then can we love each other and our children boldly and wisely, so that the people with whom we sit down each morning at the breakfast table, and the people whose paths we cross each day, are as sure of love on this earth as they are of sunlight.

1. Bill McKibben, “The Care of Creation: ‘Choose Life for You and Your Children,’” guest essay for Sunday, September 5, 2010, www.journeywithjesus.net