Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18, Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on September 8, 2013 (Proper 18, Year C)

When I walked back into my office after some time away in August, I was intrigued to encounter a medium-sized black box sitting on my desk. I was a bit wary but after insuring that it wasn’t ticking, I opened it to reveal a home communion set with a note. It turns out that while I was away, the Rev. Richard Ebens stopped by and donated it to the parish.

IMG_1991While it’s always nice to have an extra communion kit around, this one is particularly special because of its history. You see, Father Ebens was the very first curate to serve at St. John’s. Now retired and living on Cape Cod (which, by the way, has the highest per capita number of retired Episcopal clergy in the world), this set was presented to him by the parish on the occasion of his ordination to the priesthood on December 28, 1958.

It made me think about the places this 55-year-old communion set has been over the years. It’s been in the homes of those on their death beds, it’s been in countless hospital rooms, it’s offered comfort and solace to those seeking emotional, spiritual, and physical healing.

And now it has come home to St. John’s. Like many of you, it has been gone for awhile but its essence never changes – it is a vehicle of hope just as when you walk through these doors again for the first time in awhile, you encounter the open arms of Jesus.

Of course if it was up to me I might have chosen a slightly different gospel passage to welcome people back to the fall church routine. Jesus uses some pretty harsh language this morning as he lays out what is required of those who want to follow him. He tells us that first, you must “hate” your parents, your spouse, your children, and your siblings. What?!

Hold on. I have to talk to someone for a minute: Um, excuse me, Jesus? I am trying re-gather this community and we have all these people here and a lot of them are sitting with their families and this could make for a really awkward coffee hour and we even splurged for a bounce house and that’s what you’re leading with? Thanks a lot!

Okay, I’m back. It’s hard to get past Jesus’ use of the word “hate” isn’t it? You can play around with all sorts of synonyms like despise or abhor or detest but nothing quite cuts to the heart like the word “hate.” It’s the word we tell our kids not to use; sure we toss it around when we talk about sports teams as in “Boy, do I hate the Yankees” but it’s different when using it to talk about a relationship with a human being. It’s hard to think of a person you truly hate. And what’s especially jarring is that this comes from the lips of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, the Light of the World, the one who’s quoted using the word “love” 51 times in the Bible, the one who tells us to, above all, “love one another as I have loved you.”

“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.” It’s such a shock that some versions of Scripture try to soft peddle this verse. Something called the New Living Translation (I don’t recommend it) changes Jesus’ words to, “If you want to be my follower you must love me more than your own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes, more than your own life.” But that’s not what Jesus says — he says “hate.”

In profound scholarly theological language, it’s helpful to ask, “What’s up with that?” Jesus, as he often does, was engaging in a bit of verbal hyperbole while making a larger point. Remember, Jesus is talking to a large crowd here — not a small group of disciples. Think of this as the college professor standing up on the first day of an overcrowded class and trying to weed out those who don’t really want to be there or those who don’t really understand the commitment involved. He basically tells everybody there’s no way in hell they’ll pass the class; that if they care at all about their GPA they’ll march directly down to the registrar’s office to drop it. And then the next week he starts the class with the students who really do want to be there.

Jesus isn’t trying to weed people out, of course, but he’s also being honest about what’s involved in discipleship. There’s no false advertising here; he’s not trying to lead with honey just to get a big crowd to follow him around. He’s being honest about the fact that following him is not easy and he’d much rather be surrounded by a core group of truly committed disciples at this point in his ministry than have hordes of nominal followers chasing him around the countryside. Heck, even his closest disciples all abandon him when he’s strung up on a cross.

And if you think Jesus’ “family values” talk is tough on us, it was an even harsher message to those gathered around Jesus that day in ancient Palestine. Family was all people had back then. The family unit provided economic security — there were no 401k’s back then; people worked in the family business — whether that was fishing or farming; the family unit was the primary source of identity. To tell people to leave this all behind was to shred the very foundation of first century culture.

But again, it gets back to discipleship. In order to fully follow Jesus we must stay focused even if it means making difficult choices — and we all have choices to make that impact our selves, our families, our spiritual lives. And this is a great time of year to refocus and reexamine our priorities.

One of the reasons I’m so excited about this particular fall at St. John’s is our Charting Our Course initiative — you’ll be hearing more about it over the next few weeks. But basically it’s an opportunity for us to set priorities for the future of St. John’s. Or, as I’ve been telling people, we’ve had our foot on the gas for the past four years — we’ve grown a lot — and it’s time to ease up, take a look around, discern the direction God is calling us, and then get ready to mash the pedal down again.

So why are we doing this? Actually Jesus himself gives a pretty good justification in this morning’s gospel — not the part about hating your family. He says, “For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?” Ultimately this, too, is about discipleship. It’s about prayerfully listening to where God wants us to be as a parish and then putting together a plan to get us there.

“For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?” Make no mistake: we are building a tower here on this hill. A tower of hope and welcome and discipleship; a tower that will take effort and commitment from all of us. But a tower that will continue to serve as a shining beacon of our faith in Jesus Christ.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2013

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