13th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on September 4, 2022 (Proper 18, Year C)

Some of you remember the political cry for “family values” in the late 1970s and early 80s. It became the buzzword for social conservatives enamored of the alleged benefits of the nuclear family. It was never entirely clear what these family values were exactly. But they definitely didn’t include single-family households, gay couples, non-Christians, or anyone on welfare. That much was clear. It was also one of the first times white evangelicals emerged as a political force and you can pretty much draw a straight line from family values politicians to the culture wars of today.

I always think about the phrase family values when I hear this morning’s gospel passage, that includes these jarring words from Jesus: “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.” Those are some pretty intense family values. And it makes you wonder if the family values politicians maybe just skipped over this verse.

Jesus, as he often does, is engaging in a healthy dose of holy hyperbole here. He does not advocate hating your mother. Or hating your siblings. Or anyone else in your family. The point is that in order to fully be disciples of Jesus, we need to be willing to let everything else go. Even family relationships that serve as obstacles to our faith. Jesus even takes this to the material extreme when he says at the end of this passage, “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” So on the surface of things, all you need to do in order to be a disciple of Jesus is to hate your family and give away all your stuff. Who’s signing up for that? Again, holy hyperbole.

The real question embedded in this passage is what’s holding you back from following Jesus? It may be overwhelming family commitments. Or unhealthy relationships. Or clinging to material comforts. Or societal pressures to fit in by wearing the right clothes and driving the right car and living in the right neighborhood. Or the sheer pace and volume of your life.

The thing is, following Jesus must be more important than anything else in your life. Being a disciple of Jesus — which is the whole point of the Christian faith — means putting him at the very center of your existence. It must trump all else. And that includes family and work and leisure time and even, and I know this is radical, youth sports. Jesus must be your everything. And that’s hard for those of us who find ourselves pulled in all sorts of directions, with all sorts of loyalties. Which is all of us.

Now telling you that Jesus must be the most important thing in your life may sound self-serving coming from a priest. But I don’t want you here because I like to see a big crowd on a Sunday morning — which I do. I’m hoping for one next weekend as we regather on Homecoming Sunday. But I want you here because when you sit in these pews and hear God’s word and receive the eucharist, your life is touched by Jesus Christ. And when your life is touched by Jesus, you are transformed. You’re able to tap into that deep well of hope that bubbles beneath the surface of the external trappings of our busy and over scheduled lives. That’s what we live for, that’s why all of this matters. So that we are connected to God in a way that informs our lives and gives us meaning and purpose.

But still, things get in the way. People get in the way. When I was in the very early stages of the ordination process, I shared with an old family friend about this call I was feeling to be a priest. He was an important person in my life, kind of an honorary great uncle who was one of the kindest and most generous people I’d ever known. And so it meant a lot to me to share this news with him, to talk about this path I was on. He looked me in the eye and said something I’ll never forget: “Tim, why would you waste your life by doing that?” 

And I was devastated by his comment. He never really came around, he wasn’t a person of faith, but it was also a good reminder that not everyone understands why you follow Jesus. Not everyone will understand why you choose to waste time with Jesus on Sunday mornings with a bunch of other people who believe that Jesus is the most important thing in their life. Friends, family members, colleagues, many of them just don’t get it and never will.

In her sermon a few weeks ago Bird spoke about Christians as being eccentric. Not because we’re necessarily weird, though we often are, but because the word eccentric really means differently centered. To follow Jesus is to be differently centered than the rest of society, for it is to center our lives on a first century Jewish teacher, rather than on what matters to the rest of the world. Our lives are less about gaining power and more about giving it away, our lives are less about public displays of strength and more about gentleness, our lives are less about lording it over others and more about lifting others up. And that stands in direct contrast to the values that so often surround us.

And so in these jarring words of Jesus, he wants us to know that we are to be differently centered. And there is a cost to that, a cost to discipleship, a cost to standing out and not following the crowds.

Jesus wants us to count the cost of discipleship. That’s what these analogies point towards — the building of a tower or calculating going to war. The thing is, Jesus is fully transparent about what it will cost to follow him. What you will have to give up, what will happen to you. This isn’t some sales pitch trying to suck in as many people as possible. Christianity is not a pyramid scheme or a deal with a bunch of hidden costs and fees. Jesus is up front about what faith requires, about the cost of discipleship, about the cross we must bear. We must give up our life in order to gain it.

I’m glad you’re here this morning. So that we can follow Jesus together. So that we can go deeper together. So that we can be differently centered together. Wherever this life of faith may take us, we will always be in this together. And for that, I give thanks.


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