And then there is the gospel reading for this morning. “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters… cannot be my disciple.” That is a little jarring!
Now surely Jesus did not really mean that we are supposed to hate our families.
Jesus was all about love. Jesus tells us to love God. Jesus tells us to love our neighbor. Jesus tells us to love our enemies. Surely Jesus does not mean that we are supposed to love everyone except our families!
In his own life, Jesus clearly did not reject families. As we say in the wedding service, Jesus “adorned this manner of life” by working his first miracle at a wedding. One of Jesus’ last acts was to provide for his mother.
But if Jesus did not mean we really should hate our families, what did he mean with this provocative saying?
Well, start with what family means. Family is, or at least family is supposed to be, the people you can trust, the people who will help and support you when you need it. Family is who you call when you have a flat tire or when you get sick.
When I was a hospital chaplain several years ago, a patient came in, by himself, in bad shape. The hospital eventually tracked down a distant cousin who was his next of kin. She barely knew the man. But she was family, and she accepted responsibility for him. That is what family means. In a big and often frightening world, family means the people who have your back. Family means security.
That is true today. And that was much more true in Jesus’ day. There was no meaningful social safety net in the ancient world. People had to rely on their extended family for virtually everything. To leave one’s family in that world was a scary, almost inconceivable, prospect. Family was the only security most people had.
But—and this is the point—Jesus does not call his followers to a life of security. Jesus calls us to be willing to give up whatever makes us feel safe. Jesus calls us to embark on a grand adventure with him into an inevitably uncertain future, a future that only he knows.
So Jesus tells his followers to take up their crosses. Jesus tells us to give up all our possessions. And Jesus tells us, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters… cannot be my disciple.”
Now, this is one of those sayings that hits us all differently, depending on our life stage.
Last week, in addition to congratulating my parents on their wedding anniversary, I had to watch my elder son leave for college. In that moment, I wanted to hold him so tight that he could never leave. Selfishly, I want my whole family to be together virtually all the time. (At least, that is what I think I want, until I get a little taste of it!) That impulse is exactly wat Jesus is attacking in our gospel.
But I am pretty sure that my teen-age children hear this saying very differently. I know that Benjamin loves his family, and he enjoys being at home. But last week he was thrilled to leave. He couldn’t wait to get back to college and his friends and the life he has made for himself there. I pray that Benjamin will never hate us. But we represent Benjamin’s past, his childhood. Benjamin is moving on into his future. And his brother is right behind him.
And painful as that can be for me and Carrie, that is a good thing. Because if we were to try to hold onto our children, we would not be doing them any favors. Children have to leave home at some point so they can quit being children and become the strong, independent people that God calls them to be. Their job is to go. And my job is to let them. And hopefully that doesn’t mean that fathers and sons have to hate each other. But fathers and sons have to be able to say goodbye to each other. And that is part of what Jesus is saying.
Worse still, God may be calling my children to a future very different than what I envision for them. If that is true, they need to follow God, not me. That is part of what Jesus is saying. (Of course, I only say this because neither of my children are here to hear it!)
All that is to say, I suspect many young people intuitively get what Jesus is saying in our gospel reading about leaving one’s family behind and following him into the future.
But how about those of us who are less young, those of us who are pretty well settled? We are the ones who especially need to hear what Jesus is saying because we are the ones for whom it does not come naturally, the ones to whom it does not sound much like good news. What is Jesus saying to us?
The basic point is the same. All people are constantly being called out of our comfort zones into a new way of life, with a new set of challenges. For me, the next big challenge will almost surely be the empty nest, life without children at home, after what will have been more than twenty years with a family that has revolved around children.
But for all of us, the changes keep coming.
As I think about my own future, I imagine that retirement will not be easy for me. I fear the beginning of serious health issues, and the loss of loved ones, and the gradual loss of my own independence. On the other hand, I look forward to grandchildren, and more discretionary time, and more shared memories, and a better perspective on the world.
Of course, my future may be totally different from what I expect. But what I can know for sure, what we can all know for sure, is that our futures will be different than our present.
In our gospel reading for this morning, Jesus uses provocative language to challenge us to live into that fact. Jesus calls us to be willing to let go of the familiar when we have to, to move into our futures, whatever they may be, with confidence and courage and hope.
We can do that because we follow Jesus, who promises that, no matter what happens, he will continue to be part of our lives and because we know that with him is abundant life. And so, even when it is scary, and even when it is hard, and even when it feels like we are being crucified, we can keep moving forward. We can let go of the familiar. We can take up our cross.
We follow Christ into a future that only he knows. That is his challenge to us. And that is his gift to us. A future defined by him, not by the things and people we use to insulate ourselves from the world.
And so this morning I give thanks to Christ for his hard saying, and for the invitation to keep moving forward, following him into a future with God. And I say this in the name of Jesus Christ, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. Amen.