For Sunday September 8, 2019
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)
This week, I listened to an “On Being” podcast featuring Amichai Lau-Lavie, a rabbi and innovative spiritual leader in New York City. In the course of his discussion with “On Being” host, Krista Tippett, he shared a Talmudic parable that I think captures the heart of this week’s difficult Gospel reading: A large, multi-cabined ship sets sail across the ocean. A passenger whose cabin is on the lowest level of the ship decides to dig a hole in the floor of his cabin. Sure enough, the ship begins to sink. When the other passengers realize what’s happening, they rush to the man’s cabin. “What are you doing?!” they yell. The man looks up from the hole and says, “It’s my cabin. I paid for it.” And down goes the ship.
The parable is, of course, hyberbolic. But it names the same uncomfortable truth Jesus names in our reading from Luke’s Gospel: When it comes to the life of faith, we want to have our cake and eat it, too. But we can’t. We want to embrace a Christianity that doesn’t involve costly choices. We want to drift along as we always have. We want to experience Jesus the healer, Jesus the savior, Jesus the friend — but not so much Jesus the radical, counter-cultural prophet who barges into our private cabins and asks the impudent, unbearable question: “What are you doing?!”
“None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all of your possessions,” Jesus tells a large crowd in our reading. “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” If those two warnings aren’t dire enough, he issues a third — a real zinger: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
You have to hand it to Jesus: he believes in truth-in-advertising. He doesn’t sugarcoat his message in order to sell it. He doesn’t cut corners, and he doesn’t soften the blow. He tells it like it is. And how is it? It’s like this: if I want to follow Jesus, I have to relinquish once and for all the fantasy that, “It’s my cabin. I paid for it.” There is no “my cabin.” I’m on God’s ship now, and everything I do — every choice I make, every tribalism I cherish, every idol I worship, every possession I hoard — affects the entire vessel. There is no “us” or “them” on the ship of Christian discipleship. There is only “we” — a holy, God-ordained “we,” more inclusive, enormous, consequential, and fragile than I can possibly wrap my head around. If I become a disciple, I am responsible for that “we,” whether I want to be or not. Jesus’s claim on my life, in other words, is radical and absolute; it relativizes every other claim. Every other claim. Period.
To say this teaching is hard is a laughable understatement. Jesus knows it’s hard, so he advises his listeners to stop and count the costs before they sign up to be his followers. A careful builder, he says, never breaks ground without taking a good, hard look at her budget. A wise general doesn’t declare war unless he’s sure his troops are equipped and battle-ready. The life of faith should be no different; discipleship is not a weekend hobby or a vacation destination. It’s a full soul, full body, full mind endeavor that requires renunciation. And surrender. And a reordering of our identities, our priorities, and our proclivities. It requires “hating” what is too narrow, too exclusive, and too insular, and learning instead to love what is broad, inclusive, and boundless.
I’ll be honest; this Gospel lesson leaves me reeling. I can’t honestly say that I’ve counted the cost and found it reasonable or desirable. All I can say is that I’m turning Jesus’s call over and over in my mind, considering it from all angles. Here are some of those angles:
What do I consider mine? What do I insist on owning, possessing, or claiming as my own, as if ownership is my exclusive, inviolable right? Is it money? Time? My suburban, middle-class, lifestyle? My political or religious beliefs? My closest relationships? My independence? What am I possessive about — what do I cling to that is not God? More importantly, as my possessiveness encounters Jesus’s challenging call to discipleship, can I muster the courage to change? To live non-possessively — to love and not smother, steward and not exploit, appreciate and not hoard?
Who is my “we?” To whom and for whom am I responsible? How narrow or how wide is the circle that encompasses “my people,” the people I will love, welcome, serve, and make sacrifices for? Can I embrace a “we” that is broader and riskier than any I’ve embraced thus far? A “we” that transcends race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, and all other socially constructed categories? How aware am I, on a daily basis, that the ship — the whole ship, not just my corner of it — has an irrefutable claim on my life?
What am I willing to “hate?” What customs, beliefs, or traditions have I inherited that I need to renounce in order to follow Jesus? What baggage must I abandon? What ties must I loosen? What relationships must I subordinate? Jesus spoke his hard words about “hating” one’s family in a cultural context where the extended family was the source of a person’s security and stability. Jewish families in first century Palestine were self-sustaining economic units. No one in their right mind would leave such a unit behind in order to follow a homeless, controversial preacher into some uncertain future. Can I, living in 21st century America, recapture any vestige of the risk my first elders in the faith took in choosing Jesus? What sources of modern-day security and stability do I trust more than I trust God?
What version of Christianity am I selling? Like many of you reading this essay, I hold a leadership position within the Church. The Church which is, of necessity, a human institution even as it is also the Body of Christ. Whether we like it or not, those of us invested in the institution must care about its survival. We have to care about numbers. We have to care about attracting newcomers. We have to care about the bottom line. But how do these concerns jibe with the “hard” sell Jesus insists on in this week’s lectionary? How do we package discipleship in a culture that insists, “It’s my cabin. I paid for it?” What do we lose every time we trade the cross in for a low-cost, low-risk, “You can have your cake and eat it, too,” version of Christianity?
I suppose we lose the ship. Or, to return to Jesus’s own metaphor, we lose the opportunity to invest in a tower worth building. A holy community worth living and dying for. A resurrection worth the weight of the crosses Christ will gladly and graciously help us bear. If we’ll let him.
Debie Thomas: email@example.com