Unfinished Business

First Presbyterian in Lafayette, Louisiana
September 5, 2001 – Ordinary 23C

Jeremiah 18:1-11
Philemon 1-21
Luke 14:25-33

Hate is a word that we really don’t like to use in polite conversation. Well, I guess if it’s used sympathetically that works. “I just hate it when that happens,” or “I’m so sorry. I hate that for you.” These phrases can take on any even more delicious character when said by a gentile, southern woman of a certain age.

I have a good friend who will not even let his children say the word “hate.” He corrects them, telling them to say, “I strongly dislike spinach,” or whatever the case may be. The truth is, we really don’t like to hate things. Maybe we have seen too much of it. Considering the wars and the events of social change experienced by many in this county, one can see why. Hate, as we know it is a destructive, relentless, and unforgiving force that can twist even the purest motives into chaos.

Yet we have Jesus, the One without sin, the One we are to imitate, telling us to hate. And he is not just telling us to hate someone or something that is harmful. He is telling us to hate our family, those closest to us. Unfortunately, I would imagine that each of us have experienced some level of brokenness in our families. Slammed doors, raised voices, and (even worse) silence can often accompany the laughter and joy of family togetherness. I once heard it said that you cannot hate what you do not already love. Somewhere in my life’s experience I let that enter my soul and realized that hate is not the absence or opposite of love (as we are taught as children). Apathy is the absence and the opposite of love.

Hatred is also based in another core emotion, and that is fear. Fear can come from the experience of loss, a response to being threatened, or just the rejection of things you value. Love is intertwined in all of these things because loss, threats, and rejection do not matter unless they are connected to something you care about. That’s why some people decide all they need to care about is themselves. It just seems safer that way.

Is that what Jesus is saying here? Surely not. This is one of those points where we have to let go of our way of seeing things and remember that this scripture was written for a different people in a different time. It was written for us as well, but it will mean so much more if we can look at it from another perspective. Kind of like the way you can tell if your brakes are squealing from the outside, but you don’t know if it’s the pads or the calipers without taking a look inside.

Hate, as we have it in the scriptures, is fundamentally about your center of value. In the Greco-Roman world, security and identity were connected to family[i]. Jesus was challenging these social norms to say that the only thing that can offer security, ultimately, was devotion to God. In challenging the crowd he is calling them on their bluff in the same way he does in chapter 6:46 when he said, “Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only [the one] who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

In the Jewish tradition, to hate was more about preference[ii]. Leah was said to have been hated because Jacob preferred Rachel, but they still had seven children together! God is also said to “hate and despise” the very festivals of worship that God instituted, preferring justice and mercy for those in need over a decent and orderly worship service. So Jesus is telling us to consider what we are getting into by following him. He is telling the crowd to be careful what they wish for, and he is telling us that no relationship will ever offer us what he is offering. Then he offers the cross. He is making a clear statement that the way to follow him leads naturally into conflict with the structures in society that maintain order through abusing power.

It’s hard for us to get that, or to hear it the way they did. We have decorative crosses on our walls and hanging around our necks. The cross is a thing of beauty for us, a symbol of freedom, grace, and love. For them, it was like saying, “Go stand in front of a firing squad and see if you still want to follow me.” It wasn’t symbolic or metaphorical. It wasn’t a way to identify with being in difficult situations or living with disease. It was a real instrument of terror used by the Romans to keep people in line.

After daring us to cross the line, Jesus gives us the logic behind the choice. Is a builder going to build a tower without a plan? Of course not, he’d be laughed out of business! But this is the point where we have the advantage, because we are on the other side of the resurrection. We know that we can plan all we want, but we can never see around the corner to know what the ultimate goal is. We know that Jesus was mocked, and that the cross was supposed to be the final insult, leaving his work unfinished. We know that no one can truly be Christ’s disciple without turning away from everything else that we place our trust in and laying it before God. We know that everything we do is a response to God’s grace, and the things that are not are things we should turn away from. We know this, but sometimes the doing is not quite as easy as the knowing.

That’s why we come here, is it not? That is why we break the bread and drink from the cup, to proclaim the new reality of forgiveness for those of us who simply aren’t able to be a disciple of Jesus. That’s something that one commentator pointed out. In the passages just before this Jesus gives a parable of a great banquet that all the guests make excuses about attending. They can go, but they choose not to.

Elsewhere in Luke, the same word is used to describe someone who is not able to do something, like in the story of Zecharia. He wanted to speak, but he could not. Perhaps Jesus is telling us that following him is something we could do but we do not, but maybe the door is also open for those times when we simply are not able to do what we believe we should. It is in these times that if we turn to God “our ‘I can’t’ opens the door for God’s ‘I can’.” [iii]

A few weeks ago Glance and Nici joined the church, and we were all reminded of the responsibilities of membership that binds us all in our response to Christ. Here are the responsibilities of membership from the Book of Order, along with some interpretation:
  • Proclaiming the good news: St. Francis once said, “Proclaim the good news everywhere, and if necessary use words.” Presbyterians like this idea, but if the words are never said, is the gospel proclaimed?
  • Praying, studying Scripture and the faith of the Christian Church: In all of the dozens of premarital discussions I have had with young couples that only ones that have said they pray together were seminary students. Prayer is deeply personal, but it can also be a way to experience God’s presence together. The best example of studying scripture I can remember is staying at my grandparents and waking up to see them reading the Bible together. Studying the Bible is more than going to church and Sunday School. It means immersing yourself in scripture as often as you can. The faith of the Christian Church is best described through our creeds. As we move forward, we will be exploring ways our confessions express what we believe.
  • Giving of your resources - money, time, and talents: Our congregation is financially solvent, and that’s a good thing. I have heard that we might be subject to the 80/20 rule. Do you know that rule? 20% of the people doing 80% of the work? It’s just something I’ve heard… Anyway, I can tell you that Robert took care of some weeds around the sanctuary. That’s a good thing, because he’s the Property chair. Of course, he’s also the chair of Outreach and Service. So, I imagine that he would be glad for anyone to come pull a weed or two anytime.
  • Participating in the governance of the church: This sounds like a big, cumbersome task. It’s as simple as considering what you are passionate about and contacting one of the elders to see how they can support you.
  • Demonstrating a new quality of life within and throughout the church: Everyday is new, the church is here but cannot demonstrate anything without each of us working together.
  • Serving others in response to God: This is the easiest, because it can be the simplest act of kindness. For it has been said that all the darkness of the universe cannot extinguish the light of one single candle.
  • Living responsibly in all relationships, and...
  • Working for peace, justice, freedom, and human fulfillment: These last two are where the hate comes in, not to destroy, but to turn from those things that limit us and our relationships and others. Turn from those things that limit others in their opportunities to be whom God has created them to be.
This is not a laundry list to check off. It is a description of the cross that could be really uncomfortable if we picked it up and took it seriously. Kind of like the way it could have messed things up for Philemon to receive a run away slave as a brother. Where are the runaway slaves we need to accept? Do we see them in the mirror or on the street? And are we as ready as Paul to accept them before conversion, or do we want to be like Philemon and wait for someone else to do that? No matter where we are in relation to this challenge, one thing is true. Only by returning to God, again and again, can we take the form most needed to serve. Mike Foss comments about this sort of thing in his book, Power Surge. He has a shorter list that he calls the marks of Christian faith, but the content of our responsibilities is about the same. He says:
The marks of disciples have nothing to do with a legalistic, law-oriented approach to Christian faith. The purpose is not to create super Christians or any kind of spiritual elite. No one earns salvation or gains any special favor from God by practicing the marks. They are simply habits of the soul that open us to the wonder and mystery of God's active presence in our lives. They keep us focused; they fix our attention on the things of God.[iv]
The potter’s wheal is a good place to be, but our form might not always match the function God intends. Are we willing to be broken down and rebuilt again as a body. Are we willing to be the Body of Christ, broken for the world? I believe that we are, and I hope that is true. As we approach the table today, I want to leave you with a challenge that I found in an online commentary[v]:
If someone says, "I want to be a Christian," or "I want to follow Jesus" or "I want to be a member of your church," what should we tell them? What does this text say to them? These questions raise another issue, if no one is asking us those questions, why not?
We have some unfinished business to take care of at First Presbyterian. Thanks be to God that it is not our business alone, but God’s entirely. It started with Christ’s death and resurrection. It started for each of us at the font, and it continues as we join in this meal. The body of Christ has been broken for you. Will you, the church, be the body of Christ broken for the world? May it be so with me. May it be so with you, and to God be the glory both now and always, amen.

[i] http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/LkPentecost15.htm
[ii] http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/luke14x25.htm
[iii] ibid
[iv] Foss, Michael W. Power Surge: Six Marks of Discipleship for a Changing Church. Augsburg Fortress, 2000 (p.106). as quoted in http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/luke14x25.htm
[v] http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/luke14x25.htm
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