Preached at MCC Columbia on September 12, 2004
1 Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; 2 but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. 3 He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. Psalm 1:1-3 25 Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, 30 saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. 33 So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.
The true story is told of a woman in Vancouver who tried to sell an old Brother brand sewing machine. She took out an ad in the classifieds but when the ad appeared, it read simply: “Brother for sale.” Worse still, the ad appeared in the listing for “items under $50.” The woman actually got a couple of serious inquiries. One person wanted to haggle over the price. Another caller hung up when learning there was no real, live brother being offered on the market. For the record, the woman had to explain that she does have two brothers, but neither one is currently for sale. The woman’s dilemma comes to mind when we read today’s good news, for Jesus says: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother and spouse and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Say what? We might indeed ask: “What you talking about, Jesus?” Jesus said – and did – some truly outrageous things. Who should we hate? Mom, dad, the kids? Our sweeties, our mates, our life partners? Our brothers and our sisters and even ourselves? Jesus said – what? On the surface, these are not exactly the words we’d expect from a supposed champion of traditional American family values. And what’s more – we can’t even fire back, “It takes love to make a family,” because Jesus uses the h-word – even when it comes to ourselves and our lives and our stuff – the h-word – bummer. This teaching most definitely belongs on any list of outrageous things Jesus said. The dictionary defines outrageous as “greatly exceeding bounds of reason or moderation.” Today, we look at what Jesus said about the h-word and about family, and thus, what he said about placing our loyalty. Now, undoubtedly, we all get a little upset with family rom time to time – even our family of choice can get on our nerves. Can I hear someone say: “Amen?” A fellow was showing an insurance agent around the beautifully decorated home that he and his partner had built. The agent pointed to an exquisite antique vase on the mantel and asked: “Do you keep anything in that?” “Yes,” the fellow replied, “my lover’s ashes.” “I’m sorry,” apologized the agent. “I didn’t know he was deceased.” “He isn’t,” the fellow replied. “He’s just too lazy to look for an ashtray.” We all get frustrated with family – even family of choice. But hate them? Not really. Relax. Lighten up. Jesus doesn’t really want us to cut all of our family bonds and to unload all of our possessions. That’s not required or even desired. Some of us, truth be known, might be in the mood to rid ourselves of family with all of its frequent dysfunction. Ever dream of throwing a yard sale for the home folk? I know I have. I daresay none of us, though, is in a rush to unload all of our stuff, our precious stuff. Lighten up! Jesus calls none of us to poverty and none of us to loneliness – just the opposite is true. Poverty and loneliness are worldly things. But Jesus insists that worshiping family, possessions, even our own lives is unhealthy. It is broken. This, dear friends, is idolatry, and thus an abomination. We can’t truly follow god incarnate when we are worshiping something or someone else. Followers of Jesus take on a new perspective and a new loyalty. Christ calls us to outrageous loyalty – a loyalty to god that borders on the loony – one that greatly exceeds the bounds of mortal reason and moderation. The Greek word that is translated “hate” actually means “to be detached from.” We are to be detached from family, from possessions, from our very lives – we are told to hold them loosely – so that we might truly follow Jesus. We are told to hold loosely the things of earth so that we might truly hold tightly the things of heaven. Are we up to this new perspective, this outrageous, even loony loyalty? Can our loyalty to our God of radical love be so great that all other allegiances appear by comparison detached to the point of hatred? All other allegiances, whether they be to national origin? To sexual orientation? To class status? To political parties? To pretty things? And to pretty young things? To our families, those of choice and otherwise? And, yes, to our very lives, our very survival? All other allegiances? Loyalty to god bordering on the loony – are we up to this? The truth is that we have to put something first. Which is more costly to us, to our families, to our possessions – our loyalty to god or our loyalty to the world? A pastor once confessed that he had seldom had a parent to come to him concerned over a child’s career choice. No parent, for instance, had ever asked the pastor’s help because a child had chosen law school or medical school or even technical school or even no school. The pastor sadly shook his head – no parent had ever asked for his help because of concern over that. But the pastor added, “more times than I can count concerned parents have sought my help, asking me to talk some sense into a child who had chosen to enter the seminary.” Horrors! Where did mom and dad go wrong? A son or a daughter who wants to explore calls to be pastors, to be missionaries, to be ministers — those are the career choices that seem most loony to moms and dads. And these are good church-going moms and dads. Imagine how alarmed a typical parent might be if a child were called to serve a body of faith like ours, like MCC Columbia. Horrors, where did we go wrong? And if we can’t identify with concern over a child’s career choice, maybe this will speak to us. Seldom have people sought my pastoral guidance on how to enhance a relationship that is going beautifully. But over the years, a good many folks have shared with me that they need to spend a little time away from church to devote themselves more fully to their new love. Ironically, this is often a new love who they actually met at church. And we think loyalty to God is loony? Perhaps, I’ve stopped preaching and gone to meddling, but our loyalty has to lie somewhere. Jesus calls us to outrageous loyalty – one that greatly exceeds the bounds of mortal reason and moderation. Bettye Davis once said “old age ain’t no place for sissies.” Well, figuratively speaking, following Jesus is no place for sissies either. God’s radically inclusive love for us called for a loyalty that costs god a child and then some. That’s how loyal god is to us. Some twenty years ago, a university study reported that one third of all American children, ages four and five, given the choice, would give up their relationships with their dads in exchange for TV. That’s right – if dad appeared in the classifieds, he’d go for the price of unrestricted TV privileges. And those kids are young adults today. Is it any wonder that old folks like me are getting cut off in traffic? And, just think about it – they’re the ones with the needles for our lab work – and someday, alas, when some of us are in nursing homes – they’ll be the ones bringing the bed pans. Our loyalty has to lie somewhere. Maybe, just maybe, loyalty to God ain’t so loony after all. Maybe, just maybe, outrageous loyalty is what we really want – a loyalty to God that exceeds the bounds of mortal reason or moderation. Dear friends, perhaps, the only way that we can truly care more fully, more completely for others – all of those others already gathered – the family gathered here and elsewhere and all of those others out there – the community yet to be gathered here – the community yet to created here – perhaps, the only way we can care more fully, more completely, is by placing our loyalty first with God. The psalmist calls us to be like trees planted by streams of water, yielding our fruit in season. Perhaps, the only way that we can truly prosper is to place our loyalty in God first. Perhaps, that’s why Jesus says such an outrageous thing. To follow me – take up your cross – and be detached from the things of earth. When we do, we love not only family but we love community, too. We lose not family – but we gain community – spiritual and otherwise I’m convinced that without out-of-this-world loyalty to a power greater than ourselves, we cannot claim community. .
A man placed flowers on the grave of his dearly departed mother and started back toward his car when his attention was diverted to woman kneeling at a grave. The woman seemed to be praying with profound intensity and kept repeating: “Why did you have to die? Why did you have to die? Why did you have to die? Why did you have to die?” The man approached her and said, “Dear woman, I don’t wish to interfere with your private grief, but this display of pain is more than I’ve ever seen before. For whom do you mourn so deeply? A child? A parent?” The mourner took a moment to collect herself, then replied, “My spouse’s first lover.” We are connected. God didn’t demand that we be family – that we be united – that we be community. No, Jesus said follow me – and then he died on a cross – we became family, we became united, we became community. And god’s community is out of this world. Before returning to South Carolina, Kevin and I spent about a year serving God in a Methodist body of faith. We didn’t have a clue how we’d be accepted there. But one of the first people we met placed us at ease. It was Bob. Bob is not gay – but he is most definitely queer – by any standards I can think of – Bob is queer. He’s a parrot head – an old hippie – an Ozzie Osbourne fan – with long curly gray hair and a round, oddly shaped body – someone who, I daresay, understands sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. Bob welcomed us – queer and all. This weekend bob delivers the eulogy for a fellow named Lew, who died of liver failure. now, most folks would say that :ew is the husband of bob’s ex-wife, a Jewish woman named Bonnie. Bob doesn’t see it that way. His loyalty lies so firmly with Jesus – that Bob sees not family but community, a vast wonderful community – one that is out of this world. If you ask bob, he’ll tell you the eulogy is for the love of a dear old friend named Bonnie, and the eulogy is for the step-dad of a beloved little girl named Felicia, who is as skinny as her dad is round. Dear friends, I’ve had lots of contact with Florida folks during the last stormy month there. They speak in a different tongue – they speak in awe of community – shared in the midst of adversity. This is the same community illustrated so powerfully three years ago today. A day when black people, white people, brown people, old people, young people, gay people, straight people, men and women and those in transition, republicans and democrats and independents, all wiped away the ashes and the tears on the day after symbols of national might and money were attacked. What was left in the ruins of the horror in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania was community. Are we up to God’s call for loyalty bordering on the loony? A loyalty from which community is found, right here and right now? Dear friends, “community” is our middle name. Metropolitan has no real appeal to me. I like “mercy” better. But community speaks to my heart. When people think of us – my prayer is that they think not of family or possessions but of community, a spiritual community. The dictionary defines community as “common possession, enjoyment, agreement, people having the same rights, a body of persons leading a common life, communion.” Jesus says place your loyalty in me and you gain a whole community of sisters and brothers, an endless community that is priceless. Amen.