13 Pentecost C—9/8/19
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33
Pr. Scott Kramer
When I was born sixty years ago, I was the center of the universe.
I soon learned, however, that this was not quite true. My family was bigger than that. Mom and Dad took good care of me. But over the next few years I discovered, sometimes to my dismay, that I wasn’t the center of their attention. Two more siblings came along and we became a family of five.
As the years rolled by, I learned that my family was bigger than that. I met grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.
But, my family was bigger than that. I learned that my ancestors came from other countries: Norway, Germany and Switzerland. Family genealogy research confirms this.
Recently, however, I learned that my family is bigger than that. I was surprised last year to learn of my British ancestry. Improved DNA technology shows that there was a lot of back-and-forth migration between northern Europe and the British Isles.
But, you guessed it, my family is bigger than that. The cover story for the July issue of National Geographic is about human migration, both in the distant past and today. There’s a special feature on who the first Europeans were. DNA testing proves that modern Europeans have not always been there. They are the result of three migrations from different parts of the world: first from Africa about 45,000 years ago, then Turkey about 9000 years ago, and finally, from Russia, about 5000 years ago. All Caucasian Europeans—including my own family–have this heritage.
Norwegian? German? Maybe over the past few hundred years that’s true, but my family originally came from Africa, and Turkey, and Russia, with a little Neanderthal thrown in, as well!
If you’re someone whose ancestors aren’t from Europe, it’s no different. Your ancestors also came from somewhere else. Many tens of thousands of years ago, all of us originally came from Africa. That’s a very big family!
Science is finally beginning to catch up with Christian teaching:
One day, Jesus turned to a large crowd that was following him, and said, “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.”
This would have come as a shock to people whose life and well-being depended on family, whose culture revolved around family. His words are no less bewildering to us!
Jesus teaches that there is a cost to following him, a cost to living a life of love. For Jesus—and those who would follow him–“Family first” is a problem…IF the family we cherish is too small.
It may be more of a problem for us than for Jesus’ audience two thousand years ago. Certainly, they would have prided themselves in being deeply Jewish, but they also would have known the stories of their faith better than we do. The foundational story for Jews, and Muslims, and Christians is the story of Abraham. Abraham and his family were not Jewish. They weren’t from Palestine. They migrated out of Ur, which is in modern-day Iraq or Turkey. Like all of us, they were from somewhere else.
Throughout history, and including our present time, we have been bombarded by a lot of foolishness–ideas like: racial purity, religious purity, national purity. Here in this morning’s paper is a front-page article about Matt Shea, a Washington state legislator who calls himself a Christian, but who advocates racial purity, religious purity—even holy war. Any time disciples of Jesus hear someone talking about purity, it almost certainly has to do with self-interest and fear. There’s little chance that Jesus and his teachings are part of the conversation.
Nations. Family. Race. Sexuality: Fierce allegiance to the groups we tend to care about most, in the long run, does not make us more spiritually mature, but less. 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.
In other words, your family is bigger than that! The cost of discipleship is heavy.
On the other hand, is this really so radical? Consider, for example, how many different families are part of your personal story. Going back in time, each generation doubles the number of families that are part of my story. My wife and I each had two parents, all of whom had two different parents. In only four generations, there are already sixteen different families involved in my family tree. It doesn’t take too many generations before there are hundreds, and even thousands, of families who are responsible for bringing “little old me” into the world! To speak of “one pure family name” or “one pure bloodline” or “one pure nationality” starts to sound pretty silly!
How big is your family? No matter how you and I answer, God’s response is the same: Your family is bigger than that. In fact, the farther we go back in time, the more our family trees overlap with one another. Science can demonstrate that every living human being is genetically related to everyone else!
Our readings for today, however, suggest that there is more to all this than just “fun facts” or “food for thought.” There’s a lot at stake. There’s a cost involved. In fact, how big we believe our family to be is a matter of life and death.
15See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, by loving the Lord your God, walking in God’s ways, and observing God’s commandments, then you shall live. 17But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods [like family, nation, etc.] and serve them, 18I declare to you today that you shall perish.
It sounds like a threat, but as we heard last week, what we sometimes call “God’s punishment” is more like the natural consequences of keeping our circle small. Another way to put it: If “Hate your family” is too hard to hear, how about instead asking yourself this question: “How big is my family?”
In our own time, this is not a small question at all. How would you answer the question? Who is your family? How big is your family?
No matter how we respond, our answer will almost certainly be too small. When we think of family, for example, we think of other human beings with whom we have some connection. But the writer of Deuteronomy expands our definition of family to include the non-human world:
19I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.
The judge of how big our family is turns out not be God alone. It’s not angels or supernatural beings of any kind. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you.” The natural world is part of our family!
Today we are getting a taste of what it means to be “judged” by heaven and earth. Human activity and human choices have consequences. Climate change means melting glaciers, wildfires, rising seas, super-storms, and millions of people on the move, desperate for relief. It turns out that God’s beloved family includes the Earth itself, the oceans, the air, as well as all creatures great and small. Treating the non-human part of God’s creation as if it weren’t family is having consequences for all of us.
We are bound to one another through our DNA. We are bound to one another through mutual gifts and mutual need. We are bound to God’s good Earth as stewards of that Earth. But in the end, it’s not merely about duty and obligation, as St. Paul puts it in today’s reading: though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, 9yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.
It’s about love! Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20loving the Lord your God, obeying and holding fast to your God.
The good news of God’s love is just this: No matter how big or how small your family is, the response of your Creator is, “Your family is bigger than that!”
Dear friends, any expansion at all in our definition of “family” is a response of love…to the God who first loved us!