When I was child relatives would come into town as guests in our home, usually around holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas. Like many families mine is a mix of church-going and non-church-going people. If these folks were in town overnight and their stay included a Sunday, my parents would say, “We’re going to worship tomorrow at 8:30. We hope you’ll join us. If not, you know where to find breakfast.”
I continue to be grateful for my parents’ example. It stands in stark contrast to the casual affair that worship has become for many households. Although weekly worship is the center of our life together as a faith community, if relatives are in town it can be an excuse not to attend worship. When Christians make that choice they confirm what their relatives may already believe: that worship isn’t that important, even for Christians; or, that spirituality is a personal affair, for which a community is unnecessary.
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.
Luke writes that “large crowds” were traveling with Jesus. After he announced that those following him must hate their families, how big do you think the crowds were after that? What in the world can he have meant?
Count the cost, Jesus said. No one builds a tower without first counting the cost to see if they can complete it. Are you prepared to “hate” all that you hold dear?
All who come to me must hate their family, Jesus says. The word “hate” here in the original language means to “disregard or be indifferent to,” or, “to turn aside from.” Although it doesn’t mean the “extreme contempt” that we think of, it’s still pretty harsh. In Jesus’ day—unlike our own—family was everything. Family was the source of dignity, respect, power, economic support and social security. If you didn’t have family, you didn’t have nothin’! And yet, Jesus declares, “Unless you hate your family, you can’t follow me…”
This is a tough pill to swallow. It’s hard for me to hear. How about you? Over the past hundred years it feels like families have come unglued. Divorce happens routinely, children get into trouble, family members sometimes won’t speak to each other for years, or maybe, ever. “Hate your family”? Don’t we do that already—without being told?
One day while he was teaching someone interrupted and said, “Your family is asking for you.” And he replied, “Who is my family? Those who do the will of my Father are my mother and sister and brother.” On another occasion he taught, Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. Do you see? Today’s reading is not about despising or ignoring our household members. Jesus’ command to hate your family is a way of asking, “Who is your family?”
We start out in life learning the basics of love through the joys and trials of family life. In time we learn that “family” for baptized Christians means other Christians, no matter what nation, or race, or gender or any other category. And yet, many Christians are for more loyal to their nation than they are to their baptized brothers and sisters in faraway places around the world. That’s where today’s second reading is both troubling and helpful. Paul uses the language of brother, sister, Father, and child, repeatedly, to describe his relationship to fellow Christians, one of whom—Onesimus–is a runaway servant, and the other–Philemon–the servant’s master.
Family is important. Family is good. And, like all the things we cherish most, it can also become a false god. The author of Deuteronomy writes, If your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish. Strong words. But family, whether it’s our own household, our own congregation, or our own nation, can become a false god when we allow them to become more important than the work of discipleship. Our duty, our mission, and our privilege constantly is to expand our definition of family, first to the baptized, then to the whole human race, in imitation of Jesus, and in response to God’s love for us.
Many of you read the obituaries in the daily news; if so, you know it’s not unusual to find in the summary of a person’s life a statement that goes something like this: The most important thing for the deceased was their family. Is that how you want to be remembered? Will that be your legacy? Does it say anything at all about your Christian identity? Unless you hate your family, unless you hate your congregation, unless you hate your cozy little group, you cannot be my disciple, because disciples are not about clubs and cliques and special interest groups.
You are faithful when you make choices that signal to your family that as much as you love them, they are not the most important thing. You are faithful when you make choices to other Christians that your congregation is not the most important thing. You are faithful when you welcome Seattle International Church, City of Refuge Church, not as tenants who owe us something, but as brothers and sisters in Christ with whom we are in common mission. You are faithful when you use coffee hour not just to hang out with familiar faces, but to expand your family by showing a lasting interest in new faces and new stories.
There is really good news in today’s readings, especially for those of you who may be full of grief about your own family. Maybe relationships within your household are characterized by dysfunction and disappointment. The dreams you had for your life together haven’t materialized. Maybe the same could be said of your congregation. The way out of this, according to the gospel of Jesus Christ, is to think bigger, to learn that the little group that you pin your hopes on is not enough to sustain your spirit. God has created you to be part of a much bigger family.
Today, on this 25th anniversary celebration of the founding of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, we give thanks for the many ways in which the Holy Spirit has broken down our cozy ideas about family and for the ways in which increasingly diverse groups have come together. We also acknowledge the pain of division and the sin that blinds us from seeing what very different groups have in common. We acknowledge the huge amount of work, and the urgency of our task, in these times.
And, we remember that it begins here–hearing the power of God’s Word proclaimed, sharing together a meal of reconciliation, knowing that the Holy Spirit is shaping us into disciples, people for whom household family and congregation family are merely a beginning.
So as you come to this table this morning, ponder what it means to love one another. Ponder Jesus’ command to “hate your family” and imagine what that might mean for your attitude towards those who are not like you, those who are not here, those whom God has placed in your life and called you to welcome and embrace as brothers and sisters in Christ! AMEN