Sunday, September 8, 2013

the hard work of discipleship

St. George's Chapel, Harbeson, DE
Proper 18, Year C
September 8, 2013

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God's alone. Amen

The Gospel according to Luke is probably my favorite version of the Gospel. The author is a great storyteller, so much so that he even changes his dialect based on the region he is telling a story about! Luke contains some of the most recognized and beloved stories found in the Bible: the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son are only found in this gospel. Not only is Luke a good storyteller, he is also an advocate for the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized; women have a greater role in this Gospel than in any of the others. I love Luke. But every so often I come across a passage that really challenges me. Today’s reading is one of those passages. 

"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” (14:26). 

If you’re like me, on hearing this your thought process went something like this: 
“Now wait just a minute, Jesus. You want me to do what? You want me to hate everyone, including myself, otherwise I can’t follow you? Have you lost your mind?! What happened to all the “love your neighbor and your enemy” stuff? And doesn’t one of the ten commandments tell us to “honor your father and mother”? What is going on?

Did any of you feel that way? (Please tell me I’m not alone in this). 

At first glance, Jesus’ words in this passage make it seem like he has spent one too many days on the road being followed by a large crowd. Here’s where going back to the original Greek comes in handy. You see, the Greek word miséō can mean “hate”, but it can also mean “lov[ing] someone or something less than someone or something else” (Strong’s concordance). The second meaning makes much more sense in this context. Jesus is not telling us that we have to hate our loved ones; he is using exaggeration to make a point. Jesus wants to make sure that we don’t love our parents, our spouses, our siblings, our kids, and ourselves, as much as we love God. God has to come first. After all, the greatest commandment is "You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut 6:5). God has to be your priority; everything else is secondary. 

Making God a priority is difficult; it takes effort and discipline. Believe me; I know--I’m in the midst of moving to a new state and starting a new job and planning a wedding and I am finding it extremely difficult to make anything a priority outside of those three things. This past month I admit that I have not made enough time for God, and I have found myself a bit--shall we say frazzled? In worrying about a million little things like what kind of wedding cake to get and where to hang my pictures and where to print my sermon, I have missed opportunities to sit still for awhile and thank God for the beauty of creation and the many blessings that have come my way. Without the grounding of a strong relationship with God, it’s really easy to get so caught up in work or school or friends or family or success or failure that we can lose sight of what is important. We can get so overwhelmed that we think that we’re going through everything on our own. We might even begin to start living from one big hurdle to the next, forgetting what a blessing it is to be alive. This is why Jesus says that we cannot be his disciples (v. 26). It’s not that he won’t allow us to be his disciples, it just means that if we don’t make God a priority, we will be physically, mentally, and spiritually unable to be his disciples. We can reorient ourselves and our lives by making time to pray, serve, read Scripture, and worship with fellow Christians who understand the cost of discipleship. 

And there is a cost. “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (v. 26). God doesn’t want us for fair-weather friends; we are to live out our lives constantly reorienting ourselves back to Christ. In 1878 the city of Memphis, Tennessee, was struck by a plague of yellow fever. The town, right on the Mississippi River, was a hotbed for mosquitos, which, unbeknownst to the people back then, carry the disease. When the disease began spreading, those who could afford it, roughly 30,000 people, fled the city. But another 20,000 did not have the means to escape. The Cathedral of St. Mary was right in the most infected part of the city. Knowing that their lives were in danger, a group of Episcopal and Roman Catholic nuns and priests, as well as some devoted lay people, remained in the city to help nurse the sick and dying and take care of orphans. 

90% of people who remained behind contracted the disease, and 5,150 people perished. The city of Memphis became so depopulated that they lost their charter, not getting it back for another 14 years. Would you stay behind and help if you knew that there was a 25% chance that you would die? Thirty-eight of the religious people who stayed behind ended up dying of the disease. One of the first of these brave men and women to die was Constance, the Superior of the Sisters of St. Mary that lived in the Cathedral. Each year on September 9th, we remember the Christian love and dedication shown by her and the other disciples, known as the Martyrs of Memphis. Although most of us will never have to face a choice like theirs, their witness is meant to help us in our day-to-day struggles with discipleship.  

Being a disciple is hard work, and Jesus wants to make sure that we know what we’re in for when we sign up. If we come into it thinking that life is all roses, we’re going to be disappointed and hurt. In the journey of discipleship, just as in life, there are ups and downs. Christianity is not a fad diet. We don’t just try it out to see if it works and move on to the next when we don’t get the outcome we wanted. If we want to see results, we have to do the hard work; we have to make a complete lifestyle change. And we’re going to need God’s grace to get through it. 

As the theologian, pastor, and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote in his aptly titled book, The Cost of Discipleship, “Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: 'Ye were bought at a price', and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship). 

Jesus, God living among us, freely offered up his earthly life so that we could follow him on the path to life everlasting. A life with a heavenly feast (Luke 13:29-33) and a house with many rooms prepared for us (John 14:2-4). A life where “God will wipe away every tear” from our eyes (Revelation 7:17) and where “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (ibid.). A life in the presence of God Almighty. 

We don’t become disciples of Jesus because of the rewards in this life. Being a disciple does not guarantee that our time on earth will be easy or successful; there will be times when we will have to make sacrifices for what we believe. But, like the martyrs of Memphis, we believe that the cost of discipleship is outweighed by the reward of the life to come. In thanksgiving, we come together to worship, praise, and serve our amazing God. When the going gets rough, we are here for each other; we pick each other up when we fall down, we help reorient each other to God when we stray, we give each other hope when we become weary. I am honored and blessed to be journeying on this road of discipleship with you.

Image found here.

Information on Constance and her companions found at these sites:


  1. Nicely done, Lara. You treated this passage with great heart and depth and grace. Way to go!!!!!