Preached by Canon Lesley McCormack on 4th September 2016
The first few words in this morning’s Gospel stopped me in my tracks, because they seem to fly in the face of what I thought I understood about what it means to be a follower of Christ – that I should love God with all my heart, mind and strength and love my neighbour as myself.
But this morning I hear Jesus telling the crowd listening to him that ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters and life itself cannot be my disciple.’
What is going on!!
Well, we need to take ourselves back insofar as we can to the Graeco-Roman world of the first century, when Luke would have been writing. For in the culture and understanding of that time, the idea of hating someone meant something quite different to our understanding today. The people hearing Jesus speaking would have understood the word ‘hate’ to have meant something akin to ‘love less than’ rather than the much stronger feelings attached to the word today.
What Jesus is saying to his listeners is that discipleship makes incredible demands of each of us – and there may be times when we are faced with painfully difficult and challenging decisions – whether to follow where God is calling, or to stay with our old life where we feel safe and secure. We do well to reflect on this today as we prepare to welcome David as our new Parish Priest later this afternoon. For God has clearly led David here to move us on, to challenge us, shake us up and to help us grow. But the choice is ours – to follow where God is leading, rejoicing in the opportunity to grow together and to flourish, or to stay with what we know and where we feel safe, but risk stagnating.
Jesus further illustrated the cost of discipleship with the story about a man considering building a watchtower: ‘For which of you’, he says, ‘intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?’
Our baptismally vows call us to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him, but the choices before us may not always be easy. I glimpsed something of this some 20 years ago now when I was very happy in my home town in Suffolk where I had hitherto spent most of my life, enjoying enormously the ministry to which God had called me. But God was beginning to kick me up the backside so to speak, and it was becoming clear that he wanted me to move on. I ignored that prompting for some time, but God is persistent and ultimately I had to respond and actively begin to discern where God was calling me to go. And so it was that I came to Kettering as part of the discernment process and once more God made it crystal clear that this is where he wanted me to be. But the choice was mine – whether to follow where God was clearly leading, or stay where I felt safe and secure amidst my family and friends. Well you all know what my answer was for here I am but the decision to leave behind family and friends was not an easy one and it was costly, but through it God has richly blessed me! And if I’m totally honest, I’m not sure that I had fully thought through the cost.
But before we are tempted to lose heart, the Gospels also remind us that not all disciples joined Jesus on the road. In fact, he positively encourages at least one to stay at home and rather tell of all he has discovered about Jesus to the people of his village. And even those who did become fellow travellers were not perfect: they failed to see the obvious; they squabbled over status and one of them denied him. But Jesus does not set people up to fail and scripture teaches us that there are many ways to be a disciple. All that God asks is that we try – that we keep on trying and never give up.
Jesus is telling that large crowd that followed him and every one of us here that if they and we wish to be his followers, then we will experience the joy of his presence but may also be faced with isolation, misunderstanding, challenges and pain; it will not be an easy ride and we may find ourselves having to make some very difficult choices if we are to be taken seriously.
The exceptional life of discipleship to which we are all called challenges us to think about our attitudes and responses as individuals and communities towards all those amongst whom we live – those who are born in this country, and those who are here following migration. The shocking news of the murder of the Polish gentleman earlier this week in Harlow – murdered it would seem because he was not born in this country – should make each of us question the values that underpin our common national life and identity. We are called to work for a just and fair society, a world that affirms the dignity of every man, woman and child who are all, whether we like it or not, children of the one Heavenly Father who rejoiced to create us and in whose image we are all created. This is the outward expression of our faith which gives us credibility.
We cannot take up the cross without deepening our faith and trust in the God who calls us, increasing our love for Him and all God’s children, and putting aside our own demands. But when, by God’s grace, we are enabled to do that, our eyes are opened, our minds are broadened, and our very lives are transformed by the richness of God’s love and grace – a power that enables us to achieve what we never thought possible, a power that enables us to become more truly the people God created us to be, a power that will ultimately enable all his children to live a life of dignity in peace – to the glory of His Name. Amen