So a few years ago a young man, completely unchurched, asked me if he would have to confess all his sins to the pastor, who clearly would be an old man in robes seated in a wooden box behind a screen, if he went to church. Apparently in our tradition it’s the pastor who must confess though, because here I am confessing again.
You see I wrestled with this scripture and wrestled in the good exegetical fashion I’d been taught. Like Jacob in the dark of night, don’t let go of that scripture until it blesses you! I read the commentaries and I listened to the podcasts of great preachers talking about how they understand this scripture and I knew, I really knew, that they were struggling too because a lot of them were saying, “well look at the scripture around this one, look at what else was said,” but they didn’t say, “here’s the blessing I found in this scripture.”
So I got to thinking about how this text calls me out, convicts me. There are lots of questions to be asked of this text, such as, “How did this group of people hear Jesus when he said, “take up your cross” because, while we might hear something about Jesus’ death, they didn’t know! They had no idea, at that time, that Jesus was headed toward a crucifixion. It would have been the weirdest thing to hear a preacher say! If you would follow me, be willing to take on a death curse! Be willing to take on a death that will shame your entire family! We hear it in the context of Jesus’ self sacrifice but that hadn’t happened yet and we can wonder just how they might have heard it and how many shook their heads and walked off. And this points us to an understanding of scripture as well, because we notice that this story, this text was written after Jesus death and how could the author not have been thinking of Jesus’ death and resurrection even as he wrote these words?
And the scandal of being told to hate your mother and father? Outrageous! What ever happened to “honor your father and mother”? Sell off all of your possessions? What happened to the idea that if God loved you, he would bless you with abundance?
We are pretty used to Jesus being countercultural, shaking us up, asking us to flip our thinking inside out and upside down. As I wrestled with this scripture it was just really hard to find the blessing and I began to feel more and more convicted.
So let me begin by confessing that a whole lot of times I say I want things I don’t really want. I mean, if there were a fairy godmother who could wave her wand and just grant me things, I’d be happy to have them, but if really wanting these things means digging deep and doing the work necessary to get them, well then I really don’t want them and I know I’m supposed to. I know I’m supposed to want to be a physical dynamo of good health. But…a few weeks ago after a church service, I ate all the cream puffs. If you went back to the table to get one and found them all gone, well that was me. I ate them all. It’s pretty easy to imagine a physical trainer telling me, “If you want to achieve your goals you must hate cream puffs!” but I don’t hate them. I think they’re awesome! And truth be told, I really don’t like doing cardio! I know I should be all pumped up and rawr! I’m going to get fit! But I don’t like cardio!
Can I get an amen there? Because I know I’m not alone. But it’s not just physical fitness and it’s not just that I really do believe I have a mandate to care for my body, to practice good stewardship for all the gifts I’ve been given, one of which is really great health. I’ve tried and tried to learn to play guitar and I just can’t. I can’t because when the pain in my fingers gets too strong I give up. I want to learn a second language, have spent some time playing on duolingo a free, internet based application, but I get bored and move on to other things. So, yes, I can be pretty faithless in my attempts to achieve goals that I loudly proclaim I want.
I can hear myself shouting out, with all of Jesus’ followers, “I’ll follow you anywhere, even into the gates of death!” but would I really mean it? After all I’ve given up on so many other things that are simpler, easier, that don’t challenge me nearly so much. So it’s easy for me to imagine Jesus getting frustrated with these half-hearted, uncommitted responses and challenging the crowd, “Oh, you think you want what I have to offer? Really? Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” and I cringe a little inside because I know that I can be a little lazy in following through on my commitments.
I even wondered, as I drove over here one morning, what if the initial interviews for olympic hopefuls sounded like this, “are you willing to hate your mother and father, to leave your best friends, to despise proms and parties, are you willing to give up all your free time and spend everything you have in pursuit of this dream?” When I think of these stunning athletes and what they accomplish, it’s easier to accept this sort of demand for their loyalty, because, without their commitment, their incredible dedication, they would be just ordinary people, unexceptional, and maybe that’s the thing I needed to look for in this text, not a blessing exactly, but a challenge.
Nadia Comaneci was famously asked as a very young girl if she believe little girls could fly and she responded yes! And this convinced them she could be ‘the one’. She believed in her heart of hearts that she could fly! She could do great, wonderful and amazing things! Her path is so different from my path that I can only imagine how her heart must have been singing inside of her, just overflowing with joy when she really did fly.
Jesus tells us to count the cost of our decision to follow him. He asks us what we are willing to lose and if we can really, truly drink the cup, but perhaps he is also asking us if we can fly. Can we dare to believe that we can fly? That we can live lives so rich in faith and love and grace that our very being is transformed?
Our Deuteronomy text is a little clearer on the blessing. We have choice. We do not follow a god who forces himself upon us. This is no Greek god who chases you through the woods and fields and forces us, demands our allegiance at the pain of death, from whom we would escape if we only could. This particular heresy is known as nominalism and it is still preached in many places. God will have you, you have no choice, so just get used to it. But this is not the Christian God. Yes, we have a powerful and almighty God, but we also understand that God, very God, loves us so much that we will never be forced into relationship, never forced to be or do something that we do not choose, so Jesus challenges us, calls us out, asks us to commit ourselves wholly and completely, to choose God before family, nation, prosperity, even before ourselves, and the blessing is this, that in choosing God first and foremost we are choosing life, a life so rich and abundant that our hearts will sing, we will really, really fly!
We have been called into relationship with God, and yet choice still remains with us. We are called to choose life, not death; and this is the blessing. Today we are challenged to choose life. To wrestle with God, with our community, with ourselves, until we find the blessing and not give up until we do. We are called to choose life. To life vibrant full and rich lives that reflect the gospel truth, we are God’s beloved children and we have this privilege, this freedom, to choose, and it can feel like a whole lot of weight, of responsibility. How will we commit ourselves anew today? How will we choose life today? This text is asking us to consider how we are committing ourselves to God and how we are living into this commitment.
And the promise is this; that if we choose to follow God, and struggle to keep that commitment, we will have life and have it abundantly. It is not that God will punish us for failing, only that God, like a loving parent, wants us to be as happy and fulfilled as we can be, that we might be filled with light and love and know we can really fly!