Transcribed from the audio.
Please pray with me. Gracious God, help us always to seek the truth, come whence it may, cost what it will. Amen.
As a minister, one of the sacred responsibilities and privileges I most enjoy is that of preaching. I love looking at the Scriptures appointed for the next time I know I’m going to preach. I love the discipline of reading and praying and studying and meditating on God’s Holy Word. It is holy work that I take on with joy and great seriousness—I take it seriously.
And I will tell you, that when I read the Scriptures appointed for today I was a little less joyful! First, there is that heartbreakingly familiar passage from Hebrew Scriptures where Abraham casts out Hagar and their son Ishmael into the wilderness and I thought, “Okay.” Moving on to the gospel lesson, it appears that Jesus is pitting one family member against another and, I’m like, “Nice.” One commentary writer put it: “some scriptural texts are harder to handle than others.” No kidding. And a commentary writer goes on to say, “And none, of course, are more challenging than those that directly speak to the cost of discipleship.” Thanks!”
Well, I will tell you that in all of my years of ordained ministry I have never preached on that gospel text. And in God’s great sense of humor, I knew that that was what I needed to wrestle with for today. So, I invite you to join me today in wrestling with that difficult difficult text. What was Jesus possibly meaning by that? What was the word then and what are we to make of those words, that message, today?
This is one of those passages where context is critical and there are three bits of context that I want to speak to. The first is, that you need to remember that in Jesus’ day it was tradition for an adult male to seek out a teacher, a Rabbi. Disciple means a student, a learner. Human nature, being what it is, one can imagine that in most families there would have been some conversation of whom to align yourselves with. You know, the “Harvard-Yale-Stanford-Princeton” Rabbi who has position and prominence so you will be well-positioned after this mentoring period of following that Rabbi. And remembering your Scripture a few chapters earlier in Matthew, Jesus walks up to Simon Peter and Andrew, who are fishing and doing what they do, and simply says to them “Follow me and I will teach you to fish for people.” Scripture says, “immediately they dropped their nets and followed him.” Now, if you were Simon Peter and Andrew’s parents would you not have had a few questions about those decisions? Who is Jesus and why are you following him?
Second bit of context. In that day, it was the tradition that the male head of household set the standards for the religion and the practices that the entire household would follow. It was the male head of household who decided those things, not just for himself but for the entire family including all of the servants of the household. That’s the way it worked. And so when these disciples go off with Jesus, here is a man who was not mainstream. Remember, he was radical. He turned tradition on its head. In the Sermon of the Mount, you’ll recall Jesus saying things like, “You have heard it said, but I say to you…. You’ve heard it said but I say to you…” So, not only have their sons gone off with Jesus, but he’s teaching radical, ultimately transformative things.
Third context. The Gospels, as you’ll remember, were written—it was oral tradition that eventually was written down—intended for particular audiences, so to speak. So the gospel of Matthew was written to Jewish Christians. Scholars believe that it was written around 85 or 90 AD, and by that time, Christian persecution was rampant. You’ll recall that Emperor Nero persecuted Christians. Remember the Coliseum and the catacombs? It was sport in those days for known Christians to be put in the Coliseum for wild beasts to tear them apart. It was sport. So think about the context in which Jesus is speaking, preparing his disciples for what they will face when they go out.
The gospel was written to what was the present reality. There was conflict in family. There was great danger in what they were doing. There was a real dangerous, sometimes deadly, cost to discipleship. Believe it or not, the disciples would’ve heard those words as encouragement. Jesus is speaking what was already the reality in their lives and in the lives of fellow Christians in that time and place. Jesus reminds them: yes, there’s a cost to following me, but God will be with you: the same God who can count every hair on your head. You won’t be alone. God will be with you as you seek to serve.
That’s our call, too, for those of us who would be disciples. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams wrote a book, a little book called Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life. It was published last year. He reminds us in that book that being a disciple is a way of being, it’s how we live our lives. It’s “not just the decisions we make, not just the things we believe, but a state of being.” The disciples follow Jesus. It’s not as a student hearing a lecture once a week or, dare I say, hearing a sermon once a week. It is a constant presence and relationship and that as disciples we are called to keep company with the people that Jesus sought and kept company with: the poor and the oppressed, those on the margins, the ones who needed the transformative light and life and love of Jesus in Jesus’ disciples. It’s understandable that there was a lot of pushback because there was a true and real cost to discipleship.
Thinking about what that looks like in a more contemporary context, I was reminded of Brian Stephenson who spoke at the Cathedral a year ago. Brian was, at the time, an African-American student on full scholarship to Harvard Law School, having all of the opportunities in front of him. He could have worked on a very carefully chosen clerkship with a judge that would well-position him for a lucrative law career with the right law firm in the right place in the right trajectory. But along the way, he went south to a nonprofit that dealt with people on the margins, human rights, human equality. And that’s where he experienced his life’s call. So upon graduation, Brian knew where he was called to be, where Jesus had called him. It wasn’t with a lucrative law firm. It was, in fact, working with prisoners on death row shaking up the status quo in an entrenched prison and criminal justice system. I don’t know what Brian’s parents thought of that decision, but for those of you who are parents or grandparents, what would you have advised: lucrative law practice with a fairly certain and safe trajectory or no money and death threats to be where you felt God had called you to be? There’s a cost.
Speaking more personally and closer to home, when my husband decided to take early retirement and said he felt led to be in ministry with the poor in Honduras, I thought, okay, I know that Honduras is the second poorest country in that hemisphere, second only to Haiti. I also know that Honduras has about the highest per capita murder rate of any country in the world. My response was “maybe,” to remind him that there were a lot of poor people in Washington and in our country. But he felt led to be someplace else and to minister someplace else. And so truly, if I was to be faithful, I had no choice but to take a deep breath, to pray fervently, and to support him and say, “Vaya con Dios.” Go with God.
My brothers and sisters, Jesus calls to each one of us: “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people.” We always have a choice, a choice to count the costs and stay put or to know the costs and risk it for the love of God in Christ and one another. Rowan Williams says that what a disciple learns is to be a place in the world where the act of God can come alive. Follow me. Let it be so for you and for me. Amen.