“The Call to Discipleship,” September 8, 2019, the Rev. Louise Kalemkerian

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Sermon preached by the Reverend Louise Kalemkerian
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (track 2)

In the name of our all-loving God, Creator, Redeemer, Advocate.  AMEN.

Had I realized I was coming back from vacation to this Gospel reading, I probably would have stayed away few days longer! One of my sermon resources suggested that we put a question mark after the deacon’s proclamation of the Gospel; instead of her chanting “the Gospel of the Lord” maybe it should have been “the Gospel of the Lord?”

Did Jesus really mean that we have to hate our parents and loved ones, and give up our possessions to be authentic disciples?  Let’s put it into context.

Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem, traveling with large crowds. Think groupies. He knows he’s headed to his showdown with the religious authorities, and probably his death.  While he doesn’t know for sure he’s going to die, we know he’s aware of the conflicts that he has precipitated with religious leaders over Sabbath rules (the healing of the crippled woman we read a couple of weeks ago), over some religious leaders’ side-stepping a hurt person on the roadside to be helped by a despised Samaritan, and others, and the probable confrontation when he arrives in Jerusalem. He is compelled by the immediacy and urgency of his mission, trying to get the folks following him to make a decision, for him or not.

I don’t think that Jesus means that we should treat our families with antipathy or aversion. Family, like many other aspects of life, is not only a legitimate concern but often the source of great love and joy. Rather, Jesus uses hyperbole to express a literal truth — authentic discipleship demands radical renunciation.  Even good things can distract us. Jesus’s call to an absolute and unconditional allegiance makes every other legitimate claim relative.

One of the things Jesus believes in is truth in advertising. He’s not mincing any words. He’s trying to tell disciples in every generation that authentic discipleship demands giving up the things we hold most dear, and huge risk. And he’s mincing no words. That there are many good things in our lives that can and do distract us from following him, and he wants unconditional allegiance from each of us. St. Teresa of Ávila tried to explain that this was a problem. She told him, “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few.”  I’m not sure Jesus heard.

Becoming Jesus’ disciple is not for the faint of heart. It involves the possibility of alienating family and friends who cannot understand or support a commitment that seems foolish to them. Be aware of being possessed by your possessions, he reminds us. Know that discipleship has a real cost to it, so count the cost, Jesus says.  Before making the commitment, understand what you’re getting into, just as a builder must count the cost of construction before beginning a project.

While I can laugh about it now, years ago when I decided to go to seminary, my father was quite opposed. In his mind, only men went to seminary.  To be priests.  And women couldn’t be.  I remember his comment to me when I was home from seminary to attend my best friend’s wedding: “Why can’t you do something sensible like Pam and get married?” Sometimes families can stand in the way of our following the Gospel.

Every time we celebrate a baptism, we all renew our Baptismal Covenant, the promises made for each of us when we were baptized.  In the Covenant we promise a number of things, all of which are part of discipleship.  We promise to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.  We promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons and love our neighbors as ourselves.  We pledge to strive for peace and justice among all people, and respect the dignity of each. And to live into each of those promises requires intentionality and commitment.  The same thing Jesus is asking of us.

There is no “us” or “them” in Christian discipleship.  There is only “we” – a holy, God-ordained “we”, more inclusive, more enormous, important and fragile than I can possibly wrap my head around.[1] If I am serious about being Jesus’ disciple, I am part of and responsible for that “we’, whether I like it or not.

Jesus calls each of us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Part of that includes taking action against injustice.  I spent part of yesterday at a retreat for racial healing, justice and reconciliation, along with several parishioners.  There were about 30-35 of us, from around the diocese, mostly white folk.  Which is appropriate, since racism was created by white people.

We rejoiced at the number of parish efforts/initiatives that have sprung up to address racism and white privilege.  We acknowledged that we have a long way to go, that the barriers to progress are many and deeply rooted.  Sadly, that many parishes do not have a critical mass of people committed to addressing the sin of racism in our midst.  That the entrenched privilege we white folk enjoy is a barrier to our seeing the fullness and depth of the injuries of slavery and racism.  That the path to undo our biases and prejudices of 400 years is long and will require sacrifice, reconciliation and healing.

Jesus also tells us that we are to give away our possessions.  What if our possessions are more than “stuff”?  Am I possessive about my time, money, my life style? Possessions can also include more intangible things to which we cling – ideas, prejudices, opinions, the filters through which we see the world, the things that bind us.  Can we live non-possessively, to love and not to smother, appreciate and not hoard?

Remember that Jesus was among us to inaugurate God’s kingdom, a reality where the boundaries and barriers we humans set up among ourselves are eliminated. We pray for its realization regularly.  He makes it clear that In God’s kingdom all are his brothers and sisters.  In the kingdom love prevails, equality reigns.  Mercy and loving-kindness and generosity are the standards of behavior.  And we need to be willing to let all things go to let God’s will be done on earth as in heaven.

Jesus is telling us to recognize that following him is costly, and to know that discipleship is no cake walk. AT THE SAME TIME, know that his love for us is not conditional on our ability to live into these difficult and challenging demands.  Jesus has given his life for us, once for all. He loves us, no matter what.  We are being called to discipleship as followers of Jesus in every generation have been called. And Jesus hopes that we’ll follow.

Most of us don’t get up in the morning and say, today I’m going to be a disciple of Jesus. Nor do we choose the opposite, today I’m going to mean and nasty to everyone I meet, to heck with Jesus.  I know I pray every day to meet the challenges I’m faced with with love and generosity and trust that Jesus will help me meet them.  And then as I reflect at the end of the day, I realize, all too often, that I failed at least 100 times. That I didn’t pick up my cross and follow Jesus.

We’ve been taught to think that when Jesus talks about “taking up the cross” he’s referring to some major spiritual travail. Or at least significant suffering or sacrifice, preferably on behalf of the faith. But what if it’s simpler than that? What if it’s more ordinary? Alan Culpepper, dean of Mercer School of Theology in Atlanta says: “The language of cross bearing has been corrupted by overuse. Bearing a cross has nothing to do with chronic illness, painful physical conditions, or trying family relationships. It is instead what we do voluntarily as a consequence of our commitment to Jesus Christ.”[2]

The passage from Deuteronomy appointed for this Sunday urges us to “Choose life…. so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God…”

Jesus invites us to choose the life that is the most real, most true, most eternal. “I have come that they may have life, and have it in abundance,” he says. He invites us to leave behind all that distracts us from receiving the abundance of love, joy, peace, grace, forgiveness, and healing that God offers us. Today and every day.

[1] Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, “What It Will Cost You,” September 1, 2019.

[2] Alan Culpepper, “Luke”, in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 9 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 236.


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