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Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 4, 2022

Luke 14:25-33

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

When we hear the word “hate,” it gets our attention. Hate is a horrible thing. The English definition of the word “hate” is “an intense and passionate dislike for someone or something.” We hear about hate groups and hate crimes and hate speech. These are all terrible, terrible, offensive things. And so it is shocking for us to hear Jesus in our gospel reading for today saying that no can be his disciple unless they hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even life itself. It certainly gets our attention, right?

Well, it should get our attention – but the first thing we need to do in order to understand what Jesus is saying here is distinguish between our definition of hate and the way Jesus is using the word. Jesus is using a Hebraic idiom, a non-literal, hyperbolic manner of speaking. “Hate” here doesn’t have the same meaning as it does in our English dictionaries. In this particular context and culture to “hate” is not to despise or loathe or be hostile towards. Here it means to detach yourself from something. It means to consider something to be of lesser importance. It means to let go of something. I appreciate how Eugene Peterson deals with this passage in The Message, where he translates Jesus’ words as: “Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters—yes, even one’s own self!—can’t be my disciple.”

Throughout his life Jesus upheld the fourth commandment, in which we are called to honor parents. Jesus upheld and even intensified the sixth commandment, in which marriage is to be honored and spouses are to be faithfully loved and cherished. Jesus loved children and chastised those who tried to prevent them from coming to him. Jesus called people to love even their enemies. Jesus does not require us to have “an intense and passionate dislike” of anyone, let alone our parents, spouses, and children! He does, however, call us to detach ourselves from anything that can become an idol for us. He calls us to put him first, above everything else in our lives, even the best parts. He calls us to let go of all that we hold most dear in order to take hold of him.

This is a season of letting go for many people, myself included. Lots of parents have been seeing their kids off to college. I’m recently back from a couple of weeks off, and I spent much of that time getting my two older sons moved back to their schools. With my oldest son, who attends Texas A&M, it involved helping him drive the car he bought this summer down there. He’s a junior in college this year, so this is the third time I’ve had to see him off. While in some ways it is getting easier, in other ways it gets harder. This year as I sat in the airport in Houston waiting for my flight home my mind raced with worry. He has a car there now. Did I teach him to drive well enough? He’s turning 21 in November. Did I talk to him enough about being responsible with alcohol? Not only did my mind race, but my heart ached, because while he’ll be home for almost a month at Christmastime, he is talking about possibly staying in Texas next summer for an internship. His days of coming home and living with us are numbered, and it is hard to let go.

There is a Facebook prayer group for parents of students at Texas A&M that my wife and I belong to. (It is one of the blessings of having a kid go to school in the Bible belt!) On the first day of classes, one of the parents shared a photo of her devotional book reading for that day. It was from “Jesus Calling.” Sarah Young is the author, but she writes as though Jesus is addressing the reader directly. That day’s devotion read, in part:

Entrust your loved ones to me; release them into my protective care. They are much safer with Me than in your clinging hands. If you let a loved one become an idol in your heart, you endanger that one – as well as yourself….I detest idolatry, even in the form of parental love, so beware of making a beloved child your idol. When you release loved ones to Me, you are free to cling to My hand….My Presence will go with them wherever they go, and I will give them rest. This same Presence stays with you as you relax and place your trust in Me. 

Reading this was convicting. It stabbed at me. It poked. It revealed the idolatry that crept into my heart in the form of parental love. It revealed my desire to control rather than to trust. But reading this also freed me. It helped me relax. It helped me let go. And in helping me let go, it also empowered me to take hold of Christ more firmly.

Brothers and sisters, this is what our gospel reading for today is about. It is not about despising or being hostile towards father and mother and spouse and children and brothers and sisters and even life itself. It is about letting go of it all in order to take hold of Christ more fully and firmly. This is how we become disciples – not by clinging to control, but by clinging to Christ.

Even so, this is an enormous challenge. It convicts us. Christ’s call pokes at us, because it is so easy to turn our loved ones into idols, making them our ultimate concern. If it isn’t our loved ones, it is our selves, our own lives that we desperately want to control and preserve at all costs.

It might seem like a heavy charge, associated our love of our families with idolatry, but it fits the definition. Idolatry is turning to something other than God for security and wholeness and meaning. We look to our parents for security. We look to our spouses for wholeness. We look to our children to provide meaning. God wants to be the one to provide all these things for us! Only God truly can!

Not only is our idolatry offensive to God, but it isn’t fair to our loved ones either. It isn’t fair to expect our parents to be protect us from every hardship or challenge. It isn’t fair to our spouses to expect them to fulfill every need we have. As urgently important as our children are, it isn’t fair to make them our sole purpose and projects in life. These are all vitally important relationships, but there is a relationship that is even more important.

Following Jesus cannot be a mere hobby. It cannot be a part-time gig, or something we dabble in or take up casually. Christianity is more than a general philosophy or a worldview. It is a relationship with God in Christ, and nothing can be allowed to take precedent over that relationship. Nothing can be more important to us. If our hands insist on clinging to something else, they will never cling fully to Christ, and we will not be his disciples.

And so we need to let go. We need to loosen our grip in order to take hold of something even better. We need to give up control and live by faith in Jesus. This is a challenge, to be sure, but it is also so very freeing. It can help us relax, giving us a peace that the world cannot give us.

Many of you have had to let go of loved ones. Many of us have grieved or are grieving for parents who have died. I joined that sorrowful club along with many other members of our congregation this past year. Many in our congregation have lost spouses, reminding all of us that every love story eventually ends in tragedy. I know a few families in our congregation who have even lost children. There is a family in our community today which is grieving the loss of a 15-year-old. They need our prayers. Letting go of loved ones, especially in times of death, is the hardest thing we do as human beings.

But I remember a quote attributed to Martin Luther in which he says: “I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God’s hands, that I still possess.”

Whether we’re dropping our kids off at school or lowering a loved one into their grave, we can let go in the confidence that God still holds them in his mighty and loving hands. And if they are in God’s hands, they are safe. If they are in God’s hands, they can never be lost, they can never be far from us. Our letting go of them, then, isn’t an abandonment, it is placing them in the hands of the One who loves them even more than we do. And so we can relax. We can know that peace beyond all understanding. We will certainly grieve, but not as those who have no hope.

We are called to carry the cross and follow Jesus, putting him above everything else in our lives, trusting him above all else, letting go of anything that threatens to become an idol in our hearts. This call pokes at us. It is a cross, after all. It convicts us.

But we take up this cross today knowing that following Jesus to the cross also means following him into the resurrection. It means following him into his victory over sin, death, and the devil. It means following him into a new life where we don’t have to cling or be in control, a new life full of freedom and peace and hope, a new life that goes on forever, a new life where we find that all we have lost we still possess.

In this new life we are free to love our families and friends without turning them into idols. We are free to appreciate and cherish the life we have been given, while not living only for ourselves and our self-preservation. We are free to let go of control and live by faith. We are free to let go so that we can take hold of Christ more firmly.

As we take hold of him, we find that he already has a firm grip on us, and will never let us go.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church