Preacher: The Rev. Doyt Conn
Now large crowds were traveling with Jesus; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, `This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
Good morning. It is great to see you here today on this kick off Sunday. School is back in session. Sunday school is back in session. The mighty Epiphany choir has returned, and gumbo and other treats will be served after church today thanks to the generosity of Blueacre Seafood and the Steelhead Diner. Thank you, Kevin and Terresa Davis.
Epiphany is a lively place, thanks to all of you and I am glad to see you here today. I hope you had a good summer. What a beautiful day. I hope you found a place to park. I hope you had a good breakfast, and I hope you are comfortable in the pews.
If you think I’m stalling this morning, you’re right. No preacher likes to show up on homecoming Sunday with a text that reads, “Whoever comes to me, and doesn’t hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even life itself, cannot follow me.”
That doesn’t particularly sound like good news. In fact, this is a favorite text for those who rail against organized religion, claiming inconsistencies in the Bible render the entire religious enterprise irrelevant. Now I am not particularly in favor of organized religion, as you can tell by how I do things at Epiphany.
But I do love the apparent inconsistencies in scripture as it is here, in the tension, that we find the deeper meaning. That is why we are dedicated this coming year to studying the Bible, as inspired by The Saint John’s Bible you see here today.
To help unpack today’s Gospel and pull it apart for deeper meaning I’d like to use Paul’s construct of our being Ambassadors for the kingdom of God. Epiphany is our Embassy. It is a natural analogy. Life in the Embassy follows the rules and expresses the culture of the country from which it came. At the Embassy the king or President or Prime Minister from the home land is in charge, and it is the Ambassador’s job to express the will of this ruler.
So there is an Embassy, it is Epiphany. God is the ruler, and we are the Ambassadors. And the message, as articulated by Paul in his 2nd Letter to the Corinthians today, is this: we are a new creation; we are from God; and we are reconciled with God, which means that it is all good with our boss and that is always good news.
Now the country to which we have been sent is fully surrounded by the country from which we were sent. It’s like being a federal agency, with a federal building in a state capital. Now surprisingly, the Gospel today is all about being an Ambassador. It talks about the priorities, risks, and challenges of this job.
Let’s take a look. Let’s pull it apart for deeper meaning. There are three parts.
∘ It has a part about hating people,
∘ a part about a builder and a king,
∘ and a part about giving up all our possessions.
These three parts of the Gospel give us three insights about how to act as an Ambassador of the kingdom of God.
The part about hating will teach us about loving our boss first.
- The part about the builder and king will caution us against temptation.
- The part about possessions will remind us of the message.
That is our job as Ambassadors: to follow the boss, to resist temptation, and to stay on point.
Which brings us back to the text, which reads, “Whoever comes to me, and doesn’t hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even life itself, cannot be my Ambassador.”
And I’ll say it again, this does not sound like good news. As any four year old will tell us, “hate” is not a nice word, which, I suppose, is why Jesus doesn’t actually use it.
The word in Greek here is miseo, which means: “to love less.” Why it is translated as “hate” I have no idea. The statement can be better understood to read, “you can’t be my disciple if you don’t love your parents and children and spouse and sibling and even yourself less than you love God.”
Now this is a foundational Christian idea, and a core concept in the culture of the kingdom of God. Put the boss first. Love God first.
Whenever Jesus calls us to love our neighbors or family or friends, it is an invitation that follows the invitation to love God first. As in, “You should love your Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength and all your soul, and your neighbor as yourself.”
The 10 Commandments reflect the same thing. The first half of the Commandments is about our relationship with God. The second half of the Commandments is about our relationship with other people.
That is the order of things, and it is the first thing to remember as an Ambassador. Put the boss first, and everything else will fall into place. Now there are some risks to being an Ambassador in a foreign land.
Which takes us to the second part of today’s Gospel that we are pulling apart in search for deeper meaning. We have two people, a builder and a king. One wants to build a tower, the other wants to conquer a country.
But before they do they measure the risk, they analyze the cost, not just as a matter of good accounting, but more so around how it might impact their reputation. That is the protocol of the people in the foreign country in which the Embassy is set. It is all about reputation.
If the builder starts a building that he can’t finish, the cost, as we see from his concern in the text, is the loss of face. If the king starts a war he can’t win, the cost is that he’ll lose face.
They, the people who populate this foreign land, will mock him and say, “You’re not a builder, you’re a fraud.” They will mock him and say, “You’re not a conqueror, you’re a fraud.”
The fear of losing face, the fear of being found a fraud, is the fear that populates this foreign land. The fear is that someone will find out that they are really not the masters of their own dominion. And the myth that soaks this foreign land is not only can you be the masters of your dominion, but you should be the masters of your dominion.
The risk to the Ambassador is that we begin to believe this. The culture of the foreign country begins to populate our mind, and guide our actions, and tempt us to ask, “if we are good enough to be an Ambassador aren’t we good enough to be the king?” That is the temptation. The antidote is to remember the message of the boss: we are a new creation; we were sent by God; we are reconciled with God; we are OK with the boss, and that is always good news.
Which leads to part three of today’s Gospel, and our search for deeper meaning. The phrase is, “you cannot be my disciples if you do not give up your possessions.” The Greek here is apotasso, means “to separate ourselves from things.” And so you cannot be my Ambassador if you are too attached to the things of this foreign land.
In Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians he gives the Ambassador this advice, “Those in frequent contact with things of the world should make use of them, without becoming attached to them.” (1Cor 7:31) He also reminds us “to fix our eyes not on what can be seen, but what cannot be seen.” (2Cor 4:18) If we focus on the material with which we build we may be tempted to fancy ourselves the chief architect. If we focus on the enemy against which we fight, we may be tempted to imagine ourselves the king.
But we are Ambassadors, which is even better. The boss carries the burden and we are the boss’s guests and agents working in a foreign land.
Sometimes I forget this.
I was out on the Everett Peninsula last Sunday. My wife and I were walking on the beach. She told me that there was a beautiful stretch of sand around the bend that I ought to see.
We wandered out into the warm water, and toward the bend. As we did I began to discuss the family schedule for the coming week. That is my habit. It comes from the practical necessity of making the trains run on time (right?) or it comes from the habit of imaging myself as the king of my kingdom. And probably a little bit of both.
As I was standing there trying to organize my mind around the running of future trains many of which probably wouldn’t even end up on the schedule, I was suddenly struck, as if I came to myself, like the prodigal son sitting in the pigpen. Suddenly I remembered that there is a king that runs this kingdom, and everything would be OK. And that was good news.
I turned to my wife and asked, “What island is that out there?” And suddenly the bigger kingdom in which this foreign country resides broke through as if there was a new creation. Everything old passed away. See, everything became new.
All of this is from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and made us Ambassadors, cared for and loved and set in a foreign land to share this good news.