Preacher: The Rev. Kate Wesch
I just finished reading an extremely popular young adult novel called The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Maybe you’ve read it or heard of it. Many people have. It’s the story of two teenagers, Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters, both suffering from terminal cancer. It’s their love story, a coming-of-age novel, and a profound commentary on suffering, the soul, and dying.
I spent some time searching for just the right quote to drop in here to show you how incredible the book is, but couldn’t find it so let’s just say this. Upon hearing this gospel passage about the cost of discipleship, about hating father or mother, spouse and child, even the self in order to follow Jesus, I immediately thought of Augustus Waters and Hazel Grace. They got it. Teenagers, in the throes of adolescence, reeling from hormones, young love, and desperately seeking to separate their own identities from that of their parents, while also staring death in the face, yearn to be relevant and to have an impact on the world, don’t we all?
The most tender and heartbreaking scenes for any parent reading the book are of course the ones charged with emotion told from the point of view of these teens who facing their own mortality, worry the most about their parents, worry about what their mother and father will do when they are gone, how they will carry on. They don’t worry about themselves. They have accepted their mortality. It’s the parents who have not. There is an ease and an acceptance of death for these characters; a lightness, a playfulness, a bit of gallows’ humor throughout the story that’s what makes it real. And that is precisely what makes it profound.
So what you’re probably thinking, especially if you’ve never heard of this book or even if you’ve only seen the second-rate movie, is, what does this sappy story about cancer kids have to do with discipleship, with Jesus and me? Fair question. And it’s about identity. How do define ourselves? What gives our lives meaning and makes them relevant?
Have you ever known someone who was a professional sufferer? A perpetual martyr to the ailment of the day? You know the person I’m talking about, the person—maybe a casual friend, hopefully not a family member—who is always having a terrible, horrible, no good very bad day. You see them coming at the grocery store and duck into the baking aisle hoping not to be seen, right? But when you do run into them, you ask: “How are you doing? How are the grandkids?” So they launch in, right?
“Well, Bob’s cancer’s back and the dog died last week, and the car’s in the shop. Oh, and we tried that new restaurant, you know the one on the corner, and I got food poisoning, it was terrible. You haven’t gone there, have you? Have you gone there? Don’t go there. How are you?” How do you answer that?! “I’m fine?” With that kind of person, it’s all about them and it’s always THE WORST. They have so many burdens to bear. They define themselves through their perceived suffering or actual suffering, but it stops there. It’s a stunted and immature identity.
Then, there are the people who live their lives for others. Maybe you’ve had a period in your life when that was you. I think a lot of us do, especially women. Wait a minute! You might be thinking. Isn’t that better? Isn’t it better to live your life helping others? Of course, but not to the exclusion of self or identity or wholeness. Not when you forget to be the person God has created you to be.
This profile conjures up images of the worst type of helicopter parents; those moms and dads whose self-worth is so tied up in the success of their children that it has become an assembly line for greatness – a checklist of perfectionism and achievement in order to produce what? A productive member of society? The perfect young adult? A successful adult? A happy adult? How about a wife or husband who lives only for their spouse until they barely know who they are anymore. Or an employee in a toxic work environment under incredible stress who loses sight of all else in pursuit of keeping the boss happy, or the team happy. The perpetual people-pleaser. You get what I mean.
Now, stick with me, I’m coming to the point. There’s a diagram in the back of your bulletin and we’re rounding out the final example of that triangle now.
This last one is the self and that’s the narcissist. This is what happens when your life is so out of balance that you can’t escape yourself. The world revolves around you. We can all think of examples of that, maybe from a time in our own life, I know I can or someone you know. There are natural stages of childhood development that embody this—I know because I live with a toddler—but then you’re supposed to mature beyond that. Not everyone does.
So, are you looking at that triangle? These corners of the triangle are the places we can get stuck. We can get stuck in ourselves, or caring for others, or “taking up the cross” to use the language from today’s gospel—that is, bearing the burdens of our lives. Any one of these things can consume us. When Jesus says, “You must hate your family or yourself or you can’t be my disciple,” this triangle is what he was talking about. Maybe he was even drawing this triangle in the dirt with a stick.
He was using some pretty strong language to prove his point, but it certainly does the job! Stop getting stuck in the corners, he says! If you want to follow me and be my disciples, you have to hate your family, hate yourself, take up your cross and follow me!
Is the word “hate” problematic for anyone else? It is for me. The Greek is more nuanced than our translation. It can also mean “to be disinclined, to disfavor or disregard, to be in contrast to preferential treatment.” That we can work with. It all comes down to priorities.
Unless you rearrange your priorities, you can’t be my disciple! Stop being a professional martyr. Stop being a helicopter parent and let your child be their own person. Stop the one-man or one-woman campaign to convince the world of your relevance. You are enough. You are more than your illness, your grief, your successes or failures, or your marital status. You are amazing.
Early in the book, The Fault in Our Stars, Augustus says to Hazel, “Tell me your story.” She begins to tell him of her stage IV cancer diagnosis at 13, treatments, etc. Augustus interrupts her and says, “No, that’s your cancer story. I don’t want to hear that. I want to hear your story. Who are you, Hazel Grace?” He didn’t let her get trapped in the corner of bearing that burden. He wasn’t going to let her illness define her.
Right now, I invite you to join me in reprioritizing our lives. Are you with me? Take out a pen or pencil if you have one and in that circle inside the triangle, I want you to write one word. Can you guess? One word, three letters. What is it? GOD. Now imagine, that little circle is raised above that triangle with lines going down to the corners.
Center your life in that circle that is God. Maybe it already is and maybe it isn’t. Center your life in God and see how that radiates out and down into your relationships, into your daily interactions, into the ways in which you choose to respond to the burdens you bear.
In conversation with a wise man earlier this week, I asked him about this taking up a cross business that Jesus is talking about and he said for him it means waking each day to accept the new challenge God has placed before him. We all have our crosses to bear. Think about yours.
Let me share a final story about placing God back at the center and how it has changed my life recently. Sometime around Easter, I changed my prayer routine in the morning. Instead of just praying morning prayer each day, I started a new practice that looks like this. I begin by listening to God, then praying for myself, praying for whatever is my burden that day that it won’t get in the way or distract me from being in relationship. Then, I pray through my calendar. I pray for each and every person and situation that I know I will encounter; my family, about meetings with staff or you all, all the way down. I pray for what people are bringing in the room with them, for courage to say what needs to be said or the wisdom to keep my mouth shut and listen.
Try it. Try placing God at the center by praying through your day and see how it changes your corners. This work of discipleship isn’t easy. But when your identity is rooted in your relationship with God, when your relevance in this world is tied to God at the center, not being stuck in the corners, it reorients your life in incredible ways. So, tell me your story. It’s amazing.