September 8, 2013
In the last few months a commercial aired that stirred up controversy with a capital C. Some people got angry. There was backlash against the makers of the product. People on the other side of the issue made sure that their voices in support of the product were heard as well. Nasty things from both sides were said on social media. The response to the commercial seemed to highlight, yet again, how divided we are in our society. So what product, what item sparked such passionate and even virulent responses from so many different people? Was it something illicit or dangerous or somehow morally questionable?
Actually, it was Cheerios. You know Cheerios -- the breakfast cereal with the happy name. Cheery – O! Cheerios were a staple in my house growing up. I loved Cheerios when I was a kid. I still do. The different varieties of Cheerios are great, but I’m equally content with basic Cheerios. When my kids were little, we always had Cheerios on hand. They were their first finger foods. In fact one of my favorite Cheerios commercials even features a grandmother talking to her grandchild, who is sitting in a highchair eating … Cheerios.
But what was it about this commercial that stirred up such a hornets nest? One of the benefits touted about Cheerios is that eating them as part of a balanced diet is good for your heart. So in this commercial, a little girl goes into the kitchen to ask her mother about this. Her mother tells her that, yes, Cheerios have ingredients that can be heart healthy. The little girl takes the box and runs off. In the next scene we see the father, who’s been napping on the couch, wake up covered in Cheerios. The commercial ends by going to a black screen with the word “Love” on it, and the Cheerios jingle.
What’s so controversial? The mother in the commercial is white. The father is black. The daughter is biracial. While the backlash to this commercial took many forms, I think the underlying tension is based on two dangerous little words; family values. The concept of family values has been a hot button issue politically and socially. Certainly it has challenged people of faith. Everybody claims to uphold the idea of family values. I doubt that any of us would disagree that family values are important. They are the lynchpin of our society. I would suspect that no matter where someone might fall along the political spectrum, he or she would believe that family values are essential.
But what exactly are family values? That’s the tricky part, trying to define them. There are so many different understandings of what makes a family. That’s where we run into trouble, or so it seems. We might agree that family values are important, but we disagree as to what the composition of a family should be. Who should be counted as a family and who shouldn’t? No matter what form our answer to that question would take, I think we could all agree on one thing – Jesus’s answer to family values in this passage is terrifying.
Jesus does not espouse anything close to what we might think of as family values in these verses from Luke 14. Instead, he seems to throw the whole idea of family values completely out the window.
“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 comes to me and does not hate father, mother, children, sibling, spouse. If you want to be my disciple you have to hate family. Hate? While these words of Jesus might disturb us and make us uncomfortable, they would have shocked and outraged those listening to Jesus. Judaism also espoused family values, but the understanding of family was not so much about what a family looked like. Family values were found in the function of a family. Family meant survival. Family meant protection. Their life and culture revolved around family. There’s a reason why widows and orphans are lifted up as those who must be helped. If you were a widow or an orphan, without family, you were vulnerable. The family was the source of finances and the passing on of the skills necessary to survive in the world. The family was where the rites and rituals of faith were learned. The family was critical to every aspect of that society and culture.
Yet here comes Jesus telling them that in order to follow him, they would have to hate family. I imagine many would have looked critically at Jesus, not just for saying these words, but also because he seemed to be living them out. Where was Jesus’ family? In Luke, more than in any other gospel, we learn about Jesus’ family; his mother, his father, his cousin John. When we read the story of Jesus at age 12 staying behind in the temple, we read that he has made that journey not just with mom and dad, but with a large group of family. Jesus was born into a family business, and any other son would have been home working in that business. But Jesus left his family to travel the countryside, to preach and to teach. Now he’s telling them to do the same. While they might be inspired by his words, while they might really want to follow him and live in this community of God that he tells them about, now he’s telling them that they’re going to have to hate family to do so. This is a much harder decision than they realized.
I think that’s the point. Becoming a disciple, following Jesus requires a decision, and that decision is not easy. Making the choice to follow Jesus, to be his disciple should not be taken lightly. Jesus often used hyperbole, exaggerated language, to drive home the message he was giving, and I suspect that’s true to some degree in this passage as well. But that doesn’t lessen his fundamental message. Discipleship will cost you. If you’re going to follow me you have to count the cost.
He tells them, if a builder sets out to build a tower, he’s going to estimate the cost of building that tower before he starts. Otherwise he’ll get the foundation poured, but he won’t have the means to finish the whole tower. If a king is about wage war against another king, and the first king realizes that his army will be outnumbered, he’s going to send delegates to talk about peace. So if you count the cost about other things, why wouldn’t you count the cost required in following me?
I think the crux of this passage, of Jesus’ message, is that discipleship, following, requires sacrifice. I don’t think Jesus hated families. But he knew that making discipleship a priority meant that many things, including families, would have to be left behind. Between his words about hating family and the way that builders and kings considered the cost of their endeavors, he also said this, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
We have to remember that Jesus was not just meandering around the countryside, he was heading to Jerusalem. He was going to the cross. He knew it. So as I’ve said in past sermons, there is an increased urgency to his words. He’s going to Jerusalem. He knows what sacrifice will be asked of him there. If you want to follow him, you’re going to have to be ready to leave everything and everyone behind. You’re going to have to be ready for the cost of that choice. You’re going to have to be ready to sacrifice. So before you say, “yes”, count the cost.
One of the commentators I read before writing this sermon said that sacrifice is not something we necessarily think about when it comes to church. Often in the hectic pace of our daily lives, church and church activities is what is sacrificed. This commentator pointed out that psychologists tell us that we value most that for which we sacrifice. Perhaps, he mused, one factor in the decline of the mainline denominations is that we’ve made church and the Christian life too easy. There’s no sacrifice in church for us to value. I don’t know. I’m not sure that would be the most popular evangelistic tack. Come to church. We’ll make your life harder. But I think that what I found most powerful about Jesus’ words is that discipleship was not meant to be easy. But it will be worth it. There is new life to be found in discipleship. I’m not referring to an eternal prize. I think we focus so much on eternal life and what’s waiting for us after death, that we forget about life right now. Jesus isn’t talking about how we get to heaven. He’s talking about the content and the character of discipleship right now. What are the marks of a life of discipleship? It’s not easy. There will be sacrifice. There will be a cost. You may have to leave people behind, even the people you love the most. But it will be worth it.
I didn’t have to hate my family to get to the point where I could stand in the pulpit today. But I had to be willing to hate the belief that many of them had – that women had no business preaching. I had to be willing to hate my grandfather’s belief that I shouldn’t be a minister because of my gender. I had to be willing to hate my grandmother’s references to my sermons as the little “talks” I gave in church. I know that there are others who have made far greater sacrifices than I ever have or will. Certainly Jesus’ words also make me reflect on what sacrifices I should be making that I shy away from. But I understand a little better the hate Jesus referred to. I understand a little bit about the sacrifice and the cost he called them to reckon.
What do we as a congregation need to sacrifice for our discipleship as a community? What crosses are we being called to carry? What cost do we need to count? I know that these aren’t easy questions, and they certainly won’t have easy answers. But I also believe that it is here, together, where we will find the courage and the strength to seek out those answers, to make whatever sacrifices we’re called to make. I know it won’t be easy, but I think it will be worth it. Let God’s family, God’s children say, “Amen.”