Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Family Dynamics

Genesis 37:1-8, 17b-22, 26-34, 50:15-21
September 24, 2016

            The thought that keeps coming to my mind when I read these excerpts from the story of Joseph and his brothers is that this would be the worst family to share a holiday meal with. Can you imagine it? Joseph, his brothers, their wives, their kids, maybe grandkids have all had a big meal. They are sitting around the table, perhaps drinking a little more wine or tea. The kids have left the table to play or fall asleep. The folks still sitting there are chatting, and as often seems to happen at meals like this, memories and stories from the past are shared.
Stories of boyhood escapades and close calls are told. And as these memories are resurfacing, Joseph coughs and says, “Hey, you remember that time when you sold me into slavery? That was funny.”
            Judah turns to Dan and says, “I told you he’d bring it up before the night was over. You owe me five sheckles.”
Levi drops his napkin and sighs, “This again? When are you gonna let it go?”
            Joseph loses all pretence of this being just another memory says, “Let it go?! You people sold me into slavery!”
            Simeon is exasperated and says, “We were young! We didn’t know what we were doing. And besides that, Rueben is the oldest. He should have stopped us. Blame him!”
            “Me? I tried to stop you! You did this behind my back. They wanted to kill you, Joseph, and I wouldn’t let them.”
            Naphtali adds, “Look, Joe, I know we shouldn’t have done it. I know it was wrong. But you’ve got to admit, you were so annoying. ‘Hey you guys, I had a dream. You bowed down to me. Hey you guys, look at this coat dad gave me.’”
            “It wasn’t my fault Dad gave me that coat. And I couldn’t help what I dreamed. Those dreams were from God, and you know it!”
            Benjamin speaks up, “You think you had it bad? You used me to get at them, Joseph. I never stole anything.”
            Zebulun says, “It’s not like things didn’t work out for you Joseph, Mr.-I’m-a –bigwig-for-Pharaoh.”
            Joseph is outraged. “I don’t care! You shouldn’t have sold me into slavery!”
            Asher tries to make peace, “We said we’re sorry, Joseph. And we really are. You said you forgave us.”
            “I did. But it still makes me mad. You all were just jealous, because I was Dad’s favorite.”
            This is how family dynamics looks sometimes isn’t it? One child seems to be the star, while the others either denounce that, act out against it, or feed into and perpetuate that dynamic. In reality, the dynamics of this family would give any modern therapist pause. The patterns of favoritism and family struggle have been sent into place since Abraham and Sarah. And while I’m starting us off with a little humor, I realize that the story of Joseph and his brothers was not a funny one. Joseph’s story is an extreme example of parental favoritism and sibling rivalry. What the brothers did to Joseph was horrible. No one deserves to be sold into slavery. No one deserves to be treated like this by anyone, much less at the hands of brothers.
            These last 14 chapters of Genesis are known as the Joseph Cycle.  These are the final stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs of our faith. Last week in the narrative, we read about God’s extravagant promise to Abram. His descendents would be more numerous than the stars. Joseph, Reuben, Simeon, and the rest are the second generation of those descendents and God’s promise.
            A quick review of what has happened in the stories leading up to this one: Abraham and Sarah finally had the son they had been waiting for, the son they had been promised. Isaac, the son of laughter, was born. Immediately after the passage we read last week, Sarah took matters into her own hands and urged Abraham to have a child with Sarah’s handmaiden, Hagar. According to the customs of that time, Hagar would have been considered a surrogate for Sarah and Abraham. Ishmael was the son born of that union. He was soon to be the older brother to Isaac. He incurred Sarah’s anger by teasing Isaac, and she insisted that Abraham send him and his mother away. Abraham sent them out into the wilderness, and Hagar was convinced they would both die in that wasteland. But God rescued them and promised that Ishmael would father his own nation. 
            Abraham and Isaac seemed to have a solid father and son relationship, except for that brief moment when Abraham was told by God to build an altar and sacrifice Isaac on it.  Abraham was ready to do it, but an angel of the Lord stepped in at the last minute and stopped him, even as he raised the knife to his own child. Isaac grew up and met Rebekah.  They married, and she, like her mother-in-law before her, struggled with infertility.  She and Isaac finally had twin boys; Esau and Jacob.  Esau the older brother was exploited and tricked by Jacob, the younger brother.  Esau also went on to father a nation, but for a long time he was determined to kill his little brother; a desire that was shared by his nephews for their younger brother.
            Jacob ran from Esau, but met God in a dream and Rachel by a well.  Jacob was promised by Rachel’s father, Laban, that he would be able to marry Rachel, but Jacob the trickster was tricked. He thought he was marrying Rachel. He married her older sister, Leah, instead. Jacob was a man of many wives. He married Rachel, but he also fathered sons with Zilhah and Bilpah.  With Leah he had Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulon, and eventually Dinah.  With Zilhah he had Gad and Asher.  With Bilpah he fathered, Naphtali and Dan.  And with Rachel, his beloved, he fathered Joseph and Benjamin. 
            A lot of sibling rivalry; a lot of strange and strained family dynamics. Abraham and Sarah played favorites with Isaac over Ishmael.  Isaac played favorites as well, loving Esau more than Jacob. Rebekah favored Jacob.  Finally, Jacob played favorites with Joseph.  That’s our jumping off point today. 
            Jacob and his entire clan have settled in Canaan. The first detail we read about Joseph is that he’s 17 and has been with his brothers, helping them tend the flocks. For some reason, he brings a bad report about them back to Jacob. The text doesn’t mince any words about Israel’s love for Joseph.
“Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age.” 
Because of Israel’s love for Joseph, he gave him a special coat.  While the traditional interpretation has been “a coat of many colors,” the closer translation is what we read in our text, “a long robe with sleeves.” Why would this long coat with sleeves have been such an extraordinary gift to receive? Why would it have signaled Israel’s favoritism for Joseph, other than he took the time to make only one son a coat? Clothing not only covered and protected one’s person; it signified someone’s position in society. A common laborer wore the clothing of a common laborer. A shepherd wore the clothing of a shepherd. Someone who had a long coat with sleeves probably wasn’t destined for the fields for very long. Besides the impracticality of that kind of garment for shepherding flocks or harvesting crops, it would have been a coat worn by someone with status. Joseph was 17, but his father made it clear with the gift of this coat that Joseph ranked higher, not only in Israel’s affections, but in status and position over his brothers. That favoritism did not go unnoticed, which brings us back to where we started.
The family dynamics that resulted in Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery began long before this brutal action. While we may scoff at the idea of doing something so utterly unconscionable to our siblings, think about how we humans treat other humans. When I was a kid, I was taught that I was a part of my immediate family, but even more I was a member of God’s family. Jill and Brad were not my only siblings, all of God’s children were. How do we treat our brothers and sisters? How do we harm them and they us? How do we respond to the dreamers in our midst?
In the courtyard outside of the Lorraine Motel, now the Civil Rights Museum, in Memphis, Tennessee is a plaque. The Lorraine Motel was where Martin Luther King, Jr. was staying when he went to Memphis to speak in support of the striking Black garbage workers and their demands for equal pay and just treatment. It was on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was assassinated, seemingly putting an end to his great dream for a truly equal and equitable America.
The words on this large stone plaque are a quote from Ralph David Abernathy, President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was quoting these verses in Genesis during his sermon and eulogy at the funeral service for Dr. King.
“They said to one another, behold, here cometh the dreamer … let us slay him … and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”
This human family we live in, well our family dynamics are flawed at best. Yet the stories of Genesis, the stories of these families, our families, make up the larger story of God’s promise – God’s promise to them and to us. God’s promise was not impeded or thwarted by the terrible ways our forefathers and foremothers treated one another. It was not stopped by favoritism or anger or jealousy or revenge. It was not held hostage to their flawed ways of being family. God’s promise is not held hostage by our flawed ways either. We humans are capable of wondrous things, and we are capable of great evil. But God’s extravagant and gracious and loving promise to us continues and grows and finds fulfillment in spite of ourselves. That is the great and glorious good news. God works through us, through our family dynamics, to bring about good and love for us, for all of us, for all of God’s family.
Children of God, let us give thanks and say, “Alleluia!”


Sunday, September 18, 2016


Genesis 15:1-6
September 18, 2016

            The Grand Canyon has recently been designated as a Dark Sky site. Like a place that has an historical or a wilderness designation, a Dark Sky certification means that this is a place where the problem of light pollution has been addressed; where artificial lights have been changed and refitted so that the night sky, the dark sky, can be seen in all of its glory. Light pollution is so ubiquitous that two-thirds of the world’s population has never seen the Milky Way, the galaxy in which we live. Light pollution not only affects our vision of the night sky, it causes havoc with the instincts of nocturnal animals and other creatures. Light pollution is wasted energy. As the journalist, who reported on the Grand Canyon’s Dark Sky designation, said, light pollution is one of the easiest fixes. You change the lighting and you fix the problems associated with it. It took two years to find all of the lights installed in and around the Grand Canyon. It will take a few years more before all of the lighting is updated to the right kinds of lights that prevent light pollution. But as a Dark Sky site, a clear night at the Grand Canyon means that stars, planets and the glow of the Milky Way are visible. A Dark Sky gives us back the night sky.
            Abram would have not understood our contemporary problem of light pollution. Everywhere he went was a Dark Sky site. So imagine, if you can, the multitude of stars that were visible to Abram and the glow of the Milky Way that shone down on him when God instructed him to look up at the stars. A lot has happened since the beginning of Chapter 12 when God first spoke to Abram and told him to go.
            “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make you name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
            God said go. Abram went. He went with his wife, Sarai, and his nephew, Lot, and their households. The journey to this land God promised was not an easy one. They ran into trouble in Egypt, when Abram told Sarai to tell the Pharaoh that she was his sister, not his wife. He and Lot parted company. God promised Abram again that he and Serai will have a child; they will be the patriarch and matriarch of a great nation. Lot got stuck in a conflict between different kings, and Abram rescued him. Years passed. Many years passed. But God’s promise of a child had yet to be fulfilled. Abram and Sarai grew older and older and older. It was inconceivable that Sarai could ever conceive.
            We come to our moment in their story and the Lord spoke to Abram again. The Lord came to Abram in a vision, a dream, and spoke the words that will be spoken to God’s children again and again. “Do not be afraid.”
            “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”
            As I said, years had passed, yet God’s promise of children and nations and blessings must have seemed more distant and more unlikely to Abram than ever. I have no problem believing that Abram was wrestling with doubt. He voiced that struggle to God.
            O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.”
            One commentator wrote that God’s reply to Abram was as good as saying, “You better change your will.” God reiterated God’s promises of blessings and descendents. Not only did God speak these promises to Abram once again, God employed an object lesson.
            “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” “So shall your descendents be.”
            This was a Dark Sky. Abram would never have been able to count all those stars. It would have taken more than lifetime for him to count the stars that shone above him. That was God’s point. You can’t count the number of stars in the heaven; you won’t be able to count the descendents I will give you. It will be more than you can count, more than you can fathom, more than you can imagine. God’s promise to Abram exceeded the boundaries of Abram’s imagination.
            The final verse of our passage is one that has been quoted and quoted again. “And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
            God reckoned Abram’s belief to him as righteousness. God credited Abram with righteousness. Abram believed. God gave him credit for it. It seems simple enough. If we only believe and trust in God’s promises, as Abram did, then we will have righteousness credited to our cosmic account.
            However as I understand it, the Hebrew in this sentence is ambiguous. It could also read that Abram reckoned it to God as righteousness. Our first response to that might be indignation; who is Abram to reckon God with righteousness?! Yet, isn’t that what we do when we take the leap of faith and believe God – when we trust and hold fast to the assurance that God keeps God’s promises. We credit God with righteousness. I believe in God’s promises, even though those promises seem a long time in coming, because I trust that God is righteous. God’s promises are trustworthy. I trust God because God is righteous.  Still, Abram is not perfect in his trust. It will be over a decade before Isaac is actually born. In the next chapter, Sarai gives Hagar to Abram and Ishmael is born to be Abram’s heir. Abram and Sarai give into the temptation to take matters into their own hands. Just as we do. I think the major obstacle we have in trusting God’s promises, in trusting that God is righteous, is that these promises seem situated far off in the unknown and murky future, and they seem in direct conflict with the reality of today.
            Today, it can be hard to trust in God’s promises. Today, it can be tough to credit God with righteousness. Everywhere we turn there is suffering and hatred, warfare and pain, destruction and death. God is righteous, but the present world is not. Yet it is this present that we live in. It is this present that drives us. It is much more expedient to take matters into our own hands, and make our own future. But it seems to me that the opposite of trust is not disbelief, it is control. To trust God does not mean that we just sit around and wait for something divine to happen. Trusting God is not passive. But when I try to control everyone and everything around me; when I try to control and manipulate and dictate how I think my life should be, God very kindly and very firmly lets me fall on my … face.
            Be honest, if you were to look up in the night sky would you believe that the descendents of this congregation will ever be as numerous as the stars? Will we be a church filled with children and young people and new generations once again? Or will we continue childless?
            Maybe we will. Maybe we won’t. I’m not convinced that God’s promises are tailor made to suit an individual congregation, or an individual for that matter. But I do believe that God’s promises are for all of us – all of God’s children. I do believe that God’s promises are bigger and more expansive than anything we can imagine. I do believe that God refuses to give up on us or abandon us or leave us to our own deficient devices. I do believe in the goodness and trustworthiness of God’s promises, even as I struggle with my own doubt. I believe in God’s promises for the future because I remember the ways God has kept His promises in the past. I struggle with doubt, and I wrestle with my faith, and I question God. But when all is said and done, I move forward step by step believing, hoping and trusting that God holds our present and our future in His hands; his righteous, gracious and loving hands. Look into the night sky and know that God’s promises outnumber the stars. May we all reckon God with righteousness and trust in God’s promises.
            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!”


Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Story of Us

Genesis 2:4b-7, 15-17, 3:1-8
September 11, 2016

Well, I came upon a child of God
He was walking along the road
And I asked him, Tell me where are you going?
This he told me
Said, I'm going down to Yasgur's Farm,
Gonna join in a rock and roll band.
Got to get back to the land and set my soul free.
We are stardust, we are golden,
We are billion year old carbon,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.
                                                            Joni Mitchell

            “And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.” These lyrics are from the song Woodstock. Joni Mitchell wrote them, but the performance of them that I know and love best is by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. I’ve listened to this song countless times over the years, but until I started working on this sermon, I’d never thought too much about the line, “And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.” I’m assuming, and I believe my assumption is correct, that this is a reference not just to Yasgur’s farm or to the Woodstock concert itself, but to the Garden of Eden.
            It’s a nice idea, isn’t it; getting back to the garden, getting back to a time and place when human beings and creation, human beings and God lived in perfect harmony.  Wars were not yet fought. Poverty was not even a concept, much less a reality. There were no isms to overcome; racism, sexism, ageism, etc. Justice was not necessary because there was nothing to cause injustice. If only that snake would have kept his mouth shut. I almost entitled this sermon, “This Is Why I Hate Snakes.” But the snake is only one part of this story.
            That leads to the question I have been asking myself all week; what is this story really all about? I know that theologically speaking, it is about God’s creation and humanity’s fall. It is about original sin, and Adam and Eve’s disobedience. It is the story that has justified centuries of violence toward women because Eve took the first bite of the forbidden fruit. It is the history of humanity’s first bad decision. It is the reason there is a garden to which we are constantly trying to return. It is the story of how Adam and Eve lived in paradise, until the tricky serpent came along, and God’s original children listened to the snake instead of God.
            But was the garden perfect? What do we mean when call something “perfect”? Was it without flaw? Was it a place where no mistakes could be made? If that’s true, then it wasn’t perfect because mistakes were made; hence, why we’re trying to get back to it. If God created it to be perfect, then the snake would not have had the ability to whisper tantalizing suggestions in Eve’s ear. If it were perfect, then Eve would not have considered disobeying and taking the fruit. If it were perfect, Adam would not have stood beside her through all of this and done nothing.
            Maybe the Garden of Eden was not perfect. Maybe God did not create us to be perfect; at least not perfect in the way we understand perfection. God created Adam to be in relationship with God. As one of my friends pointed out in Bible study, God spoke creation into existence. If you read the first account of creation that is what God did. God spoke it into existence. But when it came to Adam, God got his hands dirty. God took the ground and formed Adam. The name Adam is a Hebrew play on words from the word for ground, which is adamah. God formed Adam from the ground, and you would think that if God’s hands formed humanity, then humanity should indeed be perfect, right? Yet Adam and Eve were not perfect. Perfect people do not disobey. They did.
            I loved playing with my dollhouse when I was a kid. I could arrange the furniture anyway I wanted to. I could put the doll family who lived there in any room, have them do anything I chose, say anything I wanted them to say. They were inanimate objects, and they did what I commanded. I guess if God had wanted to create perfection, we would have been created like those dolls. God could move us around where God chose. God could make us do and say what God wanted. But that is not how Adam and Eve were created. That is not how we were created.
            God created Adam to be in relationship with God and with the rest of God’s creation. God created Eve to be in relationship with Adam and with God and with the rest of God’s creation. God created us for relationship. God created us with free will. We were given brains to think and bodies to move and use. We were given the freedom to say, “No.”
            I’ve come to believe, as heretical as it may sound, that the Garden of Eden was not a perfect place – at least not in the way that I have always defined perfection. I believe it was a place of abundance. I believe it was a place where the chaos was kept at bay. Remember, when God spoke the world into being, God pushed back the chaos. But the chaos was not destroyed or eliminated. The Garden of Eden was a place of abundance and safety, but not perfection. The couple and the creatures that inhabited it were also not perfect. Those two free-thinking, imperfect people did what all free-thinking, imperfect people do. They messed up. They acted wrongly. They broke relationship with God. They fell, and they were sent out into the world where the chaos threatened to come rushing in – and often it did. Often it does.
            It seems to me that the story of Adam and Eve is the story of us. It is the story of the human condition. It is the story of broken relationship and the sadness and consequences that follow. It is the story of us. We are Adam and Eve. We continue to break relationship. We continue to make bad choices. We continue to suffer the consequences of our brokenness. It is the story of us.
            How fitting it is, then, that this story of us is chosen for this particular day. Fifteen years ago, on a beautiful September morning, while I held my two-month-old in my arms and watched my two-year-old play on the floor, I and the rest of the country, the rest of the world, also watched in horror as planes flew into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. We heard of another plane bound for Washington D.C. that crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. We watched on our televisions as chaos swept back in. We witnessed the moment when families were ripped apart, when parents would no longer come home to their children and children would not be returned to their parents. Our terrible brokenness was on full display. Our human condition had never seemed lower and more wretched. Yet we also saw those who worked to keep the chaos at bay; those who rescued and helped, those who sacrificed their own lives to go in when others were desperately trying to get out. It was a horrific and appalling and heartbreaking chapter in the story of us.
            Fifteen years later, we are still broken. The chaos still threatens to overwhelm us. This is the most rancorous election seasons I have ever been privy to, and I know that I get caught up in and contribute to that rancor. I wonder sometimes, especially when I feel to the depths of my being the hatred and anger that seems all around me, if the story of us will ever have a happy ending; if there will ever be a chapter devoted to peace and compassion, to justice and righteousness. If the writing of this story is left up to us, then I doubt that chapter will ever be written. But the good news is that it is most assuredly not left up to us. Because back when the story of us began, back when we were still in the Garden, back before we listened to that sneaky snake, God created us to be in relationship with one another and with God. We broke the relationship. We broke it and we have suffered and struggled ever since. But God didn’t break the relationship. God did not end it there. God kept trying to help us write the story. We speak of us trying to get back to the Garden, but in reality I believe it is God who is trying to lead us back there; back to relationship, back to abundance of life and love.
            God is still with us, still writing the story of us. In spite of the terrible things we do to one another, God is still pushing back the chaos and calling us to do the same by showing the same love, compassion and mercy to others that God shows us. It seems to me that the story of us is not yet finished, because the story of us is the story of God. We are broken, but God is still creating, still shaping us with his merciful hands; still loving us with his unconditional love. Thanks. Be. To. God. 
            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!”


Monday, September 5, 2016

The Cost

Luke 14:25-33
September 4, 2016

            Having a realtor for a significant other has taught me a great deal about real estate. I can talk fairly intelligently about things such as comps, appraisals, and listings, but I’ve also learned about the code of ethics that realtors must follow. One tenet of that code is about the advertising of a property. Whatever is advertised about a property must be true. If a listing says four bedrooms, there better be four bedrooms. But Brent told me that while there is no room for false advertising in real estate, agents are allowed to use what is known as “puffing.”
            Puffing is essentially using adjectives in exceptionally creative manners. If you read that a house is cozy, that probably means that it is tiny. If a house is described as quaint, most likely it’s old. I think charming could be used for both tiny and old as well. If a house is a fixer-up or it is listed as needing TLC, you know that a) it needs a lot of work; and b) you might want to hope there isn’t too strong of a wind on the day you view it.
            These statements are not lies. They are not false advertising. They are puffed. They are adjectives designed to put a good spin on whatever a property has to offer. Although I’d never heard the term, “puffing,” before, I think versions of it are used in other businesses besides real estate. When you are trying to make something sound appealing, you phrase the facts in ways that actually appeal; you puff.
            Some of you have commented on the information cards about the church that Alice and I created. We originally made these to give out to the OBU students at Spotlight on Shawnee, but they are generic enough that we can hand them to anyone who might be looking for a church home. The reason I bring these cards up is because I think that Alice and I did our own version of puffing when we made them. Everything on the card is true. There were no false claims made. But as we talked through what should go on the card, we tried to phrase the information so that it would sound true and appealing – to college students and beyond. We didn’t just write, “We have nice sermons and sweet worship each week.” We wrote that we have “challenging, scriptural preaching and eclectic worship.” You get the idea. It’s not that our facts are untrue, it is that we wanted to list them in a way that would grab someone’s attention: puffing.
            Jesus did not care about puffing. His description of the cost of discipleship would not have made a good ad, and no one would put it on an information card. Jesus did not try to soften or gentle his words. He spoke the blunt, hard truth about the cost of following him.
            “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.”
            That’s not puffing. That’s anti-puffing. Discipleship will not be a time of thoughtful engagement with Jesus, or a challenging opportunity for physical, emotional and spiritual growth. No, discipleship comes with a cost, and the cost will be family. The cost will be friends. The cost will be home and hearth. The cost will even be life itself. If you want to be my disciple, you better count the cost.
            Jesus gave two examples to illustrate how important it was for a potential follower to count the cost. Someone planning on building a tower would sit down and figure out the cost of construction first. If they weren’t to do that, then they would lay the foundation, but run out of money before they could complete it, leaving them vulnerable to derision and scorn from others.
            Or what about a king who plans to wage war on another kingdom? A king with any sense would first calculate the cost of war, and assess the ability of his army of 10,000 to take on an enemy army of 20,000. If his army of 10,000 had no chance of winning against an army twice that size, then the king would send a delegation asking the other king for peace.
            If you wouldn’t build a tower or start a war without counting the cost, Jesus said to the would-be followers, then why would you not count it before following me? Just to make this anti-puffing picture complete, Jesus ends with the words,
            “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
            Let’s see here, if we want to follow Jesus; if we want to become his disciple, we have to hate all of the people that we love. We have to carry this cross. And, we have to give up all of our possessions. 
            Nothing on this list of requirements sounds good. But what bothers me when I read this passage, and others like it, is the hating of the ones I love most. Some commentators explain this as hyperbolic language on Jesus’ part. That is a plausible explanation. However preacher and teacher, Fred Craddock, wrote that a Semitic understanding of Jesus’ cautionary words would not have seen hatred as loathing or despising someone. To hate someone was to detach from that person. It was not a feeling of disgust. It was a detachment, emotionally and physically. If you want to follow Jesus, you’re going to have to detach yourself even from the people you love most in this world. Jesus wanted those potential followers to understand that discipleship was not a part-time commitment. It was not something they could in their spare time. It would require everything: everything they had to give emotionally and physically. Hence, Jesus’ final admonition; if you want to follow me, you’re going to have give up all of your possessions. Material goods make a claim on us just as people do. You have to let all of that go in order to follow him. Anything that stakes a claim on you, other than Jesus, other than a driving, compelling call to follow, has to be let go, given away, released.
            However, what about that other requirement; the one in the middle of Jesus’ words about discipleship – the one about carrying the cross? Jesus spoke words like this before. He had already told potential followers that there would be a cost involved with discipleship. He spoke plainly to the disciples about the Messiah suffering and dying, He even told them that they would also have to pick up their own crosses and follow him. But the crowds around him were getting bigger. Perhaps this message needed to be repeated. Yet, I’m not sure that anyone could fully grasp the implication of Jesus’ words. It is redundant to say that the disciples didn’t. We know that already. We know a lot of things already. We know what it meant for Jesus to set his face toward Jerusalem. That is the context of this passage. He was going to Jerusalem; not only to pick up his cross but to die on it as well.
            But those around him did not know the final outcome. They did not know what would really take place in Jerusalem. Even the disciples, though they tried to understand, were baffled at the idea of a messiah suffering and dying. Death on a cross was a common Roman execution, so that would not have been unfamiliar to them. Yet the idea that Jesus, their Jesus, could die in such a way was probably too much for them to bear.
           But we who know the rest of the story know what comes next. We know exactly what it means to pick up the cross. Or do we? If I ask the question, “What does it mean for you to pick up your cross", what is your answer? Is it a way that we imitate Jesus? Is it about trying to follow in his footsteps? Is it about what will come in the life after this one? Would your answer be one based on resurrection, death defeated, salvation?
            It’s not that any of those answers are incorrect. Yet, maybe we need to stop thinking about the future and figure out what it means for us to pick up our crosses today. I mean right now, this minute. What does it mean for you to pick up your cross? Do you think of your cross as a burden? Or are the burdens of your life keeping you from picking up your cross?  What must we let go so we can carry that cross with both hands, and follow Jesus with open hearts and open minds?
            I know that one burden I have to let go is fear: fear that I’m not good enough, strong enough, able enough, etc. I want to pick up my cross and follow Jesus, but how afraid I am that I can’t do what he asks. That’s my answer to the question today. Tomorrow my answer might be different. It seems to me that this might be the crux Jesus’ question and our answer. Jesus not only told the crowds that discipleship required counting the cost, Jesus was telling them to choose. You have to choose in order to follow me. You have to make a choice to be my disciple. I’ve realized that this choice is not a one-time decision. Choosing is a daily, mindful, intentional task. Everyday, I have to choose. I have to choose to pick up my cross. I have to discern what must be released so I can make the choice in the first place. I have to choose. We have to choose. We have to count the cost, true, but we have to choose in order for that cost to be counted. We have to choose discipleship. We have to choose the cross. We have to choose to follow him.
            The good news, and one that I am reminded of as we gather around this table, is that the choice is ever before us. However we may falter and fall away today, the choice will be there tomorrow, and the even more wonderful good news is that when we choose to pick up our cross, we also choose abundant life and abundant love. And no matter how reluctant we may be to let go of all of the stuff that claims us, God refuses to let go of us.
            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!”