Jeremiah 18.1-11; Psalm 139.1-5,12-18; Philemon; Luke 14.25-35
ATTACHMENTS, HEALTHY AND UNHEALTHY
‘Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure heap; they throw it away.’ (Luke 14.34-5)
INTRODUCTION: It was a bit of a challenge to discover that the gospel for Father’s Day, and text for my sermon, begins: ‘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.’ How do I turn this into a Father’s Day message!? Perhaps I should have changed the reading, and rehearsed the Fourth Commandment: ‘Honour your Father and your Mother, that your days may be long in the land…’ Clearly Father’s Day is not a red-letter day in the Church Calendar. Yet the churches, by and large, have felt compelled to sanctify Father’s Day, to the extent of welcoming families, arranging Family Services on the theme, or at least praying for fathers. Are we contradicting ourselves, or worse, selling out the Gospel, and the clear words of our Lord, Jesus Christ?
But these are not the only uncompromising words of Jesus in the Gospel today; we also heard : ‘whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple’; and ‘So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.’ All my possessions? Now we recognise that there have been martyrs for the faith, and there are martyrs today. I was raised with the story of the four young American missionaries who planned a long-term mission to the Auca Indians of the Amazon basin, an entirely uncontacted tribe. This involved training not only in theology, but in translation work, and for some of them, flying the plane to land them to where they had identified a possible point of contact. The outcome was that they were all killed and eaten by this cannibal people, though further contact saw the effective evangelism of some of the Aucas, including the son of one of the cannibals. Nate Saint, the pilot, had a poster in his college room, which read ‘He is no fool, who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose’. Is this dedication just for the devoted few?
What about us, largely in domestic settings, in a worthwhile job, perhaps married, or in a family owned house, having others depending on us, and what about fathers, heads of households, among us?
- On the road with Jesus. We note the context (again): On the road with Jesus, on the way to the Cross; proclaiming the Kingdom to those they encountered, as opportunity provided, but drawing out the implications for disciples in the small group, and one-on-one; and we wrestle with the mystery of faith and unbelief, as those we might expect to welcome Jesus do not, and those we might write off as not interested become disciples. In this case today we are told that large crowds were travelling with Jesus, so the uncompromising language may in part reflect his impatience with those who were mainly enjoying the crowd atmosphere, and hoping to see a miracle or two. This might well have been the best entertainment available.
- Responding to his stark challenges: However, we simply cannot avoid the stark contrasts Jesus makes about the cost of discipleship. Stop! He is saying. Think! Beware of rationalizing away his challenges. The parables he tells, one about the realities of a building project, and one of embarking upon a military campaign, have a genuinely modern ring about them: think any number of failed projects that become blots on the urban landscape; or of the second Iraq War. You may suggest similar modern analogies: preparing properly for a bushwalk of several days; or being ambitious to have a really decent wine collection. Think it through: Do not pretend to Christian discipleship unless you have thought through the consequences.
- Healthy attachments? Perhaps one way to think about what Jesus challenges us with is to see our projects: building a tower, going to war, our possessions, our various family ties, as forms of attachment. Attachments are all those influences which claim us in one way or another: interests, loyalties, habits, ambitions, and particularly the relationships upon which we depend for our sense of self. Now we can evaluate these by asking if they are healthy attachments or unhealthy ones. Are they good for us? Are they good for the others involved? As an aside about Father’s Day, for example, we could recognise that not everyone is enthusiastic about making a fuss on Father’s Day because not all fathers are or were admirable in their expression of their fatherhood. Our attachment to our fathers, or theirs to us, may be or have been dysfunctional. The Commandment largely bids us acknowledge our debt under God to those who brought us into the world, and that it is God’s design that we be in families and communities. We are to care for them in their decline. But at the same time the Bible is not naïve about brutal fathers, lazy fathers, unfaithful fathers. When Jesus grabs our attention by requiring us to hate our parents and siblings he is addressing the question of what psychologists call ‘attachment’. Parents and families have a vital, God-given role, but we should not prioritise the emotional or material claims of family members over the Kingdom of God, and the invitation of Christ the King to follow him. The family is not the Kingdom (and nor is the church).
Some of you may have heard the name Stanley Hauerwas, reportedly the most quoted theologian in the USA, and designated America’s best theologian by Time Magazine. You can find dozens of his aphorisms through Google. His best known books are A Peaceable Kingdom and Resident Aliens. A Texan, with a strong line against violence, and reserved about American power, he is unlikely to be asked to pray at a Democratic Presidential Inauguration. He was once engaged by a reporter who, learning that he was a theologian of repute, with a distinctive view of the church, (‘The first task of the church is to be the church’) asked him ‘So, Professor, you are a strong supporter of family values, then?’ To which Hauerwas replied: ‘Hell, no! I’m a Christian!’ He echoes Jesus in ways that grab attention. Jesus urges us not to be half-hearted about discipleship. Echoing our Lord, Hauerwas calls out the ways Western Christians have accommodated to the mainstream of society and politics. His most pithy one-liner would be: ‘Jesus is Lord, and everything else is bullshit.’
Which takes us to how Jesus concludes his challenge to serious discipleship: ‘Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure heap: they throw it away. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’ May we all, fathers in particular, serve the Kingdom.