Luke 14:25 Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26 “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. 27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
28 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? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30 saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 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? 32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace.
33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
I didn’t grow up in church—my family traditions were basically baseball and sarcasm—but I ended up beginning to call myself a Christian when I was a freshman in high school. Most of the people I went to church with were there because there parents brought them there; so I was something of a curiosity. It wasn’t long before people started asking me to share something called my “testimony.” I said, “Yes…What’s that?” I learned that it’s a fairly simple literary genre.There’s a before, a transformation, and an after, a nice narrative of progress where my life was messed up but then God did something and now it’s not so messed up. It’s an elegant form that allows people to name specific and dramatic shifts that have happened in their lives. It’s a way to remember that those kinds of shifts, radical breaks with situations or even identities, do happen; we convert, we come out, things fall apart and we start over with new terms and it’s good to share with each other how that has happened.
But, as I quickly found by living past the age of 15, our lives aren’t quite so neat are they? You became a Christian, and now you find yourself in church, with all of these people and it turns out people can be kind of a handful at times (I became a Christian in the early aughts, and as the years went by—with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the financial crisis of 2008, the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing marriage equality—I came to realize “There’s more fascism in the water here than I signed up for”). Or you realize that even though you’ve undergone this dramatic shift, you’ve become a very different kind of person, old habits live on like muscle memories and so you feel this contradiction in yourself between who you were and who you’re becoming. Or you’ve been moved by God’s grace and so you want to share grace by doing acts of mercy for your neighbors who are in need and you start doing that work, getting to know those people and you come to recognize that there are larger forces at work in the world, making it a less gracious place. Things aren’t so simple as “before” and “after;” these nice narratives of progress, most of us find ourselves muddling through the middle. Every transformation, every little apocalypse in our lives, opens up onto a new set of questions and problems.
So the danger of a simple testimony, a pretty story of progress narrating life as a distinct before and after, is that such a story sets faith up as the opposite of struggle. Struggling was what we did before, but then we found faith and now we’re good. In that understanding of faith, any struggle, any doubt, any anger, any dissatisfaction becomes a mark against my faith, a sign that I don’t trust God.
Many of us have been taught that faith means “counting our blessings.” So when you’re in the hospital, for yourself or a loved one, you came to church and everyone has an “at least…” At least it’s not worse, at least the nurses are nice, at least you got that time together. Or your job is a mess, you didn’t get the raise you were promised, the hours are as long as they are irregular, but at least you have a job, at least you don’t have it as bad as that other person. Maybe this is a time of testing and if you persevere you’ll be rewarded. Count your blessings.
If faith represents a neat “after,” then the habit of faith becomes to minimize or avoid new struggles as we find them. Maybe you have been in spaces where “faith” means keeping away doubt and questions; or you’ve been told that faith means avoiding conflict for the sake of unity (which often just means protecting the way things are); or that faith looks like obedience to the authorities that keep the world the way it is, so that being a good Christian and a quiet citizen are one and the same. In this telling, faith is obedience and your obedience to your pastors and your bosses and government shows your obedience to God.
Faith as Struggle
My friends, that’s not the kind of faith Jesus asks of us. Jesus invites us to struggle because of our faith and because he wants the world to be a place where everyone knows God’s love for them. In our story this morning, a crowd has begun to walk with Jesus during his travels. And Jesus says 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.” Jesus just lists out many of our most intimate relationships, the people we love, and says, if you’re not willing to leave these behind, this probably isn’t for you. (Maybe for some of you this is good news; those relationships are already struggles and Jesus is giving you permission to seek out other modes of kinship.) But for others, this is hard to hear. My mom? No, Jesus, not my mom. Your mom’s here! And my kids? What wouldn’t I do for my kids? My life? Unless I’m ready to give up life, I can’t follow you?
What wouldn’t I do for my kids? What wouldn’t I do for my family? What wouldn’t I do to keep surviving? Maybe that’s the problem. Just before we moved to Durham, Caitlin and I got robbed and about a week afterwards they caught the guy. He was really just a kid—he was living in Caitlin’s car when they found him—no justice was done by him going to prison for years but at the time, to my shame, I remember feeling so relieved that he was in jail because I felt safer. I’m not saying we should’ve had him come live with us or even that he should’ve been allowed near us, but maybe there are other ways to perform that than our current criminal justice system, but in that moment when it felt like our lives were threatened I was perfectly willing to let the world’s systems do their work. Because what won’t we accept to feel safe? A prison industrial complex that is objectively evil? Actual concentration camps? An unjust workplace because you can’t afford to lose the paycheck that supports your family because you spoke up?
How often do we avoid struggling for what could be, what should be, because we feel the need to protect what we already have? If I just keep my head down, go with the flow, things will work out for us. If there’s a certain vision of faith as maintenance, then the Family and the Children, are what we’re supposed to maintain. Gotta count your blessings.
But Jesus wants more for our lives than mere survival. God gives us each other, all of our relationships as gifts, not as institutions of stability that we must protect at all costs. When Jesus tells us that we have to be willing to leave our families behind he’s inviting us to struggle against any life that is less than abundant. We know that people find ways to survive: we get together, we make babies, those babies grow up and make babies, and history repeats itself over and over again. We survive. Do what’s best for the children, the children will grow and do what’s best for the children and the world might incrementally get better over time if you can just stick around.
But really the same injustices repeat themselves in new forms; the Empires of this world do whatever it takes to keep the children safe by killing the children elsewhere. This surviving is not really living. So Jesus invites a break with the endless repetitions of history, with generational stories of “before” and “after.”
Struggle as Cataclysm
When Jesus calls us to leave everything behind and take up our crosses, he doesn’t offer progress beyond struggle; Jesus invites cataclysm as a result of struggle. That’s usually how change really happens, not by incremental adjustment, but radical breaks. We don’t have weekends because incrementally over time, capitalists realized their workers’ lives were better with some time to rest. No, unions organized and risked everything to go on strike for fair hours and wages. Women didn’t get the right to vote because enough sons came to see all the women of the world as daughters and sisters; women left their proper places behind and marched where they knew they deserved to go. Segregation didn’t end because over time white people raised their consciousness to a degree that they were ready to change their habits; it ended because black people boycotted busses and sat where they weren’t allowed to anyway. Our LGBTQ+ neighbors don’t have the right to marry because anyone gave it to them; the struggled to make themselves and the beauty of their love visible. Any time people have found real life it’s because they’ve created a cataclysm through their struggles against what we’ve received from our parents and our parents’ parents as normal.
We are invited to struggle, to work toward a cataclysm of love, because we have faith in a God who calls us not just to be obedient but to take up our crosses. In the Roman Empire, a cross was a method of execution reserved for slaves and revolutionaries. It was a way for those in power to say, “you want to rise out of your place, OK” and then mock them by raising them up and fixing them in place anyway. When Jesus calls us to take up our crosses, he’s inviting us to live in a way that rearranges, even threatens, the oppressive patterns of this world.
That’s why in some situations, taking up your cross means struggling for your life. In a world divided up into owners and workers this directive to take up our crosses usually gets read by owners as “be a little more generous,” while workers are supposed to take it as “Stay in your proper place; be patient and persevere,” but in that reading the cross gets used just as the Romans used it, as a means of maintaining the status quo. Jesus calls those on the top to take up their crosses and those already on crosses to rise. This is because some oppressors don’t execute their victims, some oppressors want to keep you around. They allow you barely enough of what you need to survive but not to really live. So sometimes taking up your cross means leaving, not letting them treat you that way, going on strike, however the ones on top might lash out.
That’s what Jesus’ life looks like and so faith, if it is to be faith in Jesus and not some other kind of faith, invites a very different kind of life than one requiring obedience at every turn. Faith in Jesus sees how every “after” opens up on a new “before,” and then continues to affirm that radical conversion happens over and over again. So faith in Jesus questions, that doubts, wrestles with the assumptions we’ve received from our parents and our teachers. Faith in Jesus struggles against the powers and the principalities, against bosses and rulers, not just when they’re obviously wicked, but always because their very existence suggests that some are more worthy of love and care than others when God made the world for everyone.
Faith in Jesus struggles with any form of life that does not treat you as though God loves you and calls you good. Thinking about this from another perspective, I’m reminded of one teacher in the early church named Gregory of Nyssa, who taught that heaven is not a place of stasis, where we arrive fixed in our perfection. Instead, for Gregory heaven is where we come to know God as all in all, but God is infinite and our vision is finite, so there is always more of God to know and love; and if that’s the case, then heaven looks like infinite flight into the depths of God’s beauty, where there is always more of God to love and there is always more of God’s love for us. That vision of our end could give shape to a very different kind of testimony, where we don’t have to stay in place and count our blessings but are always called to more. If that’s true, then faith could mean leaving behind anything that keeps us back from exploring the fulness of God’s love.
That is the life that faith in Jesus calls us to live, not a life of blind obedience, but a faith that hopes for a better world, a faith that goes to work in love as if that’s possible. It’s so easy to give in to resignation or optimism, to say that nothing will get better or that things will get better without any of us doing anything, but Jesus invites us leave behind anything that would pacify us with less than we deserve; we are called to take up our crosses and find beyond this world’s parody of life an abundant life that is really life, life that overflows beyond our wildest imagining and we do not settle for anything less. Amen.