Fr. Bill Carroll – The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 4, 2022

Take up your cross then, in his strength, and calmly every danger brave:  it guides you to abundant life and leads to victory over the grave.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  

At 309 S. Jackson Street in Montgomery, Alabama, there is a small house.  It is the historic parsonage of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.  And its most famous resident was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  On January 30, 1956 this house was bombed—as part of a campaign of violence and intimidation.  This bombing happened toward the end of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  (There were others.)  At the time it happened, Dr. King was preaching at a friend’s church about three-quarters of a mile away.  But his wife and firstborn child were at home.  And the baby was just two-and-a-half months old.  

Recently, I was reading a book by Charles Marsh, entitled The Beloved Community.  And, in the first chapter, Marsh tells the story of King’s transformation from pastor of a prosperous congregation to a leader in the Civil Rights Movement.  A key turning point in that story concerns the parsonage bombing.  That night, King was preaching to a standing-room-only crowd.  In his sermon,. Marsh tells us:  

King had offered a simple and eloquent rendering of the protestors’ collective soul.  “We are a chain” he said.  “We are linked together, and I cannot be what I ought to [be] unless you are what you ought to be.” (He might as well have called them a family.)…[King’s] words echoed Jesus’ [prayer for his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion]—that the world would see the oneness of their love…The movement community (King told them) is linked with a force greater than moral resolve, strategic goals, or sentiment; the movement is an echo, a distant but truthful repetition, of the overflowing love of God.  

And then he found out about the bombing.  And so, he rushed home to find the front window of the parsonage blown in and the porch damaged, but his wife and daughter safe and sound.  

A crowd had begun to gather (some say it numbered in the thousands) and there was a pervasive feeling of deep anger and sadness.  King had to calm people down as the police commissioner tried to address the furious crowd.  He had to remind them of their commitment to non-violence.  

The Gospel this morning is a lesson that might cause us to stumble.  The saying of Jesus here about “hating” father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and, yes, even life itself is among the most difficult in the entire Gospel.  As he does elsewhere, Jesus calls us to reconsider the place of our most passionately-held commitments, as well as deep-seated parts of ourselves, in order to follow him more closely and put our whole trust in his love.

But what do we make of that one ugly, little word:  “hate”?  Hate is the very opposite of the teaching and example of Jesus.  And so, why does he use that word here?  When Jesus tells us to hate something, he is using forceful language to get our attention, because he wants us to love God even more than all those other good things and persons.  Jesus expects us to love God with our whole heart and mind and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

And Jesus lived that out with his own family.  Earlier in Luke, they hear about his alarming behavior.  And so, his mother and his brothers come looking for him.  When the disciples tell Jesus that his family has come for him, he looks around at all his followers.  He looks at the new family God is creating, and he says:  “My mother and my brothers and sisters are those who hear the Word of God and do it.”

It’s not that Jesus has no affection for his family.  Quite the contrary:  In the Gospels, he shows his tender love for all of them, especially for Mary.  But Jesus defines family in terms of his mission from God.  God sent Jesus to help us redefine who counts as our family.  As he does in the parable of the Good Samaritan, so too here Jesus wants us to expand the circle of our love.

Several weeks ago, I quoted to you from James Baldwin, the great African-American author, who once said that we cling to our hate, in order to avoid our pain.  So too, the intensity of our love for our families, for the other people we care about, and for their traditions can prevent us from hearing God’s call.  If our hatred can lead us into denial, our love can mire us in complacency.

Families are a mixed bag.  On the one hand, they are one of God’s greatest blessings.  They give us our basic sense of love, identity, and connection.  Often, they teach us how to trust.  They provide important experiences of interdependence and mutual aid, which can help us to learn to follow Jesus better.  But, despite the many, many good things they often provide, our families can wound us, saddle us with impossible expectations, and inflict various forms of violence and shame.  Often, our families are where we learn our most sinful attitudes and behaviors, as well as our virtues.  Our families are part of the all-too-human reality that Jesus came to embrace and transform from within.

Our families and other close relationships can be blessings.  They can also show us the Cross.  So too can our society at large.  Any human community can—our neighborhoods, our workplaces, our schools—this town, this state, this country—even the Church.  No matter how important, all human relationships are lived out under the sign of the Cross.  On that night in 1956 (thank God). Dr. King came home to his wife and daughter alive.  Just twelve years later, though, a gunman’s bullet would take his life.  King was not yet forty years old when he was murdered, and he left a wife and four children behind.  

In the words of a famous prayer, the Christian life  is about accepting the things we cannot change and receiving the power to change those things we can.

In our Baptism, we renounce “Satan and the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God.”  At the same time, we renounce “the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God” and “all those sinful desires that draw us from the love of God.”  And then, we turn to Jesus.  We turn to him and accept him as our Savior.  We put our whole trust in his grace and love, and we commit to follow him and obey him as our Lord.

For we are born into a world of sin, where, from the beginning, our own bad choices and the structures and relationships that surround us draft us into the army of death.  Following Jesus means turning the other way.  It means joining him under the battle flag of the Cross.  It can be painful.  It may cost us everything.  And so, he saysto us this morning:  “Whoever does not carry the Cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

Neither our biology nor our family history can hold us back.  Nor can any of the other commitments we make, no matter how sacred they may be, hold us back when we decide to follow Jesus.  For, on the Cross, Jesus has broken the power of sin and death—and he lives and reigns as our Lord.  

And so, we look forward and outward and upward—following Jesus in the Way of love.  We neither deny the truth of where we come from—nor ignore the power of the many other loves in our lives.  But we love and trust Jesus above all the others.

For we have been sealed by his Holy Spirit and marked as his very own.

And he has called us to be his family.