Episcopal Diocese of Virginia
The Episcopal Church »  |  The Diocese of Virginia

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 8, 2013

Anyone who has read the Harry Potter books or seen the movie knows about the sorting hat. At the beginning of the school year at Hogwarts, it is put on each new person to decide which of the four houses the person belongs in. It makes the decision for you. Except in Harry’s case. The sorting hat was having trouble deciding about Harry. He had qualities that put him in Slytherin and qualities that put him in Griffindor, where his friends were. He kept whispering, “Not Slytherin, not Slytherin, not Slytherin” until the sorting hat took his wish into consideration and assigned him to Griffindor. Harry had helped make the decision for himself.

The sorting hat is about the magic life and not about real life. The hat makes a decision for you, but in real life you have to make decisions for yourself, even from a very early age. When Evan was young, he would tell me he wanted something, and when I told him he had to get it with his allowance, all of a sudden the decision became harder to make. He had to decide if he wanted the toy rather than having the money. He had to count up his money and see if he had enough for it. If he wanted a video game console, he had to decide if he had enough money to buy the console and at least one game, for what use is the console without the game?

We all have to make decisions in this life, sometimes hard decisions. Jesus talks about what must be the hardest decision we will ever have to make – the decision to be a disciple, to follow Jesus no matter what, to relativize our important priorities, such as family, possessions and even survival in favor of what Jesus calls us to do. A disciple must give up control and have open hands, both to give whatever God wants to have and to receive whatever God wants to put there. There are no words of comfort here, only words of choice and sacrifice.

It would be easier today to be Jewish. Moses tells the people they have a black and white decision to make too – whether to obey God or go after other idols. But Moses points to rewards for obeying God – life, progeny, land and blessings. But in Jesus’ black and white choice, the sacrifices come from being a disciple. You have to hate your family. You have to carry the cross; you have to give up all your possessions. Even if the word translated “hate” means “detachment” in Greek, to be Jesus’ disciple, you really have to want to do it.

Jesus is talking to the crowds that are following him, serving as rather a cheering section. He has done miracles. He has taught them about a kingdom of heaven where God will favor those that are now oppressed. Jesus is a pretty nice guy they think, and they want him to be their leader. But Jesus knows he is going to Jerusalem to die. He has weighed the cost of discipleship and has determined that with God’s help, he can do what is being asked of him. He wants those in the crowd who are ignorant of his true path to weigh the costs in the same fashion. If you make the decision for discipleship, you have to be willing to go all the way.

You have to be willing to go against your family. Jesus says he has not come to bring peace but to cause division – father against son, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law, mother against daughter. Embracing Jesus and the coming kingdom of heaven will cause tension in family relationships. You have to be willing to die to self every day and live by God’s will. It is God’s will that Jesus die for the sins of the world. God’s will for his disciples may be different, but no matter what the cost, disciples must follow. Jesus has told his disciples before that they must give up their possessions, give alms and follow him on the way of vulnerability, of depending on others for hospitality and the stuff of life that we need, of depending on God.

Is Jesus trying to scare people off? Yes, probably. He knows that his disciples will be called to be apostles and to spread the story of the good news of God in his life, death and resurrection. He knows they will come up against the Jews and the Romans as he will and face persecution and death. He wants them to be strong for what lies ahead. He wants them to be able to give up trying to control their own lives and give the control to God. Jesus does not mention any rewards for discipleship, nor does he give any curses for not being his disciple in this passage, but elsewhere he does. He says to his disciples that it is the Father’s good pleasure to give them the kingdom. In the previous passage, he talks about the abundance of the king’s table for those who come to the banquet. He tells them not to worry about what they will eat or drink or wear because God knows they need all these things and will provide them. They have only to seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness. He says those who have given up things for him will receive even more back in this life and will receive eternal life.

He also says that those who do not make God their first priority, like the invited banquet guests who make excuses about why they cannot come, will never see the kingdom of heaven. He talks about the door to heaven being narrow and the many who will not get in.

Even though there are earthly and heavenly rewards for following Jesus, being a disciple Is still very hard. It is going to hurt (Ronald P. Byars). It is going to require sacrifices. It is going to involve vulnerability. How many people in that large crowd that day do you think weighed the cost and decided it was too much for them. Probably a great many.

Given what Jesus has said about discipleship, do we have what it takes to be disciples? In this culture that emphasizes family values, do we have the courage to make Jesus our priority, to disagree with family members who do not make Jesus a priority in their lives in concrete ways, such as attending church and working for justice and peace? Can we place kingdom values over family values? What about picking up our cross and following God’s will in whatever we do. Can we separate ourselves from the things that separate us from God – too much work, gossiping, not keeping our word, even the self-absorption of watching television or playing video games to the exclusion of serving God and God’s church?

 Maybe the most important thing we are worried about is that command to give up our possessions. Many people live on fixed incomes in this culture that breeds scarcity. They are afraid of giving up what little they have for fear that they will not have enough to sustain themselves in the face of an uncertain economy. Can we face giving God control even in this area of our lives? When I went to seminary, I was anxious about the future. I had given up a secure job without having the certainty that I would be a priest. How crazy was that? But I believed it was what God wanted. At scary times like those, I make a list of how God has been good to me in the past and keep it around to read when I need to. Those of us who want to be disciples, but are afraid of making that decision, might make a list of how God has helped us with our relationships, with our sufferings, with our vulnerability around money.

We have to make a decision to be a disciple every day, sometimes every hour. Discipleship means giving up control of our lives and putting them in God’s hands. It means opening our hands that are full of the stuff of our lives to let God take, give and transform. Discipleship also means a deeper relationship with God, a more intimate experience of God’s love for us expressed in Jesus. If we choose discipleship, we can be assured of God’s help in sticking with our decision, and we can know that we will have a place at the heavenly banquet table.


   - The Rev. Ann Barker


Work cited
Ronald P. Byars, Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol 4 (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2009), p. 47