a sermon, based on Luke 14.25-33, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, September 4, 2016
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife (though not stated in the passage, I shall assume “and husband” is included!), children, brothers and sisters, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
How’s that for a Christian family value?
After two millennia, this saying still startles the ear, jars the soul, especially given the importance, the preeminence Christians place on love, agape, unconditional benevolence that is “patient (and) kind…that bears and believes, hopes and endures all things” as the fundamental manifestation of our redemption and the principal demonstration of our faith in “God (who) is love,” “God (who) so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.”
So, what’s up with hate? Or to paraphrase a contemporary song, what’s hate got to do with it? (As an aside, sometimes I think we need to gather for worship wearing padded protective clothing and crash helmets, and strapping ourselves into our pews with seat belts for the ride’s bound to be bumpy!)
Now, sharing “a secret” hidden in the Greek text, the word, miseō, translated “hate,” literally means “to love less.” Thus, Jesus isn’t calling us to dislike, much less despise our loved ones; whether understood literally or as metaphors for anything we hold dear. Rather, we are to love them – in attitude and action, how we feel and what we do – less than we love Jesus.
In the earliest days of the Jesus-movement, this was necessary counsel. To follow Jesus meant leaving one’s historical, inherited cultural patterns and ritual practices, provoking conflict with one’s entire society. However, most western post-modernists have no such concerns. When was the last Sunday morning any of us, even in our time of heightened terrorism, some of it religious in origin and nature, fretted, feared being hated, killed because we planned to be here?
So, how do we interpret: “Whoever does not hate family, even life cannot be my disciple”?
Among myriad interpretations, this saying highlights the tension between our values, symbolized by family and life, where we find our identity and security and a larger life beyond the boundaries of our identity and security, symbolized by discipleship. The tension between the realities that we won’t, we can’t hate or love less our values because they define and determine who we are and a life of discipleship that constantly calls into question our always self-oriented, therefore, inherently, no matter how big and wide, small values. Living with (not seeking to escape) the tension, we need to hold on to what we value lest we lose our sense of who we are and to Jesus who calls us to follow him lest we lose sight of who we can become.
The point? You and I, I believe, always are doing two things at once – being who we are and, ever changing, evolving, growing, becoming who we will be. Thus, there is meaning, a sense of the significance of our existence that we make and find in our closest, dearest relationships. Meaning also is revealed in moments when life’s mystery breaks into our ordered lives and we perceive something greater than or at least as real as anything we already know. Said another way, there is meaning in who we are and what we have or possess. There also is meaning in what we wish we were, but are not yet; disclosed in moments of mystery when the difference between our “real” self and our “ideal” self comes to light.
Early in my ministry, I thought the most important thing was to be capable. For me, that meant being especially knowledgeable of theology and history, the Bible and its application to our lives, so to be for the people I served a living, breathing repository of certainty, a walking, talking storehouse of answers to life’s most critical questions.
A dearest friend, fellow seminarian, and later, fellow priest, the late, great Wayland Edward Melton, who taught me more than anyone about the act and the art of being a priest, preacher, pastor, and person, at one moment in time, was in crisis. The details, as sacrosanct, I cannot and dare not share. Suffice it to say that what he had thought was true about himself and God, about life and the world was brought into agonizing question. Weeping, his body shaking, his voice breaking, Wayland poured out his spiritual and existential struggle to me. One tick of a second after he finished his saga, I “answered” with an on-point and brilliant discursus on the human quest for truth based on the epistemology of that great 13th century Doctor of the Church, Thomas Aquinas…
Wayland listened intently, a single, silent tear trailing down his cheek. With kind eyes, he looked at me and said softly, “Paul, I never worry about your competency, but I often wonder about your compassion.” In that instant, I realized ruefully I’d dreadfully missed the point. Wayland didn’t need or want me to do or say anything, but rather to be with him in his pain so that he would be assured that he was not alone. Wayland, in his compassionate response, was an ‘angelos, an angel, God’s messenger, speaking a word of life’s mystery breaking into my orderly sense of my reality to reveal the ideal.
That one experience among many confirms for me that to follow Jesus, to love him more and to love less everyone and everything else, even my precious point of view is to live in the tension of always holding on to the real while always reaching for the ideal, and always being prepared to relinquish the real that the ideal may become real.
Photograph: Saturday, April 15, 1978, Calvary Episcopal Church, Columbia, Missouri, the occasion of my Ordination to the Sacred Order of Priests. Wayland was the preacher.
Illustration: St. Thomas Aquinas, Sandro Botticelli (1444-1510)
 1 Corinthians 13.4a, 7
 1 John 4.16
 John 3.16
 The Very Rev. Dr. Wayland Edward Melton (1949-1997), sometime dean of the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral (1996-1997).