Kids sometimes do the darnedest things, don’t they?
A story: Back in the day, I shared a workspace with a long-time friend and colleague named Nancy. We each had separate phone lines and, whenever, someone called one or the other of us, and we weren’t able to pick up, “after the beep” you might hear the caller over the speakerphone leaving a voicemail. Not super private, but it helped Nancy and me let each other know when an important message was waiting. And some of the messages, particularly those left by family members, could be pretty funny. So, one day, I had just stepped back into the office from lunch and heard my phone ringing. Nancy was at her desk, and there were a couple of quick things I needed go over with her, so I figured I’d let the call go to voicemail. Except that this particular call from was from my first ex-wife, and her voicemail began (with some energy): “Your daughter….” Needless to say, I practically leapt across the room to pick up the phone receiver before she could finish the sentence. Turns out that my eldest daughter, who was ten or eleven at the time, had forged her mother’s signature on a middle-school deficiency slip. It was a reasonably good forgery, and she might have gotten away with it, except that the teacher called my ex to set up a conference to discuss the situation and, well, things went south from there. Given that this particular daughter (I’ve always referred to her, kind of tongue-in-cheek, as my “delicate blossom”) could be a little hard-headed, her mom and I decided that the current misbehavior needed to be, as small-town philosopher and veteran-lawman Barney Fife used to say, “nipped in the bud.” Later that afternoon, my ex and I rendezvoused at the entrance to their subdivision to fine-tune our tactics. By this time, I’m pretty sure “Delicate Blossom” knew she was in trouble, but maybe not the extent. When her mom and I both pulled into the driveway at 5:30 on a weekday afternoon… it began to dawn her. My younger daughter, who was around eight, bounded up to the car, all smiles: “Daddy!!!” she exclaimed. Blossom hung back: “Daddy…” she said, with some degree of trepidation. Their little half-sister, only two or three years old at the time, and oblivious to the nuances of this unexpected confab, threw herself into my arms and gave me a big kiss on the cheek.
Long story short, Delicate Blossom got a paddling. A pretty good one, too. She was arguably too old to be spanked, but she was also too old to be engaging in the sort of deceptive behavior she had tried to use to stay out of trouble with her mom and me. And sometimes “nipping that sort of thing in the bud” is the best way to handle the situation… at least that’s the way I felt at the time. Blossom needed to figure this out, sooner rather than later… sink or swim. The discipline was carried out in private, with my bare hand on her bare behind; and there was no anger on my part, only resolve. I’m pretty sure it probably hurt me—hurt my heart—more than it hurt her derriere. And it didn’t help that, as I took my leave, I met li’l half-sis outside the door to Blossom’s room, where she had been standing vigil throughout the ordeal. There were no kisses this time. Instead, she gazed at me solemnly and pronounced this crushing malediction: “Mean Kebper.” I guess I’ve been called worse. And Blossom came through it all OK, and turned out more than OK in the end. What a remarkable wife, mother and human being she has become. Maybe the tough love helped… I like to think so, at any rate.
It seems as if, at least once or twice each Lectionary year, we are confronted by “mean Jesus,” who says things that confuse us and hurt our feelings. We are told we must chop off our hands and feet and even pluck out our eyeballs if they cause us to sin or stumble (Matt 5:29-30 and 18:8-9, Mark 9:43-48). Rather than taking a “ministry time-out” to bury a beloved parent, Jesus admonishes us to, “Let the dead bury their own dead” and warns us that anyone who “puts a hand to the plow and looks back is not fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:57-62). Remember these stories? Sounds pretty harsh to me… especially coming from a guy who is always going around preaching love and faithfulness and forgiveness. And then, today, Jesus tells us we must “hate” our parents, families, siblings… even life itself, if we want to be his disciples. “Well that’s just fine and dandy,” I’m tempted to fire back. “You want me to cast off all of the good stuff in my life… all of the wonderful gifts I’ve been given by the Almighty… all the things that make life worth living, just so that I can tote a nasty old cross? Is that what you’re asking? No, thank you! And oh, by the way, where does all this ‘hate’ language come from? What can that possibly have to do with this Gospel of love you’re always preaching? Mean Jesus!” And then I imagine the Creator of the Universe incarnate, Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, my own dear Master regarding me tenderly, quizzically and asking… or maybe lamenting… “You just don’t get it, do you.”
Because, you see, Jesus isn’t asking us to hate anyone or anything… except sin, perhaps. And if we define sin as anything that separates us from God, then maybe what Jesus is asking us to do is stop a moment… take stock of our lives and relationships, and ask ourselves some hard questions about what stands between us and our Creator. Given the overall trajectory of the Gospel… and make no mistake: the Gospel of Jesus Messiah is a gospel of love, I wonder if the term “hate,” when used in this context, has less to do with emotion than with loyalty. Nothing in the Gospel narrative leads us to believe that Jesus hated his earthly father, mother or siblings… but when their priorities came into conflict with the priorities of his heavenly Father (cf. Luke 2:41-52) and Matt 12:46-50, Mark 3:31-35, Luke 8:19-21) his loyalty lay with God. And there’s nothing in the Gospel about Jesus hating his life… in fact, there was a time when he asked his heavenly Father to spare it: “let this cup pass from me” (Matt 26:39) but, in the end, he gave himself over to suffer death on a cross to serve the purpose of the one who sent him (Phil 2:5-11). So… it’s about loyalty. And crosses. And we all have crosses we must bear, says Jesus. These crosses may not be made of actual wooden beams, like the ones he, himself, and some of the earliest disciples had to schlep to their own executions. But that doesn’t make them any less real… or heavy. The cross that each of us must carry is the cost of discipleship, which is: One’s. Whole. Life. It’s giving ourselves over to God completely, in service to others. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus told his disciples that they must take up their crosses daily and follow him (v. 9:23). So, we’re not simply being asked to live our lives fat and happy, looking after ourselves and our families, until that day of days when we’re called upon to do something notable or heroic. No. We are to live into our vocation of being the hands and feet of Christ each and every day: feeding his lambs, tending and feeding his sheep (cf. John 21:15-19) and striving to bring about God’s kingdom, as long as there’s life and breath in us.
Jesus isn’t asking us to throw mama (or bubba or sissy) from the train. He’s not asking us to renounce all of our worldly possessions and parade around like martyrs, wearing sackcloth and ashes, in order to please God. But he is warning us, in no uncertain terms, that all of the good things in life, even food and drink and the people we love, can become idols (and we all know how God feels about idols) if we allow them to distract us from the purpose for which we were created. Discipleship is a decision, not an obligation, however. The cross will never be never forced upon us. That said, the measure we give… will be the measure we will get back (Luke 6:38). Our time here on Earth is finite, and we need to figure this out, sooner rather than later. In carrying his cross, Jesus set for us an example of how we might bear our own. But he won’t do it for us… it’s something we have to do for ourselves… sink or swim.
Now there’s some tough love.