Like so many of you, my wife, Melinda, and I have spent a lot of time and energy over the past week getting our children ready for a new year of school. We are always both flabbergasted by the amount of school supplies, even though we both agree it all makes sense. I’ve learned that there’s a whole ritual to it—we get the list of things the teachers are requesting, we go out and purchase what’s needed, and then on school orientation day we cram everything into paper bags and head over to the elementary school along with all the other students and their parents. We schlepp our bags of school supplies into the classrooms, locate our daughters’ desks, which are labeled carefully by the teacher with a nametag bearing the neatest handwriting you’ve ever seen, and then follow the instructions for unloading and unpacking everything in those paper bags for a new school year:
Colored pencils and five erasers—count them—go in the green pencil box that stays in the desk. Ziploc baggies and boxes of Kleenex are deposited in the appropriate bin on the table on the other side of the room. Pencil sharpeners go here, markers go here, tennis balls get sliced and put on the feet of the chairs right here. Armed with a clipboard and organizational skills that could single-handedly run a space program, the teachers make their way in the midst of this crowd, putting names to faces, allaying fears, pumping the enthusiasm.
That’s the ritual. Here’s what it has taught me: What teacher, preparing her students for a year of learning, doesn’t first calculate how many glue sticks they’ll need, how many bottles of hand sanitizer they’ll go through? What teacher, encouraging her class to seek new horizons, doesn’t remind them of what they’re getting into? The adventure of education seems so exciting and refreshing each year, but the teacher knows more than anyone else: there are costs involved, sacrifices to be made, preparations to be considered.
The crowds are swarming around that other Teacher, too. We think we’re ready. We claim to be excited. We sign up for the Bible study, the Sunday School class, the baptism preparation sessions. We say “I’ll serve,” or “I’ll believe,” and we rush in closer to where the enthusiasm is being pumped, and then we’re handed the disciples’ list of supplies.
As it turns out, it doesn’t involve items we need to accumulate, but rather mindsets we need to adopt. This Teacher’s list doesn’t mention anything about things we need to pull together, but about what we need to give up. Interestingly enough, this Teacher’s idea of being prepared doesn’t involve saying “Yes” to a new year or a new experience as much as it will involve saying “No”—“no” to cumbersome relationships, “no” to a sense of entitlement, “no” to unhealthy relationships with possessions. This Teacher, like any good teacher, wants his followers to know as much as they can right up front what they’re getting themselves into, that sacrifices will be made. What kind of preparations have you taken as you’ve walked with Jesus? Is there anything you wish you had known about before you responded in faith?
The part of Jesus’ little discipleship pep talk that raises the most eyebrows is the line about hating your family members and even life itself in order to follow Jesus. That sounds harsh to us, especially because there are so many other times when Jesus is telling us to love others. And there are times when Jesus and other biblical voices embrace the joys of this life. Jesus’ use of the word “hate,” might just be an example of exaggerated speech which was common—and still is common—in the middle east. That is, he doesn’t literally mean despise your family and wish them dead.
No matter what, he is getting us to acknowledge that following Christ takes priority over other commitments. He is hoping we understand that a disciple’s identity in Christ is paramount to any other identity we have, even the one we receive from our family. In Jesus’ time, the loyalty to family and clan outweighed all other bonds. It determined just about everything about who you were and what you could do and who you could associate with. When Jesus says disciples must hate their family and even life itself he is not saying they must turn their backs on those they love, but he is saying from now on his followers will not make all decisions based on what is best for themselves or their family or even their country but on which option forward best embodies the love of Christ.
It’s been interesting to watch San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick struggle with allegiances to different ideals and movements this week as he takes heat for refusing to stand for the national anthem. Despite what any of us may think about his thinking and decision, whether we support Kaepernick or disagree with him, that kind of resolve is precisely what Jesus is looking for in a disciple.
Another mindset change that Jesus issues to his would-be followers involves the carrying of a cross. Jesus wants the crowd to know that self-promotion and self-assertion have no part of his mission. He is about self-denial and self-sacrifice. Carrying a cross doesn’t mean to suffer for any ol’ reason, which is how we often twist it when we don’t like the choices we’ve been given. It means to be a part of the kinds of activities and the ways of living that involve a giving over of self, even when it’s painful, choosing the more difficult path in a given situation because there will eventually be greater good.
Third on the list of school supplies Jesus hands out is the handing over of possessions. Those who are on a journey of faith are really learning to value things that cannot be bought or sold or even held. They are seeking things like hope and love and justice and peace. They are staking out a place in a kingdom that has no boundaries, no weapons, no money. To live there, then, one must learn to release things that get in the way of travel in that direction. Material things aren’t bad, but they will eventually weigh the disciple down.
This weekend Pope Francis in Rome declared Teresa of Calcutta a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. Some have criticized her work, but she founded an organization that runs nineteen relief hospitals and homes for what some consider the world’s poorest in the slums of 160 cities, helping in regions where no other company or government has been able to make a similar difference. The only possessions to her name when she died in 1997 were a bucket at two saris.
“No” to competing loyalties, “no” to and attitude of entitlement and “no” to cumbersome possessions: that is the Teacher’s list of supplies. But with so many “nos” it would be awfully easy to forget what a disciple is saying “yes” to. With such stark instructions for what it means to follow, it would be easy to forget the element of surprise and mystery that accompanies a walk with Christ. We may be able to count the costs, but we still don’t know what is going to be in store for us.
I know a friend who hesitated quite a bit before saying “yes” to a year as a young adult in global mission, the same program our Emily Dietrick just left on. She knew it meant leaving behind for a while the security of life in the States, saying goodbye to close friends, and going directly into a teaching job. But then once she did, she was introduced in her new country to a community of different Christian denominations, which ignited an interest to enroll in seminary. She then said “yes” to a her supervising committee’s urging that she pursue a Master’s Degree, which led to a “yes” to ordination. She now serves a Lutheran congregation in South Carolina that also hosts an Episcopal congregation.
There is also the story of a man in the congregation of one of my colleagues who said “yes” to marrying his wife, who then talked him into flying lessons, which then led to a job in small craft airlines where he flies planes for CEOs. Because most of the planes are small enough, he finds time to talk to his passengers, when the opportunity arises, about God and his faith.
There’s stories from within our own congregation Ask the people involved with the HHOPE pantry at some point, who’ve reluctantly said “yes” to organizing this feeding ministry. They’ll talk about how they initially thought about how they’d be sacrificing some Friday nights and some Saturday mornings to sort food and set up the donation tables. But then they never thought about the weekly hugs they’d receive from the community members who depend on the bags of food, or the relationships they’ve build with people who live right around our church. How do you calculate the benefits of those things?
Jesus knows those things really can’t be calculated. Jesus knows grace can’t be figured out beforehand, like you can when you put the colored pencils in the supply box and the eighteen glue sticks in the Ziploc bag. The irony of Jesus’ list, of course, is that when the Lord of life is involved, none of us really knows what we’re getting ourselves into. We walk the journey, making each decision with the help of the Holy Spirit, confident in God’s mercy if we get things wrong. We walk the journey with this gracious Teacher, certain that we do have a God who has counted the cost for us. We have a God who is exactly like the person who builds a good foundation and knows what it will take to complete it. We do have a King who understands the price of doing battle, who knows the terrible nature of what he’s up against, and still goes in for the fight so that, on the cross, all may win victory.
With faith in that, we can agree to this list of “nos” knowing that many new “yeses” await us, too. As Samuel Wells, vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, says about the church he serves, “We haven’t arrived, but the journey’s great. We’re not sure exactly where we’re going, but it’s getting better all the time. We’ve had wonderful experiences, but the best is yet to come.”
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.