A mom who is dressed for work is standing with her eight-year-old son who is wearing a blue jacket and has his backpack on. There in the house just before heading out to school. The mom kneels down in front of her son, zips up his jacket and gives him a love tap on the nose. “Alright. Let’s do it!,” she says enthusiastically and the boy breaks into a huge grin. She grabs her bag and they head for the door. At the bottom of the screen flashes the words: “Family first.”
The next thing you see the mother and son are at the kitchen table. The boy has a pencil in his hand, the pages of his homework spread across the table and the mother is sitting beside him tapping away on her laptop. They’re both working but they’re doing it together. At the bottom of the screen: “Family second.”
Now the mom and son are in the kitchen – their work is done – and the boy sits on the kitchen counter. He smiles as he cracks an egg into a large glass mixing bowl. They’re making cookies together and they laugh as the mom encourages her young son to stir the mix himself using a large wooden spoon. At the bottom of the screen: “Family third.”
As we watch this television commercial, the script across the screen reads: “Family first. And second. And third. Education built for working parents. The University of Phoenix.”
Its only fifteen seconds long. You could easily miss it in the long slog of commercials between segments of the game, but it covers a lot of ground in 15 seconds. It’s heartwarming. A mom is getting her degree and doing something good for her family long term, without trading away the short term. She’s firmly in line with the American ethic of valuing family as the primary and sacrosanct allegiance of our lives. She’s not just prioritizing family. She is prioritizing her family, first, second, and third.
Imagine the differences we might see if Jesus directed a commercial that incorporated his view of the family, as heard in today’s gospel reading. In Jesus’ commercial he stands together with a large crowd just outside the house of a wealthy Pharisee and a crowd that’s gathered and Jesus turns to them, and he opens his arms and begins to speak…
The script across the screen reads: Whoever comes to me and does not hate their family cannot be my disciple. Education built for losing your whole life. The way of Jesus Christ.”
Even when we know that Jesus is speaking in hyperbole, the word “hate” is a little shocking. We know that what Jesus means is that as much as we love our family, we should love God even more. But even that can be a challenging word.
To be a disciple of Jesus and carry the cross means to put God first, and Jesus wants us to know from the outset that enrolling in this way of life requires everything we have. Following Jesus and being his disciple means prioritizing him above money and wealth and possessions, above our status and reputation, above our family and friends, and above even our own livelihood and well-being. For us who have been called to follow Jesus — it is God first, and second, and third.
Family is a gift from God. We are called to love our family, to care for them, provide for them, nurture them. Jesus supports the institution of the family but, he says, our relationship with our family is not to take priority over our relationship with God.
I remember being maybe eight or so and staying for a weekend with my grandparents in Blowing Rock, NC, and my Grandmother coming in at night to my room and showing me how to get on my knees, fold my hands, and pray the Lord’s Prayer. I was uninitiated in this particular way of praying and I was feeling uncomfortable in this very formal body position, and I wanted to be done with it. I tried to pray as fast as I could to get it over with:
Grandmother snapped at me so sharply it took my breath away. We don’t pray like that. We pray reverently. I didn’t know at that time what “reverently” meant but I knew I had better slow down.
In that moment I might have wondered, does Grandmother love me? But Grandmother didn’t snap at me because she didn’t love me. She snapped at me because she loved me and she wanted me to learn about how to be open to letting God connect with me.
Family can be an important incubator of faith. Family can be as Luther said, a little church where faith is a part of our everyday life, almost taken for granted at times. Our families are the primary place where young people have faith modeled for them.
But Jesus originally spoke to people for whom this faith thing was a brand-new proposition.
For the first century Hebrews who first heard his invitation, the family was the primary source of belonging, protection, and livelihood. Family was everything. “Family first, and second, and third,” wouldn’t have begun to describe its importance. So when Jesus commanded them to give God priority even over family – and knowing following him might mean expulsion from the family – he cares enough to share the advice to really sit down and count the cost.
Jesus’ advice is to count the cost, almost like planning to build a tower or to go out to war.
And both these images have a lot to teach us.
For one thing, both images speak to the seriousness of the task, but both images also point out that our personal choices have great effect on the lives of many other people.
It’s not exactly a tower, but our work project here at Epiphany to expand the commons and enhance the education wing, effects not one of us but all of us, and many people beyond us. The builders and workers on our worksite take a lunch break and sometimes I stop and chat. They have questions about the building and about our congregation. I believe if we just sent them all home, if we hadn’t estimated the cost and told them we weren’t going to complete the project, they would be disappointed to see all their hard work end uncompleted. I believe the Nursery School families would be disappointed. I believe all the people who drove by us on the street and indeed Richmond at large would be affected if we just sent the bulldozers away and left thing the way they are now. But we counted the cost and our personal choice as a community is to finish the project, and that effect is on more than just us.
A king going out to war against another king, when he sits down to consider the odds of his victory, makes a decision that effects more than just him and his family and court. His decision effects all the men who would either line up on the front row to charge toward swords or guns pointed in their faces, or head home to their families and children and farms to produce food and care for their communities.
I think the national popular culture is rife with the message that we belong to ourselves and that if I’m free to do whatever I want if its not actively harming you or anyone else.
But that’s not true. Our actions do affect one another. We do belong to one another. We have one earth which is home to all of us. We are responsible for one another.
The personal choices each of us make as a person effect our families, our co-workers, our schools, and the community we work for… and the choices we make as a community effect many beyond our community.
But sometimes life in the family is a challenge — just getting the kids out the door to school on time, or finishing our homework, or picking up the grandkids, or checking on our aging parents, and taking care of all that needs to be accomplished at work, or attending to the grocery run, the dinner plan, the house project that need completing, seems like more than we can do.
Who has time to be a disciple of Jesus and to put God first?
What I hear Jesus saying is that we can’t be.
We can’t choose to be faithful disciples of Jesus.
If you want to give up all your possessions and prove me wrong, go for it.
If you want to try to put God above your family and never make the mistake of choosing to care for your blood relatives, family, and children more than the person on the street you’ve never met before, who is a Child of God, I promise to be impressed.
I will tell you that I do not carry my cross as I should — I regularly choose to prioritize my own needs over the needs of others, and I believe this is a common experience even for the most faithful of us and the most faithful of communities.
None of us can choose to be faithful disciples. It is impossible.
But what is impossible for us, is possible for God, as Jesus says himself.
Faithfulness is God’s gift to us.
Jesus puts God and God’s desires first — for us.
He is faithful to us on the cross, carrying our sin and shame, our weakness and frailty to its death. Jesus is not too overwhelmed by the mocking and bullying the exclusion and name-calling, to choose to love us more than his own life. So that from the cross come the words: Family First – as in, on the cross God has put us first.
From the empty tomb, come the words: Family first. God has put us first. In gathering us here today, God has put us first. At this table, God puts us first. Here we are given a new family with God at the center.
God is like the mother in that TV commercial – God works tirelessly and God gives everything for us, and God wants us to see that only in our relationship with him can we find the love, the learning, the health, and the life we desire.
Indeed, it is through our relationship with God – through the gift of daily dying and rising in God – that we become the best persons we can be – it is in God that we become the best child, the best spouse, the best parent, the best sibling — that we can be to the benefit of our family members, be they blood relative or our true family in Christ.
It is in our relationship with God that we as a community become the best we can be.
And all this is a gift from God, who is the eternal family, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. ffff