Rev. Dan Thompson-Aue
Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.John 12:24-25
The point of this verse is — to follow Jesus, we must make revolutionary changes in our values. Our secular life needs to be transformed into a sacred life. Letting go of some of the ideas and behaviors and values that feel normal to us is hard . . . so hard it is like dying on purpose. It may take a while to work ourselves up to making that enormous choice. Like my sister did last year . . . she knew she was going to die of a long illness, and literally took hours of deep last breaths before she took the plunge. Her struggle to let go is just like the way we all, naturally, struggle to let go of our old life and step into a new one following Christ. This is such a big change it is likened to dying and rising again.
I immersed myself in my family last year because my older sister got very sick and had only a short time to live. So I dropped everything and high tailed it to Eugene to be with her and the rest of the clan. Her son and his wife, children and grandchild live there; my big brother flew back from North Carolina. We all hardly ever see each other or interact, so I was nervous about how I would fit in and what it would feel like to see them after a long time. What surprised me is how much I really like them . . . and how well they like me. So, as sometime happens, a death in the family can glue a family back together. Now I feel pretty well and happily stuck to my family, actually better than I’ve ever felt in that respect. In a way I have come back Inside somewhere, and I like the feeling.
Which got me to thinking and wondering about what Jesus said about hate in a few places, particularly, what he could have meant when he said, as recorded in Luke’s gospel book,
If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.
This passage appears in a cluster of teachings about counting the cost of deciding to follow Jesus, and saying that Christian discipleship is a serious matter and will fundamentally change other relationships. The passage is often interpreted by preachers to mean you have to be ready to reject your own family if you follow Jesus. I’m not satisfied with that simple an interpretation, so I’m going to think a little more on that in light of a last few days spent around my crabby sister and my redneck brother and very tall nephew and my other young, bright relatives. I’m inclined to think the concept of Outsiding applies somehow.
That quote from Luke is not all Jesus said about how our relationship with him affects our relationships with our families. Let’s hear a different turn on the idea from a different gospel book — Matthew. Jesus has just performed a cluster of blessings and healings, and is now teaching the throngs, and has been too busy to interact with his family, and they want his attention and to draw him back Inside with them:
While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”Matthew12:46-48
You might see in this the promise that those who don’t just stand on the Outside (noun) but actually Outside (verb) well are God’s family, not those who insist that God’s family is an Inside thing. Isn’t this a remarkable idea?
I believe human societies inevitably become tribal in nature. We can see it in our own church history, going back hundreds of years, when a pope made a decree instructing Christian explorers to subdue any peoples they encountered in the name of Christ because Christians are blessed and chosen by God and so have the Divine right to conquer others. Columbus was among the first of many who sought new worlds with this intent, and the results were catastrophic: whole cultures were brutalized, enslaved, robbed and raped and ultimately destroyed by people who claimed to be Christians. When Protestants took a stand against the corruption of the Catholic Church at the time, we began a whole new cycle of tribalism that has resulted in the creation of many Christian denominations, each one believing it is superior to the others. Some of these splinter groups grew very powerful and followed the us verses them, Insider/ Outsider mantra to horrific conclusions.
You know, I expect, that the Nazis considered themselves to be Christians. And then we have splits and schisms in denominations . . . we may be anticipating another one in United Methodism over who is allowed in and who is not, which is the same old story retold in a chapter disguising itself as a new one. And of course congregations split into tribes, too. Most towns I’ve lived in, serving the United Methodist churches, have this or that church that split off from that or this church over some disagreement over beliefs. This is a sinful thing — this endless separation of people into us and them, and creating ungodly concepts of who is qualified to be included on the Inside.
At the smallest, nuclear level, families do this, as well. Sometimes we feel forced to make a choice between, say, my family and your family, or between your mother and your father, or your sister or your brother. It can feel like gang warfare.
So maybe we have, in many ways, this feeling that we have to join or be loyal to one group above all the others. You know, you’ve heard it — join my church and you’ll be saved. If you join that other church and you will go to hell. Or, if you marry that black man, you can’t be part of your white family any more, so choose. Or, if you marry someone who is not the same religion as you are, you risk being kicked out of your church family; you can’t be in both families. Or, if you come to this country, you have to quit speaking your native language from your country of origin — you have to be fully American, one of us now. Or, if you are gay, lesbian, trans, queer, pan, or any gender unconventionally binary you may never be included unless you butcher your own soul and conform.
The miserable conflicts that come from this human notion of us verses them are endless. I would say this idea is a rot in our country right now, and continues to threaten the whole world with ruin. I’m really growing to despise the idea of us against them. Maybe I am even starting to hate the idea. OK I do hate the idea. So there is where hate fits in my life. I try not to hate people who think this way, because I probably continue to be one of them despite myself. It’s the idea that is broken, and the practice of making love and acceptance conditional and exclusive that I hate. Outsiding is nowhere, nohow and nowhen more crucial.
Maybe this is closer to what Jesus meant when he said I need to hate my family if I’m going to follow him.
He said everyone who does God’s will is his family. God’s family is available to everyone. Being in God’s family is not an Inside, believing thing, but an Outside, doing thing . . . whoever does God’s will is family.
Through a familial metaphor, Jesus taught that the kingdom of God is like a wonderful wedding feast where everyone is invited . . . but you might get sent to the cheap seats or even get evicted if you hang on to the idea that you are better than anyone else who is there. If you believe you are there because you deserve to be and someone else does not deserve to be you will be consigned to an Outside that is horrible because it is really an eternal Inside. As a party guest you might come from the highest place of riches or be one of those lost folks lurking in the highways and hedges. His banquet must be full, and the house is huge, so it’s a really big party. If everyone is welcome, then so must my little awkward family be welcome.
So no, I’m not going to despise my family. Especially as they are generous people who let other people In. Like my sister, who claimed to be a raging atheist but loved all her Christian relatives anyway. She also let a young woman into her life who wasn’t born into our family but became family because she loved my sister and became her true friend. One of my jobs when I was there was to reassure this young woman that she could stay and be with us as my sister was dying — that she is now part of the family, too. This is an example of doing the will of God and how just believing something in your head isn’t always the most important thing. My sister, the atheist, did the will of God just as much as we self-identified Christians did . . . and maybe even a little better than we did. We followed her lead. Nancy, usually the Outsider in her life, knew how to Outside. But of course . . . she urged me Outside at the beginning of my life.
Speaking of my sister Nancy again . . . Looking in scrap books in her little house after she died, I found a certificate of advancement for her when she was a tiny child. It’s the first thing you see when you open the tattered scrap book, stuck to the inside cover. The faded, mimeographed certificate celebrates moving her up a level in the children’s Sunday school department of First Christian Church in Eugene. She wandered far off from church in her life, so that by the end she despised religion in general and rejected simplistic teachings of the church, and with it the whole “us” verses “them” stuff that has caused so much harm. Yet when her little brother, me, became a pastor, and her only son wanted very much to be one, and her grandson in law actually became one, too, she loved and supported us. So we’re a kind of devout bunch hovering around a most un-devout lady, who, by the force of her personality, drew us Outside.
As my sister was dying as she did how do you suppose we treated her? How did we who are her hospice nurses, doctors, volunteers, brothers, son and daughters, grandchildren, and friends, treat her? How did we professing Christians treat her? We would have been selfish jerks if we did not treat her with anything less than kindness and love. And we stuck with her to the end, as we were abled and allowed to.
When we find ourselves defined as members of God’s family, everyone gets the same treatment. You do not literally have to hate your family of origin to do this. If you do happen to hate your family you can learn to love them in a more profound way now that you know you are all included in God’s family. That is, if you learn to Outside and do the will of God. See above.
Epilogue: I was the last family member to see my sister alive. I sat up by her bedside into the night. Late in the evening a nurse checked her vital signs, and based on all that is typical in these cases, assured me that my sister looked stable, and encouraged me to go get some sleep. So I kissed my sis on the forehead, told her I loved her, and that I would be back in the morning. Sleeping and in a semi-coma, she only murmered.
I should have known, since I know my sister, that she would not want to die with anyone looking at her or sobbing at her bedside. She tolerated me because I stayed calm and quiet. But as far as I can tell, as soon as she was alone, she took the plunge. She just decided to get on with and did. I got a call early the next morning that she had died. I think this was her choice, stubborn gal. Was that selfish of her? Maybe. Was it caring, because perhaps she knew her family would struggle to watch her die? Maybe.
Love, you, Nancy, always.