Week before last NPR had a fascinating series about how attitudes about charity are changing.1 The reporters started in a village in Kenya, spending time with folks who had received cattle through Heifer International. We have raised money for Heifer, a good and reputable organization, my parents give us gifts through them each Christmas, sheep or goats or honeybees for a family far away. Heifer’s goal is to empower people, teaching them to take care of the animal they are given, use it for money for milk, improving the life of their family. And in this village, it seemed to be working.
Then they went to a different village and met with Bernard Omondi, who received $1000 from an organization called GiveDirectly over the phone, in a text message. GiveDirectly simply gives the poor cash. Their strategy is based on a couple of assumptions – that people know what they need, and that some helping organizations spend too much on overhead and not enough helping people. Bernard bought a motorcycle, and has started his own little transportation business. Many villagers around him replaced their leaky grass roofs with metal ones. They interviewed a bunch of people who had done reasonable things with their money. They all talked about ‘other people,’ neighbors who had wasted it on alcohol. It is a huge question: How do we best help those in poverty? When do people know what is best for themselves, and when do they not (the church has called that sin)? When do charities need staff to do training, support clients, raise money, and when do those things miss the point?
Regardless of what you think about this model, the folks who run GiveDirectly are clear about one thing: they are convinced that the ways we have thought about these things are worth questioning, holding up in the light and examining together. Last year, the GiveDirectly guys gave a presentation at Google’s corporate office. And they were impressed. They gave GiveDirectly $2.4 million and told their staff, you’re thinking too small. Go figure out how to give money to lots more poor people.
Jesus is changing the paradigm. Luke takes time to introduce us to Jesus – birth narratives, baptism and temptation – disciples aren’t called until chapter 5. The hinge comes on the Mount of Transfiguration, in chapter 9, in which he appears with Moses and Elijah, shining. In 9:51 Jesus ‘sets his face to go to Jerusalem.’ Luke knows that his readers know the end of the story, that Jerusalem is the place Jesus goes to die. Chapters 10-19, as Jesus travels, are packed with famous stories – Good Samaritan, lost sheep/coin/prodigal son – linked by shorter sayings. As the chapters move, the teaching gets difficult, preparing Jesus and his followers for the cross.
Because Jesus wants all of us. He pushes Pharisees in chapters 11, 12, and in 14, but the crowds keep coming. He tells the powerful and the poor that their roles will be reversed, and they keep coming. Their reasons, my friend Heather writes, are probably as varied as the reasons any of us come here – running from someone or something, attracted to the energy and spirit of the place, searching for deeper connections, hoping to coerce your kids into believing in something other than the marketplace values we practice the rest of the week.2 But it feels too easy; Jesus must be clear.
Look, he says as he spins on His heels. Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. It feels like an immediate punch in the gut. To modern ears, hate (miseo) is an explosion of negative emotions. To ancient ears, it probably had more to do with attachments, meaning "to turn away from" or "to detach oneself from." Either way, Jesus is trying to get people’s attention.3 Jesus wants all of us. He doesn’t want us to turn our backs on and forsake our families, but, as Fred Craddock writes: "…in the network of many loyalties in which all of us live, the claim of Christ and the gospel not only takes precedence but, in fact, redefines the others. This can and will necessarily involve some detaching, some turning away."4 My response to this passage happened in a couple of phases. First, I heard the word ‘hate’ in this first line, thought of my children, and had trouble hearing anything else. I had to sit with this a few days, let it settle out. Even when I moved into thinking more about my priorities, I was then overwhelmed. We have deep feelings for our families. But most people I know don’t feel too attached, which is what it seems like Jesus is intimating here, they don’t feel attached enough. Most parents I know, myself included, carry around a significant reservoir of guilt, whether we work outside of the home or whether our primary vocation is at home with children. We feel like we aren’t doing anything as well as we should. That we should have more time, make more time with them. Other family members live far away, move because of jobs, we end up paying others to care for our parents and we drive in and out as often as we can. We don’t need Jesus lecturing us on cutting familial ties, they feel severed already.
But that’s where the rest of the text helps us interpret. Jesus wants all of us. Not to walk away from our families for an odd and isolated discipleship, but so that you might see everyone, understand each encounter in light of God’s claim on you in Christ Jesus. We don’t need to break away from our families, we need to enlarge them. I think part of what Jesus is doing is leveling the playing field. Yes, the other person born of the same parents is your sister, but so is the woman beside you. That brother lives in Raleigh, but also right down the street, transcending race and class, one family that God wraps God’s arms all the way around. And it takes work. We construct elaborate home improvement projects, but are perfectly content to ‘wing it’ when it comes to the life of faith. Kings take great care when planning war…I wonder how many different kinds of plans the Pentagon has drawn up for options in Syria? We have vehicles, places at the lake, technology, sports equipment, that own us instead of the reverse. Jesus looks us in the eye. Are you sure you want to follow me, he says? Is the price more than you are willing to pay?5
Because, like Google said to those folks from GiveDirectly, Jesus wants us to think bigger. Even in churches like this one, faithful in so many ways, strong in an area of mainline decline, proving that people under 40 are actually fine with, no, love, traditional worship with classical church music, when done with quality and authenticity. We have so much going for us, for which we must offer God tremendous praise. But, how often we do get caught up in simply trying to do what we have done, but a little bit better? This Rally Day, here at the heart of a 50th anniversary year, is a great time for us to take stock. We are about set to begin a strategic planning process in the coming months so that, in this world that is rapidly changing, we exploring questions as the heart of our life, like worship and facilities, programming and staffing. But those are organizational questions. Jesus is pushing us much harder. I wonder what else He might ask us, questions, perhaps, about looking too much and acting too much like the country club sometimes. It is a fine institution, but its mission and ours are different. I wonder if He might ask us questions about how causally we are committed, how we overlook each other sometimes, how we get so busy in all sorts of other things that we neglect not only the church, but we get off track entirely, forgetting the claim, the deep love God has for us, of which the psalmist writes.
It is often said the test of a church is who would notice if you are gone. I am proud to be part of a church that passes that test with flying colors. You have been about this work for so long, worshipping with your mind as well as your heart, relentlessly committed to serving Durham, keeping our baptismal promises on the playground, singing with children, serving with youth on the streets of Chicago. Your giving away $75K for that anniversary is proof of it. The 5 consecutive gold sneakers – the award given for most money raised for the CROP Walk for hunger for any church of any size – hanging in the mission center. The friends around you, the youth and their families that will pack this place for their kickoff tonight. But Jesus doesn’t seem to be about awards here in this strong, strong text. He wants all of you; he wants your heart.
Over the summer your session took a couple of trips to the Divan Center, a Turkish Muslim community center and mosque in Cary. They invited us to get to know them, to observe evening prayer, and to break the Ramadan fast after sundown over tables in their back parking lot. They welcomed us with such kindness, talking about the many things we share, but also not shying away from significant differences. As I sat in the back of their prayer room that first night, not having fasted all day but still pretty hungry, watching the rhythm of their prayers, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the God who is SO big and SO broad, more gracious and mysterious and wonderful than we can possibly imagine. And who calls us to glimpse God’s own son, Jesus the Christ. Who looks at the crowds as they gather, as we begin another year, as we step forward into another half-century together, and says, "…the paradigm must change. I don’t want part of you. I don’t want improvements. I give you all of myself, and invite you to come to me, every part of you, in love…"
All praise be to this One, who walks with us on the journey. Amen.
1. Cash, Cows And The Rise Of Nerd Philanthropy, NPR, 8-23-13. This is the article I am quoting from. See also The Charity that Just Gives Money To Poor People, NPR, 8-23-13. I am grateful to Nancy Safrit, one of our deacons, who first sent me one of these articles.
2. From the Rev. Heather Shortlidge’s great paper on the text at the 2013 gathering of The Well, Baltimore.
3. Also from Heather’s great paper.
4. Fred Craddock, Interpretation: Luke, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), p 182.
5. Craddock, 182.