I’d like to begin this morning by stating three tragic facts:
- First, while you were sleeping last night, around the world, 30,000 children died of starvation or malnutrition.
- Second, most people sitting in church today don’t give a damn about it.
- Finally, more people will be upset at me cursing in church than they are at the death of 30,000 kids.
Now, I realize that I just dropped a bomb in your lap a moment ago, so let’s press pause and step back to look at what’s going on.
First, I have to cite my sources. This little stunt comes from a guy named Tony Campolo, who is a Baptist minister and college professor in Pennsylvania. Believe it or not, I actually toned the language down from Campolo’s original version!
Second, I want you to pay attention to what happened inside of you just now. Your heart probably skipped a beat and your adrenaline started pumping. You might have been angry at what I said or fearful that a lightning bolt might strike me dead. I certainly hope that it led you to a moment of insight and self-reflection.
What I just did here is employ the rhetorical technique of hyperbole. Hyperbole happens when you overstate something in order to make a point. In this case, the point I was trying to make was a point about our moral priorities. Which issue is more important: mass starvation or bad language? Starvation, obviously. But which one is more likely to cause a ruckus in church? Probably language. Maybe we church folks need to rearrange our priorities?
Spiritual masters of many religions often use hyperbole as a favorite teaching technique. For example, Lin Chi, a Zen Buddhist teacher from the ninth century, is thought to have said, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” This is another example of hyperbole. Obviously, a Zen master would not want his students to assassinate the founder of their religion. The point he was trying to make is that they shouldn’t idolize or attach themselves to anything in this world, even a religious figurehead. They should exist in a position of openness to reality, willing to let go of their most precious possessions, ideas, and beliefs. That’s what Lin Chi meant when he said, “Kill the Buddha.”
Don’t we all sometimes use hyperbole to make a point? How about this one: “I’m starving! I could eat a horse!” Are you really? Is your life actually in danger of ending due to malnutrition? Probably not. If someone barbequed up an entire horse and served it to you for lunch today, could you finish it? Probably not. You were using hyperbole to get people’s attention and let them know that you feel hungry and would like to eat food as soon as possible.
I’m giving you this crash course in the art of hyperbole because I think it’s essential to understanding the point that Jesus was trying to get across in this morning’s gospel reading.
In the second half of the passage, Jesus says some pretty offensive stuff to his would-be followers in three separate conversations (that have been conveniently condensed into one by the author of Luke’s gospel).
In the first conversation, the would-be follower says he’ll follow Jesus anywhere and Jesus replies, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
The second person requests permission to attend a parent’s funeral, but Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
The final person just wants to say goodbye to loved ones, but Jesus says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Now, that’s some pretty harsh and offensive stuff! In fact, it’s downright rude! We imagine Jesus to be a person of great compassion, so why didn’t he ease up on someone whose father had just died? This is anything but the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” we used to sing about in Sunday School.
Well, Jesus is using hyperbole to make a point. He is being intentionally offensive and overstating his case. What’s his point? That discipleship is hard but it’s also the most important thing in the world.
Think about it: what could be so important that it would cause you to miss your father’s funeral? It would have to be something pretty big, wouldn’t it? You would pretty much have to have a heart attack in the car on the way to the funeral itself. Well, that’s exactly what Jesus is saying: he’s as serious as a heart attack. Following Jesus and proclaiming the kingdom of God is a drop-everything scenario: stop the presses, hold the phone, and pay attention. You’re on your way to your dad’s funeral, you say? Forget about it, this is too important, even for that. Discipleship is hard and it will cost you everything you have, so you’d better be ready to let it all go.
Do we relate to our Christian faith like that? I kind of doubt it. Unlike most of our fundamentalist neighbors, we mainline Protestants don’t tend to use guilt and fear to manipulate people into faith. For the most part, I think that’s a good thing. Real faith should be an honest, authentic response from the heart, not something people do because they’re scared of punishment. But we sometimes adopt a rather casual relationship with Jesus and we don’t always take him seriously. The things he says should offend and disturb us. Jesus is supposed to make us extremely uncomfortable. If we’re not troubled by the things he says, then we’re probably not really paying attention.
Real Christian faith cannot be reduced to an institution, a tradition, or a system of beliefs. Real Christian faith requires a total commitment of one’s whole being to the service of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. Real faith, as theologian Paul Tillich put it, is a matter of “ultimate concern.” To the Christian, everything else in life becomes secondary. You have to let it all go, let the dead bury their own dead, put your hand to the plow, and never look back. It’s as serious as a heart attack. It will cost you all you have.
Many of us are already familiar with the idea of total sacrifice. We would gladly give all we have, including our lives, for the sake of spouse, kids, or country. We realize there’s a payoff that makes the sacrifice worthwhile. In this case, when you let go of everything and commit your whole being to following Jesus, what you get back is your true self. Bit by bit, you let go of your false identifiers (e.g. property, money, job, politics, nationality, religion, etc.), you get underneath them and discover who you really are. This is frightening at first because we have been so thoroughly trained to identify ourselves by these things (e.g. I am an accountant, a mother, a son, a Republican, a Presbyterian, an American, etc.). We think we are these things. We’re terrified that if we let go of these things and they are swept away, there will be nothing left of us. But Jesus shows us that this is not true.
Jesus said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” In other words: when we let go of our egos and our false identifiers, we discover who we really are. This wonderful paradox is illustrated so beautifully in the sacrament of baptism: you go down into the water, where all that extra stuff gets washed away and you are left standing there: naked, wet, and shivering, just like the day you were born. You are now born again. And it is then (and only then), as you come up out of that water, that you are given your first glimpse of your true self: the heavens break open, the dove descends, and the voice speaks to you as it did to Jesus at his baptism: “You are my beloved child.”
Jesus knew this truth about himself. That’s how we was able to walk so freely, securely, and courageously across the face of this planet, unbound by the fetters of attachment to stuff, status, religion, or nationality. Jesus was free in his true self and he lived to show the rest of us the way to freedom. He knew that journey would be long and difficult for us. That’s why he was so urgent and serious as a heart attack. He knew we have a long way to go and a lot to let go of: all that stuff that keeps us bound up and wound up like bedsprings. But he also knew what waits for us on the other side of that process: freedom in the knowledge of who we really are as God’s beloved children. This is the freedom to which Christ calls us. This is the promised land, the kingdom of heaven on earth, the state of being where we can finally hear the words that the Spirit of God is eternally speaking into our hearts: “I love you and there’s nothing you can do about it.”