Proper 18 (September 4-10)
Texts: Luke 14:25-33;
Deut. 30:15-20; Philemon
‘LOVING TO DEATH’ . . . HATING TO LIFE??
Think of a toy that you really would like to have. (Let kids respond.) Let’s pretend that your parents say you can have it if you pay for it. So you start saving. You save up money from your allowance. You save your gift money. You work at jobs on the weekends and save all of that money, too. Finally, after months of work, you have enough money to buy the toy. You walk into the toy store, and you look at the toy once more before you buy it. Then you look at the money in your hand, and you think about how long it took to earn that money and how much work you did and how many dollars you put aside. Suddenly a thought enters your head: It’s not worth it. This toy is not worth it. And so you take your hard-earned money and walk out of the store.
Before you make a big decision, it is important to count the cost. You have to ask, “How much is it worth to me?” Before we decide to follow Jesus with our whole hearts, God wants us to think about our decision very carefully. In the Old Testament reading, God told the Israelites that they had a really important decision to make: they could either follow the one true God or else follow the old, pretend gods. Choose God and life, or choose the pretend gods and death. [Holding signs on either side of you:] Life or Death. It seems like an easy decision, doesn’t it?
Point to which one you would choose. (Let kids point to “LIFE.”) That was easy, but sometimes it’s not such an easy choice to follow God. If some of your friends think that going to church is silly, it may be hard to tell them that Jesus is the most important thing in your life and you want to do what he wants you to. If all of your friends are going to see a movie that you know Jesus wouldn’t want you to see, it may be hard to tell them why you aren’t going with them. If your friends want you to join them in teasing another kid in your class, it might be hard to stand up to them and tell them to stop it. Following Jesus is not always easy.
The decision to follow Jesus is the most important choice you will make in your whole life. Even though it may be hard at times to be a Christian, it is always worth it. And Jesus has promised to be with us all the time and to help us. I hope all of you will choose to follow Jesus. He will give you life and all of the blessings that come with it.
Life or death. Seems easy, doesn’t it? But it might be a tougher choice than it looks. And let me add another one from our Gospel Lesson this morning: [holding up two other signs] Love or hate. That seems easy, too. But I think Jesus is trying to tell us this morning that it’s not as easy a choice as it looks.
Have you ever heard the expression “love it to death”? Someone wants to tell you how much they like their new job, or new car, or whatever, and they tell you, “Oh, I love it death!” Curious expression if your think about it, isn’t it? But maybe this innocent expression is on to something, though. Perhaps it isn’t so innocent. Perhaps we actually do tend to love things to death.
Let me throw out another couple quickies. Ever hear a love song that basically has the message, ‘I can’t live without you’? In other words, I love you so much that if I can’t have you, I’d rather die. Here we are again with that strange combination of love and death. Or we’ve all heard of instances in which somebody was losing or had just lost a great deal — their spouse, their job, a lot of money — and they became so despondent that they killed themselves. They lost something they loved and felt it better to die. Again, love and death. Perhaps there is something to that seemingly innocent expression, ‘I love it to death.’
In fact, I think that’s what Jesus is trying to get us to understand with his very strange words this morning, “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.” Perhaps if we love things to death we can also hate them to life. This is, no doubt, a terribly peculiar way to talk about such matters. But perhaps Jesus needed some jarring words in order to get us to see that things aren’t as simple as they seem when it comes to basics like life and death, love and hate. What may seem like easy choices for us really aren’t. And Jesus needs a way to wake us up to that fact. Let’s see if we can’t get to the bottom of what he’s talking about.
And there is a bottom, a bottom line, if you will. The last verse in this morning’s gospel begins with the signal of importance, the word “therefore”: “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Actually, from the original Greek, we could also say “all your possessing.” “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessing.” What’s going on here? I think this: our human problem boils down to one of possessing. We don’t simply desire the things that are of value to us, the things we “love.” We also want to possess them. It’s our possessing things that turns love to hate and life to death.
Think of those typical love songs again for a moment: ‘I can’t live without out you.’ Doesn’t this express the kind of ‘love’ that ends up be possessive? It’s an easily jealous love. We get jealous because we’re trying to possess someone or something. Or if we do come to possess the other person in a relationship, the other kind of reaction is to lose interest. Now that we’ve got that person, it’s time to move on to another one. Either way, jealous possession or fickle infidelity, it makes for a lot of break-ups of relationships these days. The way we love might as well be hate when we seek to possess other people or other things, because it is a way to conflict, loss, brokenness and death. We love to death. And what are the things we love to death most easily? Precisely those things which we say that we love the most. Jesus gives us a list: mother and father, spouse and children, brother and sister, even life itself. In our fallenness we love these people to death. We might as well hate them. We cling to our lives and our loves as things we can possess, and we find ourselves walking down the road of hatred and resentment, suffering and death.
How does this happen? How do we get in this mess? Because of the nature of our desire itself. We don’t realize that our desires arise in us on the basis of other people’s desires. Again, Madison Avenue understands this perfectly. They advertise not so much their products as they advertise to us someone’s desire for the product, someone we will imitate. “Be like Mike,” says the Nike commercial. But the problem is that when we start off desiring in the same way as people around us, we start to desire the same things so that we come into conflict. The one whom we modeled in a positive way becomes the one who is now our rival. The one whom we started out to love, in becoming our rival, also becomes one we hate. We love and hate the same person. That ever happen to you?
I’ve gone through this pretty fast. I invite you to the Adult Forum in a couple weeks to take more time in understanding these dynamics of human desire. For now, if you can’t quite get this yet, please accept that it’s a good bet of what’s behind Jesus’ strange words to us this morning. We love things to death by trying to possess them, so that the only way to true life is for each of us to be willing to give up all our possessing.
How do we do that? Well, that’s the good news this morning. Jesus came and did it. Jesus became human like one of us and was able to desire, was able to love, in a way that doesn’t love us to death. Mind you, in this world in which we do love things to death, we ended up loving him to death, literally. But Jesus, in the face of our hateful way of loving, remained faithful to God his heavenly Father’s love, which is the only love that can save. For the love of God is not a possessing love; it’s a gifting love. It’s a love not bent on possessing, but one that gives, even in the face of death.
What was the last thing Jesus said before he died in Luke’s Gospel? “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” His last act was to give his own spirit of life to God. And what does this lead to? Death? No, in three days, God gifted him back his life, eternal life. He gave him the Spirit of Life to him so that he could share it eternally with each of us.
We learn and are empowered to live our lives not as something we possess, but as something that is sheer gift. Life is a gift meant to be shared with others. That’s what life and love are truly about, giving and receiving the blessings of life. When we aren’t being empowered by Jesus’ Spirit to live such lives, then we are loving ourselves and others to death. We might as well hate them. We are hating them. But in the forgiving love of Jesus, we are beginning to be empowered to truly love — to live our lives not as a possession but as a gift to share, to give away over and over again only to eternally receive our lives back again as gift. Our loving to death, which is actually a hating to death, is being transformed into a loving to eternal life. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Redemption Lutheran,
Wauwatosa, WI, September 9, 2001
1. Based on the children’s sermon “Count the Cost,” by Ruth Gilmore, Scolding the Snakes (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2000), pp. 104-105.