Roots and Wings

September 4, 2016

by the Rev. Emily Rowell  Brown

Philemon 1-21
Luke 14:25-33

For the past few weeks, my husband Dan and I have attended training sessions required for foster and adoption approval, and a theme that surfaces repeatedly is attachment. I imagine most of us have associations with that word, whether it conjures up images of baby-wearing parents who subscribe to attachment parenting philosophies, children who struggle to bond because they have suffered abuse, or teenagers in love for the first time who cannot bear to be separated. We generally think of attachment as a good, healthy thing, assuming that there is an appropriate balance between autonomy and dependence.

Yet Jesus seems to suggest the opposite. His prescription challenges 21st century parenting advice and most conventional relationship wisdom, for he commands his followers to sever all of their attachments. Relationships, possessions, and other worldly ties have no place in the cultivation of discipleship. Jesus’ holy world and the “regular” world may not coexist.

Such a pronounced division between the spiritual and secular does not, however, jibe with how Jesus practiced his ministry on the ground. Although some interpretations of today’s gospel emphasize that Jesus’ call here is to individual relationship–a “Jesus and me is all that matters” sort of mentality–when we consider the entire thrust of Jesus’ ministry, these readings fall apart. Jesus indeed cared deeply about communal relationships, for he rooted his ministry in relationship with his disciples, and particularly, close relationships with the Twelve. And our God in essence is relationship, for what is the Trinity but the expression of a God who wants to exist in community, as Father, Son, and Spirit? Jesus also cared about possessions–namely, he sought to provide for those who did not have any, feeding the hungry, tending to the ill, and honoring the poor. No, Jesus blended the spiritual and secular at every turn.

Rather, Jesus’ statements here seem to exhibit his fondness for hyperbole. We might remember a similar sentiment from the gospel several weeks ago, when Jesus predicted that father would be divided against son and mother against daughter in the dawn of God’s kingdom.[1] If we compare Matthew’s version of Jesus’ call for decision to forsake everything and everyone in order to become a disciple, we see gentler language, but even so, the message is the same. As Matthew puts it, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”[2] In short, hating one’s family meant that, when push came to shove, Jesus took precedence. One was a disciple before one was a daughter or a father or businessman or a citizen. To follow Jesus was–is–to redefine every aspect of life in light of God’s call.

Jesus knew full well the cost of such discipleship, for he modeled it in life and in death, enduring ridicule and hardship as he persisted in serving God. The crowds may have hoped that Jesus would lead a revolution to overthrow the Roman government, and projected their hopes and dreams for a better world upon him unto his end, yet Jesus invited them to participate in something not glorious and splashy and easy but humble and unglamorous and difficult. Jesus welcomed others to join his movement but had little tolerance for half-hearted followers. You were either all in or you were out.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a theologian often invoked with this gospel. One of his most famous books, The Cost of Discipleship, distinguishes between cheap and costly grace. The reason Bonhoeffer’s words have such power is that they are not only insightful but indicative of how he lived his life. No one understood better than he how costly it could be to follow Jesus: Bonhoeffer died in prison because of his resistance to the Nazi authorities. The Christianity invoked by the Nazis and the Christianity Bonhoeffer knew proved incompatible.

We too know about cheap grace. Cheap grace, according to Bonhoeffer, is “grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” It’s the idea that all is well and good because we subscribe to a particular set of beliefs about Jesus atoning for our sins, go to church fairly regularly, and feel secure that we will go to heaven, but Jesus has no claim on how we actually live in the here and now. How many more Christians in name are there than Christians in practice? But the grace Jesus offers paradoxically quiets and stirs our hearts in a way that nothing else can. Jesus acknowledges upfront that the risks and consequences of discipleship may be mighty, but so also are the rewards.

One message we should not take away from this scripture, however, is that discipleship happens in isolation. Our relationship with Jesus defines but does not exclude the possibility for all of our other relationships. Jesus lives, after all, in our communities, which is why Paul spends so much time negotiating relationships in his letters. To revisit that word “attachment”: Jesus does not necessarily call for no attachments but he does call us to question them–

Discipleship calls us to rethink who we include in our family and how we define our possessions. Perhaps our family becomes less about our biological ties and more about the people who surround us as we break bread. Jesus’ insistence that we renounce our possessions is characteristic of Luke, but in this context, I think Jesus cares less about followers having nothing and more about followers thinking about possessions not as their own but as belonging to all of God’s people. The earliest Christian communities described in Acts, after all shared their belongings. In today’s epistle, while we take issue with Paul’s seeming endorsement of (or at least acquiescence to) slavery, Paul clearly instructs the wealthy Philemon to provide hospitality both to Onesimus (and to Paul, for that matter). In other words, those who have resources should make sure everyone has resources.

I will end by sharing a metaphor from one of my training sessions that holds wisdom not only for foster parents but for those of us seeking to be faithful disciples. As the social worker said, children need roots and wings–roots so that they know where and who they came from, and that they have a support system holding them up, and wings so that they can launch and engage the world as strong, independent citizens. Same with disciples: we need roots, which we find here in church, in our worship, in our remembering the stories of those who came before us, and in our life together, and wings, so that we may serve God in the way that we each are uniquely called. Using our wings can be scary, but Jesus will catch us when we fall.

[1] Luke 12:49-56.

[2] Matthew 10:37.