“They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither…”
What does it means to follow the will of God? What does it mean to be a disciple?
In our passage from Deuteronomy this morning, Moses lays out for the consequences the choice we have between following God’s will, and not. He puts it pretty starkly: we have a choice between life and prosperity, and death and adversity. Choosing life is choosing the way of God. The way of God is to follow God’s command, another way of saying we are supposed to do what we are supposed to do. There is no mystery about what we are supposed to do because the way of God, God’s will for us, is laid out in black and white in the commandments, the law and the prophets. If we do that, we shall live and be numerous and we will be blessed. “But if our heart turns away…are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them… you shall perish.” If you choose to follow the law: life and prosperity. If you don’t: death.
Moses might be talking about following the Canaanite, or Egyptian gods. But gods come in much sneakier forms, like things, like money and people, status, achievement, identities, ideas and ideologies. As the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner said, God is our Ultimate Concern. The things that concern us most become gods to us. This is all about idolatry, our most commonly and egregiously committed sin. Even very good things, like mothers and children can become our ultimate concern, can become idols for us, can (or invariably will) pull us away from the path laid before us by God in Christ, and down the road of death. Moses was not known for his subtlty.
In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus gives the crowds brief and very clear instructions about how to be His disciple, laying out three basic tenets of discipleship. We must hateour mother and father, children and spouse, even life itself. We must carry whatever cross we have been given. And lastly, we must give away all our possessions. Basically He is saying that following Him is an all in proposition. That’s just like Him.
The word hatehereis a piece of “Semitic hyperbole.” Jesus uses this exaggeration to make the point that it is critical for us to get our priorities straight. It is the same usage in the terrible Proverb “Whoever spares the rod hatesthe child.” It means that if we readjust ourselves and truly put God first, (and not them), then we and they will be better off, truly, because that is how it works, the world. God, our ultimate reality, is primary and must be treated as such. You don’t actually have to fear or loath those you love, even life itself, in order to follow Jesus.
His second instruction is about carrying our cross. We are called to bear the burdens of the world, to do what needs to be done. This is not a command to bear suffering for sufferings sake. That logic has been used on behalf of abusers forever. Rather, He is saying we need to do what needs doing, and often that requires sacrifice. An interesting part of this passage is that in the Greek, the word carryis in the present tense. The implication is that our cross is present right now, there is an everydayness to the struggle, to the cost of discipleship. The sacrifices we must make are not just at the last days, not only life and death. To follow Jesus we must attend to every aspect of our lives, and doubtless that will be a heavy burden.
The last prerequisite for discipleship sort of leaps off the page with its directness: “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” What is there to say about that? Renunciation of worldly goods is as old a religious practice as there is. It is a basic tenant of monasticism across cultures and religions. Not the easy path, but it is a well-traveled one, and it works. The less you try to have, the less you need.
Following Jesus is not an easy path. OK. Jesus, as always, is crystal clear in His expectations, and as far as I can tell, none of us are doing it. I’m not. My family comes first in key moments. I pass by plenty of crosses every day. I am fulfilling my pledge to the church, but I’m not giving everything, not leaving everything behind. Maybe if we were with Him in 1stcentury occupied Palestine, or in a time of clear and present crisis (and knew it) more of us would give it all up. It is that dire for some of our neighbors. Undocumented people have legitimate fears that each day they go to work could be the last day of their life as they know it. Folks on the streets of Eugene are one blow to the head, one wet, sub-freezing night, one trash truck away from death. The all-in nature of things is obvious in the Bahamas, and Syria, and Hong Kong. Considering the climate, maybe it is a time of clear and present danger for everyone… But that is not how most of us live.
So what happens if we are not all in? What happens if we don’t put our relationship with God, our understanding of what we are supposed to be and do first? What is the cost to us for not doing that, of going only half way, or only 1/16thof the way?
So there are some who believe that God is a conscious, willful and personally active force in the world, rewarding the good, punishing the bad. That is a very traditional belief, and it is not only a matter of faith, but that is the experience of countless of faithful Christians since Jesus’ day, the experience of God in a focused, personal way.
But not everyone understands it that way or experiences God that way. There are many ways to encounter our Living God. I don’t often experience God personally, conversationally, relationally in any way like a relationship with another sentient being. I experience God as the ground of being, as always and everywhere. As the collect goes, “In you we live and move and have our being,” Or the prologue to St. John’s gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God and the Word was God.” I experience God like you might experience the awe of a roiling sea, or laying on the desert floor under the broad swath of the Milky Way, or the wind blowing across the vastness of the North Dakota prairie. I experience God in spark of life that flows through us all, in the acorn in which the mighty oak and the mysteries of the world are contained, in the touch of a loved one, the laugh of a child. I experience God as so immanent, so intimately part and parcel of everything that God is transcendent, beyond apprehension. Check out Thomas Berry. Check out Thomas Merton and Meister Eckhart. God is great.
For those of us who know God in less personal, more transcendent ways, I don’t know about you, but we can sometimes doubt whether we are “Christian” enough, if we believe enough. Logic from antiquity doesn’t always fit into a modern or post-modern person’s worldview or experience of life. This might be why the Episcopal church has shrunk 26% since I was ordained in 2011. (I don’t think there is a correlation).
So how do we understand what the psalmist tells us this morning, that those who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked… but who rather delight in the law of the Lord, “They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither…” The wicked? They are like chaff which the wind blows away. Is God consciously rewarding those who have avoided sinners and meditated on God’s law night and day? Perhaps. Or back to Deuteronomy, life and prosperity as Moses commends could be a reward for loyalty to God and adherence to the rules, with death and adversity as a punishment for disobedience. That is the experience of many and scripture and tradition support that idea.
But scripture and tradition support other understandings, too. Maybe, when we are in alignment with God, if you behave in the good and Godly ways laid out in the Law and in the commandments of Jesus Christ, you will do better, be better. You will be healthier, more balanced, better adjusted, in more right relationship with everyone and everything. The closer we follow the commandments, the less important things are to us. The more we accept that we don’t have control over that much, the easier it is to accept what comes with peace and loving-kindness. It is easier to feel the consolation of God if we prioritize experience them, if we deprioritize material things, personal things.
What we spend our time on, give our precious mental, spiritual and emotional attention to, will thrive. Like in a garden, what you water will grow, “…bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither…” What you tend to, will thrive. That is another way of understanding how following the will of God works. God’s will (and our reward) is written into the divine logic of the universe. Now that’s another way of experiencing Jesus Christ. The path of least resistance is what makes the river run crooked.
Maybe it is the judgement of God. Maybe it is that our spirits don’t align with the true nature of things. Maybe these are the same thing experienced differently. However you understand the mechanism of God’s work, the expectation is that you that you choose life and prosperity over death and adversity, that you prioritize God and do what needs to be done.
Regardless of how we understand God’s will manifesting, we’re still a long way from truly putting God first, from doing everything we know needs doing. Seriously, giving away all of our possession, that’s just never been on most Episcopalians list of to do, but that is not a reason to throw way the baby with the bathwater. For almost all of us, it is going to be baby steps to the Commonwealth of God. It is going to take a long time before most of us are willing to give up all of our possessions. (Hey, annual giving campaign is coming up, I’d be happy with a couple of percent per family). But what if you worked on having that as an ideal? What if we made our relationship with material things a concern of our Christian faith? What if we made detachment from material things an ideal, a value, a goal to set yourself towards, at least in principle? That could be a good first step in following Jesus, making the conditions Jesus puts on discipleship as a goal.
Giving everything away. Detaching from stuff, from temporal things. These are beacons of values that Jesus laid out for us that should steer us as Christians. It should be for us as core a principal as loving our neighbors, as turning the other cheek, as forgiving not seven times but 77 times. In the early church not killing was such a strong value that Christians were not conscripted into Roman service. (That changed when Christianity was adopted by the Roman Empire – how convenient). Pursuing these values helps us to be more loving, be more forgiving, be more humble, all sure signs that we are actually following Jesus.
Following Jesus is following what He commands. Be it by the Judgement of God or the consequences of God’s natural law, we reap the benefits and suffer the consequences of obedience or disobedience of God’s will. First and foremost, we must begin to change our spiritual relationship with everything we share our lives with. If we made freedom from material entanglement a value, even a goal, in our spiritual lives, that is a first baby step to being “like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season… everything you do shall prosper”. AMEN.