Sunday Morning Worship – 28 October 2007

“On Hating Family”

Luke 14: 25-33

Wesley Memorial UMC – Family Weekend @ UVA

This is a strange week for me to be preaching on this passage. Tuesday in the wee hours of the morning I got a call from a friend and colleague in Suffolk. Her water had just broken 2 weeks early and I was “on deck” to help in the delivery. I drove several hours that morning with a mixture of anticipation and fear, excitement and dread. Part of me had wanted to back out of my promise to be there, had wanted to say to her, like the famous character in “Gone with the Wind,” “I don’t know nothing ‘bout birthin’ no babies!”

Of course, it was one of the most wonder-filled experiences of my life. And when Eliana flew up and out into this world it was an awed moment of relief, release, joy, and thanksgiving. Tears ran down most of the faces in the room.

So it’s a strange week for me to choose a text that is not in this week’s lectionary readings. It’s a strange week to be working with Jesus’ hard-to-swallow words about hating our families.

It’s a strange time in my own life for this, too. I’ve recently become engaged and in a very short time Woody has become family to me. After waiting a long time for this part of my life to unfold, I certainly don’t have an “easy come, easy go” attitude about him. I’m supposed to hate him now in order to come to Jesus?

And most definitely, as I look out at the faces of students and their families who have come to town for Family Weekend, I know that it is a strange week for this text. Many of you are reuniting for the first time since the first year students moved into dorms in August. Others may be visiting for the final Family Weekend of your child’s college career. There have been deliveries of food and other familiar items from home. There have been long-awaited trips to Target. There have been parent-purchased meals on the town. It’s been a gorgeous weekend to relax into the familiar rhythms of being with your closest relatives.

It’s a strange Sunday for this text and these hard words from Jesus.

A campus ministry colleague in North Carolina once shared with me her understanding of the church’s commitment to campus ministry. She says that campus ministry is the church’s way of fulfilling the vows we make at baptism. When we baptize babies and small children there are vows for the parents and, you’ll remember, there are also vows for the congregation. We, the gathered family of God, promise to help raise up the sons and daughters who come into our family. We understand that children are not the responsibility of their parents alone but of the whole community. In the sacrament of baptism, we own up to that responsibility. And in that great transition to college and beyond, through campus ministry we say, “God is not done with you yet and neither are we.”

I love this theology and self-understanding of who the church is and of how campus ministry fits into the broader church picture. I love the move to root campus ministry in baptism, which is surely where it has been all along, but I hadn’t heard it spoken of that way until my colleague said this a couple of years ago.

In the last 30 years or so Americans have re-developed our notions of how a family looks. At UVA, we used to call this “Parents Weekend” and somewhere in the last 15 years that changed to “Family Weekend,” reflecting the diversity of students’ family backgrounds. I’m not sure, though, that we have refined our understanding of what it means to be God’s family. In fact, the loudest Christian voices on the topic of family often seem more interested in making an idol of family than in worshipping God. Have you noticed the “Family Christian Bookstores” where the word “family” is written in a font several times larger than the word “Christian”? This seems to be an odd construal of Christian values – especially when you confront Jesus’ own words in a passage like the one from Luke.

This is not a call for the lighthearted. Thank God our choice is not often a choice between following Jesus and loving our families. Jesus is not saying that family is bad or inherently worthy of hatred. He isn’t even talking about “hate” as anger or hostility. But he is giving us fair warning: when conflict arises – even between two “good” choices like family and discipleship – the “demands of discipleship must take precedence” (New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary Volume IX, Nashville: Abingdon, 1995, p. 292). There are as many ways to live this out as there are people and families, but one I can imagine is a civil rights advocate in the 1960s who, though she loved her family and had responsibilities to them, heard and responded to her calling to end oppression – even at the risk of her freedom or her life – even at the risk of leaving her family alone without her. That’s the kind of “hate” Jesus is talking about here.

Here’s where that baptismal imagery goes deeper. The waters of baptism require death. It’s a “watery grave” we enter when we approach that font. In order to experience new life in Jesus, we also have to die with Jesus.

Some people – some family members – hope that what campus ministry and the church can offer their sons and daughters is a safe place in the storm. This is true. It’s part of what we do. At the Wesley Foundation, we call ourselves “a place to be and become.” Many students find the safety and nurture they need to “be” in the midst of so much change and challenge at college.

But the other half of that phrase is just as important. We also offer a place to become. And, as you know, becoming can be hard work. Becoming, in a Christian context means challenge. It means learning how to be a disciple and how to follow where that leads you. It means learning how to live out of and up to our baptisms.

Unfortunately, for some anxious family members, this does not always entail the kind of safety you might have been expecting. We can’t promise to return your student to you with a pre-med ranking. We can’t promise that, if they are involved in campus ministry, they will go into the family business. We can’t promise that they will finish in 4 years. We can’t promise that they won’t become philosophy majors!

We can promise that we will be God’s family for them. We can promise that we will be asking questions, nurturing, challenging, listening, serving alongside them. We can promise open doors, study breaks, good meals, weekly worship and dinners. We can promise that we will live up to all those baptismal vows we have made.

Listen, families of students: we can promise that in those impossible choices that come around from time to time, we will help your children hear God’s call above all others.

Listen, students: this Wesley block is a place where you can bring your whole self to God and to this family of God’s. This is a place to be and become, to wonder and worry and reflect and dream. It’s a place for break ups and switching your majors 3 times. It’s a place to find family.

And listen, church members: Remember the many times you have said those baptismal vows when one of our children has been presented here. We didn’t say those words lightly. And just as other Christians are doing this for Jonathon this year in Colorado, we are being called to fulfill those promises with the students here.

All of you: Look around and see your brothers and sisters in Christ!

Thanks be to God!

2007 © Deborah Lewis