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Choose Life

You’re probably thinking, “Wait a second; this Sunday is supposed to be fun and festive, all jazz and ice cream, and you’re giving us, “Hate your family” and “Carry your cross”? Isn’t that a barrel of laughs? Before you start checking your email on your phones or counting the panes of stained glass, remember that this is the same Jesus who said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”[1] The same Jesus who sat down to dinner with people that the religious show-offs thought were unsavory. The same Jesus who welcomed outcasts; the same Jesus who healed the sick; the same Jesus who said loving your neighbor was more important than anything else, and that includes your neighbor who’s a family member. So this passage has to be consistent with that Jesus, doesn’t it?

Let’s start with this: What does the cross mean to you? You kind of have to figure that out before you can make sense of “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Do you assume some churchy answer; maybe something you’d find in a creed; maybe there’s a “correct” answer? Were you taught growing up, or maybe you absorbed it in a long life of singing old hymns, that the cross has something to do with suffering and forgiveness of sins? Have you ever wondered what the cross meant for Luke? For Matthew? For Mark? For John? For Paul? The truth is that the New Testament doesn’t have a uniform answer to that question. There is no one correct biblical answer. As often happens with Scripture, we’re invited into a conversation.

We’re in Luke’s gospel today, and what Luke brings to the conversation is an exceptional concern for the poor and marginalized, and a tender heart for the outcast and the forsaken. So for Luke, “carry your cross” could mean to carry the ministry of Jesus forward by seeing those whom the world overlooks. It could mean favoring and regarding the marginalized, even when it might lead to your own discomfort or even outright oppression. Remember, here in the 14th chapter of Luke, Good Friday hasn’t happened yet, so it’s not likely Jesus is referring to any traditional notions of “salvation” we might connect with the cross. We aren’t there yet.

If you did open your pew Bibles to page 59, you’ll see that the bold heading before this passage is “The Cost of Discipleship.” But let’s look at that. Is it really a cost? Or is it a choice? In the Book of Deuteronomy, part of the Torah, Moses gives a long speech to the people Israel after presenting them with the law; this law is part of the covenant between God and God’s people. Gina read the part where Moses explains that they have in front of them two paths: life and prosperity, or death and adversity. If they choose the path of following God’s law, which includes honoring your parents – not hating them – treating each other fairly, welcoming the stranger and caring for the needy, and loving your neighbor as yourself (that’s in Leviticus[2]), then the people will thrive. Imagine, for a moment, a culture, a society that makes that choice; imagine a society that chooses kindness, fairness, civility and generosity. It’s true that the Hebrew Scriptures also include some ancient Middle Eastern rules that are odd or even repugnant to us today. But Jesus pointed out that what it all boils down to is “Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. Do this and live,”[3] he said. So Moses says that if the people choose a different path, a path of ignoring these basic rules of human fairness and kindness, they will perish. We might read this as a threat of divine punishment, but it’s just logical consequences. If you don’t live in harmony and fairness with the people you encounter, the consequence is discord, enmity, strife, and violence. If you don’t care for the needy, you’ll find yourself hunkering down to protect your stuff because you’re afraid someone will try to take it from you. If you don’t take care of the earth that is our home, it won’t take care of us. Just consequences. God says, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”

Choose life. If we think of our faith as being, more than anything else, about what it costs, about what we give up, what we sacrifice, then we’re forgetting that lifeall of life – is full of choices that cost us. We are limited beings and often when we choose one path it means we do have to give up another path. Parenthood, marriage, careers – anything that takes commitment and effort has a cost. But that isn’t why we choose them, is it? It’s that even when we know our choice will impact our lives in huge and unforeseen ways, that there will be a cost, what we feel most is joy and gratitude; what we think most is “This is right. This is the path I choose.” Or in Christian terms, “I have been called to this.”

That is what the cross means here in Luke. One commentator writes, “The cross is not unique but representative of what life is. To carry your cross is to carry the choices and burdens and realities of a life that has made a certain commitment – a commitment to a way of life that is committed to bringing about the Kingdom of God here and now. That’s certainly what it meant for Jesus.”[4]

What about the hating your family thing? What happened to “Honor thy Father and thy Mother” in the Ten Commandments?[5] Especially when this same Jesus also said people were not to break even the least of the commandments.[6] This is another logical consequence issue. I’m sure there are people in this sanctuary this morning who have had to choose between a relationship with a family member and their own integrity or well-being. Certainly, for Luke’s audience, following Jesus would have put family relationships at risk. And so even here, Jesus is saying, choose life; choose the kingdom of God; choose to live in this world as though God is the ruler of our hearts and minds because that is what will bring life, wholeness, shalom, to you and to the whole world.

What a different way of being it is if we think of the cross as a way of choosing life, rather than fixated on death. This isn’t to say Jesus’ death doesn’t matter. It’s to encourage a conversation about why it matters. Maybe it matters for Luke because the cross was Jesus standing up to empire. It was Jesus nevertheless persisting. Maybe it matters because it’s a promise that release of the captives is a past, present, and future reality, but that future depends on our choice to carry the cross of Jesus – that is, to make a choice for life.

If the cross is choosing life, how might that show in our lives, as disciples of Jesus? One place we might start to think about that is with our wonderful new members today. These are people you need to get to know; they are a blessing to this congregation; and they will join you in professing their faith today. It is a choice; a commitment that costs them something. Not because becoming a member of our church means you promise you’ll always believe the correct beliefs or forever adopt the right doctrines. Rather, because it means you’ve chosen to throw in your lot with the rest of this motley crew for better or for worse, to wrestle with the questions, to figure out what God calls us to do and to be, to follow Jesus’ example and to give our hearts to each other and to the world God wants for us all. That has a cost. But along with that cost there is celebration, there is joy, and there is gratitude, because these new members join us in choosing life.

Something author Barbara Ehrenreich said a while back speaks to this. She was asked in an interview what she would give up to live in a more human world. She answered, “I think we shouldn’t think of what we would give up to have a more human world; we should think of what we would gain.”

Choose life. May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2019 all rights reserved.

[4] Karoline Lewis, “Carrying the Cross,” August 28, 2016,

[6] “Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:17-20.

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