Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Rev. Matthew I.Potts, August 28, 2022The Rev. Matthew I. Potts preaches from the pulpit on First-Year Sunday. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.



By the Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, Ph.D.
Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church
Plummer Professor of Christian Morals in the Faculty of Divinity

(The following is a transcript of the service audio)

So in the early days of the pandemic, this would be late spring 2020, I guess, in summer, our family had been taking lots of walks. We lived then down on Cape Cod and we lived next to a bike path. And so we'd go out and take walks to get outside and try to get some fresh air and try to get out of the house. And after a while of taking walks together as a family, my wife Colette and I decided maybe the two of us just wanted to go walk and get out of the house and get a little space from our beloved children. This was because of the age that they were at that time, this was not something we'd done before. We hadn't left them alone in the house.

And so we thought about this and we figured it was fine and so we started taking our walks together. But it caused a little bit of stress to our youngest, Danny, who's now eight and always wants to be with us, always wants to be close to us, and was wondering why we needed to be out by ourselves walking. And Colette said to him once when he was saying, "Why are you going? Why can't I come with you?" Colette said, "Because we need to talk about stuff without you there. There are some things we need to talk about. Just grown up things, grown up things." And then he said, "What kind of things?" And we said, "Just grown up things."

And he looked and he nodded and he said, "You're probably talking about swearing." I don't know. It's the age of rationality. He's fascinated by taboo words, whatever. And they're the ones you would expect, except for one, there's one additional one we have in our house, and maybe some of you parents have in your house: hate. Hate's a bad word in our house. You're not allowed to say hate, you hate anything, in our house. There's one exception, which I'll get to in a bit. And so here on the first Sunday of the term, Jesus shows up and he starts our lesson, saying, "If you do not hate your mother and father, hate your children, you cannot be my disciple."

That's hard to listen to. Danny would have some words for him. And my first instinct is to avoid it and turn to the other lesson and talk to you about that, the lesson Jeramel read, which is almost the entirety of the letter of Paul to Philemon, which has its own problems. This is a letter in which Paul is sending a slave back to his slave owner and pleading with the slave owner to set him free. Why send him back at all? Why sort of defer to the judgment of the slave owner? Why leave the freedom of this person, who Paul says has become so beloved to him, Onesimus, why leave it up to the judgment and discernment of the other?

I think it's a mistake and I'm not going to explain it away in my sermon today, but I think the argument he makes, the persuasion he attempts, although misplaced, I think can teach us something. And I think what we can learn from it, we actually have to approach by turning back toward that word I was hoping to turn away from, hate, what Jesus says about hate in today's gospel lesson. So the Greek word that is translated here as hate is miseo. That word does not exactly correspond to hate. I don't want to sugarcoat things, Jesus is being harsh here, miseo does carry the sense of detesting something, but it's also comparative.

It's not just detesting, but it's also denouncing for the sake of something else. So Jesus is not just saying hate, he's also saying you must denounce something if you're going to follow me. You must renounce something if you're going to follow me. So what must be denounced and renounced? We're in the Gospel of Luke right now and Luke has a very unique structure. About the first half of the gospel is Jesus in his ministry in Galilee. And in the second half, he turns towards Jerusalem and heads to Jerusalem for Good Friday. And on the way to Jerusalem, he's doing all these amazing things. We heard about one of them last week; he's healing folks and doing these great deeds of power. And crowds are gathering around him, attracted by these great deeds of power. And they see him going to Jerusalem with all these great deeds of power. And every once in a while, Jesus has to pause and say, it's going to get hard. There is going to be some cost to following me.

As he says, in today's lesson, "You will have to take up your cross, your own cross, to follow me. You are going to need to make some choices, to renounce some things, to denounce some things to follow me." So what is he denouncing here and why does it refract through family? I open these sermons with stories of my kids. I love my family. Why refract all this through our closest, our most cherished relationships? We know that lots of different sorts of people followed Jesus, this traveling band, according to Luke, that was going to Jerusalem. Lots of different people traveled with Jesus. In particular, lots of women traveled with Jesus.

At the beginning of chapter eight in Luke, just before Jesus embarks on this journey to Jerusalem, the author of the Gospel of Luke tells us that a group of women came and joined him and they traveled with him. But here in this passage, Jesus is talking to the men. And we know this because Jesus says, "Hate your mother and father, hate your wife." We have thankfully rethought what marriage means for us as Christians, but at Jesus' time, to speak to someone about their wife would imply that they were men. Jesus was talking to the men when he makes this statement. And that's important because the structure of households and families in the ancient world was different than it is today. Especially in Greco-Roman culture, there was this idea of the pater familias, the head of the household, who had absolute authority in Roman law, authority of life and death over everyone in his household: children, slaves, wives. Absolute authority, the patria potestas, life of power and death.

And although there was a distinction between slaves and family members, it wasn't a strong distinction. The father in the household had that kind of authority. And so when Jesus is telling these men to denounce their fatherhood, whatever else he is saying, he is also saying to them, renounce your power, give up that authority. The authority you claim as a father in this form of family relation is a form that exacts violence upon others. So renounce it, denounce it if you follow me. And just in case you think I'm putting too much weight into this one word, wife, as I said, we're told in chapter eight that a bunch of women joined the traveling group and they become part of the community. And it's just after the women join that Jesus turns towards Jerusalem.

And one of the first things that he says to everyone after the women join, one of the first things he says to this group, this band of disciples who's following him, he turns to them and he says, Jesus says to them, "My true family are not the people who are related to me by blood. My true family are those who hear the word of God and do it." In the beginning, at the beginning of this trip to Jerusalem, Jesus is saying, it's not about bloodlines. It's not about ancestry. It's about loving each person as much as you love yourself, loving your neighbor as yourself, whether or not they are related to you, whether or not they are mother or father or wife or child or spouse or whatever else, love every person that much. And that will mean giving up some of what you expect about your own position and your own privilege and your own power, you men who wield this power in these families.

I think what Jesus is denouncing through this extreme rhetoric, the rhetoric of hatred, what he is denouncing are the rabid fealties of blood and ancestry and nation, which actually undergirds so much hatred in our world. So back to Paul and Paul's letter to Philemon, pleading with Philemon to release Onesimus. Paul is too deferential here, but the language he uses when he is making his case is all the language of family. He says to Philemon, "Onesimus was my child. I was his father, but he became my brother. And you, Philemon," Paul says, "you also are my brother, which means you and Onesimus are brothers. Treat him as an equal. All the power you think you have over him means nothing to me and nothing to God. So renounce it and love your brother, love your neighbor as yourself."

Those of you who were here last week heard me preach about our tradition, our church, our religion of Christianity. And it has deep wounds. I spoke about the deep wounds of Christianity last week. And the depth of those wounds are in our lessons today. Patriarchy is deep in the bones of Christianity, and it has caused generations of violence against women, violence against anyone who does not meet narrow conceptions of what it means to be male. Patriarchy continues to rob women of agency and moral autonomy in our world today. As I just said, patriarchy and blood purity has set the battle lines in many of our tribal and ethnic and cultural hatreds, and has been at root of some of Christianity's worst sins; antisemitism, Islamophobia, colonialism, and nationalism.

Hate is a bad word in our house, in my house, but it has been too much on the lips of Christians for too long. And if Jesus is emphatic with his rhetoric today, it's because he ought to be and because we need to hear that emphasis today. Hate is a bad word in the Potts household. I said there's one exception. And if you ever meet Danny, Danny will tell you this; there's one exception. You can't say you hate anything except hate. "I hate hate." Danny loves to say it, because he loves to say those words when he gets a chance, I hate hate. And I love him. I love my family, and you, all of you here know that some loves are fiercer. Some loves are more protective. Some loves are more primal. And I think that's okay. That's natural. Despite what Jesus says in his teaching today, I don't think it's a moral failure to love your own so much.

But the challenge, the moral challenge of Christianity, of the teaching we have today is to recognize how quickly our concern to protect those closest to us can transform into disregard or disdain for those farther away. The aim of Christian life and of this teaching is not to love your own less, it's to love others more, beyond the narrow and often dangerous bounds of custom and privilege. It's to understand that God loves everyone you don't, even your enemies, even those you hate, those you harm or who have harmed you. God loves them as much as you love your own, even more. Following Jesus has costs. The call and cost of our discipleship, the weight of our cross, is to love all those who God loves, some way, just as we love our own.