Self-surrendering Love

The Rev. Becky McDaniel. This sermon is based on Luke 14:25-33.

Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.

Now, if this passage doesn’t make you uncomfortable, then perhaps you need to reconsider and reread. We need to really sit with this for a moment and investigate both the language of Jesus and the illustrations that he gives to the crowds. First, consider the word “hate.” We find a similar passage in Matthew, where Jesus says “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.” This language strikes us as easier to swallow, as it is language of preference rather than language of the extreme. But upon further investigation, we find that the word “hate” is actually a term of preference in traditional Biblical language. One example is the voice of God saying that he “hated” Esau, but we know from the story that God preferred Jacob to Esau. So if we can understand hate to be about preference rather than disgust, then we can read Jesus’ statement as “in order to be my disciple, you must love God above all else.” And love, in the Biblical sense, is about commitment. It is about loyalty. It is about giving up self-interest, or as Jesus says, giving up possessions. I think that what is meant by our possessions are those things to which we are attached, those things to which we cling to the extent that we forget about the higher and more spiritual values in life. When our desires for these things override our loyalties, then we have breached our commitments. This happens in human relationships all of the time. Infidelity, dishonesty, neglect. We hurt one another when our desires, our possessions, our self interests outweigh our commitments. Jesus speaks to this in terms of cost. He describes the attempt to build a tower and the need to sit down and estimate the cost. Indeed there is a cost to discipleship, just as there is a cost when entering any human relationship. When we commit ourselves to another person, we necessarily give up some extent of self-interest and competing loyalties, such as personal time and possessions. The reciprocity of a covenantal relationship requires that we make sacrifices. We all know that relationships don’t last without loyal commitments and actions that require at times a great cost to our self-interested ways of being. And the ultimate relationship is our relationship with God.

In this passage, Jesus is reminding us that the nature of love, the nature of God and of the divine, is reciprocity. In a true covenantal relationship, we give and we receive. God gives love, we receive love, we return love, and the circle continues. Jesus calls us to enter the circle of reciprocity, to prefer the nature of divine love to our tendencies toward self-serving love. He calls us to understand the cost of this divine exchange, that “it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life,” in those most eloquent words attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi. The final line of this prayer of St. Francis, “it is in dying that we are born to eternal life,” is often translated as “it is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.” I think that these words, dying to self, make all of the difference. This, in essence, is what Jesus is teaching when he says “whoever comes to me and does not hate life itself cannot be my disciple.” Jesus is referring to the spiritual process of dying to self. In fact, the heart of spiritual practices across religious traditions, Buddhism, Vedanta, Sufism, is this process of “dying before you die,” or in Jesus’ words, “whoever would lose his life will save it.” This core teaching is for us to stop operating our lives based on our likes and dislikes, our egoic desires and reactions, so that we may begin to participate in the higher vibration of self-surrendering love.

In truth, when we release our attachments, we have nothing to hold us back from true commitment and true devotion to God and to one another. Christ’s own death on the cross exemplifies this: in the state of surrender to God the soul shines with divine love, illuminated by God’s light as a fire glowing in the darkness. Christ’s fire guides us, continually calling us to this letting go of the egoic self in order to enter into new life, the fuller and more divine life that comes with a cost but grants us the great reward of true, reciprocal love. Today we may ask ourselves, after spending time with this quite uncomfortable passage, how might we live and love in such a way as to let go of our attachments, to deepen our relationship with God, and to commit ourselves more fully to Jesus Christ and to one another.