Sunday, October 30, 2011
The hard sayings of Jesus
(the Rev’d Dr) Elizabeth Kaeton
Proper 26A – October 30, 2011
It probably won’t come as a surprise that the Gospel passage we just heard is considered part of the “hard sayings” of Jesus. Call no one father. Or Rabbi. Or Instructor. Jesus also said to those who were to be his disciples, “follow me, and let the dead bury the dead”.
Jesus seems to have no respect for “family values” as defined by either his ancient culture or our post-modern one.
In Luke 8:19-21, Jesus is presented as turning away his mother and his brothers with the retort, "My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it." In Jesus' eyes, the only father to whom a son or daughter is accountable is a heavenly one (Luke 9:57-62).
These are disturbing, confusing passages for us. Make no mistake – they were just as disturbing and confusing to the ancient ears which first heard them.
So, what are we to make of these ‘hard sayings’? How are we to apply them to our own lives? Should we stop calling our rector “Father Max”? Should we change all the names on the benches in the churchyard? Is that what Jesus means?
Should we all live like hippies in a commune? Or, like some religious cult where everyone is “Brother” and “Sister” and all the lines of social convention are blurred?
I think there’s a clue at the end of this Gospel passage. Jesus says, “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted."
You see, Jesus wants his disciples and all who follow him not to get caught up in and seduced by pride and vanity and power and authority.
It’s a difficult concept for post-modern, Western minds to wrap their heads around.
I have had the great privilege of having been several times to Hawaii and living and working among the people native to that land. From them, and from my experience with Native Americans and people in Western and South Africa, I learned that what Jesus is saying about family and ownership and titles has a deeper resonance with these cultures than with our own.
Let me give you an example and tell you a little bit about what I know from my travels to Hawaii.
For Hawaiians, there is a primal connection to the universe, to nature, to the land and the sea, a connection that comes from a deep spiritual as well as genealogical belief system. Nature is where it all begins for the Hawaiians. In fact, they call themselves keiki o ka 'aina– “children of the land.”
The 'aina (land) is not just soil, sand or dirt. The 'aina is a heart issue for Hawaiians. The very word 'aina brings forth deep emotion evolved from ancestral times when people lived in nature as an integral part of it. Humankind and nature were considered siblings born to the same parents at the beginning of time.
The word 'aina literally means “that which feeds,” and maka 'ainana, a term for the common class of people, means "eyes of the land." Thus, nature feeds humanity and humanity watches over nature in return.
The land gave the ancients everything they needed–not just food, but clothing, housing, weapons, tools, musical instruments, canoes–everything they crafted, wore and ate came from plants, animals or fish. Dependent on nature, they revered and respected it. Success depended on living in harmony with nature.
For Hawaiians, the stars in the sky are the Mother, the sky is the Father, the Earth is the Grandmother, the Kalo (Taro) plant is the elder brother, and the Islands are the Aunties and Uncles. Hawaiians trace their genealogy back to all things, the earth, sky, stars and the alo. Thus, the connection between 'ohana (family) and the 'aina (land) is very strong.
So, like the Native Americans in this land, and with many of the people on the African continent, when Westerners came to “buy” the land, this was as confusing to their minds as this Gospel passage is to ours.
No one “owns” the land – except for God. Neither does anyone “own” another person. The idea of “ownership” of land or person – even in marriage or through blood ties – is not something that is part of that culture.
We are all part of one family, one land. We belong to God.
Some call this being “primitive” or “uncivilized”. Others call it “innocence” or even "ignorance". Either way, it created a situation which made the native people vulnerable.
As Desmond Tutu is famously quoted as saying, “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, 'Let us pray.' We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.”
I wonder how our common lives of faith would be different if we took these hard sayings of Jesus to heart.
This is the basis of our understanding of Stewardship.
This is he basis for what Jesus is saying this morning. This is the basis for all of his “hard sayings”.
God is the owner of everything. We are but the stewards.
When we come to understand the order of the universe and who owns what, it is a profoundly humbling experience.
Stewardship becomes not just what we do to keep the lights and heat on, but what we do, in grateful thanksgiving, to return a portion to God of what God has so abundantly provided us.
Stewardship is, ultimately, an act of prayerful humility.
In an odd kind of way, the trick or treating of Halloween brings that lesson home for it, doesn’t it? We’re all kids on that night – all mendicants – asking for something sweet in the midst of some of the horrors and scary and hard stuff of life.
In the midst of it, Jesus gives us the sweetness of the Gospel. “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted."
We are all fed by the land,
We are all the eyes of the land.
That’s pretty scary stuff – these “hard sayings” – when you consider it.
It makes us humble before the One God whom we exalt in worship and in service to others – with our time and talent and treasure.
And humility - true humility - also happens to be the highest “family value” of the family of God.