Is The Bar Set Too High?

Traditional Sermon, Pentecost 16

So typically, I am not a huge fan of reality TV programs.

Some of them feel to me as though they are constantly just trying to stir up drama and conflict between people and I guess I just feel as though there is enough drama and conflict in the world without my TV shows adding to that.

However, there are some of them that are based around competition that I do enjoy. In fact, there are a couple that I have become somewhat addicted to.  For example, I absolutely love American Ninja Warrior. For any of you who are not familiar with it, it is an obstacle course competition that started in Japan and finally made it to the United States a few years ago. The show is in its 8th year in the United States and yet only 2 people have ever successfully completed the course.

My wife and I both love the show and we especially love to watch the people over 40 run the course because we, ourselves, are over 40 now and it makes us feel like, “Hey, we could do that….”. For the record… No we can’t… wishful thinking, but either way it makes us feel good to think about it, I would like to think I could get back into that good a shape but that bar is probably just a little too high for us to reach.

One night while watching the show, there was a preview for a show that I had not seen before called Spartan. It was a team obstacle course competition and a team of some of the most successful people from American Ninja Warrior were going to compete in it. You see, in a Spartan race, you only win if everyone on your team makes it across the finish line. No one gets left behind. Additionally, some of the obstacles are quite impossible to complete without assistance from your teammates, and one of the obstacles, the Slip Wall, is impossible to complete without all 5 members of your team working seamlessly together.

The Slip Wall is an inclined wall roughly as tall as all 5 members of the team combined in the middle of a mud pit. The only way to defeat this obstacle is for the team to create a human ladder. One person will stand at the bottom and form the base while in succession each person will climb the previous person up the increasingly slick and muddy wall until the last person is finally able to reach the bar at the top. Then the person who was at the base of the ladder will climb the rest of the team, then the next lowest person, and so on and so on until all 5 people go over the bar and slide down the other side of the wall.
The person in the lowest position becomes the first person able to actually go over the wall and the first person to reach the bar at the top becomes the last person to go over. Quite literally, the last will be first and the first will be last.

In one particular race, it appeared the “blue” team was going to win when disaster struck. As the next to the last person went to make the pull to the top, he slipped; sliding all the way back down to the base of the wall. It appeared all was lost because unless everyone makes it over the wall all of their efforts are for naught. Then you hear one of the guys on the team tell them to lower him down. He tells them to hold on to his arms, you even hear him say, “hold on to my head if you have to.” He sacrifices his body so that the last remaining person in the mud pit can make it over the wall.

They lower him down and the person at the bottom jump, barely grabbing hold of the bottom of his shoe, the guy at the bottom of this human rope curls his leg pulling him up enough so that he can get a better grip. You can hear him groan as they are pulling on his body from above and the guy at the bottom is pulling on his body from below trying to get up the wall.

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I really feel the need to talk a little more in detail about the Gospel reading from this morning. This can be a really tough text for people. Now large crowds were traveling with him it says; and he turned and said to them, 26 “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…” Wait!!!! Did I hear that right? No! No, it couldn’t be; surely not!!! Did Jesus really just tell me that in order to be his disciple I must hate?!?!?! Not only hate, but hate father and mother? Hate my wife and child? No, that doesn’t sound right?

When you are in seminary, there are times when you are studying Greek and Hebrew that you wonder, “why do I need to learn Greek and Hebrew?” I mean, hasn’t all of this already been translated. After all, we just read it in English, what purpose could I possibly have of needing to study the Biblical Greek (a dead language just like Latin) in this, the 21st century. Then you come across a text like this and the little light bulb comes on above your head just like in the comic strips. You suddenly get it. This is why…

The Greek word here that the translators of the NRSV chose to translate as “hate” is μισέι. Things get lost in translation. Any time you are going from one language to another there are nuances in the context that can get lost. This is doubly so when you are dealing with things said such a long time ago, for example, in the 1st century. Lets step outside of the reading for just a minute and I’ll share a true story… Or at least a story told to me as true.

A seminary professor, which shall remain nameless, was going to Jerusalem. Now when he was crossing the border, or was at a checkpoint or something, that part I don’t remember, the guard asked him, “How long will you be staying?” Well, this professor had never studied modern Hebrew really, but Biblical Hebrew is generally the same in many ways, so in what I’m sure this professor would probably call “flawless” Biblical Hebrew he answered, “I’ll be staying for 1 month.” Now, in essence, he had used the right words, but the context behind those words had changed greatly over a few thousand years. Which was illustrated nicely by the utter confusion as the security guard heard in Modern Hebrew that this professor would be staying one menstrual cycle. In language, it’s not location, location, location…. it’s context context context. Context is everything.

The Greek word μισέι can refer to something as strong as hate in certain contexts, but in the context of our Gospel reading this morning it refers to the thing that you love less when comparing it to something else. Jesus is not saying that in order to be his disciple that you must hate father and mother or anyone else. Hate was not part of the message of Christ. Now i remember in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John Jesus telling his disciples that they will be hated because of him but  I don’t recall Jesus telling them to hate.

Jesus was saying that in order for them to be his disciple that they must love him “more than” father, mother, etc. even life itself. After all, I believe one of the ten commandments was to honor father and mother (which has it’s own contextual issues I know all to well) but Jesus stated that he did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it.

However, Jesus is not talking to his disciples here. He is not even necessarily talking to those who view him as an enemy. He is talking to a large crowd of people and explaining to them, just how really impossible it is to truly be a disciple of Jesus. The things that Jesus is talking about connect to our very identity. Family, work, hobbies, our possessions all affect and shape our identity in some way. One person I asked when I asked them to tell me about themselves said things like, I’m a farmer from a large family. I like to hunt, etc… Another person said, well, I run a business. I people often refer to themselves in relation to their possessions as well. I grew up hearing people say all the time that they were a Chevy guy or a Ford guy, I’m a gear head. I love my motorcycle (that one has a little of me in it actually, I do love my motorcycle). My father-in-law has a Mini Cooper and belongs to a Mini Cooper enthusiasts club. Those things become part of our identity. Jesus is saying that in order to be a disciple, everything that you are will be affected, will be changed forever. Not that those things no longer describe us, but now there is a much bigger aspect of our identity that binds us and connects us to everyone else regardless of what it is that makes up their identity. Jesus is telling the crowded that you must love him more than everything it is that makes up their very identity.Jesus is also saying that it is not just as simple as merely walking the walk and talking the talk. They cannot simply just give up their possessions and join him either. What Jesus asks of them is so beyond their, or anyone’s ability to do, the mere fact that Jesus has anyone he calls a disciple is perhaps one of the greatest examples and messages of grace. Despite the fact that Jesus describes just how impossible it is to be his disciple, he has disciples.

In The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer talks about the answering of the call to follow Jesus…

Obedience to the call of Jesus never lies within our own power.  If, for instance, we give away all our possessions, that act is not in itself the obedience he demands.  In fact such a step might be the precise opposite of obedience to Jesus, for we might then be choosing a way of life for ourselves, some Christian ideal, or some ideal of Franciscan poverty.  Indeed in the very act of giving away his goods a man can give allegiance to himself and to an ideal and not to the command of Jesus.  He is not set free from his own self but still more enslaved to himself.
“Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matt. 19:23-24 NRS)

The shocked question of the disciples “Who then can be saved?” seems to indicate that they regarded the case of the rich young man not as in any way exceptional, but as typical.  For they do not ask: “Which rich man?” but quite general, “Who then can be saved?”  For everyman, even the disciples themselves, belongs to those rich ones for whom it is so difficult to enter the kingdom of heaven.  The answer Jesus gives showed the disciples that they had understood him well.  Salvation through following Jesus is not something we men can achieve for ourselves––but with God all things are possible.

I love the phrase, “but with God all things are possible.” When it comes to answering the call to be a follower of Christ, we all find ourselves standing at the base of slippery, muddy, and dirty wall in the middle of the mud pit that can be life on any given day. Stare up at the bar at the top of the wall, feeling all alone so far below where we need to be and feel the desperation of feeling left behind. Perhaps we even feel a little angry because we feel the bar has been set too high. Is the bar set too high? Yes, it is. The bar is too high for any of us to cross on our own.

The people on the blue team in that Spartan race I told you about earlier. Not only did they make it over the wall, but the whole team won the race because of one person’s sacrifice. The Gospel message is none other than that. God, who also human who in the form of a man named Yeshua ha Notzri, also known as Jesus of Nazareth sacrificed his body in order to ensure that every person gets over that insurmountable wall that would make us worthy to be a follower of Christ and worthy of salvation. And on this team, no one gets left behind because wth God… all things are possible.

And for that, I say, Thanks be to God…

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Avery Carr

Vicar, 2016-2017

R. Avery Carr was called to serve as pastor of First & Trinity Lutheran Churches in Iron River, MI.

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