Sunday, September 05, 2010

Counting the Cost -- A Sermon

Luke 14:25-33

It makes sense to count the costs when deciding to make a big purchase such as a home or a car. Although it would seem prudent to sit down and “work the pencil,” not everyone takes the time to do so. One of the reasons why our nation is in the economic mess it’s in, is that too many people bought houses they couldn’t afford. Many were sucked in by suggestions that ours is an “ownership society,” offers of easy money, and promises that property was going to appreciate year after year, without end. In places like Southern California, Florida, and Las Vegas, everyone wanted to get on the band wagon as housing values increased at an annual rate of 25% to 45%. Many made a fortune, but as we’ve seen many more have lost untold millions. I wonder about how many people counted the cost before they bought?

There was a war that our nation entered into In 2003. We were told that this war would be over quickly and with little sacrifice on our part. Just months after the invasion began, the President announced with much fanfare the end of “major combat operations.” As you may know, just this past week, another President, with much less fanfare, declared an end to combat operations in Iraq -- seven years later, with many lives lost and hundreds of billions of dollars spent. With this announcement a chapter in what is one of the longest wars in American history came to a close. Those who planned this operation might have benefited from reading Luke 14.

When Jesus spoke of counting costs he used analogies that ring as true today as they did two millennia ago. But, Jesus was less concerned about building projects or battle plans than he was about the spiritual costs of being a disciple. At the heart of this passage is the question: What does the Lord require of me?

For those of us who have grown up in a Euro-American context, being a disciple of Christ isn’t all that difficult. For many in our nation, being a Christian means little more than checking a box on a survey or census. That’s why 80% of Americans say they’re Christians, but only about 30% attend church regularly. Since the time of Constantine, we’ve assumed that if you live in Western society, you’re a Christian. Baptism became for many little more than a sign of one’s citizenship. But is that what Jesus has in mind for us?

1. What are the Costs?

Sometimes Jesus can beat around the bush, and at other times he hits you across the forehead with a 2 x4. His parables sometimes enlighten, but at other times muddy the waters. In this passage, Jesus leaves little doubt as to his intentions, and what he says should make us all a little bit uncomfortable.

The message is simple: If you want to be my disciple then you’d better count the costs. It’s an “all or nothing” proposition. If you’re not ready to jump in with both feet, and stay with the journey until the very end, then perhaps its best to stay behind rather than suffer the embarrassment of starting out on the journey and having to turn back before you get to the end.

It’s important to remember, Jesus says to us, if you decide to be my follower, it can cost you your family, friendships, jobs, and your place in society. And that’s the way it was up until Constantine made Christianity a legal religion in the Roman Empire and granted it most favored status. No sooner did this take place than things changed for the church. Not only did it become beneficial to be a Christian, but your life might depend upon it. And so, the churches filled up, but the fervor of the people began to decline. Converts in countries where Christianity still isn’t the majority religion, understand much better than us the truth in Jesus’ statement about the costs involved in being a disciple.

Of course, the words of Jesus remained part of the Christian story, and so even as it became easier to join the church, some in the church, like St. Anthony, decided to head for the desert and live an ascetic life in a cave. Monasticism developed in the church to give the most devout a way of giving up everything to follow Jesus, and over time, they became honored as saints. People treated them with great honor, asking these holy people to pray for them, so that they could continue living as they wanted, with a clear conscience. But is this word that we hear in Luke’s gospel meant only for ascetics like Anthony and Julian of Norwich? Or did Jesus direct this word to us?

What does it mean to take up the cross? What does it mean to sing that old gospel song: “I have decided to follow Jesus – no turning back, no turning back?” Even though the world lies behind me and the cross goes before me, even though none go with me, I have decided to follow Jesus? (Chalice Hymnal 344).

2. What do you mean?  Hate My Family! 

Before he gets to his parable about counting costs, Jesus raises the biggest obstacle to faith – our families. The question that millions of people have faced, down through the centuries, concerns their responsibility to their families. Although we hear preachers and pundits talk about the importance of family values, with Christianity being the supposed foundation for healthy families, we don’t find much support for this view in the gospels.

If Christianity is all about the family, then what do we make of Jesus’ statement:
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.
If you’re like me, you probably wish Luke would have left this statement out of his gospel. It seems so harsh and unrealistic, which is why some translations try to soften the blow. Consider the way the Good News Bible puts it:
"Those who come to me cannot be my disciple unless they love me more than they love father and mother, wife and children, etc."
That doesn’t sound so bad. Surely I can love God more than my family and my friends. Besides, Jesus was known to exaggerate things. Still, the more formal translations stick to the word hate to describe the contrast between our loyalty to God and our loyalty to family. This usage has to make us feel uncomfortable.

If we assume, as I do, that the core message of Jesus is one of hospitality, generosity, and love of God and neighbor, then surely he doesn’t mean for us to loathe and despise our families. Hopefully, this is hyperbole and exaggeration, but even if it is, as the Lord’s Prayer reminds us, our ultimate allegiance is to the kingdom of God, a kingdom that is defined by the cross. If we’re to follow Jesus then we must give over everything to him. And as Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out, it’s a decision that we must make for ourselves. But, “out of fear of such aloneness, a human being seeks safety in the people and things around them. Individuals suddenly discover all their responsibilities and cling to them.” (Discipleship, DBW 4, Fortress, 92). When Jesus calls us to be his disciples, he breaks these bonds, and asks us to trust him and follow him, without ever looking back. And as Bonhoeffer also writes:
“No one can follow Christ without recognizing and affirming that this break is already complete. Not the caprice of a self-willed life, but Christ himself leads the disciple to such a break” (p. 93).
What needs to be acknowledged here is that when Christ breaks these bonds of family, tribe, and nation, it affects not only the one receiving the call, but also everyone in the family and nation as well.

3. Making Tough Choices

What I hear Jesus saying to us this morning is this: Being a Christian involves making choices, and when it comes to making choices, I’m cautious by nature. Just ask Cheryl. She hates to go grocery shopping with me, because I have to analyze all the product codes so we get the best deal. To do otherwise, just wouldn't be prudent!

So, what does it cost us to be a disciple of Jesus? For St. Francis it meant becoming a fool for Christ. For Julian of Norwich it meant taking up residence in a small room attached to a medieval church. For Mother Teresa it meant serving the lepers of Calcutta. And for Dietrich Bonhoeffer it meant returning home to Germany from the safety of a teaching post at Union Theological Seminary to take up the struggle against Nazi tyranny. Bonhoeffer never saw himself being a martyr nor did Mother Teresa see herself as a saint. Indeed, in letters released after her death, she confessed to experiencing spiritual desolation and a sense that God had abandoned her. Despite questions about the wisdom of their choices, they remained true to their calling. As a result, the witness of these women and men have been an inspiration to many. But, if all we do is live vicariously through their stories, then is this enough?

If we are to heed this call to count the costs of discipleship, then we will be wary of those who turn the beatitudes of Jesus into the “Be Happy Attitudes” and the cross of Jesus into a mere piece of jewelry.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
September 5, 2010
15th Sunday after Pentecost

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