Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 23C, August 28th, 2016
Jeremiah 18:1-11, Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18, Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25-33
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
A lot of people—a lot of Christians—seem to think that the most important thing we can do is to grow our churches—get more people attending, fill the pews. Save souls in mass groups, and, not coincidentally, put the Christian church in the position of power in the community that it used to have. There’s just one problem with that: when we look at Jesus’ ministry in the Bible, converting people in large numbers does not seem to have been something that concerned him. Calling disciples and training them for the Christian life, yes. Large mass altar calls, no. Take a look at today’s Gospel reading. It comes from the middle of Luke. Jesus has already been preaching and teaching for a while, and doing miracles like healing people and feeding large crowds. So people are following him! Huge crowds of them! Now, this is the part where a successful evangelist should start talking about the beautiful peace of following Jesus, the heavenly rewards, all the joys and benefits that come with being a disciple. He should be sealing the deal, right? Getting them all fired up and committed to God.
That’s not what Jesus does. Jesus, in fact, does the exact opposite of that. Jesus starts talking about how hard it is. That there’s a very real cost. Hating your family, carrying a cross—which wasn’t a religious symbol then, but rather a very real instrument of torture and death—and giving up all that you have. I would bet you that a lot of the people following him just up and turned around at this point. Jesus told them to count the cost of becoming his disciple, and they did, and they decided that they just did not want to pay it. And who can blame them? This is not a pretty picture Jesus is painting. Jesus doesn’t want to lure people in with rosy pictures. He is not playing the numbers game. Jesus wants disciples, people who are committed to their faith, not people who will be fair-weather friends. So he is very up-front. There is no small-print to being a disciple, no important things hidden in the Terms of Service. Jesus plainly spells the cost out for all to hear.
Let’s take the whole family thing. Let’s assume Jesus is using a little bit of hyperbole here and he doesn’t actually literally want you to hate your family. (This seems like a pretty safe assumption, given how much time and effort the Scriptures spend telling us to love people, and how often God uses family metaphors to describe God’s love for us.) But even so, Jesus is saying that family can’t be your priority. Life itself can’t be your priority. If it comes down to a conflict between your family and God? Or between your life and your faith? You can’t be Jesus’ disciple if you’re not willing to give up your whole family and even life itself to follow him. I don’t know that we really get how big a deal this was back then. Yes, family is important to us even now, but there are other options available. People leave home all the time. It’s normal.
Leaving home was not normal back then. You lived in the same community with your entire extended family for your entire life, and you worked in the family business, and you married other people from the community, and you lived at home with your parents or your spouse’s parents your entire life, and you took your parent’s place in the community just as your children would eventually take yours. There wasn’t really any other option. It wasn’t like today, where even if you stay in the same town most people get their own home where they can do things their own way. And today, if you don’t like the family business, you can get a job in a different trade or profession that suits you better. And if you and your family don’t get along, you can move somewhere else and make a new family and build new relationships. Those things didn’t really happen in Jesus’ day. If you cut yourself off from your family, you would have nowhere to go and no ability to start a new life. And, Jesus says, if you’re not willing to do that for God? You can’t be his disciple.
Think of it this way. I know you’ve seen marriages where one of the spouses is … unhealthily attached to their family of origin? Like, they always and only want to go to their own family’s holiday gatherings, and never their spouses, and if one of their parents has advice on something, they give it more weight than their spouse’s opinion? And it’s really clear to everyone that their parents and siblings are more important to them than their spouse? That is not a healthy marriage. When you get married, you have to learn to prioritize. It’s not that you literally hate your parents and siblings, but your spouse and kids have to be the top of your priority list. In the same way, to be a disciple—a healthy disciple—following Jesus has to be your #1 priority.
As for possessions, well, it’s not that having stuff is bad; but how often do our possessions—the things we own, the things we want to own—guide our lives? How much of our time is taken up with earning money to buy stuff, and then using it and taking care of it, and then getting more stuff? How often do the cares of our house and our work and our cars and our stuff keep us occupied and prevent us from doing the things that need doing the most? It’s not that our possessions are bad, just that if we put too much of our heart and mind into them, they can keep us from putting our hearts and minds—and hands—where they are actually needed. For example: boats are great, I love being out on the water on a boat. But if I had a boat and a neighbor needed help and I say I can’t because I’m taking my boat out on the lake … well, that’s a problem. But the problem isn’t with the boat, the problem is with my priorities. To be a disciple, our priorities have to be with Jesus, not with our possessions.
And as for carrying the cross, well, like I said: the cross was an instrument of torture and death. You carried your cross on your way to be executed. Jesus knew, as the crowd did not, that he was on his way to Jerusalem where he would be crucified. He was going to die for the sake of the world. The world is a place of sin and brokenness and pain and oppression, and far too often the powers of this world get their powers by adding to that brokenness and pain, and so they don’t like those who try to bring justice and mercy and healing. What Jesus is saying here is that if you truly follow him—if you are truly his disciple—you are going to need to be willing to stand up to the powers of this world and work for healing even when they like things broken, and work for peace and love when they are making a profit on war and hate and fear and suspicion. And the powers of this world are not going to take that lying down. And they will lash out to protect themselves. And if we are not willing to take the heat, we cannot be disciples of Jesus. It’s not that all Christians get crucified—literally or figuratively—but some do. If following Jesus leads us to our own equivalent of Calvary, well, we have to be ready to carry our cross, whatever that may be. If working for justice, peace, and love in God’s name means running up against society and taking some hard knocks, well, that’s par for the course.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran who lived in Germany in the early 20th Century. He was a youth leader. As the Nazis came to power, most Christians in Germany joined the party. After all, the Nazis were very family-friendly. They emphasized wholesome family values, and they had a slogan emphasizing that: “Children, kitchen, church.” But Dietrich could see the evil underneath that shiny exterior. They were supporting those wholesome family values by persecuting and killing anyone who didn’t fit their picture of what a good German should be: Jews, Romani, Communists, homosexuals, Slavs, people with disabilities, people with mental illness, non-whites, all were harshly discriminated against, and eventually rounded up and killed by the millions. And so, while most Christians went along with this, Dietrich Bonhoeffer did not. He was a vocal opponent of the Nazi regime, working against them to build a Christian church that held true to Jesus’ way of healing and love and justice. And eventually the Nazis executed him. That was his cross to bear. Before his death, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a book, which is one of the great Christian classics of the 20th Century. It’s called the Cost of Discipleship. It’s about being willing to be a disciple even when it means challenging or going against the world around you.
Bonhoeffer said it like this: “The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every person must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old self which is the result of our encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time—death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old self at his call.”
That is the cost Jesus is talking about. To be his disciple, we have to be willing to pay that cost, even if it means conflict with our families, giving up things we might enjoy so that God’s work may be done, or even suffering for the sake of God’s healing work in the world. May we become true disciples, willing to set aside all the things of this world and follow Jesus, regardless of the cost.