“Unbearable”

A sermon drawn from Luke 14:25-35

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In the gospel text this morning, Luke 14:25-35, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, for the last time; so far in the story, he’s called a few close companions, he’s fed a lot people with free food, he’s given a lot of people miraculous health care, and he’s had some very appealing things to say about the year of the Lord’s favor and the poor being blessed, so now folks have been flocking to his ministry – and Jesus has been a little discouraging at various points. But that discouragement is about to get really insistent:

25 Now large crowds were traveling with him, 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. 27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30 saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he cannot, then while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. [literally: Say goodbye to everything you’ve got.]

34 “Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? 35 It is useful neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; they throw it away. If you have ears to hear, then hear!”

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How many kids on summer swim team will make it to the Olympics one of these days? According to YourSwimLog (an online site for personal training), there were 362,350 swimmers registered with USA Swim in 2015. Most summer recreational swimmers never register with USA swim, so that lengthens the odds right there. In 2015, 49 of those swimmers went to the Rio Olympics. That made the chance of going to the Olympics that year 0.00013, or a tiny bit better than 1 in 10,000.

That’s assuming everything is “equal.” As we know, an athlete’s chances aren’t really equal in a sport like that … most of our children, dearly as we love them, and good as they are at swimming, have, effectively, NO chance of going to the Olympics in swimming, even if we faithfully drive them to high school swim practice at 5:00 a.m. on cold winter mornings before they get their drivers’ licenses. [A little personal experience there. This summer swim team example is one that comes to my mind because our daughter was a swimmer. The statistics are similar for any sport.] Not wishing to be discouraging, or crush anyone’s dreams, but unless our children are Michael Phelps, it’s just not going to happen.

Even so, the odds of a swimmer’s going to the Olympics are actually a little better than the odds of being struck by lightning in our lifetimes, which are 1 in 15,000. [I don’t think this is something any of us need to worry about too much.]

And even those terrible chances are way, way better than the odds of winning the lottery, which depend specifically on which lottery we’re talking about, but which all seem to be in the neighborhood of 1 in 300 million. Again, none of us needs to plan to win the lottery, even if we DO buy a ticket once in a great while.

All this is to remind us that there are things in life we can imagine, can dream about, and even aspire to; things that are technically, theoretically, physically “possible” in some sense, but that we understand are, practically speaking, impossible for us.

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And we need to be in this frame of mind as we’re thinking about what Jesus tells the large crowds that are following him on his way to Jerusalem because Jesus is, in effect, bluntly telling all these would-be “disciples” that being Jesus’ disciple isn’t even in that category.

The cost of discipleship is too high to be borne. Frankly, honestly, objectively. People. Cannot. Do it. That’s what Jesus is saying here. In code. Giving us our first inkling of something Jesus will come right out and say later, in Luke 18:27: “what is impossible for mortals is possible for God.”

We seem not to like to hear that; it certainly isn’t easy for us to hear. We can get an idea of how not easy it is for us to hear from all the commentary on this passage on the internet, and probably a lot of the commentary we have read and heard ourselves over time. Commentary that says, in effect, “to follow Jesus we need to go ‘all in.’” As if what Jesus is saying here is “you-all need to go buy the spiritual equivalent of YourSwimLog and train a whole lot harder.”

For some reason, we seem to have an easy time thinking that Jesus is talking like a drill sergeant or a motivational speaker here. Thinking he’s saying that what it takes to “be his disciple” is getting our heads in the game, by understanding that Jesus is more important than social convention and traditional obligations and family ties. So, that means, if following Jesus conflicts with “loving our families,” we’ll still follow Jesus. People often explain “what Jesus means here” that way.

In fact, we need to think of loyalty to Jesus as more important than life itself, so that we’d be willing to put our lives and our fortunes on the line for Jesus’ cause. Being really courageous. Being really self-sacrificing. That’s what discipleship is all about.

Thinking this way is easy, apparently. Even though, if that were what Jesus meant here, we might aspire to be one of Christ’s disciples, the way we might aspire to become a Navy Seal, or to climb Mt. Everest, or to win a Nobel Peace Prize.

That is – it’s unlikely we’ll ever do it.

This is not something we like to hear or want to hear, either. It flies in the face of a whole lot of our own talking and thinking about our own relationship to Jesus Christ and to the gospel. Because if we are like most Christians, we probably do think of ourselves as “disciples” or “followers” of Jesus Christ. Most Christians use that language at least some of the time. Most Christians like to think of ourselves as walking, somehow, in the footsteps of those first disciples, and as doing our best to “follow Christ’s teachings” or “obey Christ’s commands” or “practice the Jesus way.” Or, if not always our trying best, then at least trying. At least trying to be a better person, a more loving person, a more compassionate person … more of the time.

And it would surely be a mistake to say we shouldn’t try in that way – just like it would be a mistake to discourage our children from playing sports, just because they are probably not ever going to go to the Olympics. Sports are still good. So is trying to walk in God’s ways.

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But if we look at what’s actually happening at this point in the story, and if we listen to what Jesus is actually saying, I believe we’ll realize that Jesus is not concerned here about whether this large crowd of people is living good enough lives, or is loyal enough to him, or has the right “all-in” frame of mind. Jesus is concerned about an impending life-or-death battle between superpowers.

We could know this because of the examples he uses: the example of the tower, and the example of the king who wants to go to war.

Because imagine Jesus turning around to face this large crowd – who do we see? Not king Herod. Not Pilate. Probably not even anyone remotely rich. So when Jesus asks “which one of you-all, getting ready to build a tower …” the answer is … NONE of them.

Because the people who get ready to build towers are kings, or generals, or maybe very large landowners. Someone who has territory to protect, a kingdom or a people. The way Herod the Great built towers into the walls of Jerusalem to strengthen its defenses. Or even the way the Herod who was king in Jesus’ day actually had started to build a tower he wasn’t able to finish.

Jesus’ question would be like a rock star of today turning on his or her fans and saying “Who here is planning to install a radar station and some anti-aircraft missiles?” We’d think: “we don’t do that … people don’t do that!”

Exactly.

And then, Jesus uses the example of the king. A king who is thinking about going up against a force twice his size, that’s advancing on his position. (A little like the way Jesus is marching towards Jerusalem …) A force that is going to give him exactly two options: to be crushed, or to beg for peace, which will probably mean becoming the client of the opposing ruler. That is: sure defeat, either way.

Jesus is not really talking about discipleship here. We thought he was. At first. But now … this sounds like war.

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And considering what we know is about to happen, it may look more and more like war to us. Because we know that when Jesus gets to Jerusalem, he will really begin shaking things up, challenging people’s way of doing things and thinking about things. And then he will be betrayed, and arrested – the army will literally come out to exercise Roman imperial might. The Romans clearly thought it was war.

And we might notice that when the world is being occupied by people as brutal as the Romans, a person does not even have to love Jesus to carry a cross for him. The Romans will take anyone, good, bad, or indifferent. The Romans will take the first guy who happens to be coming into town that Friday morning, like Simon of Cyrene, when Jesus physically cannot carry his own cross. Because as it turns out, in a world occupied by people as brutal as the Romans, everyone is always potentially “all in” that way.

So, it is war, all out war, and the way the story unfolds, Jesus is the one who ends up being literally mocked by the forces that are all arrayed against him. And Jesus is the one who is literally unable to carry his own cross. And Jesus is the one who causes his mother and brothers and sisters bitter grief because he was faithful to a course he could have given up. And Jesus is the one who finally says good-bye to everything he’s got.

So that by the end of that “Good Friday,” it looks like Jesus didn’t even know enough to follow his own advice, because on the surface it appears that Jesus fatally miscalculated when he counted the cost of what he was about to do.

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But then, as we also know, Sunday comes.

We know that when the women go to the tomb, they learn that the balance of power in this situation is entirely different from what anyone had thought it was.

We know that when the travelers on the way back home to Emmaus recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread, they learn that reality itself is subject to forces they had not even been able to imagine.

We know that when Jesus’ very first disciples hear Jesus say “Peace be with you” they are terrified – maybe, as would make sense, by what that implies about the power of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. Because what it means for Jesus to be the Christ, the anointed one of God, is that we are dealing with the kind of cosmic ruler who sat down and considered the ultimate, all-in costs of this whole creation and redemption project before the beginning of time, and said, “Let’s make people, in our image … it will be more than worth it.”

And then turns and says to those first disciples, “Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in the Messiah’s name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”

That’s something disciples actually can do, it seems: proclaim repentance and forgiveness.

What disciples cannot do is take on the contest of good against evil, the contest of life against sin and death, before Jesus takes on that contest, and, as told in this story, decisively wins it … on our behalf … no thanks to us.

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We know this story as “the gospel.” We know it as the idea that “God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.”

We know it, even though we sometimes forget it, and get really confused about the meaning of that phrase “the gospel.”

We slip into thinking “the gospel” means that Jesus has showed us the way to live a good life – which, of course, Jesus has done, but that’s not exactly what we mean by “the gospel.”

Or we slip into thinking it means that Jesus has called us into a new way of life, a clearer understanding of justice, of compassion, etc. Which of course, Jesus has done, but again, not exactly what we mean by “the gospel.”

Or we slip into thinking it means Jesus has called us into a community of others, the community of the church, headed by Jesus Christ, who are seeking to serve Christ and live Christ’s way, which we think Jesus has done, and which is good news for us, but still not exactly what we mean by “the gospel” here.

What we mean by the gospel is something more like “God has gone all in for us.” God, in the person of Jesus Christ, has gone “all in” for us, for humanity, for the world God so loved, and so loves. God has paid the humanly impossible cost of discipleship: the cost of making discipleship possible for people like us, who cannot help loving our families and our lives; the cost of making discipleship thinkable for people who are so drawn to power and prosperity and prestige that it’s a miracle we can even begin to see Jesus’ way as good; the cost of going “all in” for people who were already “all in” to sin and death, of giving people the life that is the pre-requisite for becoming disciples. God has gone “all in” for us, in the person of Jesus Christ, bringing all the resources of God’s goodness to bear on rescuing us from powers beside which the Romans look like choir boys.

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It can’t be wrong for us to think that we could do a little better, or a lot better, at being kinder, more loving, more just, more faithful people. But that is not the point of this text. The point of this text is that, to be better disciples, we first have to be alive; have to be free; have to be something other than tasteless salt, that has no hope of “improvement,” without prior radical reconstitution, without recreation from scratch.

After that, it will be a whole different story – the story we are still living into.

Keeping that in mind will help us remember two important things about “going all in” when it comes to discipleship. One is that it undoubtedly can’t hurt us to do all we can to cultivate our lives in Christ, to strive “to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ” in our daily lives, to use Book of Order language. The other is to remember, when we fail to do all we possibly can, which we probably will, and when even all we possibly can looks terribly inadequate, that the God we know in Jesus Christ is not a drill sergeant, or a motivational speaker, but more like a swim parent, who is never going to the Olympics, and knows it, but who loves those precious children they bring to practice and smile at and encourage while they swim.

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Images: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Chelm Gorka Katedralna 2018 P05 Station 5, Simon of Cyrene carries the cross,” Fallaner, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

One response to ““Unbearable””

  1. To give credit where credit is due, some major insight for this sermon came from Richard W. Swanson, “A Provocation: Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost (September 4, 2016),” https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2016/08/28/a-provocation-sixteenth-sunday-after-pentecost-september-4-2016-luke-1425-33/

    His reflections on the way we use the idea of “there but for the grace of God go I” to let ourselves off the hook for things we shouldn’t be letting ourselves off the hook for are, indeed, provocative.

    This sermon probably still errs too much on the side of letting ourselves off the hook for things we shouldn’t be letting ourselves off the hook for …

    Like

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