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Saturday, September 4, 2010

Luke 14:25-33: Count the Cost

Pentecost 15C, 2010


Last Thursday, as Hurricane Earl was supposedly bearing down on Virginia, Vicki and I drove to Deltaville to prepare our sailboat for the promised storm. We turned the boat around in the dock so she would be facing into the forecast wind and rain, put newer, longer, thicker dock lines on her, wrapped the sails so they wouldn’t come loose in the wind, and stowed the bimini shade over the cockpit. When I was finished, my shirt was pretty wet with perspiration. No problem, thought I: I’ll rinse the shirt out in the bathhouse sink, and, while we’re cooling off in the marina pool, I’ll dry it in the coin-operated dryer in the marina laundry. So I washed, rinsed, and best as I could, wrung out the shirt in the sink, and took the thoroughly soaked shirt to the laundry, where I discovered that the dryer required exactly five quarters to work. No change machine, no substitutes. And I had exactly three quarters. Moral of the story: look before you leap; be prepared; haste makes waste; and, count the cost.

This morning’s gospel lesson is disturbing in every way, especially to all of us who, in comparison with the vast majority of the world, live very comfortable lives, own many, many things, and love our families. Jesus tells his followers they must hate their parents, spouse, children, siblings, and even mortal life itself. He ends this passage by saying no one can follow him without giving up all their possessions. This, as we say in the preaching business, is a hard saying.

It seems to me a key to understanding Jesus’ message here is the first phrase of this morning’s lesson: Now large crowds were traveling with him. . . (v. 25a). Jesus has become enormously popular: he has been healing the sick. He has been criticizing the government and people in power: even two thousand years ago that could get you a huge following. Instead of playing on his popularity and working the crowd, Jesus does his best to scare them off. Following me is ever so much harder than you think, Jesus warns them. This is not what you think it is. This road does not lead to wealth and fame and power and beauty: it leads to suffering and shame and torture and death. You’d better know what you’re getting in to before you promise to follow me. Look before you leap. Be prepared. Count the cost, because it will cost you, literally, everything.

So, what about this injunction by Jesus to hate one’s family, especially in the light of the commandment to honor one’s parents and love one’s neighbor? Lutheran pastor and theologian John Petty has helped me understand the Greek word miseo, translated as hate, in a new way: "Hate" should be understood in the context of the first-century middle-eastern world. It is not so much an emotional position, but a matter of honor and shame.

In the ancient world...hating one's family meant doing something that injured them, particularly by disgracing them. Life was family centered, and the honor of the family was very highly valued. Every family member was expected to protect the honor of the family. If some members joined a suspect movement and abandoned their home, this brought disgrace on the family...

This would have been a real concern particularly at the time Luke was writing. Division within families quite often accompanies the birth of new social or religious movements. Letters survive to this day of some Roman families who complained that their son or daughter had run off and joined some group called the "Christians." [1]

Jesus calls his followers to love and follow him. Not him and family and nation and school and community and church and job and friends and self. Not even Jesus above family and nation and school and community and church and job and friends and self. Hear, O Israel, says the Hebrew Shema, from Deuteronomy 6:4, the Lord, our God, is One. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might. This is the first prayer by Jews in the morning and the last prayer at night. The Shema does not say you shall love the Lord your God with some . . . or most. It says all. That is going to have dramatic consequences for everything else – including lots of very good things, like family and nation and school and community and church and job and friends and self – that want our loyalty as well. Our possessions want our loyalty as well – a few weeks ago I preached about the story of the rich fool in Luke 12, and how the Greek text literally says that the man’s possessions were demanding his soul from him. Count the cost, Jesus says. If we are going to give him our complete and total allegiance, then lots of our other loyalties are going to feel angry and disgraced. And when powerful people feel disgraced, they can react in dangerous ways. That’s what the religious leaders and Herod and Pilate did when Jesus would not give them even a small piece of his loyalty and allegiance.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian in the years before World War Two. When Hitler and the Nazi party came to power in the early 1930’s, they co-opted the German Lutheran Church as part of their strategy to control the citizenry and build support for policies against the Jews, who, they said, had killed Jesus. Bonhoeffer was one of the leaders of the Confessing Movement in the German Church, resisting the alliance between government and church. He was eventually imprisoned and, as Allied soldiers were approaching to free the prison where he was kept, hanged 29 days before Germany’s surrender. Bonhoeffer counted, and paid, the Cost of Discipleship, which is the title of his most famous book. I recommend it to all of you with the warning it will change your life. Count the cost, and I don’t mean the price of the book ($ 10.80 at Amazon or Barnes and Noble).

Bonhoeffer said that for the Christian, there are no direct loves – between husband and wife, parent and child, friends, neighbors, anyone or anything. For the Christian, Christ always stands between us and anything and anyone else. All our relationships are in and through Jesus. Anything and anyone that we love beside Jesus is a barrier to following Jesus. Anything or anyone that we think is ours, and is not at the free and complete disposal of Jesus, is something that stands between us and Jesus. That’s what Jesus meant when he said none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. That includes family, and friends, and money, and house, and nation, and community, and even church. None of them are ours. We surrender our children at baptism. We surrender our spouses in Christian marriage. We surrender everything when we surrender our lives – not just our hearts, but all – to Christ. That’s the cost of following Jesus: everything.

This morning, I invite you to the Lord’s Table. Did you hear what I said? Whose Table? Who supplies your needs? Who feeds you with his very self? Who gives you every good gift that you have, and stands between you and every gift?

When you come, surrender everything but Jesus at the chancel rail. I promise you’ll go back to your pew infinitely lighter. And if you don’t, as a friend of mine used to say, we’ll refund you 100% of your misery.


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