You are going to need to count the cost

Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 18:1-11 and Luke 14:25-33

Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them,  ‘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.’” As the New Testament scholar Emerson Powery rather dryly observes, this material is “tough to preach.” It is “tough to preach in our society, a setting in which ‘family values’ takes center stage in our political and rhetorical discourse. And, what follower of Jesus doesn’t love one’s family?” I mean seriously, all of this talk about hating—hating—father, mother, spouse, children, siblings, and “even life itself “… do we really need this in church of all places? Come on preacher, explain it away for us. Make it palatable. See if you can’t make Jesus say something we really want to hear…

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N.T. Wright acknowledges that it is tempting to give this passage what he calls “the salt-water treatment—first you water it down, then you take it with a pinch of salt.”

Frankly, though, that’s just not very honest. You see, Jesus is saying something here that the “large crowds traveling with him” clearly needed to hear; and that specific context is part of what we need to keep in view. But this passage is also a part of our sacred scripture, so it is meant to speak not only to its audience of 2000 years ago, but also to every reader and every community that has placed itself under gospel authority ever since. It is meant to speak to us in some way, even if we’d rather it didn’t.

So, when he uses this hard language of hating, and when he speaks of the need to carry the cross and of give up all possessions, what might Jesus be saying to the large crowds that were traveling with him? In his commentary, Powery wonders if Jesus’ intention might be “to turn away half-hearted, potential followers;” the ones who had jumped on what looked to be a promising bandwagon. After all, this is a growing movement, led by a gifted teacher and healer, headed toward Jerusalem. Caught up in their enthusiasm over the possibility of liberation from the Roman Empire and a new beginning for Israel, maybe this looked both irresistible and easy.

But no. No. You are going to need to count the cost, he’s saying to them. “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?” “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?” Don’t even think that there is a bandwagon on which to jump here, because there’s not.

He’s speaking to a crowd operating according to a set of working assumptions; a crowd with an imagination shaped by its religious and cultural context. That should be no surprise, of course. We all come with particular assumptions and a kind of contextual imagination. He’s going to Jerusalem, this Jesus? Speculation is he might be messiah. Speculation is he might be a new son of David. Speculation is… and they’re all sure they know how that might play out. The restoration of Israel!

But here Jesus slams hard against some of what made Judaism of that day what it was. Family, for instance. As is true of many traditional cultures, familial solidarity and loyalty was a cornerstone of Jewish life and culture. And why not? “Honour your father and your mother,” says the fifth commandment. Think of all of those stories in the Hebrew scriptures that trace blood lineage and family bonds, and think how often it is that when something goes badly wrong it is because these bonds have been violated or debased.

And why does the commandment call for this honouring? “[S]o that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” And this actually touches on another part of the crowd’s collective identity: land. It is the one most important possession; the defining possession for individuals, families, and for the nation. It is the land that gives to Israel its place and its identity. “[N]one of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions,” and that would most clearly include land. Cut your ties, and leave it behind. Not provisionally or for now or for a while. Set it aside and follow me.

Jesus’ vision, you see, is for something much bigger than what can be carried through family blood ties and land. You know that old line, that “blood is thicker than water”? In a real sense Jesus subverts it, and claims that water is thicker than blood. The living water that he is and the waters of baptism through which his people pass make for a new family in which blood lines—including blood lines said to exclude the Gentiles—are declared meaningless. And as for land, it is clear that in the end it is the whole of the world Jesus has in view, not simply the land that once was the political state of Israel.

When he speaks about the willingness to “carry the cross and follow,” he’s not speaking metaphorically. For generations, those seekers who came to explore the Christian faith and to offer themselves for baptism knew that it could well cost them their lives. Some still do today, of course. Not here, in this country and context. Yet it is the case in many, many places in our world, and very often the most painful cost is the loss of family. We might do well to remember, too, that it was only fifty years ago that black churches in the southern United States were bombed, and that black Christians were attacked for simply claiming their identity as fully equal members of the Body of Christ.

Similarly, when the great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was faced with the scourge of Nazism in his own country, and when he witnessed how the church was by and large co-opted by that movement—either rendered mute and impotent or actually drawn in as a voice of fascism—he found himself in a position of having to risk everything for the sake of a deeper truth. In his book The Cost of Discipleship, he wrote that, “We must face up to the truth that the call of Christ does set up a barrier between man and his natural life.” It would have been easier for him to remain silent or to take a position within the co-opted and officially sanctioned German Christian church. To do that would have left both his family and professional life intact; he would have in that sense succeeded and done well. Tempting, to be sure. But “the call of Christ does set up a barrier” that he refused to ignore, and so he renounced that security to risk—and ultimately lose—all.

I am thankful that the context in which I have lived has never faced me with such things. I have not had my family shattered on account of my faith and convictions, and frankly the cross that I carry is a metaphorical one. In theory, I am prepared to die for my faith… but the theory has never actually been tested. That’s true for most of us who have been fortunate enough to be born into this time and culture. Maybe the jarring character of Jesus’ words are meant to wake us up to that reality; to have us recall that for other members of this one Body of Christ it has not been so. What most of us wrestle with in theory, others face in reality. And so we ask, were I in that position, would I count the cost and still risk all?

Back for a minute to the witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Sentenced to death for his resistance to the Nazi regime, his last recorded words before his execution were, “This is the end; for me, the beginning of life.” With that simple sentence, Bonhoeffer  unveiled what is truly at stake in these hard words of Jesus; that though the cost may be so very high, in the end it is the one thing that matters. And it is but the beginning.


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