September 4, 2016-Proper 18 (Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost)

August 17, 2016 | by Nichole Torbitzky

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Jeremiah 18:1-11 Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 Philemon 1:1-1:21 Luke 14:25-33 Deuteronomy 30:15-20 Psalm 1

We Are the Choices We Make But We Don’t Make Them Alone

Luke 14:25-33

The text for this week is one of the passages that humanizes Jesus and chips away at our comfortable, romantic notions of Jesus meek and mild. Jesus here is neither meek nor mild, but exacting. To the average church member these words can be shocking. How could Jesus possibly command us to break a commandment (the fifth command given by God to the people) to honor one’s mother and father?

Jesus uses such strong language to stress that he seeks serious followers. No one can serve two masters (cf. 16:13). In order to follow Jesus (who is, by the way, headed to Jerusalem where prophets go to die), one can serve only him. Today’s Church has to wrestle with the stark and unsettling reality of following a radical, counter-cultural prophet; one who does not hold the safe “family-centered” values of our day (or his). Jesus may or may not be using hyperbole here. But, the message is one that is very clear– in order to follow Jesus, one must radically shift one’s focus and values. This radical shift will be away from the safe, easy, familiar and socially sanctioned.

Many of the members in many of our congregations have been taught mostly tacitly, that to be Christian means a certain way of thinking and a certain type of believing: believe in Jesus and you will be saved. In our passage for this week, Jesus calls for something else. He demands followers that do. Jesus asks for the life of a follower to be a way of doing. To be clear, Jesus is not asserting that our salvation is earned by our works. He is, after all, headed toward Jerusalem regardless of how many people leave behind their parents, take up their crosses, and give up their possessions. Salvation, grace, proper relationship, initial aims that include the grace of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, continue be gifts freely given regardless of our ‘works.’

Yet, Jesus is making a definite demand here because Christian life is about more than what we think or believe. The demand is as imposing as the grace is unstinting. In his demand, Jesus alerts us to the fact that Christian life is about more than salvation. Because we can rest assured of our salvation, and because we have the unwavering foundation of salvation in Jesus Christ, we are freed to act, to do, in the name of Christ. Salvation is a free gift, but not cheap. He invites those who are truly committed to contribute something concrete to the world. Christian life may start with what we think and believe, with the disposition of our internal life, but it doesn’t become complete until that disposition becomes an external satisfaction.

In preaching this text we can talk about how people are constituted in great part by our choices. Who we are, to a great extent, is what we do/the choices we make. To be sure, each individual inherits a context which is unavoidable and deeply constitutive of who one is. For example, the time in which we are born, the country, our particular parents, all constitute who we are and we have no choice in that matter. Yet, within that context, we are the choices that we make. Consistent with this view of what it means to be a person–that personal order is determined by our choices–Jesus calls us to walk the walk. Jesus demands our loyalty; all of it, not just in our thoughts or beliefs or our hearts, but our words and especially our deeds. We are the choices we make, both in our hearts, and in the world. Following Jesus consists of the choices we make. The choices we make in our hearts become real when our actions follow. Grace, the aim God has for us is free, but not cheap. The expensive part often comes when we follow Jesus’ call to action.

This is why he takes a moment to remind us to count the costs. I recently bought a car. It was used for a year, but in great shape and the newest car I’ve ever owned. I had been saving the money for this car for years. Each month I would pay into my savings account as if I was paying the loan on a car. My goal was to avoid taking out a loan and save myself the cost of interest. The day came and I wrote a check for the largest amount I’ve ever written. I drove away delighted with my new car and happy with myself. I had counted the costs. I had put pen to paper, calculated what I needed to save and how long it would take. That deep feeling of satisfaction lasted until I went to the DMV the next day to get my license plates. Much to my surprise I had forgotten to figure into my calculations the cost to pay the sales tax to the state on my purchase. It was a lot of money! More than I had in my bank account at the time. I had forgotten about the sales tax, I had counted my costs wrong. I ate a lot of macaroni and cheese that month so I could save nearly all of my paychecks to pay the sales tax before the end of the month when the temporary tags expired. No one starts building before they’ve done an analysis of the necessary tools, materials, labor, and costs involved. No one goes into war before figuring out if they have a chance at winning. Jesus asks us to decide, to choose, to do a cost-benefit analysis. Is Jesus’ vision of this world attainable? Is it worth the risk? The question is the same now as it was then, and the cost-benefit analysis is not much different either.

We all do cost-benefit analysis in nearly every decision we make for our lives. We ask ourselves with varying degrees of thoroughness, “Am I willing to put in long hours at a difficult job for the security it provides? Am I willing to give up my weekends and evenings for the opportunities sports provide for my children? Am I willing to give up time at work or sports to focus on my life as a follower of Christ? Am I willing to put in the patience and effort to teach my children to develop and value Christian life?” People in Jesus’ day, and people today, decide where to put their time and money based on their priorities. The choices one makes determines who they are.

As you prepare to preach this text, inspect the story of your life and discover what is important to you. Where have you spent time, money, effort, emotion? Was it work, school, sports, hobbies? None of these things are bad, they certainly are good. Jesus asks if these are more important than an abundant life of discipleship. He reminds us that following him will require sacrifice, not to earn salvation, but to live a life dedicated to the unimaginably good vision of the world God has for us. By making personally constitutive choices for Jesus’ vision of the world, we build the reality of that vision. If your answer to this question is yes, then say goodbye to family, riches, and comfort, and embrace the suffering inherent in novelty and being a follower by doing.

Study after study confirms that people value more highly those things for which they have to sacrifice. Preachers may have to ask ourselves and our congregations if the decline in our mainstream churches comes from the fact that church and/or discipleship has become too easy. The errant corrective to this, taken up by many preachers, is to set up a false dichotomy of the ‘persecuted’ Christian and modern American society. Jesus isn’t telling the large crowd that has gathered to hear him that they are persecuted, this is beside the point. He has told them that he is looking for followers who are willing to sacrifice and subvert what we would normally consider good Christian family-first values, hard work at one’s socially contributing occupation, and personal safety. The call is no different today, and focusing on the so-called persecution of Christians in today’s society not only misses the point of Jesus’ call, but confuses it. He’s not calling us to value what mainstream Christianity values today: family, hard-work, security, the American dream. He is calling us to give up all of that, and follow him.

The tendency among preachers is to try to domesticate this passage and explain away the word hate as “the path not chosen” rather than an emotion. As in God’s love for Jacob but hate for Esau. In this case, hate is not an emotion, but a choice God made for Jacob. That doesn’t sanitize it much because our choices are real. In choosing one over the other, our actions declare one is loved and the other hated (one positively and one negatively prehended we might say). Jesus intends this, and there is very little way of taking the sting out of that and still preach this text with its full integrity. Jesus is asking for a choice. He wants disciples who will choose to follow him. That choice means leaving behind family, financial security, and even personal security.

In this text Jesus sees the crowd and knows that many of them are not willing to make such a sacrifice. I wonder if he’s giving some of them a pass? He asks them to count the costs, and decide if they are too high. While he invites those who are committed to follow him, what about those who don’t want any part of carrying their cross, of choosing Jesus over their families? What about those people who don’t have the strength or faith to follow and serve and sacrifice and decline the invitation as surely many of the gathered crowd did?

Jesus certainly leaves the polite ‘no thank you’ response open as a viable option. It is so easy to tell ourselves that God is love and then interpret that to mean that we can find a way to keep our relationships with family, the comfort of financial security, loyalty to my nation, while still giving up everything to follow him. This is where we get into real trouble, where each of us fall into lives that are self-focused, aimless, and lost. But, just like my miscalculations of the real costs of my car purchase, rejecting Jesus’ invitation means that I have not properly counted the costs. We have to ask ourselves and our Congregations not what is the cost of following Jesus but what is the cost of not following him?

We have to be careful in preaching this text to open up the grace offered by Jesus, and avoid using this text to point out the moral failures we see in other people, other groups, other nations, even ourselves. We must also be very careful to avoid using the old notion of ‘bearing one’s cross’ as a way to keep oppressed groups, physically and emotionally hurting individuals, and vulnerable people, silent in their suffering. The grace of God is there in this text once we sift through the shock and count the costs. God, who aims for the best possible in every moment, will offer us new opportunities in each of our moments to follow Jesus’ call. We might not have what it takes right now to hate those we love, give up our possessions, and take up our cross, but God is working in us and with us. Each new moment is a new opportunity to respond to Jesus’ call to discipleship. We are the choices we make, but we don’t make those choices alone. That same grace will give us the strength we need to follow the call.