Proper 18C-1 Luke 14: 25-33
He had them eating out of the palm of his hand! I mean, it was this great moment. For the crowds in the street, the multitudes, the common man, the religious and social elites were like, locked up in their ivory towers debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. We saw that play out in our reading the last couple of Sundays in the first part of this chapter of Luke. The high-and-mighty Pharisees of cosmopolitan Judea are isolated in their ivory tower debating obscure technicalities of the law about what constitutes “work” on the Sabbath. And then Jesus pushes his chair back from their table and goes out onto the front porch of the house where the neighborhood has gathered, and instead of delivering some obscure theological address, he steps into the crowd and in a mighty act of power blesses and heals a man who is suffering from a major illness. The gasp of amazement is followed by applause and louder and louder cheers.
And then when the Pharisee and his colleagues come out of the house to see what’s going on, and when they begin to criticize Jesus for behavior unbecoming an observant rabbi, Jesus responds with two pointed parables about what is going to be revealed, when the spotlight of God’s Kingdom shines on the proud, the self-centered and self-satisfied, the self-appointed elites--who think it’s their calling in life to walk a superior path. Perhaps Jesus is remembering words from the song his mother had sung many years before, “he has put down the mighty from their seat, and hast exalted the humble and meek.”
This is what the political consultants are talking about when they talk about throwing “red meat” into the crowd. Appealing to those deep animal cravings. The multitudes are roaring their approval. This unpolished rabbi from the backcountry of the Galilee, he’s our guy now! We’ll follow him anywhere! To the barricades, Jesus! Let’s go!
But then—we’ll it’s just really fascinating. He’s got them right where the leader of any messianic movement with a chance of success is going to want them. But all at once, as he begins to speak, and as the crowd falls silent to hear him, he turns in a very different direction. We’re still a little ways away in Luke’s gospel from Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week, but in this moment of hot energy and bright enthusiasm there is all of a sudden a chill wind, a dark shadow. A glimpse of Good Friday.
Not so fast, friends. Not so fast. You’re going to need to think a little before you enlist in my army. The battle that is about to begin is something the world has never seen. The Enemy: darker and more dangerous than any king or emperor. In this war there will be no compromise, no negotiated settlement, no terms of surrender. The effort will be total, with nothing left in reserve, and in victory there will be no going back to the way things were before. So, not so fast. “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” You say you want a revolution. But think first what that means, what this revolution is about. Not about tweaking the current system to make those who are uncomfortable now a little more comfortable. But about calling in the power of God as he will make all things new. It’s not about taking a vacation. It’s about turning in your old passport, to receive a new citizenship and a new homeland, a new identity. And this revolution, it’s not free. Not by a long shot. “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me”--where I’m going, all the way now to Good Friday--“who ever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”
So consider. Builders review their capital budgets and supplies of material before they send their crews out to begin construction of a tower. Kings calculate the strength and resources of their armies and take stock of their enemies before they declare a war. This business we’re about, it’s no walk in the park. Not for the hobbyist. Not something to dabble in for a while until some more interesting project comes into view. “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” (He had them in the palm of his hand. And big things were possible, big things . . . . )
I read articles from time to time by writers in what is sometimes called the “church growth” movement—about how in an era of declining church membership and interest in traditional organized religion there is this effort to increase congregational membership. How to reach the unchurched. Lately a lot of focus on how to “connect with Millennials.” And in all that material I would say I can’t recall much of focus on what Jesus has to say in this section of Luke 14. “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” And please do join us for a festive, family-friendly, fair trade coffee hour after the service!
I believe the largest Protestant congregation in the United States is the Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas—which has an average Sunday morning attendance of 15,000 in a converted basketball arena, and with those services and the sermons by their pastor, Joel Osteen, syndicated on cable television across North America. Osteen is deeply rooted in an American tradition of preachers most recently associated with the 20th century preacher Norman Vincent Peale, whose great theme was “the power of positive thinking.” Osteen says again and again, and in very thoughtful and emotionally powerful ways, that it is God’s firm intention that you will “live your best life now.” Live your best life now. That your family will be strengthened, that your vocation will be filled with success, that your days will prosper.
Thinking about that great Easter scene in John’s gospel, chapter 21. The risen Lord surprises his disciples by meeting them by the lake after they have been fishing all night. They are in awe, and joyful. And then Jesus calls Peter to stand before him and asks him three times, “do you love me?” Each time Peter says, “yes, you know I do,” and Jesus says, “then feed my sheep.” A vocational moment, about the life ahead, ministry and purpose. And then Jesus says to him, “Truly, truly I say to you, when you were young you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.” A foreshadowing of Peter’s cross.
Thinking about how in the traditional Confirmation services there was a direction, a rubric, that the bishop after the sentence of Confirmation was to strike the new confirmand on the cheek. Gently, of course. But with enough force to be felt. To be a reminder of what suffering every Christian will endure and must endure as he or she follows Jesus. As the mid-twentieth century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, simply: “the cost of discipleship.”
I will say that someone sent me a blogpost the other day written by a younger writer in the “how to attract Millennials” genre that I thought was interesting because it basically said, “if you want me to consider becoming part of your church, don’t just try to tell me what you think I want to hear. Don’t go out of your way to try to make it easy for me. Instead, challenge me. Don’t be afraid to confront me with ideas and practices that may seem strange and difficult at first—that might cost me something. Instead, show me by what you say and what you do and how you live that you are yourselves really taking this repentance and renewal and death and resurrection stuff seriously—and in a way that has an impact on your whole life, and not just what you talk about on Sunday mornings. Believe me, I’ll pay attention then. But otherwise, please don’t waste my time.
I’ve mentioned before that the English historian Frances Young has written about the growth of Christianity in late antiquity, though the later years of the Roman Empire. It was a Church that came to the attention of the world not because of public evangelistic preaching—since that was pretty much illegal everywhere—but because of the distinctive way Christians lived and conducted themselves in their homes and relationships, their marriages and families, their work, their social and economic behavior. In a society that was rooted in materialism, hedonism, and violence, Christians sought to live lives of quiet simplicity and humility, moderation and restraint, obedience and sacrifice, discipline, and love. Just to step back from the rush of the cultural river all around them. It wasn’t a popular way. People would roll their eyes at the club. “Who invited these Puritans to the party?”
And of course sometimes the whole business would lead them to arrest and imprisonment and the roar of lions in the coliseum. But for a few--perhaps those whose lives had been pushed to the margin, perhaps some who had stood back for a moment to look at the froth of the world around them and wonder about deeper things—for a few, something moved in their hearts, a Holy Spirit curiosity, we might say. Who watched how the Christians lived and then how they could die, not with terror and bitterness, but singing hymns and praying for those who were sending them to their deaths. From the world’s point of view it looked like so much nonsense. But, could you tell me more about what it is that inspires you to live like this? Why you who have so little seem to have so much, while I, who have so much, seem to have so little?
And that went on and on. The work of the Church. Living faithfully and dying faithfully. Year after year, generation after generation. As Luke writes in the second chapter of Acts, “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
And so next Sunday is our Rally Day and Round Up and the annual fall Renaissance of worship and programs and activities of our congregation, this place and community of our Christian life. I’m sure it will all be great, a great new year in many ways. But a helpful reminder this morning, before we might rush out with the crowd that Jesus is addressing this morning. So for the life and work that we will share in a new season and a new year, we would keep before us the Morning Prayer Collect appointed for Fridays: “Almighty God, whose most dear Son when not up to joy, but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
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