The following is the sermon I delivered at Lufkin First United Methodist Church on September 8, 2013.
Common English Bible (CEB)
25 Large crowds were traveling with Jesus. Turning to them, he said, 26 “Whoever comes to me and doesn’t hate father and mother, spouse and children, and brothers and sisters—yes, even one’s own life—cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever doesn’t carry their own cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
28 “If one of you wanted to build a tower, wouldn’t you first sit down and calculate the cost, to determine whether you have enough money to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when you have laid the foundation but couldn’t finish the tower, all who see it will begin to belittle you. 30 They will say, ‘Here’s the person who began construction and couldn’t complete it!’ 31 Or what king would go to war against another king without first sitting down to consider whether his ten thousand soldiers could go up against the twenty thousand coming against him? 32 And if he didn’t think he could win, he would send a representative to discuss terms of peace while his enemy was still a long way off. 33 In the same way, none of you who are unwilling to give up all of your possessions can be my disciple.
I don’t really know about any of you, but math was never my best subject.
Now, while I was good enough at it get good grades, I never had any love for the subject, and those grades were hard won. I have never struggled as much or cried over as many homework assignments in my life as I did in math. Even in Elementary school, during those flash quizzes, where you had to solve 100 simple math equations in five minutes? I always got to maybe 60 of them, at most. In high school, I would stay up night after night, poring over my math textbook, trying my hardest to understand what the question was, how to do it, and what the right answer was—and to make sure I showed my work the right way. I am thankful that I got college credit for math in high school, so I never had to take any math classes in college.
You see, I always found math a bit confining. I’m a words guy. I like English, I like History, I like anything where there is more than just black and white facts and equations, and while I know that there is more to math than that, it never felt like that to me. I like the beauty of English, and the richness of History, because I love people, and those are the more people-oriented subjects in school. Math was too rigid for me. Too confining. It was solid, it was dense, it weighed me down. Some people couldn’t get enough of it though. I have tremendous respect for people who see math and numbers as something freeing, as something enlightening or fascinating. If I had math teachers who could live out their love for math, I might have loved it more. As it is, I have no love for math in my life these days.
For this reason, I have troubles with the passage that I just read to you. I’m sure many of you also have problems with the passage as well. We often look to the bible for comforting words, words that uplift us, words that give us hope or joy. These words from Luke… are uncomfortable words. Foreboding words. Grim words. Words that make us uneasy.
It’s evident that Jesus uses these words as hyperbole, or an exaggeration to get attention and to make a point. It’s like saying when you’re hungry, “Ugh! I haven’t eaten in a million years!” Or like when you’re angry, you might say “I just want to kill that guy!” No, you don’t really want to kill a person, nor is it possible to have not eaten for a million years. You’re saying that because you want to make a point. What Jesus says, though an exaggeration in a way, gets to a much deeper, more disturbing truth.
When Jesus says the words, “Whoever comes to me and doesn’t hate father and mother, spouse and children, and brothers and sisters—yes, even one’s own life—cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever doesn’t carry their own cross and follow me cannot be my disciple,”—what does that make you feel inside? Do you have a little bit of cognitive dissonance, that something about Jesus saying this, compared to everything we think we know about faith and Christianity, just doesn’t’ sound right? I know I do. We’re Christians after all! We’re supposed to be the champions of family values, about loving the family, about caring for one another and making sure nobody is left out or alone. How can Jesus tell us to hate our father and mother in such a ham-fisted way? Or our spouses, or our children? If this is an exaggeration, a hyperbole, what’s the purpose? Why does Jesus seem to be keen on separating us from our families?
Well, in this case, I think some clarification is in order. You see, we Christians like to spend a lot of time on becoming a Christian, and not so much time on what to do when you are a Christian. For many, the work of making Christians is all about getting people to believe in Christ. Don’t get me wrong, this is a noble endeavor! Believing in Christ is an important and powerful component of living the Christian life, and often it can be very difficult in a world that makes it difficult. Getting in is important, as it were. What Jesus is talking about here though is more than just belief. It’s more than just acknowledging Christ as your savior. It’s about following him. That’s another endeavor entirely.
Following Christ is far from easy. That’s the point Jesus is trying to make in this passage. It’s a difficult and costly venture, and unless you take the cost seriously and understand the kind of commitment you’re making when you become a Christian, might find yourself in over your head on occasion, or get lost along the way. You see, it’s not so much about cutting off ties with your family, or hating your life, or anything like that. It’s about counting the cost for how much discipleship is worth to you. It’s about letting go of what we think is important, so that we might follow the one that actually is important.
In a way, the church has made it easy to be a Christian, and yet not really a follower. Yes, easy. With so many options out there for you folks to go to on a Sunday morning, who could blame us? Sports tournaments happen on Sunday mornings all the time, and the NFL comes on in the afternoon and evening. At my last church, we changed the time of Bible study from 7 to 6 so it wouldn’t interfere with the Cowboys schedule. We don’t want to make it hard on anyone to be a Christian, so we make our schedule around the school year, the sports calendar, and all kinds of other events. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but at the same time, maybe we missed something in doing this. Following Christ puts a cramp on our schedule like nothing else. Following Christ is a sacrifice.
The sacrifice of following Christ is put into perspective for us by the man himself: He wants us to carry our own crosses to follow him. In this short but powerful phrase, Jesus puts all of our struggles, all of our inner conflicts, all of our sacrifices in context. Jesus paid the ultimate cost, put up the ultimate ransom for us, and through his blood, our freedom was gained. That’s a high price to pay, honestly. Jesus’s death on the cross was an event of incredible cosmic significance, because in doing so, he tipped the scales in our favor. He made it so that we actually can be saved. That’s huge. That’s immense.. He counted the cost, and found that it was the only way to bring peace, shalom, wholeness to the world.
Jesus gives two important analogies to this end. The first is the example of a man building a tower, needing to make sure he has enough money, enough human capital, and enough materials to actually build it.
Someone who doesn’t do that will find themselves a laughingstock, an example of a person who can’t finish what they start. I find this one analogy striking. It says in scripture that Jesus, before he was a wandering rabbi, took up his earthly father Joseph’s trade. He was, in Greek, a tekton, which most people translates as a carpenter, but it would be more adequately translated as a “builder” or a craftsman. Jesus had real-world experience in that kind of thing, and so in a way, he’s speaking from his own experience and from the experience of the people around him. Aside from his background, think about this in a different light. Much of Jesus’ ministry and much of all Jewish life was centered around the idea of the Temple, the place where heaven and earth met. Jesus famously said that he would tear down the temple brick by brick, and rebuild it in three days. That passage explains away that Jesus was talking about his own body. So in a way, Jesus, in using this example of a builder and a tower, is alluding to the bodily cost of the cross—in order to build, one must have the materials.
The second example Jesus uses is that of a king, going to battle with another one, yet hopelessly outmatched 2-1.
Now this would seem somewhat out of the crowd’s wheelhouse, wouldn’t it? I mean, none of them are kings! Maybe a few would be soldiers or fighters of some kind, but they wouldn’t be making that kind of a deal; they’d be following orders to go into battle or not. So why does he make this analogy? Well, again, this is going to come out of his own experience. It is said that Jesus had 3 job titles as the Messiah: Priest, Prophet, and King. In his office as king, this is the decision Christ has to make. The forces of evil are incredibly foreboding and overwhelming, and light seems so outmatched. However, the lesson here is about counting the cost, and it’s never an easy decision; do you go into battle to the slaughter, or potentially call for peace only to wind up a slave? Jesus, the anointed one, the messiah, the liberator, knew his own choice. It was a grim one, but the one that was necessary to free us from sin and death.
After all of these analogies and examples, though, Jesus brings this teaching to a close. The stories he tells point not only to his own cross, but the crosses we are to carry ourselves. Jesusreveals what he’s been getting at this entire time: none of you who are unwilling to give up all of your possessions can be my disciple. All of this talk about counting the cost, taking up the cross, hating father and mother, building a tower, going to war, all of it adds up to that simple yet terrifying answer. The grim calculus equation has been balanced. This scares me, especially because I’ll be honest: I like my stuff. I like the things that I have. I like my home. I like my shelter. I like my home entertainment center, my books, my fridge, my washer dryer, and in the Texas heat, I like my air conditioning. I like all these things. And that’s the question Jesus points us to: who’s owning whom? Do I own my things? Or do my things own me? Am I willing to give up everything to follow Jesus? Are you willing to let go of it all?
Very few people can actually do this. Living simply is a difficult task for anyone, especially when we have so much stuff to choose from , so many activities to schedule in, so many things that add up and imbalance the equation. The more things we put undue value on, the harder it is to follow Jesus. No, he’s not telling you to abandon your family. No, he’s not telling you to hate your father, your mother, your spouse or your children. He’s telling you to figure out how much it would cost to carry the cross of discipleship.
We have a hard time letting go of things in this world, because we do put so much value on the things we accrue, the materials we trick ourselves into needing. We do this, and we get so wrapped up in, “Oh, I have to pay this bill, and I have to budget in this, and I can’t do this because this gets in the way of it,” that we have a hard time seeing outside the bubble we’ve made for ourselves. So many of us have it so easy, we don’t even think about the fact that, simply because we have a roof over our head, food in the fridge, a bed to sleep in, and clothes to wear, we are richer than 75% of the rest of the world. When you keep that in perspective, we see that maybe our priorities have been in the wrong place. Maybe we don’t needs so much stuff, and instead, maybe we need to spend more of our energy, our time, and yes, even our money, following Jesus.
Believing in Jesus is only part of the Christian life. Following Jesus is the rest of it. It’s a hard road to follow, one filled with sacrifice and perhaps not as many things as we might want in this world. In the end though, we realize that making that sacrifice, balancing that equation, and following Christ was the best decision that we could ever make. The road we travel when we follow Christ is one that leads to hope, to justice, to peace and wholeness. It leads to a place of joy, a place where there are no tears, no suffering, and we dwell with God forever, and see God face to face. Grim as it might be, carrying our crosses is an easy burden, because you never carry it alone. In the end, Christ will always be the one leading you on. Thanks be to God. Amen.