June 30, 2019
The cost of discipleship – J. Barry Vaughn – June 30, 2019
In each of the synoptic gospels, that is, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, a turning point occurs when Jesus completes his ministry in the northern region of Galilee and begins to go toward Jerusalem where he will be crucified. That turning point occurs in today’s reading from Luke: “…he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”
On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus encountered three would-be disciples. The first says, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” And that’s the last we hear of him. Apparently, he found the cost of discipleship too high.
To another, Jesus says, “Follow me,” but he has a better reason for not following Jesus: “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
Finally, a third one says, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
The Jesus in today’s gospel reading is not a gentle, liberal Jesus. He’s harsh, and he reminds us that being a Christian, a follower of Jesus, is not a pleasant activity we can pursue in our spare time.
Ambrose Bierce, a friend of Mark Twain, wrote a book called The Devil’s Dictionary. In it he took common words and gave them amusing and twisted definitions. He defined “Christian” as one who believes that the “teachings of Christ are compatible with a life of sin.”
But the fact is that the teachings of Christ are not compatible with a life of sin, and Jesus was serious when he told the three would-be disciples that no excuse was good enough to trump his call to follow him.
Let’s look at the excuses of the three people who chose not to follow Jesus.
The first one is appalled because following Jesus sounds too difficult, too uncomfortable.
“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
We live in the most affluent society in the history of the world. There is much that is good about affluence. Capitalism has lifted millions, maybe billions, out of poverty. Over the last twenty-five years free trade policies have given millions of people in the developing world the opportunity to create wealth, to feed their families, to buy or rent decent housing.
By the way, how many of you are surprised to hear your liberal-lefty rector say a good word about wealth and capitalism?
But there is a problem with affluence: The more we have, the more difficult it is to follow Jesus. The problem is that we can’t follow Jesus when our hands and hearts are full of stuff. And I mean this as a criticism of myself as much as others. Jesus wants us to travel light. Do you remember the gospel story we heard a few weeks ago? Jesus sent out his disciples and said to them, “Take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics.” (Mark 6.8-9)
But we want to take a U-Haul truck with us! We want to bring along our giant flat screen TVs and our coffee makers and our Memory Foam mattresses. There’s nothing wrong with anything of those things or with all the other things that affluence can buy, but they make it difficult for us to follow Jesus.
I don’t like to preach about money, but I want to remind you of your responsibility to provide for the ministry of the gospel. One of the problems of affluence is the problem of keeping up with our neighbors. If our neighbors have a big house, then we want one, too. If our neighbors have a boat, then we feel like we also need one. If our neighbors have the latest model car, then our Honda or Toyota or even our five-year-old Mercedes can start to look kind of shabby. There are many ways to support the ministry of the gospel, but I hope that you will make supporting this church your priority, and right now, Christ Church really needs your support. I imagine that most of you know this, but we have had to eliminate the position of religious education director. Grant no longer works for us because we could no longer afford him. Please consider increasing your giving if you can.
The second disciple had a very legitimate reason for not following Jesus immediately: “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” In the ancient world, especially the Jewish world, there was no responsibility greater than caring for one’s parents, and especially for providing for their burial. But Jesus put discipleship above the responsibility of caring for one’s parents.
For the most part, we do not live in a world in which the gospel of Jesus Christ divides members of families, but there are many parts of the world where it does. However, we live in an increasingly secularized culture. There are many families in our time who are suspicious of family members who make the gospel of Jesus Christ their priority. There are families who think that any form of religious commitment smells of fanaticism.
One way we can combat secularism is for us to make the gospel of Jesus Christ a priority in our families. We need to raise our children to understand the gospel and make the church a priority. There are still too many families who bring their children to church to be baptized but never again darken the door of a church.
Do you know the story of the church that was troubled by an infestation of bats? The junior warden asked the rector what to do, and the rector said, “I’ll just baptize them all, then we’ll never see them again!”
The third person Jesus invited to be a disciple also had a perfectly good excuse: “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
On the face of it, this sounds much like the second excuse. The third would-be disciple also had family responsibilities that he had to fulfill. However, I think there was another reason that he could not follow Jesus, and the clue is in what Jesus said to him: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
This last would-be disciple was backward-looking instead of forward-looking.
God’s kingdom is not about the past; it is about the future. Jesus invites us to move forward into the marvelous future that God plans for us and for the whole world, but we are stuck in the past.
And I’m sorry to say that I see this in the church more than anywhere else.
Do you know the seven last words of the church? “We never did it that way before.”
I sometimes think that many of us at Christ Church spend too much time looking in the rearview mirror.
We look back to a time when the pews were full, when there were twenty or thirty young people in the youth group, when there were dozens of children in a multitude of Sunday school classes.
All of those things are good, but it’s not where we are now, and I don’t think it’s where God is calling us to be.
The fact is that many of those things are true right here and now, but the people filling the pews are brown, not white and they speak Spanish, not English.
I rejoice at our revitalized Sunday school for Anglo children, but we live in a neighborhood that is more Latino than Anglo and that is not going to change in our lifetimes.
Jesus invites us and all his disciples to move forward, not backward. We must not focus on the way the church was when we raised our children, because that is not the church that we are now, and it is unlikely that we will ever be that church again. Our neighborhood is different; our world is different.
Jesus wants us to minister to the neighborhood and the world as they are and not as we would like them to be.
We live in a neighborhood and world full of Latino families and black families and LGBT families. And by and large we are doing a good job of reaching out to them. Just look around at our 10.30 service and at our Spanish-language services. We should be proud of the ways Christ Church has changed, not look back longingly at the way we were thirty years ago.
Make not mistake: It is difficult to follow Jesus. We will have to let go of many of the things we would like to take with us. But the biggest and most difficult thing we will have to let go of are our expectations. God is calling us into an unknown but exciting future.
The very first thing we hear at the beginning of today’s gospel reading is that Jesus “set his face to go toward Jerusalem.” To go toward Jerusalem meant that he was going toward his crucifixion. Jesus still invites us to go with him to Jerusalem; he still invites us to walk the way of the cross. But remember: the way of the cross is also the way of resurrection. Amen.