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Counting the Cost of Discipleship: The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, September 4, 2022:
Jeremiah 18:1-11
Luke 14:25-33

I have a couple of boxes under my desk in my office, where I keep all my old sermons, and notes, and other related things. That way I figure I don’t always have to reinvent the wheel, especially when there’s a particularly tough reading. I’ve been here for about six years, and preached semi-frequently for about four or five years before that. So I was surprised when I pulled out those boxes this week, found the file for this Sunday, and found it completely empty. I’d somehow managed to dodge these “hard sayings” from Luke’s Jesus all these years. I’m reticent for a couple of reasons: they are indeed hard, harsh sayings; they might make us uncomfortable, so there’s an urge to avoid them. Or, one can dive right into them, and speak with a courage and conviction that is likely going to be fake, or naive, or irresponsible.

And in an era when, in the west, Christians are concerned about declining church attendance, this kind of talk seems foolish and counter-productive. But Jesus, and the Gospel-writer, seem to know what they’re doing: the scene is set: “Now large crowds were traveling with him…” Jesus and his message are gaining popularity. The masses are flocking. And this is Jesus’s curious response. At other times crowds and individuals came to Jesus, and expressed their need, or their questions: something like ‘what must I do to be saved?’ He tends not to lower the bar.

In our own time a similar and simple question might someone asking ‘what does it mean to be a Christian?’ Different people might have different responses: it means having said some formula of words, or someone else saying a formula of words over you. Or going to church. Or having a membership with this or that church. Saying, or believing in a creed or some historic statement of doctrines. Or reading the Bible (or approaching the Bible in a particular way). Feeding the hungry, visiting the imprisoned, as a parable at the end of The Gospel of Matthew seems to lean.

Others, though, would say that we can best put it, both with inclusive/comprehensive meaning and succinct declaration, to be a Christian is “to be caught up into life in Christ.”* Where nothing less than everything in our lives is shaped, transfigured, or seen in a new way through the lens of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Where everything you see, say, and do can’t help but be shaped through this cross-shaped lens. It’s what we’re talking about when we speak of baptism and dying with Christ in his death and rising to a new life. Or when we speak of presenting “ourselves, our souls, and bodies” as a living sacrifice through Christ our Lord [in the Book of Common Prayer liturgy], or that we would be united to Jesus “in his sacrifice, that we, made acceptable in him, may be sanctified by the Holy Spirit” in one of our eucharistic prayers.

If that first list of guesses at what it means to be a Christian were a series of tick boxes we had to choose from and check off, then in this latter way of looking at things (“through Christ”) is not about adding a new and different box to tick off, but instead, using an entirely different pencil, where no matter what we check off, can’t help but turn out different.

You’ve probably seen movies or read stories about one person chasing after another, in love (or infatuation). In Groundhog Day Bill Murray relives the same day over and over, so he can improve his wooing of Andie MacDowell. In other movies it’s a time machine, or something as simple as eavesdropping, or reading someone’s diary, to figure out how to manipulate the situation. It makes for a good story, but there’s something artificial and and superficial about it (not to mention manipulative), and not a good model for discipleship (following Jesus). One Anglican thinker, Norman Pittenger, proposed a better way of looking at it: call to mind two people authentically and deeply in love; their lives intertwined through thick and thin, that they ‘dwell’ in each other, and begin to even unconsciously reflect the other. Not by rote, or manipulation, but where the other helps us become our full and real selves.**

So when Jesus speaks those ugly words about “hating” our family, he may not be speaking in a simple and transactional way, in which we trade in our biological families for our church families. Or get rid of secular music and start listening to Christian music. Or whatever other ‘thing’ traded in for a different ‘thing’ (or nothing at all). That can seem very simple and black-and-white, because it’s about programs and products (‘things’). But on the other hand, I don’t know about you, but exhausted by these last two and a half years, I’m tired, and weary of layering programs and ‘things;’ ticking another box in a relentless cycle.

So even if the language is tough, there is grace in what Jesus is saying: are we willing to offer our life so that it can be “caught up in Christ” and risk that everything be made new. Dare we reframe our lives where people and things aren’t just possessions, defined by where they stand in relation to oneself. Are we willing to go back to the potter’s wheel, and rather than chip or sand away rough edges, or slap on another coat of paint, instead get re-shaped from the ground up?

These are all good questions and considerations as we and many other churches begin a month of reflection on our relationship with the environment. The temptation is to look at the issue as a program (or tick boxes), and to approach it as consumers, trading in one model for an admittedly slightly better one. Trade in grey capitalism for green capitalism. Use one sort of bag instead of the old kind. Buy the t-shirt and wear the ribbon. Surely these things have their place. But the Jesus of these hard sayings asks us to count the cost and move beyond both complacency and smug self-satisfaction. Where, as his disciples, we are called to ask bigger questions and seek deeper answers, including ones about our lifestyles, habits, and values, and not just about the colour of our shirt or the bumper sticker on our car. Those small gestures, again, have their place, but the challenge before us is to frame them in light of the cycle of death and resurrection, and the vision of a new heaven and earth, that are at the core of our faith.

The reality is that we are all flawed, and weak, and our lives are intertwined in broken systems. And so at the end of the day we rely on the grace and mercy of God; not on our ability to hate what we love, or give up our possessions. But sincere and actual change might well arise, organically, surprisingly, and authentically, like the image of that couple so in love that they can’t help but find their true selves in one another. “Come, go down to the potter’s house.” Be caught up in life ‘in Christ.’ And be remade not through our virtue and willpower, but by opening our lives up through the Cross.

© 2022 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

Here I’m indebted to Norman Pittenger’s book Life in Christ (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972), 9.

** Pittenger, 18-19.