It Will Cost You Everything

Sabbath Day Thoughts — Luke 14:25-33

Jesus knew that following him would cost his disciples their lives.

James the son of Zebedee was the first apostle to be martyred.  Tradition tells us that James went all the way to Spain to share the gospel with Jewish colonists and slaves.  But on a return trip to Jerusalem, he ran afoul of the Roman authorities and was beheaded in the year 44CE.  They say that when the apostle was led out to die, a man who had brought false accusations against him walked with him.  The man was so impressed by James’s courage and joy that he recanted his false testimony and became a Christian.  Alas, James’s name wasn’t cleared.  Instead, the man was condemned to die with James. Both were beheaded on the same day and with the same sword.

The Apostle Andrew was also martyred.  Andrew took the gospel north, along the Black Sea and the Dnieper River as far as Kiev.  In the year 39CE, Andrew founded the church in Byzantium, which continues today as the center of the Eastern Orthodox tradition.  Andrew’s evangelizing came to a painful end in western Greece.  Arrested for disturbing the peace in the city of Patras in the year 60CE, Andrew was crucified.  Considering himself unworthy to be crucified on the same type of cross as Jesus, Andrew insisted that he be killed on an x-shaped cross.  They say the cross is still kept in the Church of St. Andrew at Patras in a special shrine.  Every November 30th, the feast day of St. Andrew, the cross is revered in a special ceremony.

Andrew’s brother, the Apostle Peter, was martyred, too, more than thirty years after Jesus’s crucifixion. They say that Peter was arrested and condemned following the Great Fire of Rome.  Although historians now know that the emperor Nero ignited the fire to clear away slums, the blaze burned out of control and destroyed much of the city.  Looking for a scapegoat, Nero blamed the Christians, many of whom were arrested, tortured, and executed.  Peter, at his own wish, was crucified upside down, either on the Janiculum hill or in the arena. When Michelangelo painted Peter’s martyrdom, he portrayed the upside-down, grey-bearded apostle looking very much in control, while soldiers managed the crowd and a cluster of four terror-stricken women cowered near the foot of the cross.

Jesus warned his friends that following him would cost them everything.  In today’s reading, Jesus was nearing the end of his journey where death waited for him in the Holy City.  Crowds, that were drawn by his teaching and healing, were on the road with the Lord.  Luke’s gospel describes the people as amazed, rejoicing, filled with awe, and praising God, who was so clearly at work in Jesus.  Who wouldn’t want to hear those wonderful sermons and watch those incredible miracles?  But according to Jesus, discipleship wasn’t all rainbows and lollipops. If anyone truly wanted to follow him, then they must be prepared to hate their families, take up their crosses, and give up their possessions.

Jesus was using a rhetorical style called hyperbole, a form of argument that embraces exaggeration to make a point.  In the first century world, the Beth Ab, the House of the Father, was the most fundamental building block in society.  Following Jesus could put disciples at odds with their families.  When James and his brother John answered Jesus’ invitation to drop their fishermen’s nets and start catching people, their father Zebedee was left behind in the boat.  Within a decade, traditional synagogues would expel those who believed that Jesus was the Messiah, further dividing families into opposing camps of Jews and Christians.  To truly follow Jesus would call for a singular commitment.  The family of faith must supersede the Beth Ab, and there would be hardship and heartache for many.

As if losing family weren’t hardship enough, Jesus chased his hyperbolic warning about divided households with stories about the costly ventures of building a tower and waging war.  Jesus could have ripped those comparisons from the headlines today.  Many of us have had home improvement projects that have proven more costly and demanding than we ever imagined.  And when it comes to the unanticipated, high costs of war, we should check in with Vladimir Putin.  The Pentagon estimated in August that as many as 80,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded during the war in Ukraine.

Like a wet blanket on the fervent joy of the crowd, Jesus warned the people that discipleship would demand deep commitment and big risks.  Those people in the crowd had counted the blessings found in following Jesus, but had they considered the costs?  If they were truly intent on discipleship, then they would need singular commitment and deep allegiance in a world where following Jesus could cost you everything. 

Beyond those first century martyrs, history holds stories of faithful people who practiced a costly discipleship.  Above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey stand ten statues of modern martyrs – twentieth century Christians who gave up their lives for their beliefs.

In 1937, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer published his most influential book, a reflection on the Sermon on the Mount called Nachfolge.  The rise of the National Socialist regime was underway in Germany.  As Hitler and his Nazi followers assumed power, Bonhoeffer, who was a pacifist, realized that his faith in Jesus demanded that he do the inconceivable: abandon his non-violent principles to become embroiled in a failed plot to assassinate the Fuhrer.  Bonhoeffer’s discipleship cost him everything: his principles, his liberty, and eventually his life.  He was executed, just days before his prison was liberated by allied forces.  His book Nachfolge was one of the most significant works of 20th century Protestantism, translated into English with the title The Cost of Discipleship.

As a young minister at the Dexter Avenue Church in Montgomery, Alabama, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was drawn into a demonstration against segregation on the city’s bus services. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was brilliantly successful, and King soon formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to press for racial justice. King and his family paid a steep price for his faithful work to win voting rights and opportunity for black Americans: death threats, bomb scares, police harassment, and prison. King ultimately lost his life, assassinated in Memphis while there to support sanitation workers seeking basic worker safety after 3 were crushed to death in the back of a garbage truck.

Oscar Romero was serving as the archbishop of San Salvador when the killing of a fellow priest awakened him to the widespread abuse of political power by violent men who murdered with impunity. Wealthy citizens of El Salvador sanctioned the violence that maintained them, death squads executed those who voiced concerns in the cities, and soldiers killed as they wished in the countryside.  Romero committed his cause to the poor and began to document the abuse of human rights, daring to speak the truth in a country governed by lies, where men and women simply disappeared without account.  In March 1980, Romero was assassinated, shot dead while celebrating mass in the chapel of the hospital where he lived.

From first century martyrs to the prophetic efforts of twentieth century Christians to end tyranny, pursue justice, and advocate for the poor, disciples have been taking up their crosses to follow Jesus for almost 2,000 years.  It’s a daunting truth that may feel frightening and impossible for us to imagine for ourselves. 

Yet, beyond those well-known names, are millions of everyday folks like you and me, who may not have died for Jesus’s sake, but they have shown singular commitment and deep allegiance by daring to follow the Lord in costly ways.  They have shared their faith amid repressive regimes, where talking about religion is forbidden.  They have spoken out against injustice in societies that label them dangerous radicals or misguided bleeding hearts.  They have sacrificed from their bounty for the sake of a world in need, giving generously to support churches, alleviate hunger, and care for vulnerable neighbors.  Beyond the martyrs and heroes of the faith, there is an invisible multitude, a great cloud of witnesses, who have paid the price of discipleship for the sake of Jesus Christ.

It’s easy to enjoy all the good things about being a follower of Jesus: love, forgiveness, grace, the life eternal.  It’s easy to be like that amazed, joyful, praise-filled crowd that tagged along on the road to Jerusalem.  But what happens when things get costly?  Are we willing to share our faith, risk the rejection of neighbors, or live with fewer toys or a more modest retirement for the sake of Christ’s Kingdom? 

Following Jesus will cost us our lives, my friends.  This morning, the Lord challenges us to sit down, add it up, and dedicate ourselves to him anyway.  Will we take up our crosses and follow?

Resources:

Jeannine Brown. “Commentary on Luke 14:25-33” in Preaching This Week, Sept. 5, 2010.  Accessed online at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-23-3/commentary-on-luke-1425-33-5.

Carolyn Sharp. “Commentary on Luke 14:25-33” in Preaching This Week, Sept. 4, 2022.  Accessed online at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-23-3/commentary-on-luke-1425-33-5.

David Jacobsen. “Commentary on Luke 14:25-33” in Preaching This Week, Sept. 4, 2016.  Accessed online at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-23-3/commentary-on-luke-1425-33-5.

Jeremy Diamond. “Russia facing ‘severe’ military personnel shortages, US officials say” in Russia-Ukraine news, August 31, 2022. Accessed online at https://edition.cnn.com/europe/live-news/russia-ukraine-war-news-08-31-22/index.html.

–. “Martyrdom of St Peter, by Michelangelo” in Michelangelo: Paintings, Sculptures, Biography. Accessed online at https://www.michelangelo.org/martyrdom-of-st-peter.jsp.

–. “Modern Martyrs” in Westminster Abbey History. Accessed online at https://www.westminster-abbey.org/about-the-abbey/history/modern-martyrs


Luke 14:25-33

25Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.


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No Turning Back

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “No Turning Back” Luke 9:51-62

When it comes to understanding our higher purpose as human beings, author, psychologist, and wilderness guide Bill Plotkin teaches that each of us is born to occupy a specific ecological niche—that’s econiche for short.  Each of us is blessed with gifts, abilities, and aptitudes that are intended to fulfil a particular function in our families, communities, and beyond.  You might even say that we are each created with a God-given purpose.  By living faithfully and courageously, we grow fully into the people whom God created us to be.

Take my econiche, for example.  I like to say that I am doing what God put me on earth to do: serving as a pastor and spiritual leader.  I also feel that I am fulfilling that function where God calls me to be—right here in Saranac Lake.  I believe that God called me to marriage with Duane, who has been a wonderful encourager and conversation partner for my life and ministry.  A few years ago, I began to hear God calling me to use my writing to reach beyond the walls of the church and the limits of Saranac Lake.  When I chose to live into that expanded econiche, doors opened: a book, a doctoral program, and an article in a literary journal this month.

Bill Plotkin writes that we are “each born to take a specific place within the earth community, to fill an individual ecological niche in the greater web of life.”  We each have a holy purpose that serves the planet.  Our personal growth and discovery of our econiche is part of God’s plan.  It’s a fulfillment of our purpose and a blessing to the world around us.  What is your econiche?

In today’s lesson from Luke’s gospel, Jesus resolved to travel to Jerusalem.  Along the way, Jesus would share some of his most profound teachings and work some of his most compelling acts of healing. He would do all this while knowing what awaited him in Jerusalem: betrayal, arrest, conviction, torture, and death.  Jesus knew his econiche.  He knew the redemptive purpose that God put him on earth to serve and he “set his face” to fulfill it.

As Jesus embarked on that fateful journey, he was not alone.  He was accompanied by “the women,” his inner circle of disciples, and other unnamed followers.  Drawn by Jesus’ wise instruction or in search of a healing miracle, people came to see what Jesus was all about.  According to Luke, some who came felt that God’s will for their life—their econiche—was to be a disciple.  Indeed, in today’s lesson, Jesus was approached by three would-be disciples.  All expressed interest in following Jesus, but there seemed to be impediments to answering that calling.

The first would-be disciple sounded eager.  He promised to follow Jesus wherever he might go.  Yet Jesus cautioned that following him would not be easy. Foxes have dens, birds of the air go home to roost, but, at times, Jesus and his friends would have no place to lay their heads. Being a disciple would bring opposition from Samaritan villages, scandalized Pharisees, and plotting priests and scribes.  Jesus and his friends would make enemies.  Discipleship would sometimes feel unsafe and inhospitable, lonely and under-supported.  If this would-be disciple was going to answer the call, then he would need to be ready to face adversity.

If we are to grow into our God-given purpose—our econiche, then we need to be prepared to work through difficulty and adversity along the way.  Benjamin Franklin was 10-years-old when his parents could no longer afford to send him to school.  The resourceful Franklin resolved to teach himself.  He read voraciously, studying late into the night with poor lighting after working all day as a printer’s apprentice. Franklin’s self-directed study equipped him for life as a patriot, scientist, and diplomat.  He was an editor and signer of the Declaration of Independence, the inventor of the lightning rod and bifocals, and the American ambassador to France from 1776 to 1785.  

A second would-be disciple approached Jesus.  This man wished to join the Lord on the journey to Jerusalem, but he first wanted to bury his father. First century Jewish tradition taught that at the death of a patriarch a mourning period of seven days followed the burial.  If the dead man were of high status in the community, that mourning period could extend to thirty days.  This would-be disciple wished to follow Jesus, but it would be a while before he was available.  Jesus’ response, “Let the dead bury the dead, but you go share the good news of the Kingdom,” sounds harsh. Some Bible scholars say this is hyperbole, an exaggerated rhetoric that makes a point.  Clearly, Jesus is saying that discipleship takes unwavering commitment that is willing to set aside time-worn traditions.

Fulfilling God’s purpose for our lives may likewise demand that we make tough choices that depart from traditions and expectations.  Those of you who are older among us remember the days when the only career options available to women were mothering, teaching, nursing, or being a clerical worker.  Judith von Seldeneck’s parents thought she would make a great secretary – and she was, serving as the personal secretary to Sen. Walter Mondale in the 1960s.  But Judith had different ideas about her purpose. She attended law school—one of only two women in her class.  Then, as more and more women began to enter the workforce, Judith found her niche: helping women find jobs.  The business that she launched, Diversified Search Group, is now a global leader in executive recruitment, with offices in fourteen cities across the US and global affiliates around the world. 

A third would-be disciple approached Jesus. He hoped to follow the Lord, but first he wished to go back home and take his leave.  Jesus sensed that this man’s past would have a powerful hold upon him. Like a distracted farmer who plows a crooked and shallow furrow, this man would always look back.  He would not have the focus and commitment for discipleship.  His preoccupation with the past would be a roadblock to moving ahead.

To grow into the people whom God calls us to be, we may sometimes need to leave something behind.  This may include false beliefs about ourselves and patterns of behavior that are a stumbling block to our growth.  In his book How Not to Be Afraid, author, storyteller, and peacemaker Gareth Higgins writes that many of us subject ourselves to “harsher judgment than that which we direct to people we might even consider enemies.  We have likely judged ourselves worthy of public flogging more times than we can remember.” To move forward and grow into God’s purpose for our lives, we may need to leave behind our critical inner voice, or our failures, or even traumatic experiences that have kept us stuck.  Sometimes, it’s the shame of our past mistakes or our feelings of sinfulness that hold us back because we fail to extend to ourselves the grace that Jesus so generously extended to others. 

The research of author and professor Brene Brown has found that eighty-five percent of men and women interviewed could recall a school incident from their childhood that was so shaming that it changed how they thought of themselves as people and learners. What made those findings even more haunting was that approximately half of those recollections were what Brown calls “creativity scars.” The research participants could point to a specific incident where they were told or shown that they weren’t good writers, artists, musicians, dancers, or creators.  Our potential is stifled when we accept the criticism of others as part of our self-understanding.

Making peace with the past so that we can move into the future takes prayer, reflection, and healing work.  We may need a wise mentor, a caring friend, a listening pastor, or a good counselor to help us see that our past does not have to determine our future. Indeed, it is in our healing and growing that we discern and cultivate strengths and gifts that will serve us and the world around us. Like Rumpelstiltskin spinning straw into gold, those personal pains that once held us back can be transformed, equipping us richly to serve in the struggles of others.  If we refuse to let go of the past, if we won’t take the risk of stepping out to follow Jesus and pursue our higher purpose, then we fail ourselves and the role we are meant to serve in God’s Kingdom goes unfulfilled.

What I find most fascinating about today’s reading is that we don’t get to see the choices that those would-be disciples made. Did they rise to move into that beautiful, if daunting, path of discipleship?  Or, did they despair at the possibility of discomfort, cling too closely to outdated traditions, and let their pasts get the better of them? Call me an optimist, but I like to think they found their econiche.  Those would-be disciples chose Jesus, chose growth, chose to become the people whom God was calling them to become.  I like to think that they were blessed in that—and that they went on to become a blessing for others.

May we do the same.


Resources:

Brené Brown. “The Most Dangerous Stories We Make Up” excerpted from Rising Strong, July 27, 2015. Accessed online at brenebrown.com.

Chris Crisman. “Women’s work: 12 stories of female success and struggle in male-dominated fields | Perspective” in The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 7, 2020. Accessed online at inquirer.com.

Mikeal Parsons. “Commentary on Luke 9:51-62” in Preaching This Week, June 26, 2016. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Marilynn Salmon. “Commentary on Luke 9:51-62” in Preaching This Week, June 27, 2010. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Michael Rogness. “Commentary on Luke 9:51-62” in Preaching This Week, June 30, 2013. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

David Lose. “Out of Control” in Dear Working Preacher, June 24, 2013. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.


Luke 9:51-62

51When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55But he turned and rebuked them. 56Then they went on to another village. 57As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58And 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.” 59To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”


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