Jeremiah 18:111; Psalm 139:15, 1318; Luke 14:2533
Things couldn’t have been going better. “Large crowds were traveling with Jesus,” Luke’s gospel says. Jesus is catching on, people are excited, his poll numbers are surging. It looks like he has a successful marketing strategy and a brilliant campaign.
He must have been doing a good job welcoming absolutely everyone. After all, in last week’s gospel lesson Jesus talked about a great banquet feast to which absolutely everyone was invited. ‘Come one, come all” was his theme. He must have understood people’s yearnings and desires. The door was wide open, and people were flooding in.
A lot of ink has been spilled in the last two or three decades about what makes people come to church. Some have argued that it’s the conservative churches with their high demands and clear rules that have it all figured out. Many have decided that the secret is to be “user-friendly” churches.
Over the summer I had my first chance to visit a mega-church, one of those vast enterprises as big as a shopping mall that draws people in by the thousands every Sunday. It was impressive. The church I visited was about the most welcoming place I’ve ever encountered. There were smiling, helpful traffic police directing the miles of backed-up cars waiting to get in, and there were warm faces greeting you as you emerged from their user-friendly parking garage. Inside you encountered simultaneous services and classes for every age group you could imagine, each with separate bands and musicians. And then there was the full-service cafeteria for any kind of food you might want. The service was held in an auditorium with easy listening rock music and a helpful sermon. Strange, though—you didn’t see a cross anywhere. Read through the brochures, and you could see there were special interest groups for jobseekers, single parents, and recovering alcoholics. This was a church brilliantly focusing on making everything as accessible and helpful as possible.
The more mainstream churches are trying to be “user friendly” too. Go to a Methodist or Episcopalian or Presbyterian Church and chances are you will hear a great deal of talk about God’s unconditional love, that Christ welcomes everyone, with little mention of the hard words like judgment and sin. Church growth gurus say to us struggling mainliners that we need to find out what people’s concerns are and make sure we respond to them, so they will stick around rather than continuing their church shopping. So we want them to see that we have uplifting worship and great programs for their kids and a caring environment where they will feel comfortable.
Jesus drew large crowds, and that’s what we’re after. But for some reason in today’s gospel Jesus decides its time to talk tough. How’s this for a church growth strategy: “Whoever does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes even life itself, can’t be my disciple.” He can’t be serious. And it gets worse. In fact, it becomes clear today that Jesus would have been a disaster as a parish minister.
Now scholars can tell us that Jesus is trying to get the crowd’s attention with these harsh words. He doesn’t really mean to hate your parents; it doesn’t imply anger or hostility. He’s using ancient Semitic exaggeration to say that you need to keep your loyalties in perspective. And you know there are times when you explain your choice by saying you “hate” one thing and “love” the other. “I hate spinach but I love tomatoes.” It’s a vivid way of saying that one thing is right for me and the other isn’t.
Now that probably doesn’t get Jesus off the hook that much, because hating your parents is still a harsh thing to say. And he doesn’t stop there. ‘If you won’t carry a cross you can’t be my disciple,’ he says. And you just better count the cost if you want to come along with me, like a tower builder making sure he can afford to finish the job, and a king who would be a fool to start a war without being sure he had the troops to win it.
Oh, and by the way, he says, You can’t be my disciple if you don’t give up all your possessions.
What are we supposed to make of this? What if we at the Cathedral ran an ad in the Saturday religion page of the Washington Post saying something like:
Is your life going pretty well, but you sense you want to be more miserable? Why not try the National Cathedral?
Having a rough time at home and find yourself alienated from everyone in the house? Good for you. You’re looking like a disciple.
Sick and tired of all those beautiful possessions you’ve been accumulating all those years? Come on to the Cathedral and they’ll take them off our hands.
Have you ever considered crucifixion? Try the National Cathedral. (Thanks to William Willimon in Pulpit Resource, Vol. 32, No. 3, for suggesting an ad like this)
This is not a good church growth strategy! Instead of talking about how appealing church is, Jesus wants them to know how hard it may be to follow. After all, by now he is on his way to the conflict in Jerusalem that will kill him. And a few decades later when Luke was writing his gospel, Christians themselves were being arrested and tortured. It was dangerous to have a Christian in your family, so it was no exaggeration to say that being a Christian could pull a family apart. It could be costly, scary business following Jesus. Jesus wasn’t being harsh with these tough words; he was being honest about what it would mean to follow him.
What if he’s right? What if becoming a disciple, and becoming a full human being for that matter, has to involve struggling with our loyalties, taking up the crosses our life hands us, even giving away some of what we own? What if we will never actually discover who we were made to be until we learn to give ourselves away? And if that’s true, all this talk about having a church that “meets our needs” is starting at the wrong end.
Being a disciple begins with the recognition that we are not the center of our lives, that my life is not about me and my needs. It calls for a willingness to risk, to let God do something new and surprising in us. Here in our own complex days, God wants to give us a peace, a clarity, and a richness of life we won’t find any other way. But we won’t find it by trying to get our own little needs met, but by giving ourselves to a revolutionary love and a healing cause that will pull out all that is best in us.
In today’s hard lesson Jesus isn’t being cruel. He’s just being honest with us about where life is to be found and refusing it make it sound easy or simple.
I actually think that people these days are yearning for a life that makes some demands on them. This week’s Time magazine cover story presented a case for universal national service—a vision of every young person being challenged, not compelled, to spend a year or two or three in a servant role of some sort—teaching, tutoring, and working in underserved communities. “After 9/11,” the writer says, “Americans were hungry to be asked to do something, to make some kind of sacrifice, and what they mostly remember is being asked to go shopping.” Some 27% of Americans are volunteering, and the number is rising. Volunteer service organizations are springing up all over the country.
Many young people these days seem to be looking for ways to change the world. One of the most widely read books by students in high school and in college is Mountains beyond Mountains, the story of Dr. Paul Farmer, the young physician who decided to spend his life setting up clinics focusing on AIDS and tuberculosis for desperately poor people first in Haiti, and then increasingly around the world. When the author Tracy Kidder asked Paul Farmer, who is himself a Christian, why he lived that kind of life, Farmer replied, “I don’t know. The problem is that if I don’t work this hard, someone will die who doesn’t have to.”
To be a disciple is to be willing to take up the world’s crosses, as well as our own. It is to follow this Lord, and in doing that discovering needs and desires we never knew we could have.
That’s why the church fails us when it doesn’t tell us that Christianity has a cost. When I first moved to a new parish some years ago, I was eager to introduce a course called DOCC, Disciples of Christ in Community, I believed strongly could open the Christian journey to people in new ways. The main catch to it was that it required an 18-week commitment. I ran the idea by some of my parishioners, and they thought I had lost my mind. 18 weeks? Are you kidding? People are much too busy for that, and they would never come to church class for that long. Well, they had me convinced. But we kept talking about it, and a few parishioners went and experienced the course elsewhere, and finally they persuaded me we should try it anyway. To my astonishment we had to start a waiting list after 110 people signed up. And it happened the next year, and the next.
It turned out there was a hunger people hardly knew they had—to know Christ, to know their faith, to know their own community in ways they never had. And my guess is that you came here this morning looking for more than you knew—for something worth giving your life to, something large and important.
“Count the cost,” Jesus says. Be sure you’re ready for what you’re getting yourself into. And of course, he is right. If we decide to follow him—to a DOCC class, or to Haiti or New Orleans, or to a prayer group or Bible study or a service group down the street, who knows what could happen? Everything that matters asks of us far more than we ever imagined.
That was true of Jesus, of course. He gave everything he had—for us. He didn’t just take up his cross and show us the way. He promised that he would go with us when we picked up our own crosses. He said he would carry them with us, that we would never be cut off from him.
And he believed with everything in him that we would find the life we were made for by following this demanding way. Even the hard times we would face would open out into something deep and firm and good when we knew that God was at work through us.
Jesus didn’t seem to care all that much about the size of his crowds. It may be that not all that many people are ready for this demanding road. But here’s the surprise. He lived and died for us timid ones too, who aren’t quite sure about all this, who aren’t quite ready. And he won’t give up on any of us, ever.