Saturday, 4 September 2010

Counting the cost

Reading: Luke 14 v 25-33

Often, at funeral services, I read a passage from Ecclesiastes which says: There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven. I’m sure you are familiar with some of that text, immortalised in song by The Byrds: A time to be born, a time to die  a time to plant, a time to reap, a time to laugh a time to weep. I have great difficulty, though in including the verse: a time to love, a time to hate. Aren’t we taught, as children, that we should never hate?
And don’t we see more than enough evidence of hate at work in our world?
Hate that leads to extreme measures.

In today’s gospel Jesus words could well fall into that extremist spectrum.
And, taken on board by fundamentalists, those words from our gospel this morning have led and continue to lead to abhorrent acts.
If you want to be my disciple, says Jesus, you must love me more than father, mother, brothers and sisters. You must take up your cross and follow me.

Extremists would revel in the older translation which says:

"Whoever comes to me
and does not hate his father and mother,
wife and children,
brothers and sisters,
yes, and even life itself,
cannot be my disciple."

"Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me
cannot be my disciple."

Is this then, just a gospel for extremists?
Is it nothing to you and I, reasonable folk who want to discover a more reasonable way of being Jesus followers?

The stories Jesus told around this teaching, might give us more of an idea of the impact of his words.
An impact that hits us hard.
Maybe not to the extent that we hate family but Jesus’ gospel words should change us nonetheless:

Who, says Jesus, builds a tower without first sitting down and working out the cost?
Who takes troops into battle without first working out whether there are enough troops to defeat the enemy?

Both those questions resonate in the world in which we find ourselves embroiled today.

A world in financial crisis because, for years, we have not counted the cost. We have borrowed way beyond our means and now find ourselves overwhelmed by debt.

And as governments send troops into more and more foreign conflict it is all too clear that the battle has not been planned and the cost has certainly not been counted.

So, how does this gospel speak to us today?
What does it say to us, who would consider ourselves reasonable, who are not extremists?
For us, is this just one of those passages we have to gloss over – one of those difficult bits of the bible that’s become irrelevant in this day and age unless you are an extremist?

Because these words of Jesus seem so harsh, it would be easy to write them off.
Because they seem to belong to a different time and context and culture, it would be simpler to just leave them where they are.

To do that, however, to disregard these words, to consign them to the just too hard to follow category plays into the hands of both the extremists and the easy gospel folk.
Because if we can’t make sense of them.
If we can’t discover Jesus meaning in these words for our lives today, then we’ve handed over the gospel to those who would distort it and use it for their own ends.
Disregarding these words of Jesus plays into the hands of the devil.
And the gospel according to the devil is very different form the gospel as taught by Jesus:

Here are The Devil's beatitudes: beatitudes for followers of Jesus who discard the difficult bits, followers who start out, but do not finish:
The Devil’s beatitudes:
Blessed are those who are too tired, too busy, too distracted to spend an hour once a week with their fellow Christians, they are my best workers.
Blessed are those Christians who wait to be asked and expect to be thanked - I can use them.
Blessed are the touchy. With a bit of luck, they may stop going to church - they are my missionaries.
Blessed are the troublemakers - they shall be called my children.
Blessed are the complainers - I'm all ears to them and I will spread their message.
Blessed are the church members who expect to be invited to their own church - for they are a part of the problem instead of the solution.
Blessed are they who gossip - for they shall cause strife and divisions.  That pleases me.
Blessed are they who are easily offended - for they will soon get angry  and quit.
Blessed are they who do not give their offering to carry on God's work - for they are my helpers.
Blessed are they who profess to love God but hate their brother or sister  - for they shall be with me forever.
Blessed are they who hear this and think it is about other people - I've got you.

 - The Devil’s beatitudes.

Do those seem at all familiar?
Are those more the maxims we’re living by than the hard words that Jesus speaks?

Who, says Jesus, decides to build a tower without first sitting down and working out the cost?
To be a disciple is not easy.
It is a costly business.
It’s not about getting caught up in the emotion of the moment but about working out the real implications of the cost of discipleship.

Recently, I organised a Christian book club in a local café.
We were studying Philip Yancey’s book: What’s so amazing about grace?
There was a quote in that book that said that Grace is the one thing the church has that the world doesn’t have.
Those of us who were there were quick to dispute that, often finding more grace in the world than in the church.

Deitrich Bonhoeffer,  a German who dared to stand up to Hitler’s policies and who died at the hands of the Nazi regime wrote, while in prison, about two kinds of grace, cheap grace and costly grace.
Here is how Bonhoeffer defines them:

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, (it is) baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession.  Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate." 

         Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock
        Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.  It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.  It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner.  Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: "ye were bought at a price," and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.  Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. . .  
        . . .   Grace is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him;  it is grace because Jesus says:  "my yoke is easy and my burden light."

Isn’t that what is at the heart of our gospel this morning?
Cheap grace and costly grace.
Are we willing to accept the grace that the church bestows without any thought or sacrifice on our part?
Are we willing to make grace a woolly sentiment that comes through rites of passage such as baptism and communion?
Or are we willing to accept the grace that we are promised and realise that it comes with a price?
Are we willing to recognise that in the grace of baptism, there is the call to serve?
And in the grace of communion, in Christ’s body broken for us, there is the call to lay down our lives to follow Christ?

Perhaps the church has never been a particularly demanding or challenging place for you.
Perhaps it has been a place of comfort or of habit.
Today’s gospel challenges all of us to wake up from that.
To shake off our complacency – the “church will see me out” attitude.

As Frederick Buechner puts it:

"If the world is sane, then Jesus is mad as a hatter and the Last Supper is the Mad Tea Party.
The world says, Mind your own business, and Jesus says, There is no such thing as your own business.
The world says, Follow the wisest course and be a success, and Jesus says, Follow me and be crucified.
The world says, Drive carefully — the life you save may be your own — and Jesus says, Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
The world says, Law and order, and Jesus says, Love.
The world says, Get and Jesus says, Give.
In terms of the world's sanity, Jesus is crazy as a coot, and anybody who thinks he can follow him without being a little crazy too is labouring less under a cross than under a delusion."

So  - are you prepared to leave the safety of sanity, to go against accepted wisdom, to love and to give, to really feel the weight of that cross?
Even when everything tells us it’s madness?
Following Jesus costs – the way of love is a hard path to tread.
It is extreme- in the best of ways.

Let’s choose, in response to the gospel to be extreme, discovering the costliness of grace, discovering ways of following Jesus sacrificially, discovering ways of giving up what we have to be disciples  - considered mad - for the glory of God.

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