Counting the Cost
COUNTING THE COST
TEXT: Luke 14:25-33
Sermon preached at St. John's United Methodist Church in Dover, NH in 2003 in preparation for the picketing of that church by the Westboro Baptist Church.
Imagine a luxury car commercial. You begin by watching a sleek new car perfectly navigating tight mountain turns. Beautiful people are riding in the car, enjoying a splendid stereo system, while air conditioning shields them from the heat outside. You're about convinced that owning that car would make your life everything it should be when there's a break in the commercial. The President of the car company comes out and says…"Wait! Don't rush out and buy this car! Do you know how much all this costs? Are you prepared to shell out 25-50 grand for all this? This won't be a cheap car payment, and you're likely to pay more for repairs, too." The Board of Directors would be on that guy's case before the commercial was over.
So what is Jesus doing in this passage? What's with all this language about hating your family and carrying crosses and not owning anything? Does he see the glass always half-empty? Why isn't he using positive visualization techniques? Why focus on the negative costs rather than the end benefit? Why does Jesus want to shoot himself in the foot?
The answer is, I think, something that the Church over time has forgotten. The Gospel is not a product to be sold, but a life to be lived. It has never been about what we can receive but instead is about the discovery of our role and purpose in the world. In the language of the car commercial, we don't receive the car, we ARE the car. We are created to make life better for others, to navigate the tight turns safely, to provide a cool breeze on a hot day, and to bring people safely and happily along the road of life to their final destination. Christian faith is not about what we get, it is about oiling and tuning and so ordering our lives that we can make life better for others.
The crowds following Jesus were beginning to forget this. In another place, after the miraculous feeding of the five thousand, Jesus blasts the crowds for only following him because he gave them bread to eat. Jesus isn't desperate for numbers, and when a disciple quits, he doesn't run after them. What concerns him most is that the ones who follow him understand that the calling of God is not an ad for special blessing, but an enlistment to special service.
Jesus' words to His followers both then and now is that saying you want to be a disciple of Jesus Christ is not a pronouncement to be made lightly. It is not a decision to sign up for certain benefits. It is a decision to make a conscious effort to live your life in a certain way…a way that is so contrary to the culture of the world around you that even your family could come to regard you as an enemy, if they are not also disciples…a way that so challenges the foundations on which society is built that remaining true to your calling could mean a cross…tortuous death as an outsider and a criminal. Giving up money and possessions is relatively easy compared to some of the other costs.
When we see the life of Jesus, it seems strange that it was so hard. Those of us who were the flower children of the 60's can't quite comprehend why a message of love and compassion, peace and welcome for the outcast should be such a dangerous mission. Well, ask Ghandi about it. Ask Martin Luther King, Jr. Ask Jesus on Good Friday. All murdered because there are those in the world who recognize that messages of peace, equality, and love for everyone threaten all the foundations of power and wealth in our world. Those of us who think those qualities are just nice warm fuzzies in Hallmark cards will be in for a rude awakening if we truly try to live out those principles. They are counter-cultural and they can get you killed.
Next week we will see an example of that here at St. John's. As a congregation, we are not of one mind regarding the practice of homosexuality. But as your reception of Brett last Spring showed, I believe that we are of one mind in realizing that the issue will never be resolved until we can listen to all the voices and welcome each other into the fellowship of God's love.
Hate has no place in the Kingdom of God. If God is love, as Scripture claims and as Jesus' life affirms, then hatred is the negation of God. Hate is, if you will, the anti-Christ. Jesus said that all the Law and the Prophets was summed up in two commandments. "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength," and "Love your neighbor as yourself." "Do this and you will live," Jesus said in Luke 10:28.
Because we have publicly expressed our love for Brett and our belief that love is the foundation of the Gospel, a hate group will be picketing our church next Sunday morning. The signs they will carry out by the road will declare the belief that energizes their mission: "God hates fags," they will say. That is, in fact, the name of their website. They call themselves the Westboro Baptist Church. Perhaps they have some legal right to a designation as a religious organization, but I am here to tell you that they do not represent the Church of Jesus Christ any more than Osama bin Laden represents the faith of Islam.
It's a funny thing. A couple of months ago, I planned to preach on the cost of discipleship today. And as I prepared to write this last week, I noted that here in the United States, we are not often faced with some of the harsher costs of discipleship. Most of us face no dangers in coming to church. For many of us the worst it gets is disdain from peers or colleagues if we mention that we are Christian. And as I pondered all that, realizing that we don't face challenges because most of the time we don't really practice what we preach, I get the message from the police department that we are being targeted by a hate group because of our love.
In an odd way, I think that the Westboro Baptist Church is bringing us a gift. Next week, each of us will think about coming to church a little bit differently. We will weigh our faith against the possibility of driving past those who are hatefully opposed to what we stand for. We will wrestle with what to say to our children who may want to know why a group that calls themselves a church is hating people. We may wonder…perhaps for the first time in the history of this church…whether it is safe to come to worship on a Sunday morning. Some of you may be mad at me for taking us into territory that would make a group like this angry.
Well, I'm here to tell you, that all this is part of the cost of discipleship. If we really want to build that lighthouse to be a beacon to the world, we should not be surprised if those who want to remain in the dark are upset by the light. If we are not being openly challenged by the dark of the world, then we are not openly shining our light…we are hiding it under a bushel.
This is a week to be in prayer…not just for any concerns we might have about confrontation next week, but to wrestle with God and with ourselves about the depth of our own faith. Do you really believe God is love? Do you believe it enough to stand up and say it to those who will condemn you for it? When you sit down and consider what it could cost you to really live out the faith that Jesus taught, do you still want to be a disciple?
I don't know how many of the crowds who have followed Jesus at St. John's will turn back and go another way because it might be uncomfortable to physically come to church. But it is my prayer that this church will be packed to overflowing next week, that our numbers will be a part of our witness that the power of love is stronger than the power of hate. Come and bring the children. It is never too early to stand up for the power of love.
(c) 2003, Anne Robertson