15th Sunday after Pentecost
September 5, 2010
“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. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple….So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. Luke 14:26-27, 33
Hey, Jesus, you really want me to stand up in front of a congregation and preach this text? Are you kidding me? Do you want me to alienate the people who actually show up for worship instead of heading to the lake for one last weekend on the water? I mean, come on, this is such a downer text! No 21st century North American Christian in his or her right mind is going to jump for joy over your words this week, Jesus. Let me tell you, Moses and the OT reading is sounding pretty good right about now.
If your reaction to this week’s gospel text resembles anything close to the preceding paragraph, then take heart. Do not despair! There is good news in Jesus’ hard words, and we need to hear it.
Being a committed 24/7 disciple of Christ in present day North America is a counter-cultural proposition. Most of the folks to whom you will be preaching this Sunday are already on that journey; they’re living it and working on it. Sure, there may be a few seekers in the group, but for the most part you are preaching to the “converted.” The people in the pews have at least some vested interest in Christianity and have made the effort to show up, whether it be the result of free will, guilt, habit or some combination thereof, possibly having wrestled reluctant adolescents and/or toddlers into the car, and certainly having passed up the opportunity to lounge on the deck with the Sunday paper and a cup of coffee. So how to deliver the goods (the good news, that is)?
Be aware of context. Jesus was the first century equivalent of a rabbinical rock star. He had people following him in droves according to Luke. Commitment was then, like it is now, relative. This was one of those moments when Jesus was clearly offering a reality check and sloughing off slackers. This is not just another episode of Entourage; following Jesus had countercultural consequences and was an all-or-nothing proposition. In fact it was dangerous. We have it a whole lot easier. Folks tend to tolerate lukewarm faith rather than deal with no faith at all or the possibility of empty pews and offering plates. Jesus, on the other hand, demanded more commitment and willingness to sacrifice than the U.S. Marines, the Rotary Club, and the I.R.S. combined. So then what do you tell the folks who are hoping for a short sermon and a sunny afternoon?
First of all, acknowledge their situation. More than likely the people to whom you will preach this Sunday are trying to be faithful to a high-commitment God in a no-commitment culture. Know that behind those placid congregational faces lie secret hurts, crippling fears, and deep-seated feelings of inadequacy of being deserving of God’s grace. Sure you may not see that, but hold that mirror to your own dark places and you’ll catch a glimpse. Reassurance is a good thing. Remind them why we are willing to count the cost of discipleship and keep on following.
Show how cross-carrying is as integral to our lives as breathing. There is wisdom in what Paul referred to as the foolishness of the cross. Point out that every second of the Christian’s life involves being “cross-wise” with the world: choosing the way of Jesus over the allure of culture, living in the tension of faith and fallibility, and being the face and hands of Christ to others. Be honest about the fact that living “cross-wise” can be difficult. Christians are not a popular group today. We’ve garnered the reputation of a bunch of dour, narrow-minded, bigoted exclusionists who are out of touch with reality and hypocritical beyond belief. This is how many non-Christians see us, if they see us at all. It’s a tough world into which our people walk every Monday. Acknowledge that fact.
Finally, remind those beautiful, hopeful, and flawed fellow stewards of the gospel that our job is to keep our eyes on Jesus and remove whatever distracts us. This “cross-wise” discipleship journey is far more than a passing fancy or mildly agreeable endeavor. We must hang together and uplift each other, support the parents who are struggling to rear children in a difficult world, love our sisters and brothers with whom we disagree, embrace the stranger, welcome the outcast, open our hearts, our minds, and our pocketbooks, and keep on keeping on one step at a time, one day at a time, one prayer at a time.
Yes, the people in the pews will likely hear this text through a law-tinged filter that’s clogged with baggage. I think our job this day is to show them the joy, the grace, and delight of discipleship. They are already counting the cost by showing up; help them make the real-life “cross-wise” connections to live out their faith until you meet again. Blessings on your preaching, teaching, and cross-carrying.