Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Cost

The Cost
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
September 8, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 14: 25-33

 Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

 25 Now 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. 27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28 For 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? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30 saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or 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? 32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.[1]  

There are certainly some difficult aspects of this text from Luke. Hating father, mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. This is difficult for sure. And then Jesus follows that with whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. Harsh difficult words. Conditions and standards for being a disciple of Christ. I've heard many pastors preach this passage and most try to down play to some extent the hate the family member stuff, down play the cross, and make it all more manageable. There is certainly shock factor in what Jesus is saying, but I don't think we should jump to down play those words. I tried, I looked up the Greek word that is translated as hate, but it can either mean hate or detest. . . I was hoping to find it to mean something like, like less, you know, like your father, mother, sister, brother less than being a disciple, but instead I found hate and detest. . .take your pick, they are both harsh. There is not a whole lot of difference between them. It is hard and difficult stuff. But so is being a disciple of Christ. Look at what you are following, look at who you are being taught by, look at the example that is set for you, Jesus Christ, ultimate love, ultimate sacrifice, of ultimate self. . . complete. This is what the cross is, this is what Christ does on the cross, this is where we are to follow. It comes at quite a cost.
I tell you life seems to always fit what I am studying from the Bible each week. I can't tell you how many times where I've been slapped in the face with life's truth, true teaching coming through in the context of what is going on. I believe enough in providence and call to see things as meant to be, and that there is a hand in what I'm doing, but I also just think that the teachable moments of the Gospels is just so rich. The teachings are so applicable, mostly because the characters are so human, and Jesus knows humans so well. Every word from Jesus's lips seems to penetrate our very soul, touching on our tendencies, our hopes, our fears, our desires, and our weaknesses, before we even imagine it, he is always two steps ahead, which consequently again and again, the disciples and our hearts are two steps behind.
It happened this week for me yesterday. I had originally when I was putting the bulletin together the other day, and the newsletter together last week, planned on calling this sermon "Carrying the Cross." It is the set of words that jumped out at me first. I had planned to talk about all the ways that we carry the cross, all the things that we do that are carrying the cross, the fact that it's when we put ourselves completely out there, we sacrifice ourselves, we love without holding back, without thought for self, without worry over outcome, without care for the reaction of the other person, without trying to manipulate, we give. I had thought all week about some discussions I had with a colleague over at Blue Ridge a couple of weeks ago. We were discussing our philosophies of teaching. I was talking about how mine begins with faith, faith in the student's faith in their potential, and that with that faith I have to be willing to also let them fall, let them fail, that the type of failing they will do in school is painless enough, failing in school is a teachable moment, sometimes more teachable than success. I told him how no matter what they did my faith in them would not falter, with every screw up, with every less than adequate effort, my expectation, the bar raised higher and higher, and my belief in them would not change, that through that level of faith the student finds confidence in himself, and the confidence is real because he did it. On his own, high expectations and grace, unwavering faith in the student's abilities no matter the outcome. I remember he said to me, "but what about when they let you down, that's quite a risk, don't you want to ring their neck, don't you take it personally, don't you find that all your work was for nothing? Don't you feel like you failed? Don't you feel devastated and disillusioned and depressed? Don't you, I asked him, "who is it about?" Is it about you and your effort, or is about the student? How much can the student learn from that failure, how much can the student learn from your unwavering faith in him? Why do you feel depressed, is it because the game is over? Why? Life goes on. . . these moments are small, but your faith in them and your love for them lasts. It's the danger of having a philosophy of teaching based on Christianity and based on love. Now, of course I get frustrated, and of course I get upset, and of course I waver in my faith of my students, but those aren't my best days, they are my worst ones, the ones I'd like to have back, see it's about raising the bar higher and higher and allowing for grace, for them, and for myself. Grace that does not change the standards.  
I was going to include other examples of how much people give. They give and they give every week teaching Sunday School, putting their heart and soul into the lesson into the children, and no one else does, no one else is as dedicated as  you are and the kids don't show up. On  your worst day you get upset, feel like you aren't making a difference, feel the weight of the cross, but then you remember your efforts aren't about you, and the best of you doesn't mind giving all. You are the only one who seems to sign up to bring fellowship, you are the only one who remembers to light or put out the candles, you are the only one who shows up on time for choir, you are the only one, on your worst day you get discouraged, but on your best you realize it isn't about you and you give freely out of love. We've all been there, I can go on and on, carrying the cross is doing your thing, filling your call, giving your all, for no other reason than to give it, no other end in mind than trying to fulfill the will of God, step by step, inch by inch frustration by frustration, and your friends and family tell you that it's not fair, they tell you to slow down, they sympathize with you, and provide you with excuses, and tell you to get someone else to do it, but Jesus says detest that, hate that voice that tells you that you can't do it, that  you shouldn't do it, that voice that cries it isn't fair and it's too hard, and no one cares, and follow me, carry that cross, forgive them, they are caring for you, but they know not what they do.
That is what I was going to say. . .
But on the way to Hargrave Military Academy, jammed on a bus with no leg room, fighting off motion sickness as I was trying to fill the boredom of the 2 and 1/2 hour trip by reading, I decided to take another look at this passage, once more fill my head with Christ's words so that I could ruminate, and ponder, and think, and let it marinate in the context of one more day, a beautiful day, 80 degrees and clear, opening day of the State Title Defense of the Blue Ridge School Football Program. So I looked again, and carrying the cross isn't what jumped off the page, instead another word did. . . cost. All around the carrying the cross line is cost. How much it cost to be a disciple, and how most people aren't going to make the payment. Carrying the cross isn't about a license to be a disciple, it isn't about qualifications, it isn't a prerequisite, it's just what it costs. Look at the text, it's as if Jesus is a loan officer, and he is interviewing the people around him, to see if they can make the payments. You're building a tower, do you have the supplies? Do you have what it takes, not just to start the project but to finish it? He's not just looking for a down payment, he's insuring that the payments will be made later, all is required, do you have all to give? You are going to war, do you have enough men? Or should you go and try to sue for peace? Sure peace like that has a cost too. . . those chains again. So I'm thinking more and more about cost. . . cost . . . cost. So I quickly text message Gerri from the bus, asking her, if she hasn't printed out the bulletin yet, could she change the sermon title from "Carrying the cross to "The Cost." And Gerri on the golf course says sure thing, what do you think about using the picture of the newly painted front door on the bulletin, I say go for it. Now I'm not sure where I'm going with it at this point, but I know that it should be more about cost than just the cross.
Little did I know a few hours later my eyes would be open to what Jesus is talking about. Why is Jesus so up front with these people about what it takes, what it will take, how much they will have to give? First I want to look at the context. Remember last week we looked at the beginning of this chapter, where Jesus was at the head Pharisees house eating the Sabbath dinner, but while he was there he healed a man who had dropsy, and then questioned the Pharisees about their perceived status, challenging them on just what it takes, what it is all about, what it really means to serve God, making the Pharisees challenge their perceived place with in God's eyes in contrast to how they saw themselves. Then between that and our reading for today, Jesus tells another parable, this one about people being invited to the feast, but all finding some excuse not to go. Everybody's intention was to go to the feast, but no one actually showed, it finishes with Jesus saying. . . Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. 24 For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner." So if you are keeping score, Luke chapter 14, status, invites, excuses, and now cost. Do you see the building connection? Jesus is not holding back, he is letting his followers know what they are following. At this point Jesus is very popular, crowds are following him, but big numbers don't always get big results.
So Blue Ridge football a year ago had success like the school has not known in 19 years, state championship, small team, low numbers, and big success. Now a year later, we've had a pretty big influx of new players. People want to be a part of it. It's cool to be a part of it. Everyone wants to look good in their jerseys and helmets, everyone wants to be out there seen in the blue and white. But we just weren't sure. We went to Woodberry last week, and didn't play well, jitters, maybe, early, certainly, teachable moment, sure, but we've got talent, we got numbers, we'll be okay. And then our game yesterday happened. We started with a senior upset with not being sent out as a captain for the coin toss, so we suspended him for a quarter. . . selfish, yeah. And that was just the beginning. A high school football game is 4 quarters and 48 minutes, I saw glimpses of greatness overshadowed by more selfishness. Kids taking plays off, kids not willing to block for their teammates, routes being run by receivers half speed, lazy tackles, lazy pursuit, no enthusiasm, and a team who was supposed to walk through their first game, just by showing up got thudded 38-20. And watching it, as soon as it was over I thought, Cost. Now I hadn't made the connection yet with the scripture, that would come a little later, but I just couldn't stop, Cost, these kids did not know how much it costs to win football games, they did not know how hard it was for those guys to put together a state championship run last year, they had no idea what it takes to play football well, how selfless you need to be, how much you need to put in work to help the other guy, how much if you are worried about yourself it falls apart, it falls apart quickly, and it falls apart ugly. No one depends on each other, people start doing their own thing, and it falls apart, trust breaks down, team disappears, and all that is left is a bunch of individuals running around, or loafing around, getting beat. And then start the excuses. . . 
I am not one to dwell on the relationships between sports and life. I find that most connections are often cliche: trite and over used, but this one jumped up and hit me in the face. Jesus knows that the only way for people to truly follow him, all the way is if they give up self first. Love demands it. Love demands you to be the best you can be, with no excuses, built up, fully operational, working at capacity, but not for self, for others. When Jesus is asked, what is the greatest commandment, he quotes Deuteronomy, the schema, Deuteronomy 6, Love the Lord with your all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength, in english, but in Hebrew its stronger. With all your heart, Labob, in Hebrew, means your inner parts, your guts, the deepest within you, Nephesh, is translated usually as soul, but it means your essence the very stuff of your life, and the last meod, is translated might, literally means to your last breath, every thing you've got, as if you've travelled across the desert only to collapse because you can't go another step, and God does the rest, that is meod. These are the words Jesus alludes to when he answers the question, to what the greatest commandment is. Literally your all, the most gritty inside of you, your spiritual essence, and the full and total extent of your physical strength. That is what it costs, and it is what Jesus gives, on the cross, and where we are to follow.
I couldn't help thinking at the end of that game yesterday, once I had made the connection between what I had been studying all week and our collapse, that we should have told the boys what it cost. We should have let them know, but how could I as a coach communicate to them how expensive wins are in football? How much energy is required, how many times you have to put your body on the line, how many times you have to play with an injury, how many times, when you think you need a break, and you look over to the sideline and realize that there is no one there, and you have to suck it up and try to play anyway, even when you feel you have nothing left. How many times you have to run your pattern knowing that you aren't getting the ball, how many times you have to block so that someone else gets the glory and you get the bruise. . . how could we have told them ahead of time? In someways I think we failed them in that, but not telling them. Maybe we were afraid they would quit, maybe we knew deep down they couldn't rise to the challenge, maybe we thought they already  knew, maybe we thought they'd figure it out on their own, I think that was our hope. Well they learned it now, they learned that it takes more than they were willing to give. They know it now for sure. Its funny, Jesus does both, he tells us, and it seems he knows we aren't going to show up just from being told. . .  remember, none of those invited will enjoy my dinner. . .and the end of this text: none of  you can be my disciple unless you give up your possessions. And from just being told, Jesus goes to the cross alone, all of his disciples are gone, even Peter, they are all gone. They had to be shown what it takes, and then they knew. Luke is also the writer of Acts, you will find that the disciples learned it once they were shown, once they felt it, once they saw for themselves the cost.
And so in someways I'm back to what I was going to say. Jesus is teaching us, with full faith in us, even though we go astray, even though we falter, even though we don't seem to have enough, he knows and has faith that we can, and will continue to give us grace until we realize it, but you see grace seems to be on this side, on the other side of labad, nephesh, and meod-heart, soul, and mind, the bar stays high, the cost stays real, but all within the faith of grace.
This text is subtitled in most Bibles the "Cost of Discipleship" Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a book by the same name. His words tell of the amazing cost that a disciple must pay, and his life paid the cost, giving all in resistance to the Nazi regime in Germany, giving his life, his all. I'd like to close this sermon with a quotation from "Cost of Discipleship," and it is also printed in your bulletin.

“Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and 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. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”

Costly grace, grace with the bar set high, the meeting place between love for us and faith in us. . . may our faith in Christ build us up, so that we can truly follow. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 14:25-33). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.