READING FROM THE GOSPEL (Luke 14: 25-33)
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.
SERMON “Estimating the Cost” by Rev. Robin Bartlett
Preached on Sunday, September 4, 2016
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Listen to the sermon here.
So the gospel text we just heard upsets people, particularly people who are convinced that Jesus is the purveyor of “traditional family values.” I don’t care what people have been telling you, there ain’t nothing traditional about Jesus. In fact, in this passage from Luke, Jesus says that in order to be his disciple, you must hate your mother and father, your wife and children, your brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself.
Holy smokes, Jesus. HATE your own mom and your whole family? What does that even mean?!
I’ll be honest, I don’t really know. I was really good at hating my little brother when we were kids, but I don’t think my behavior toward him was particularly Jesus-like. Quite the contrary.
There are a lot of preachers who will tell you definitively what Jesus means about everything he said as if they talked to him personally and he clarified it over a beer and a couple of foreshadowing scriptures from the Old Testament, but I’m not one of those preachers.
So I’m just guessing that at the very least, when Jesus tells us we should hate all of our family members, that’s some serious hyperbole to show that he is not kidding when he says that there is a COST to discipleship. He wants to make it clear, that we truly may have to give up everything we love to follow him—even our families, even our lives. I don’t know many people who have the temerity to do that. Myself most especially included. But it drives a point home, doesn’t it. Jesus is good at that.
Discipleship is a big Bible word, isn’t it? I define discipleship as attempting to be as much like Jesus as I can, and then trying harder next time. I define discipleship as doing my part in my small human way to help create heaven here on this earth. I define discipleship as figuring out what my way of being God’s hands and feet in this world looks like, and then trying like heck to follow up with my actions. I mostly fail.
And I have been thinking all week about what it has cost me to be a disciple so far in my adult life, at age 40, and it hasn’t cost me much.
My discipleship in this world so far has not put my body in any particular danger. It certainly has not cost me my mother and father and husband and children. And thank God for that, because my mother still folds my laundry for me on Fridays, and I couldn’t be a parent to my children, or sane, without my husband who also makes me gourmet dinners every night. And if I had to give up my children, I don’t even want to talk about that.
I certainly have not given up “all my possessions” for discipleship. Even if I did sacrifice gel manicures for our stewardship campaign, I still have a car, plenty of cute clothes and a regular appointment with my miracle worker hairdresser in Jamaica Plain.
The fact is, I haven’t given up too much at all for the cause of bringing about God’s kingdom here on earth. My life is given to the church, but it is a comfortable life.
We are all pretty comfortable by Jesus standards, in fact. So I think Jesus, in all his hyperbole about how we must “hate” our families and lives, is ultimately saying that we are too comfortable. He is asking us a question: what is worth giving up your life for? We’re not paying enough for discipleship if we can’t think as brave and as hard as that. What is the highest cause or biggest dream for the world you can think of, and how far will you go to realize it?
I think those of you who have served in the armed forces have asked and answered this question with your lives, as have the great civil rights martyrs like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s labor day, and the folks in the labor movement brought us the weekend with not a small amount of terror and bloodshed. Even that football player this week who keeps sitting down for the national anthem is sacrificing advertising contracts and popularity, and getting death threats for the sake of a cause larger than himself. People are tarring and feathering that dude, and he’s still doing it.
And of course, we know that our Jesus died a violent death rather than let the love of power win over the power of Love.
That’s what giving it all up for discipleship looks like, and all of that looks pretty hard to me.
I think the reason why I haven’t given too much up in the scheme of things is not just because I fear giving up my possessions and my life, but also because I am so distracted by other stuff. So when estimating the cost of discipleship this week, I had to factor in what economists call “opportunity cost.” Because so much opportunity cost is wasted in my distraction from what actually matters. The amount of time we spend shopping for things we don’t need alone is opportunity cost wasted, much less the hours we while away playing candy crush. But I also try to factor in the amount of time I spend worrying and fretting over the small stuff that ultimately doesn’t matter, and that’s when I feel particularly wasteful.
And we can be wasteful like that doing the business of the church, too.
Now this church is blessedly not particularly oriented toward petty fights at all. It’s one of the things that I love about this church, and one of the things that keeps me engaged with this place. Mostly, we are a beloved community with a sincere focus on our mission.
We can sometimes still be distracted by outrage about the small things every now and then. It can cost us a lot of time that we should be spending on our collective discipleship, but we are only human and doing the best that we can. Amen?
Last year in the fall, we were creating a new website, and new “branding” for the church. During that process, we hired a website designer who created a new logo for our website—a rendering of the church building that was both modern, and “clean”—it was meant to bring us kicking and screaming into the 21st century. I didn’t feel particularly attached to it, but it was serviceable and attractive enough. And we put it on many things, including the cover of the bulletin for a while, in the interest of creating a noticeable brand. And there were multiple complaints about it, and a call to change it, and a committee formed to make a new logo because it “didn’t look like us”. I ended up just removing it from the bulletin cover altogether, so you won’t see it now if you’re looking for it there.
I was incredulous about this whole thing, and a little dismayed.
I said, rather self-righteously (which is one of my greatest sins, so help me God) “this discussion about the logo is a lost opportunity—a complete distraction from doing the real work of creating heaven on earth. Of feeding the poor, clothing the naked, and releasing the prisoner. There are people dying, and this is what we are spending our time talking about? We are all going to die soon. Will we look back on our life on our deathbeds and say, “well, I won the big 2015 fight about the cover of the bulletin at my church…that was my greatest triumph!”
I was discounting how important signs and symbols can be to one’s very identity. I was discounting that with change always comes loss.
And so with humility and in the interest of confession, I want to tell you a story about my week this week.
On Monday, the day I came home from vacation and my thoughts were turning to homecoming and getting the church ready, I sent an email out to the operations team leadership saying, “Hi all! When is our new sign going to be installed on the front lawn?”
And Doug wrote a “reply to all message” that said, “I saw the sign! It is amazing. Probably installed Wednesday.”
This was in the evening and I was in my house, and I swear to you I was fully sober. And I was so excited to see it, that I ran immediately over to the church to witness with my own eyes the newly installed church sign Doug was talking about.
What I saw looked exactly like our old sign. Forest green, with just the words “The First Church in Sterling”, barely visible, and back from the road, fading into the green bush behind it like camouflage.
At first I was confused, and then I was just mad. In fact, I have never been so furious with this church in my over two years here. My belly was in KNOTS. I considered going back to therapy.
“We spent all this money on the sign, one that was supposed to stand out and SAY WHO WE WERE, and the new sign we made is exactly the same as the last one!” I yelled at my husband.
I wrote to my best collegial friends: “They changed the sign plans without telling me. And it fades into the bushes and doesn’t have our denominations on it, and doesn’t have my name on it, and it was supposedly going to! What do you think this MEANS?!”
My colleague friends said, “maybe they are trying to tell you that they don’t want too much change too fast. Maybe they figure they are the town church, and they should go for small and tasteful. You got too much press last year! They didn’t like it. Maybe you should use this as an opportunity for conversation about communication and mission and change.”
For a full hour, I was enraged. “I’m just curious,” I wrote in an email to the church leadership who worked on the sign. “Did something change with our sign plans? This new sign looks just like our old one. Did I miss something?”
Chris Roy finally wrote back, after I had slipped further into the abyss until there was practically no return. “You missed something alright. The sign is not going to be installed until this Wednesday.”
And Jon Guild replied, “in case folks don’t know, Doug saw the new church sign yesterday…on a smartphone (the same company does signs for Farmland). If the “new” sign is green, has peeling paint, and looks very similar to our existing sign…that’s probably not the new sign.”
Sometimes the cost of discipleship is one’s sanity.
“Whoops,” I said to my colleagues. “It turns out that was the old sign I was looking at.”
And they died. “Thanks to your nervous breakdown, Robin, we have sermon fodder for WEEKS,” they said. We will call our sermons, “I saw the sign,” “signs and wonders,” “Signs, signs, everywhere are signs”.
And here’s the honest to God truth: I was more furious over this supposedly “new” old sign than any one of you have ever been about the bulletin cover. I promise you this. And this rage and angst about the sign was a complete distraction. From feeding the poor, clothing the naked, and releasing the prisoner. “There are people dying, Robin, and this is what you are spending your time talking about? Will you want to look back on your life on your deathbed and say, “well, I won the big 2016 fight over the sign at my church…that was my greatest triumph!”
That is what lost opportunity cost looks like. That was an hour of my life that surely wasn’t focused on making earth as it is in heaven.
The purpose of my life and yours, is not getting exactly what we want. Our call is service to something so much greater, at high personal cost.
So you and I need to sit down and estimate the cost of discipleship by admitting to distraction. By calculating lost opportunity costs, and vowing to rise above them together. We need to ask ourselves instead what we are willing to give up. We need to lay down our attachment to our small ego needs, and ask ourselves instead how we might work together to save the soul of our nation; our world--with our money, with our sweat, with our blood. We need to ask ourselves and each other, “what would we lay down our lives for?” and keep digging into our broken hearts until we find a cause bigger than even our own children and spouses and families.
Beloved, that’s why we come here to this church: to challenge one another to service the greatest Good, which is God, which is Love. We come here to this place because at our best, we are focused together on something much larger than our human concerns. We come here to this place because we belong to one another and to God, and that fact in and of itself is something to lay down our lives for. This place, at its best, names and claims us, so that we might learn to be disciples of Love on this beautiful and broken earth.
We need one another to Love the Hell out of the World. And by my calculations, Love is worth the cost.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.