This is the season of The Schedule. It’s the time to make sure the family Google calendar syncs up with the new fall routine, after the glorious disruptions of summer and vacations. And if you have children in your household you know (or may remember) the particular September scramble of fitting in after-school activities, sports, homework, social events, with work, household chores, and volunteer efforts. Sometimes it feels like you need a computer program to figure out who needs to be where, with what, or whom, when. And heaven help you if a small detail changes and you have to rearrange everything! Even if you don’t have children at home, the early fall always arrives with the drive to get organized, make sure your commitments are in your calendar in ink, so you know what you are doing, and begin the new program year. It can feel like multiple requirements are pressing in on you all at the same time – at least until you can get your schedule somewhat tamed.
And into the midst of all of this September scramble comes Jesus, with his challenging and difficult words this morning. The carefully stacked blocks of our schedules and commitments may just get knocked over, like pulling out the last block which collapses the tower in a game of Jenga when we hear what Jesus has to say; and we may not like it at all!
He addresses the large crowd who were travelling with him, people who had seen his miracles and healing and wondrous works, who had heard him speak with authority about God’s purposes and had followed along to see what else was going to happen. Maybe there would be an even more spectacular miracle; maybe Jesus would even more brazenly denounce the Roman governing system and hand the running of the country back to Jewish rulers; maybe there would always be food enough for all of them. Curiosity and desire can draw people on for a long time.
But instead of encouraging the crowd, Jesus turns to them and says, “If you want to come with me and be part of what I’m doing, here’s what needs to happen: you can’t put your family first; you need to know that there’s a strong possibility this is going to end with a torturous death; you can’t be weighed down by an overabundance of possessions. You need to count the cost of all of this before we go any further together.” Wow. Take a minute and let all that sink in.
And then the objections come: isn’t Christianity supposed to be family-friendly? didn’t Jesus die so that we don’t have to suffer? What’s wrong with owning lots of things? These are all really good questions, and we could spend an hour pondering and discussing each one. For now, I’ll just say that Jesus is making it very clear that anyone who wants to follow him, to be his disciple, needs to be aware of the realities and costs involved.
I recently heard about a church in another part of the country, in a downtown area that had a big banner on its front lawn that read: “Come on in. It’s easy.” That may seem like a good marketing strategy – a low bar to get folks to cross the threshold. And in many ways, it’s what the socially-accepted expectation of church was – at least in America, in the decades after World War II: “Come through the doors, you’ll meet people like yourself, you can be comfortable, not too much is going to be required of you.” Now, of course, that’s an over-generalization, but the point here is that the message on that 2019 church’s banner is not true. It’s not true of Christian faith, of following Jesus, of worshiping God; it never has been true.
The very first commandment that God gave Moses after the Hebrew people were freed from their slavery and they were being gathered and shaped as a people, the very first command was “Hear the commandments of God to his people: I am the Lord your God who brought you out of bondage. You shall have no other gods but me.” This command to worship and serve God alone was of course about turning away from the various Egyptian deities, or the Canaanite gods they would later encounter. But it was always understood to include any person or idea or value that we might want to put in God’s place as an idol; whether we are intending to do that or not. And Jesus, as God Incarnate, is bidding his followers to make sure they understand and are prepared for this challenge. It’s anything but easy.
The New Testament scholar Tom Wright uses this image in commenting on this passage: ‘… think of the leader of a great expedition, forging a way through a high and dangerous mountain pass to bring urgent medical aid to villagers cut off from the rest of the world. ‘If you want to come any further,’ the leader says, ‘you’ll have to leave your packs behind. From here on the path is too steep to carry all that stuff. You probably won’t find it again. And you’d better send your last postcard home; this is a dangerous route and it’s very likely some of us won’t make it back.’ That’s truth, that’s real; there’s a lot at stake in following Jesus.
And if we think that setting out the costs of discipleship in a clear way is a lousy recruitment tool, that it merely drives people away, I would ask us to think again. I would offer the example of a number mythic stories that have been written by faithful practicing Christians as an expression of their understanding of God and the world and being disciples, books that are beloved and have huge followings: The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Harry Potter.
In each of these books, while there are one or two central characters, there is always a larger core group of people and beings (because not all the characters are human). Each member of the group has their own very different gifts, abilities, personalities, graces, physical features, and attributes. And they are all drawn together, not by their fondness for each other, but to take on a dangerous and important mission that that they could not ever have imagined on their own: those who are loyal to Aslan, the Fellowship of the Ring, Dumbledore’s Army and the Order of the Phoenix.
Certainly, each of these series of books – which have spoken so profoundly to so many - is full of stirring, heroic scenes and battles between good and evil. And they seem very exciting and attractive… from a distance; kind of like the feeling of watching a video of runners crossing the finish line at the New York City Marathon and thinking that would be a really cool thing to do – until you start the actual training. But the crux of these stories, the turning point, the truth-with-a-capital-T in each book has to do with the protagonists making a hard choice, giving something up, coming to a costly awareness or decision – whether it is mercy or repentance or sacrifice. It is because Tolkien, and Lewis, and JK Rowling write the Truth – even without mentioning God – that their work endures and continually finds new audiences. The Truth they portray is hard and beautiful and good.
Jesus’s words are hard; they are challenging. They call us to examine our lives, our schedules, our commitments. Did we think faith was going to be easy? Do we try to fit God in as an after-thought, a “nice-to-have”? As the Prayer Book puts it in Eucharistic Prayer C, do we look to church “for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal”? Solace and pardon can be good places to start, but we can’t stay there – not if we are going to go the whole way with Jesus.
So, at the start of this new season, let’s take the time – each one of us - to ask God how we might count the cost of our faith, the cost of what God is asking us to do and to be, so that we can be more fit and ready to serve our Lord with truth, mercy, beauty, and goodness.
Let us pray.
Grant, Lord God, to all who have been baptized into the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ, that, as we have put away the old life of sin, so we may be renewed in the spirit of our minds, and live in righteousness and true holiness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. ~ BCP, p. 252
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 8, 2019