One of my favorite conversations around here happens during the first Inquirer’s Class – the class we hold a handful of times per year for folks interested in becoming members of the church. We spend almost the entirety of that first class with everyone telling their story – who are you, where have you come from, did you grow up in the church or not? Also, we take care to ask, “How did you end up here? What drew you to us in this season of your life?”
The answers, as many of you remember from your own time in that class, whether two years ago or thirty vary widely. Some have to do with life phase – you move to the area and met one of our members at work. More and more folks find us on the internet. There’s always the ever-popular, “We’ve just had a child and realized that it’s time to get back to church.” Many cluster around important emphases: “We came because of Westminster’s commitment to mission in Durham.” “We came because of the preschool.” “We came because of the amazing music.” “We came because of our kids – our kids have found something in the programming for children, our kids have really connected with our youth program.” Convenience, connection, the breadth of ministry that you make happen. We have found God to be at work, and are drawn in. BUT, I must say, not once – can I recall at least – someone saying, “I’m here because I know this will cost me everything.”
To be fair, I haven’t met many ministers who will claim this is why they went to seminary, either. There’s something in our spirits – all of us – that, even as we are drawn to God, yearn to know God better, want so deeply to be faithful, is also fairly content with the ways we presently live, as we remain stable and predictable and mostly risk-averse. But Jesus needs us to understand. His teachings have been becoming more difficult as of late, moving to the four short sections from the beginning of chapter 14 that happen “at table.” On the way to a meal at the house of a leader of the Pharisees on the Sabbath Jesus heals a man, debating the related law. He arrives at the dinner party, noticing everyone trying to be seen by the right people. He walks up to the host and says not to invite the rich, your family or neighbors. When you throw a banquet, invite the poor. THAT is what the feast looks like in the kingdom of God.
Then Jesus tells a parable, that we spent time with last Sunday, of a man who gave a dinner party, but at the last minute a number of them gave excuses. The host is furious, and sends his slave out to bring in the B-list, but it’s different that we think – Go AT ONCE into the streets and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame. There’s still room and he sends the slave to go grab anybody, yank them by the arm, make them come in! For I tell you – and he turns to the crowd1 – for I tell you all, the master says, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’
He keeps saying all of this hard stuff, but the crowds keep coming. As he leaves the fancy dinner party – to the guest’s relief – Luke says that large crowds were traveling with him. Look, he says as he spins on His heels and looks them in the eye. 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. To modern ears, hate (miseo) is an explosion of negative emotions. It’s tough to take. I don’t think I am interested in serving a God that calls me to turn my back on my family, the first and key arena in which we work out our discipleship. To ancient ears, this language had more to do with attachments, meaning “to turn away from” or “to detach oneself from,” one scholar writes. Either way, Jesus is trying to get people’s attention.2 Jesus is challenging is us to think deeply about what matters. You say your family does – and in this culture, remember, one’s family, one’s household was big, a network of extended kin – is not just a 2.3 kids and a garage nuclear family. What does being committed to one’s family mean? How do we work out our discipleship in how we honor our spouses, in a world in which marriages are discarded too quickly and easily. How do we serve God by shuttling our children from thing to thing for “enrichment”? How do we spend time with and take care of aging parents and grandparents? These decisions offer us ways to express our faith.
Jesus keeps pounding. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. It feels Jesus is trying to make people leave – or at least seeing who has the guts to stick around. This journey is not for the faint of heart, he says. It will always require everything you have. This is what I think he’s heading in verses 28-32. You wouldn’t start building something unless you knew exactly what you were doing and why. You don’t jump into war without a significant intelligence assessment of the battlefield. Then the final verse that stops me in my tracks, and made me seriously consider switching to a different text this week: So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
“When we choose to be a disciple of Jesus Christ,” one colleague writes, “we are saying no to chasing status, success, money, fame, admiration, popularity, personal fulfillment and much more. Our focus, our loyalty, our singular goal is faithfulness to Jesus. Following with all we have and holding nothing back from the One who holds nothing back from us requires that we seriously, intentionally count the cost and decide if we are willing to ante up.”3
It’s a horrible growth strategy, really. Jesus’ words to the crowds that kept following him are not the thing that brings in new members to pack the pews, they will not bring people excited to make a pledge, they do not give warm feelings to people excited about making new friends and having a place to drop off your kids and have your youth taught some nice values. They don’t get you fired up to serve all over this community. Jesus seems to be doing the opposite of trying to draw people in. He’s trying to make us go away. Even more, so, I think, he desperately wants us to understand, that following Jesus, really, truly following Jesus, is something that calls into question every single one of our commitments. Most of those commitments at their heart are good things – to work, using our gifts to make a living and give back to society. To take care of our families. To raise children to be productive people in the world, who will one day not live in our house, but will come back and visit. But somewhere along the line – and this happens to ALL of us, I think, and I surely know I’m guilty of it all – somewhere along the line the desire for meaningful work gets caught up in ambition. The desire to make a living becomes a desire for more nice things, even when others have so little. The desire to raise our families becomes caught up in not who our kids are be called to be but who we want them to be, their resumes becoming almost as important as ours. We lose sight. We go along with the herd and, when we are being honest, it’s exhausting. And we know we’re a bit off track, but we feel powerless to do anything about it.
The good news is that “Even all these [things] belong to God. Even these [things] are subject to Christ. … Nothing is ultimately ours: not our degrees or our family or our money or our lives or anything else in all creation…. We worship a God, in the words of The Scots Confession that we’ll use as our affirmation in a moment, “who is eternal, infinite, immeasurable, incomprehensible, omnipotent, invisible … by whom we confess and believe all things in heaven and earth, visible and invisible have been created, to be retained in their being, and to be ruled and guided by his inscrutable providence…to the manifestation of his own glory.”4 And we must offer every nook and cranny of our lives to God.
I don’t know if this will come up in the next Inquirer’s Class in the list of things that drew people here. If it doesn’t, it should. Maybe I’ll bring it up, just when everyone is starting to get comfortable and making friends. We must keep listening – and Luke has been pretty tough on us these past weeks. Jesus looks the growing crowds in the eye and says: This is going to be serious. You need to know that. What are you prepared to lose? As we come to the table here in a few moments, as we relish the feast, let us be fed, that we might go and give it all away.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. Sharon Ringe, WBC: Luke, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1995), p 199.
2. From the Rev. Heather Shortlidge’s great paper on this text at The Well, 2013, Baltimore.
3. From “Looking Into the Lectionary,” by Jill Duffield, for Sunday, September 4, 2016.
4. From Duffield again.