Sermons from Rev Canon Dr Ian Davies
Sunday 4th September
The cost of discipleship – Luke 14: 25-35 – September 4, 2016
Here we go again: Jesus at his electoral appealing best - in an astonishing gospel reading? “You want to be my disciple? Well this is what you’ve got to learn how to do:
· hate your family,
· give up all your possessions
· (oh yes) and prepare for a gruesome death.”
…this is hardly, ‘How to win friends and influence people!’ as Dale Carnegie entitled his famous 1937 bestselling book
But hang on a moment. We can’t ignore what Jesus is saying (although sometimes I wish I could because his teaching seems so difficult - & Julie warned me this one was mine after her kind coverage these past weeks). So let’s try and look at it a slightly different way. Supposing, instead of thinking of a politician seeking people’s votes, we hear these things being said by the leader of a dangerous expedition to help people trapped after some disaster (you might remember a few years ago those trapped in the mountainous regions of Kashmir following horrific flooding). The rescuers were required to forge their way through high mountain passes to bring urgent medical aid to villagers cut off from the rest of the world. “If you want to come further”, that leader might say, “you’d better leave your heavy backpacks behind – because from here on the path is too steep to carry any unnecessary baggage”. You’d probably never be able to find the pathway again, the severe weather’s coming in, so it’s now or never; and you’d better send your last postcards home; this is a dangerous route and it’s very likely some of us won’t make it back.”
Now then, we might be able to understand that (couldn’t we?) We may not like the sound of it, but we can see why such harsh instructions would make sense.
And if we’ve begun to understand anything about the kingdom of God from Jesus’ teaching and action in the New Testament, then we can see that our Lord is far closer to an expedition leader than a politician. This is not ‘sound-bite stuff’ that the gospel writers are giving us – it’s solid teaching to help us to live distinctively different lives. (…With me so far?)
But what Jesus says still shocks us to the core doesn’t it?! Western Christianity (particularly in the States) has often been associated with so-called ‘family values’, so it comes as a real surprise to be told to ‘hate’ your parents, your wife and children, brothers and sisters? And then when the instruction goes even further – that you must hate your own self – and be prepared to suffer a shameful death (because to be told to ‘take up your cross’ wasn’t just a figure of speech in Jesus’ world) - then we’re beginning to get a sense of the seriousness - the totality - of what’s going on in this discipleship – this following (gathering, growing, going) thing we’re involved in as Christians. So what’s really going on?
Yes Jesus is using a common method of teaching by over-exaggerating things to make a point (like I was to Samsung this week trying to get a replacement fridge) - but it still sounds harsh. (So let’s be clear). He isn’t denying the importance of close family – that’d be a great talk for our family service at 10.00 wouldn’t it?! He’s not saying don’t live in harmony with your kids – or your mum and dad (let’s not forget the Commandment in Exodus to honour father and mother – and God isn’t in the habit of changing his mind.) But here’s the thing - when an urgent task is to be done – as there is now in a world that’s quite lost and messed up without Jesus – then everything else – all our priorities and ambitions - must be put at risk for the sake of the kingdom. So in the end we can’t avoid the general gist of what Jesus is saying. Nothing can replace or take the place of wholeheartedly following Jesus. If we are to see God’s kingdom prevail then we are to have unswerving determination to make this relationship central and most important in our lives. And that is really uncomfortable if all we think about following Jesus is giving up one hour a week to go to church. We’ve domesticated the message of Jesus which demands all.
And in our consumer society this is especially true of our attitude towards ‘things’ – stuff, possessions. Many of Jesus’ followers then owned houses and land and hadn’t felt compelled to abandon them. But he was asking them to be prepared to do so; to understand that with all our TV ‘makeover’ and home restoration shows (much-loved by some here I know), that this isn’t where all our energy should be going. Any of us, at any time, might be summoned to give up everything, quite literally, and respond to an emergency situation. And if we’re not ready for that, we’re like the tower-builder or the warring king that Jesus uses as illustrations of what he’s saying.
(Now) These two pictures: the tower and the battle carried a cryptic warning in Jesus’ day. Q. What was the most important building project of his time(?) the TEMPLE in Jerusalem. Herod the Great had begun a massive programme of rebuilding and restoring it, and his sons and heirs were carrying on the work. But what was it all for? Would it ever be completed? Jesus had already warned the people that God had abandoned his ‘house’ – and Herod’s Temple would shortly be left a smouldering ruin, when it was destroyed in 70AD.
And then there’s a second warning, and the two are connected. If the people of Jesus’ time had fighting on their minds, it was the occupying Romans that were their chief enemy – they were longing to go to war with Rome. But they probably only had a vague idea of who the Romans actually were, and what sort of forces they had at their command – and how organized and utterly brutal they could be – otherwise, long before they came to blows, they’d have taken the wiser course and found some way of coming to a more peaceful arrangement. But Jesus’ warnings, urging them towards peace seemed to be falling on deaf ears. The Jewish people were intent on hanging onto their ancestral possessions – and eager for a war that would set them free and restore their land to them at last. They couldn’t see that Jesus was telling them there was a real emergency here.
So in simple terms, they’d lost their way – they’d lost their vision of what they were supposed to do and to be – which is why Julie read the last two verses of chapter 14, because this last warning comes with renewed force. Israel was supposed to be the salt of the earth; supposed to be the people through whom God’s world is kept wholesome and tasty – but if she loses this calling to be salt and light – if she loses her flavour, what’s the use? This is the all-or-nothing challenge that Jesus is bringing to his contemporaries – and it’s urgent – things are in crisis.
Now it isn’t difficult to re-apply these hard sayings of Jesus to the ongoing life of the church, is it? (And as the commentators point out, Luke probably had it in mind for us to do that very thing).
At every stage of its life the church, God’s people, have faced the challenge not only of living up to Jesus’ demands, but of faithfully placing these before the world – and these days the post-modern world is completely ‘un-churched’. Most people in Waunarlwydd aren’t at all familiar with the life of this community in St Barnabas and its witness through the years – nor are most people aware of what’s so special about places of worship. When Sue, Joel and I arrived here (lawks - 10 years ago this summer, can you believe? – and it feels like 20 I hear you saying!) do you remember the spate of broken windows? I used to dread going up to say my daily prayers because day after day there’d be shattered glass all over the floor. And it was one of the local community police officers who reminded me that those doing damage probably had absolutely no notion of this being a place where people worship.
But this kind of opposition shouldn’t pitch us into a state of huge anxiety; it’s actually such an opportunity to try some more creative ways of getting the message of Jesus across to people - rather than just repeating what we’ve been doing for so long. Which is why initiatives like Butterlies at St Bs, Messy Church and the monthly family service – and the packed-church baptisms we regularly have - are so crucial to getting the Gospel across to people here. Now I need to say all our traditions as Anglicans are great – but only if they’re still ‘tasty’ – if they still illuminate the emptiness of life without God - and the fullness with him at the centre – which is good news for people desperate to know why they’re on this planet and where they belong. But if those ways of doing church have lost their purpose – and impact – then, difficult as that is, we have to ask whether we should still be doing them.
We need to understand our place and purpose in a culture that has shifted so hugely. And to use Jesus’ terms, where are the towers, and where are the wars, that our world is hell-bent on building and fighting? (Actually both images are still quite powerful given recent world events aren’t they?)
How are we going to summon the human race back once more to the kind of costly obedience and holiness that Jesus is looking for? We’ve been talking a lot about choices recently – and this is The Choice God is laying out to people in our Old Testament reading.
The good news is that following the Lord Jesus Christ, committing our lives to him is indeed the way of love, joy and peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – the fruit of God’s Spirit as he works within us expressing the very life of God – the very Spirit of Jesus. Amen