(Creative Commons image by Rahul Bhattacharyya on Flickr)
Dear Working Preacher,
This may be one of those weeks when you look at the Gospel reading and then quickly glance to see if any of the other readings are better candidates for a Sunday sermon. What makes this passage so daunting, of course, is that the language is uncomfortable, even extreme. This passage scared me when I was a child, as I couldn’t imagine hating my parents or siblings and was appalled, quite frankly, that Jesus would ask me to. As I grew older, I came to understand the hyperbolic language Jesus used to make his point, but that didn’t remove the deep uneasiness I still felt about this passage with all of its language of sacrifice and counting the cost and crosses.
We tend not to emphasize such themes in our mainline churches. Particularly in an era when our people have so many options for spending their Sunday mornings we tend to avoid asking for significant sacrifice and try to make church involvement as easy as possible. (Wednesday night services are a thing of the past, for instance, and youth group and confirmation are crammed into Sunday morning lest we interfere with sports schedules.) And so we emphasize God’s grace and work our schedules for fellowship, education or youth group around school calendars and community activities as much as possible. Yet this passage makes me wonder whether we’ve missed something essential about the Christian faith.
This isn’t about our eternal destiny. This is about the character of our Christian lives.
Christianity, I’ve come to realize, is a way of being, a way of living, a way of doing things differently because of living “in Christ” (to borrow Paul’s favorite phase). Yet for much of my ministerial career I’ve preached and written as if it’s primarily a way of thinking. Don’t get me wrong, I love theology and believe it has an important place in the church. But sometimes I wonder if part of our decline is that we’ve spent so much time stressing what we need to think and believe instead of talking about what we can and should -- indeed, are called to -- do.
Before anyone calls the theological police, let me assure you that I’m not talking about earning our salvation or justifying ourselves by our works. Grace, salvation, right relationship with God -- these are all gifts beyond either our ability or comprehension. But then what? Do we really imagine that the assurance of salvation is all there is to the Christian life? Does Christianity have nothing more to contribute to the way we live our life in the world?
That is why this passage -- this difficult and demanding passage -- has so much to offer. Because in this part of the story, Jesus asks his disciples both then and now to sacrifice. Actually, he doesn’t ask. He tells us that he expects, even demands, undivided loyalty (and it's where the hyperbolic language of hating comes in). This is why we are asked to count the cost -- because the Christian life is expensive, it demands our commitment in terms of our time, attention, and money. Again, let me be clear, I’m not talking about salvation. That’s done, over, finished and completed by God’s grace alone. So can we move on? Can we talk not only about justification but also discipleship? Because that’s what Jesus is talking about here, the cost of discipleship.
I know, I know, now you’re not just glancing at the other passages but scanning them in earnest, wondering how in the world I can urge you to preach a sermon about sacrifice when giving is already down and people seem so unready to commit to church any more than they already have. Hasn’t the notion of sacrifice itself become something of a taboo in our world of easy convenience and instant gratification? And don’t we risk driving even more people away by asking them to give up anything for church?
I mean, people are already sacrificing. I know a lot of parents who give up nearly every weekend for their kids' travelling sports team. And I know lots of career-minded folks who put in long hours in jobs they don’t love in order to secure their futures or just to make ends meet. Lots of our people are spending hard-earned money to join a gym or participate in diet programs to get healthier. And how many of our families sacrifice in order to make sure their kids are dressed well and have a chance for further education?
And please hear me, I’m not criticizing any of these choices. But I do want to ask why we make these and other sacrifices. I believe it’s because these things are important to us. You sacrifice according to your priorities. And in today’s passage Jesus is saying that the Kingdom of God he proclaims and the kingdom life he exemplifies should be a priority, actually be the priority. So maybe we should contemporize Jesus’ parable a bit and ask, “What parent wouldn’t count the cost before signing up for the traveling soccer team and what new employee wouldn’t consider whether she is willing to work every weekend her first year?” Do you see what I mean? Our people are already making sacrifices, and in this passage Jesus is saying that Christian discipleship calls for the same.
I suspect that we already know that. I suspect, in fact, that each of us who occupies a position of leadership in the church has also made significant sacrifices and at times grows frustrated that our people seem so reluctant to do the same. But here’s the thing: have we asked them to? Have we invited them to imagine that church is as important as ice hockey or soccer, that participating in the life of the congregation matters just like their career does?
Look, I get it. Our whole family is happier when our eldest is swimming and has a chance to pour all the extra energy (and hormones!) of adolescence into the pool rather than have it spill out all over the place at home. And so we have at times made that a priority to the exclusion of church activities. But over the long haul I also want him to have a life marked by relationship with God, by confidence in God’s love for him and all the world, and by the knowledge that whatever may happen or wherever he may go, God is with him.
And that takes sacrifice.
This Sunday, Working Preacher, is for many of us the first Sunday of a new program year. Lots of things get going this week -- from school activities to community events -- that will demand our people to make sacrifices.
I’m asking you to allow Jesus’ words in this passage to get equal time, to ask our people to look at the long arc of their lives and ask what is important to them, what they hope for them and their families. Not simply because they should, but because the abundant life and way of discipleship that Jesus both promises and announces also takes sacrifice -- not to earn God’s grace but to live into the discipleship life that grace makes possible.
This isn’t about our eternal destiny, Working Preacher, God has already taken care of that. This is about the caliber and character of our Christian lives. And, like anything else worth doing, discipleship takes time, energy, work, and practice -- in a word, it takes sacrifice.
One last thing to think about before setting you loose: more and more psychological research indicates that we actually value more highly those things for which we sacrifice. And so perhaps part of the mainline malaise can be attributed to the fact that, out of nothing but good intentions, we’ve made church a little too easy. Well, if nothing else, this week’s passage invites us to reconsider that strategy! (And, heck, if you’re still not persuaded, there are always those other passages that might yield a more comforting word.)
Whatever direction you go this week, Working Preacher, know that I am mindful of the sacrifices you regularly make for the sake of the gospel and that I’m grateful for your commitment. Your work and your words matter, now more than ever.
Yours in Christ,