By Cynde | Tuesday, September 6, 2016 | 2:56 PM
“Growing In Faith”
September 4, 2016
Cary G. Speaker, D.Min.
If you have been following the readings through the Gospel According to Luke, you will remember that Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem and the typical setting for stories is that a crowd is following, or has gathered around, Jesus. If someone other than Luke wrote this story, it might be introduced by Jesus saying, “Crowds? I can do something about those crowds. Wait until they hear this sermon.” It may be confusing to us when we first read this story. In most places Luke tells us that Jesus invites people to follow him. The first thing Jesus does to begin his public ministry is to call disciples to follow him, and they do follow him. The fishermen leave their boats, nets and families and follow Jesus. But in this story Jesus gives a serious warning about being his disciple. Jesus takes a break to remind his would-be followers of the high cost of discipleship. Jesus urges his followers to count the cost.
I regularly suggest that many American Christians have appropriated Jesus as a means to get what they want. I confess that much of what the church has taught presents faith as a good deal. The Christian faith is presented as a means of making basically nice people even nicer. Too often faith is presented as a technique for getting whatever we want. At least, too often it seems to be that. Until we come up against this story for today. Whatever Jesus is doing, he is not making discipleship sound like a fun trip.
In this community we expect our children to go to school and make better than average grades. You do realize that in an “A, B, C” grading system a “C” is average. All of our children are above average. We clearly have that expectation. We tell our children to study hard in school and do their homework because it will someday “pay off.” In other words, we are saying, “suffer now because that is how you can get into the best university and then get the best job.” We are not satisfied with average grades or average schools or average jobs. We expect the best. Here is a piece of advice from a parent whose children graduated from above average schools; everyone cannot be the best. Some of us are average. I remember taking one of those sons to the pediatrician for a checkup. He was a toddler and was compared to the growth chart. The doctor looked at the data and declared my son to be average. Then he said, “But no father wants his son to be average.” Obviously, that comment has stayed with me.
In the church we take this concept of hard work and transfer it into a theological belief. During the Civil War the southern Presbyterian Church developed a doctrine known as the “spirituality of the church.” It was the theological belief that slaves worked hard and obeyed their masters in order to go to heaven for their reward.
This is not what Jesus is doing. Jesus is not saying that suffering is a means of getting whatever good we want. Rather, he is saying that this is the way God gets what God wants. Jesus is not inviting followers because his way, though painful and even deadly, will eventually lead to the great reward. Jesus invited his followers to count the cost because this is God’s way, perilous though it often is, this is the way that leads to life. Even so, we must count the cost before we decide to follow Jesus.
Jesus tells two parables guaranteed to stop the crowd from following him. In essence Jesus ridicules the crowd for thoughtlessly parading after him without considering the high cost demanded of disciples. It does raise the wonder; why would anyone follow Jesus? Or maybe these are challenging parables. Maybe this is the perfect sermon for you to hear. Perhaps you have been waiting for this challenge. What do you seek? Are you after safety and security? Do you need to avoid conflict at all costs? Jesus says, “Count the cost.”
I heard the following story a few years ago, but unfortunately it could come from almost any historical setting. I was told it in the context of the Iraq war. It could have been told about Viet Nam or WW II and of course it could be told right now. It seems there was a young pastor of a small Presbyterian Church told his session that he planned to protest the current war. He planned to go to a government building and gather with other clergy who were against the war. His session begged him not to go. He said it was a matter of conscience. He went. As he was being led away from the protest by the police a reporter snapped his picture. The caption read, “Presbyterian pastor in handcuffs.” It was a ceremonial arrest and the entire group was released the next morning. When the young pastor arrived at the church one of the elders met him. This was a very influential leader in the congregation and the most generous financial contributor. The elder told his pastor that he was furious and that he and his family were leaving the church. The pastor did what he could to explain his action, but there was no changing the elder’s mind. The pastor was heartbroken at the loss.
That Sunday there were eight visitors in worship. Seven came because they said they had seen the pastor’s picture and wanted to hear him preach. One of the visitors said, “I want to join this church. It’s good to see the clergy leading the way, taking a stand, regardless of the consequences.” A few years ago one of the small Presbyterian Churches in Birmingham decided to become a More Light church. For those of you who do not know, the More Light designation means that the church openly welcomes gay and lesbian people. The slogan for this unnamed church is, “Open hearted, open minded.” Not long ago the pastor of that More Light church reminded me of one of their new members. I had known this man years before. He had been an elder in a more conservative church. He was married and had children. But then he discovered that he had always been gay and could no longer live a lie. He was looking for a church where he would be welcomed. He called the pastor. When he heard that the church was “open hearted and open minded,” he asked the pastor, “Does that include people like me?” It was not an easy decision for that church. There was much debate and some church members left because of that decision. Not only have they survived. That church is alive and well.
Has the church been making discipleship less interesting, less challenging than Jesus intended it to be? Jesus tells his would-be followers that they must give up everything in order to follow him. Those are very difficult, challenging words. To whom is he speaking? Remember that this Gospel begins with these ordinary fisher folk doing exactly that – leaving home, family and everything to follow Jesus. What if Jesus said these demanding things in front of the disciples as encouragement and affirmation of what they have already done? What if Jesus is telling us that his discipleship demands are possible to follow? Jesus wants us to grow in our faith. He also wants us to know that it is not easy.
And here you are, just like those first disciples. I know you have not left everything and I hope you have not turned your back on your family, but I do know that you have and continue to make sacrifices. Even knowing the risks, here you are. I have stopped referring to church members who teach Sunday school, serve as elders and deacons and on clusters, and who make the dinner appear on Wednesday nights, or who deliver home communion to our home bound members, volunteers. You are not volunteers. You are called by God. You are called to be a disciple. It is not easy. If it was easy, everyone would be a disciple. Look around. We need to support each other in our calling to be disciples. Following Jesus is costly. Growing in faith is demanding. It takes discipline to be a disciple. Only by the grace of God do we have faith, and only by the grace of God are we called to be disciples. Thanks be to our gracious God.