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A Look Down the Road

Thomas J Parlette

“A Look Down the Road”

Luke 14: 25-33


As any of you who have ever visited my office know, I like books. I have piles of them all over my desk and all around my desk as well. Books about theology, denominational issues, Bibles, hymnals, the influence of the rock group U2 on contemporary Christian culture, books filled with quotes from William Sloane Coffin and John Wooden, sermons by Peter Gomes and more than a few on church growth.

I confess that whenever I read one of those books about why some churches are growing and some are not, I have a bit of a love – hate sort of reaction.

On the one hand, the stories told about the mega-churches that are growing by leaps and bounds, and the strategies they use to make themselves more attractive – like praise bands, professional looking videos and music projected onto screens and such – make me feel a bit like an antique, because I like the traditions of the church. I like our hymns, and I like using a hymnal. I think it encourages us to have an understanding of music by reading the notes rather than simply repeating a chorus over and over again. I like our vestments, our architecture and our liturgical heritage both ancient and modern.

But on the other hand, the church growth literature does contain some very interesting strategy for growth, and I find many of these strategies intriguing. After all, there is nothing wrong with being more attractive, and providing a more welcoming, more accessible environment, in our physical space and in our digital presence, where peoples deepest needs can be met. And I think it might be interesting to incorporate some more visual technology into our worship, maybe look into ways we can augment our online presence. Anything we can do to make our church more appealing can’t be all bad, right?

But then we come across this piece of scripture this morning from Luke. And we are reminded that Jesus can be a bit unattractive, a bit off-putting, somewhat offensive at times.

Today’s lesson is part of what is known as Luke’s travel section – the 12 chapters between the Transfiguration story and the Passion story. Jesus is walking relentlessly towards Jerusalem and the ominous storm clouds are starting to gather. Last week, Jesus was at a dinner party, teaching a small group. This week, the scene changes dramatically and Jesus is surrounded by a large, enthusiastic crowd. They are following Jesus in the most superficial way possible. These folks have heard stories of the new superstar teacher and healer, and they want to be part of the action, they want to be part of the parade. It’ll make a great story to tell the grandkids – “Hey, did I ever tell you about the time I walked with Jesus…?” The mood is light and jovial – imagine a sort of first century Woodstock, and you might get a good idea of the tone. What Jesus has in front of him is every church growth expert’s fantasy – a mass of hungry people ready to be fed by the Gospel. All Jesus has to do is woo them, entertain them just a bit – turn some water into wine, heal a blind man, turn a loaf of bread into a feast – and Bang!, he’s got them. He could break all the membership statistics wide open and receive all sorts of recognition, maybe a book deal, a speaking tour and a spot on Jimmy Kimmel. But instead, Jesus offends them – and offends us, perhaps – with some hard words. Instead of a feel good faith designed to meet their needs, Jesus offers demanding discipleship that might not seem worth the effort. Jesus forces his followers to take a look down the road and consider the cost.

I suppose the hardest word or phrase to hear in this passage is the word “hate”. The first thing you might wonder , “is that what the text really says?” Is that what Jesus means? Well, unfortunately, the only possible translation of the original Greek here is “hate.” But remember, Jesus spoke Aramaic, not Greek, and there really isn’t an accurate Greek word representing what he is trying to say here. The Semitic word “hate” is not a violent word of emotion, but instead, more of a description of a way of being. “Detach” is probably a better transalation. Detach from your mother, your father, your sister, your brother, and your children. That is what Jesus is saying. This same passage appears in Matthew, but it is worded a bit differently – “Whoever loves father and mother, or son and daughter, more than me is not worthy of me.” There we get a better idea of what Jesus is driving at. Still a bit off-putting perhaps – but clearly Jesus is talking about priorities, not a literal hatred.

The next word that jumps out at us is “cross” – as in carry the cross. A metaphorical way of saying pick up the daily problems, burdens and responsibilities that come with ethical living and loving your neighbors, and keep putting one foot in front of the other on the journey of faith. “Carry the cross and follow me.”

And finally, Jesus talks about possessions. He tells the crowd to give up everything – give it all to the poor. Once more, it’s all about priorities – people over possessions, love over hate, justice over privilege, relationship over condemnation – God over everything else in life.

Not exactly the easiest thing to hear. And certainly not what the church growth experts would recommend. So what are we to make of these hard-to-listen-to, unattractive words from a very different Jesus than we have grown accustomed to.

Well, keep in mind that Jesus is using a healthy dose of hyperbole here to shock the crowd. He is going to extremes to make a lasting impression on the hanger’s on that are just there because it seems like the thing to do. I like the sermon title I saw once for this passage – “A Warning to the Clueless Enthusiasts.” Because that’s exactly what this is. Many of the people following Jesus in this story today – not the disciples, but the crowds – they had no idea what being a disciple really meant. They were “clueless enthusiasts” – not real followers. Jesus needed to break out the hard words and force them – and force us – to take a good look down the road and consider the cost of discipleship.

Do we really know what we’re getting ourselves into by claiming the name Christian – or do we just want a feel good religion that meets our needs but makes no demands?

Does being a Christian mean occasional church attendance, when it’s convienient, and memorizing the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles Creed?

Is our commitment limited to professing to be “an active church goer” when the pollsters from Gallup call us some Tuesday night during the dinner hour or putting a “Jesus Saves” bumper sticker on our SUV?

Or does being Christian cost us something?

Does it cost us two weeks to take a trip to Cuba or Haiti or Guatemala?

Does it cost us a week to go to a church on the reservation to lead Bible School?

Does it cost us an afternoon to go pack food for Feed My Starving Children, or volunteer at Friendship Place or Channel One?

Does it cost us an evening to help out with Interfaith Hospitality Network?

Does being a Christian cost us an hour to deliver some flowers to an elderly member?

Does it cost us 10 minutes to pick up the phone and call someone we haven’t seen in church for a while?

Jesus invites us to look down the road and consider what the cost of discipleship might be.

For correctly understood, discipleship does, and should, cost us something. Let me remind you of a story you’ve probably heard before. One day when William Willimon was still the chaplain at Duke University, he received an angry call from a father whose daughter had just received her degree from Duke in Mechanical Engineering. Despite all her hard work and her parents considerable financial expenditure, the new graduate was choosing to “throw it all away,” according to Dad, to do mission work for the Presbyterian Church in Haiti. This irate father held Willimon personally responsible for filling his daughter’s head with all that religion stuff.

Willimon, somewhat defensively, reminded the father that he, too, must have had something to do with his daughter’s spiritual development. The father calmed down a bit and admitted, “I know, I know – but we didn’t want her to be a missionary. We just wanted her to be a good Presbyterian!”

Being a disciple costs something. These hard words from Jesus remind us to look down the road and consider that cost. This passage is all about priorities, it’s about loyalty to God above all, it’s about perserverance at the cost of popularity. This is a passage about counting the cost and knowing what you are getting into and finishing what you start. It’s about the difference between being a follower of Jesus and being a disciple of Jesus – the difference between fad and faithfulness. Jesus is trying to tell us all, with absolute clarity, in striking, some would say offensive language, that our relationship with God comes first. If anything else takes precedence – family, work or possessions – well then we are living lives of idolatry. As one writer has said: “Christianity is a lifestyle, the following of someone headed in a direction we would not normally go.”

So, take a look down the road my friends. Do you want to be a follower or do you have what it takes to be a disciple? Take a look down the road and consider the cost.

May God be praised. Amen.