Calculated Risk, Luke 14:25-33
First United Methodist Church, September 8, 2019
Pastor Toni Carmer
Wow! This is a text that grabs your attention, isn’t it?
It starts out telling us that large crowds are traveling with Jesus, but after hearing what he has to say, we can’t help but wonder how quickly some folks might have responded by backing away, not wanting to hear another word!
This is another one of those times when our first response is: seriously, Jesus?
If we spend too many Sundays in a row focusing on texts like this one, it seems that the construction workers next door might as well just tape off the whole parking lot like they did on Labor Day. Well, they could leave a few spots. I’ll need one. Scott will keep coming, because he “has” to stay on good terms with me. Others of you would probably keep coming while you’re praying for me and hoping I’ll move on and find more soothing words to share from scripture. Because that’s our preference, isn’t it? To come to church and hear words of comfort, words of grace, words of inspiration to buoy us for another week of life and all it has to offer?
So, what’s this about?
Let’s look at this text. We can see that Jesus is talking about people making the decision to follow him, to become his disciple. He wants potential followers to know what they’re getting into if they decide to do that. He includes a warning, or a disclaimer, right up front. It’s like those commercials on television about medication your physician might decide to prescribe for you; there’s this whole list of warnings that are laid out pretty quickly that this medication that might cure you—might also kill you—so they just want you to be aware of that up front.
As Jesus shares the cost of following him, he doesn’t fly through the tough parts quickly to get it all in out in 30 seconds or less, or maybe so folks might not notice that doing this actually could create some issues for them, and he doesn’t minimize the impact this decision will make on a person’s life. He wants folks to know/he wants us to know what we’re getting into if we make the decision to follow him.
So why would he do this? He does it out of love. He doesn’t want anyone to be surprised. So, he uses words that surprise us, and DO catch our attention, so we have a better chance of hearing him and preparing ourselves. So we make an informed decision that we’re ready to live with. Because following Jesus will impact every cell of our being: it impacts the way we look at the world, the way we interact with one another, the decisions we make, the way we raise our children, the way we look at and respond to life.
It’s not just a slice of life in the pie chart of our lives, it’s the fruit that flavors the whole thing. Following Jesus will require a profound, single-minded devotion—to him.
In this scripture, Jesus says, there are three decisions a person must make, to be his disciple. The first is this, and it’s pretty dramatic as he proclaims, “whoever comes to me and doesn’t hate father and mother, spouse and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even your own life, can’t be my disciple.” These words didn’t sound any better to those who first heard Jesus say them than they sound to us today. Family values were important then, and they’re important now. And yet Jesus seems to be saying that we’re to push away those whom we’re most inclined to embrace.
This isn’t the only time that’s happened, it’s not just a fluke or misquote. Remember when Mary and his brothers come to see him and he responds by pointing to his disciples as his blood kin wait outside: “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and my sister and my mother” (Luke 8:19-21; Matthew 13:46-50). Also, keeping that big word “hate” in mind, I think of what he has to teach about our enemies. In Luke chapter 5 (v.43-44), Jesus says this: “You have heard it said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Love our enemies and hate our families? I’m sorry, Jesus, but that’s really confusing.
But here’s the thing: we’re to take what Jesus says seriously, but not literally. And here’s the point: we’re to love him, to devote ourselves to him, to make our relationship with him our primary relationship, before all others. Every other relationship becomes subordinate to following him.
Luke’s audience—first century Christians, most being recent converts from other traditional religions—surely included men and women who had been through angry and tearful conflicts with loved ones over their decision to follow “The Way.” In the stories of martyrs from early Christianity, family members are often pictured pleading with the martyr to change his/her mind, and then responding in anger when he/she refuses.
There’s one particular story from the 2nd Century Acts of Paul that tells of a young woman named Thecla who was converted by Paul’s preaching. After becoming a believer, she refuses to see her non-Christian fiancé, and her mother is grieved. Both mother and fiancé plead with Thecla, who is eventually arraigned before the governor for refusing to marry her lawfully betrothed fiancé. When Thecla doesn’t answer, her mother condemns her. She actually calls for her daughter’s death, saying, “Burn her that is no bride in the midst of the theatre, that all the women who have been taught by this man may be afraid” (from the Apocrypha).
In our culture, following Christ might still in some families bring about conflict and separation, but if that’s not our situation, it’s still a word to be taken seriously. Today we can still get caught up in family stuff—we can make idols of our families and children and set Jesus off to the side. I remember a family who was convinced that their young son would someday be a professional ball player. When the season of his sport came around, they’d disappear for months to attend and participate in games. I always thought about what they were teaching him and their other children. I don’t think it was their intention to teach that the sport was more important than Jesus—and yet…Jesus was consistently coming in second to the game, and perhaps comes in second (or third…) for us, too, at times. I couldn’t help but wonder if someday, when this young man is all grown up and doesn’t think about Jesus, if his parents will scratch their heads, wondering how that happened, and where that seed might have been planted.
I believe Jesus is telling us in today’s scripture that he wants to be first in our lives: before anything or anyone else. He wants to come even before those who are most important to us.
I think he’s telling us something else, as well, about our family relationships. It seems that in this new faith, “family” is redefined and reconfigured. As disciples of Jesus Christ, our family includes not only those who we’re related to by blood, but our family now embraces all believers. Remember last week when Jesus altered the invitation list for the wedding feast: “Don’t only include your friends, your brothers and sisters, your relatives and rich neighbors. Instead, invite the poor, crippled, lame and blind” (14:13) And we again hear those words: “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven in my brother, my sister, my mother” (8:21).
Being a disciple means moving beyond comfortable kinship ties and establishing new relationships among those who are committed to Christ who become our new family.
Number 2. The second thing we must do, Jesus says, if we want to be is disciple, is to carry our own cross and follow him.
To the first century listeners, carrying a cross would have a very different meaning then it does to us today. They would have taken it very literally. Crucifixion was the punishment for rebellious slaves and for those who rebelled against the Roman Empire. It was considered the most humiliating and painful way to be executed. Picking up your cross meant following him all the way—to Jerusalem—and perhaps dying alongside him.
You and I, on the other hand, might translate bearing a cross into the need to deal with a particular physical ailment, an addiction, a business failure, or that your kids have moved back home with you, or maybe never quite launched. “That’s the cross we have to bear,” we might say. But perhaps a better way of interpreting what Jesus is telling us, is considering what we voluntarily do as a result of our commitment to Jesus. Cross-bearing requires deliberate sacrifice and exposure to risk and ridicule in order to follow Jesus. It’s more than a way of life, it’s a commitment to a person. A disciple follows another person and learns a new way of life. For us, the one we seek to follow is Jesus.
Jesus tells two stories to help potential followers understand what he’s saying and why. The first involves building (something we’ve become familiar with). A wise person would not begin a project until being assured it can be finished. One would not lay down the foundation without figuring out first, what will it cost? If you can’t finish it and everything goes on hold for ever, then everyone can’t help but wonder, What was she thinking? What in the world was he doing?
In the second parable Jesus tells about a king who is outnumbered. If there’s no chance of winning, wouldn’t the king’s best option be to send a representative to negotiate peace? The worst thing that happens in the first parable is the risk of embarrassment, but in this second one, the risk is death.
Have you calculated the risk?, Jesus is asking. Do you understand what it’s going to cost you to follow me? Do you see that following me will change your life?
The third and final requirement Jesus announces is this: In the same way, none of you who are unwilling to give up all of your possessions can be my disciple. Love me more than you love your stuff. Don’t let what you have get in the way of what you can do in my name, don’t let it burden you, weigh you down, or distract you from what’s most important: from your life as a disciple. From your relationship with Jesus.
I’m going back a couple of slides to the “incomplete tower” photo. This photo is of La Sagrada Familia is a Roman Catholic Basilica in Barcelona, Spain. Construction began in 1882, but after the first year, the original architect resigned and Antoni Gaudi, who was in his early 30’s at the time, took over, and significantly changed the design. He took no more commissions, and for the next 40 years, building the basilica became his life’s work. Gaudi died in 1926, with construction less than a quarter complete. But finishing this project was never Gaudi’s concern. He once said, “My client is not in a hurry.” He always knew that someone else would complete this massive project. That completion is expected to happen in 2026, some 100 years after his death, and 144 years and 4 generations of workers after first began.
As I read and think about the requirements Jesus lays out to be his disciple, I’m humbled. I want to be his disciple, I truly do, but there are so many ways in which I fall short.
I’ve struggled most of my adult life to make sure Jesus comes first, and sometimes I confess that I confuse the requirements of Jesus with the demands of the church, and that hasn’t always been good for me or for my family.
I’m willing to carry my own cross, I want to follow Jesus, and sometimes I get distracted and think about what I want, rather than what Jesus might want.
And my possessions? I hold onto them, even though I know life would be simpler with less.
But like this amazing basilica, I’m a work in process. And as beautiful and as amazing I believe it to be, it’s just a building, and you and I are children of the living God. We are beloved. We are precious. And God is patient with us. Not in a hurry. And so I pray that each day, I might listen, I might grow, and I might become more faithful as a follower of Jesus Christ.
May it be so for each of us.