Sermon: Proper 18 Year C -September 8, 2019-The Rev. Eileen Weglarz-Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33

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Please take note of a special announcement this morning: “This just in from God!  Everybody put your wallets and purses, credit cards, gold and jewels on the altar before the end of the service this morning and nobody gets hurt! Auto registrations and deeds to your homes can be dropped off at the church office any time between 9 and 3 any day this week. (If you can’t come during the day, Peggy our Treasurer will meet you in the evening.­­) After all, none of us can be a true disciple of Jesus—according to Jesus in today’s reading from Luke’s gospel, unless we give up all our possessions.”

After this announcement in his church one Sunday morning, The Rev. Jim Melnyk qualifies: “Taking (these statements in Luke) literally doesn’t always work for me, simply because I find it fairly obvious that the storytellers in Scripture often use metaphor, poetry, myth, and hyperbole to get their points across.” He goes on to say that ignoring these statements doesn’t work either. There is something important for us to learn in this passage, or Jesus wouldn’t have used it in a teaching.

I applaud Melnyk for his honesty, rather than his simply ignoring difficult scriptures such as today’s Gospel. Because when we simply ignore the parts we don’t like or can’t immediately fully understand or relate to, we develop a very narrow faith experience, as well as a thin faith commitment. Texts such as this one are meant to be wrestled with, and when we do we gain important insights.

Barbara Crafton calls passages like this one “holy hyperbole.” Exaggeration was in Jesus’ day, and still is today, a standard rhetorical device in the Middle East. You make a point by making it way too broadly, larger than it really is, and everyone knows what you’re doing.

So let’s try to find the kernel of meaning here in Jesus’ “construction” illustration. No smart contractor, he says, would attempt to build a durable tower without first doing a cost-per-square-foot estimate. Just as no general would send troops into battle without providing enough ammunition, body armor, and troops. That seems straightforward enough. When we follow Jesus in his Kingdom ways, we don’t leave behind common sense, and that includes careful preparation and disciplined actions.

The point seems to be that if we are going to walk in the steps of Jesus, we must “count the cost” even if it means saying good-bye to our most dearly held presumptions and considerations in this life. 

And yet the tower illustration is something more, because from it we intuit principles about building up the soul, as well as rules for literal construction. The reality of the surrender Jesus calls for here is a deep and radical abandonment to God’s wisdom over ours. This is the only way we can expect to gain treasure that is unseen (salvation), build up something that has no obvious tangible aspects (the soul), and travel toward a Place that no one has come back from to verify and report on (heaven).

But we are reluctant, if not inconsistent, builders, followers, and workers. In some areas we push forward and in others we lag behind. How can we know if we are ready for this all-demanding endeavor?

We are like the tiny ant who decides to walk to Mecca before it dies. Its fellow ants protest: “Why?  How will your household manage without you?” But the ant will not be deterred, though it must cross mountains and seas and deserts. “I can always take the first step…and each thereafter, one at a                                                                                                                                         time,” is its answer as related in this Persian folk tale. Both renunciation of that which holds us back and iron determination to press forward as his disciples are required by Jesus here.

Dallas Willard writes “Jesus says that one must ‘hate’ family members and one’s own life also, must take one’s cross and must forsake all one owns or one ‘cannot be my disciple.’” The entire point of this passage is that as long as one thinks anything may really be more valuable than fellowship with Jesus in his kingdom, one cannot learn from him. People who have not gotten the basic facts about their life straight will not do the things that make learning from Jesus possible, and will never be able to understand the basic points in the lessons to be learned.”[2]

Friends, counting the cost, as Jesus asks us to do, isn’t about moaning and groaning about sacrificing, or likewise, being asked to sacrifice. Counting the cost is to bring us to the point of clarity and decisiveness. It is to help us to SEE.  Counting the cost is precisely what the persons with the pearl and the hidden treasure did. Out of it came their decisiveness and joy that are the outcomes of the counting.

This passage is about CLARITY. It isn’t about misery or some incredibly dreadful price one must pay to be Jesus’ apprentice. Unless we clearly see the superiority of what we receive as his followers over every other thing in life that might have value, we cannot succeed in our discipleship to him.

When I look back, knowing what I know now about what can happen to a priest and what I would have to give up—I might have counted the cost even more than I did when I was in discernment. The cost has been very high. But having said that, after the years I have been a priest, I can tell you that there is no looking back. In many ways there was and is no other way. No regrets!  God gave me and gives me what is needed, no matter how difficult, so that my joy has been full.

Several years ago much was written and aired on news shows about Mother Teresa and some very private letters she wrote over several years before her death. In them she tells of spiritual darkness and void, of not being able to see God as she once had. These experiences aren’t terribly unusual among the most devout followers, and some of the greatest saints.

What is truly remarkable is that she never stopped doing what God’s love in her and her devotion to Jesus had made possible—her ministry to the poor, sick, starving, and dying of Calcutta. This was a ministry to which she gave her life, one wretched soul at a time. She had known and relied upon Jesus so well and so long, to not even consider allowing her personal doubt and darkness to hamper the work God had given her to do. Not even the darkness in her soul could put out the light of Christ that had inspired and guided her, and that had born much fruit for the Kingdom right up to her death.  And her ministry lives on. And that is why, three years ago this week she was canonized. And so, we give thanks for the life of St. Teresa.

And so the call goes out…are we willing to pay a price that isn’t listed in the “catalog,” that won’t be up to our own judgment or discretion when we get to the “checkout counter?” Do we trust Jesus enough to simply take one step at a time, resting in our loving relationship with him, expecting and relying upon the Holy Spirit to guide, empower, and provide for us in whatever way we are called?

Are we ultimately willing to ask Jesus to see clearly his call to each and every one of us? Therein, my friends, is the joy!  Amen.

[1] Sermon exegesis and commentary adapted from Synthesis, Proper 18, Year C, September 9, 2007.

[2] Dallas Willard, in The Christian Century, April 22-29, 1998.