Pentecost 15: Choose life, that you may live

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. (Deuteronomy 30:15-20)

Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, 'This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.' Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. (Luke 14:25-33)

Let’s begin with a quick exercise. In the margins of your bulletin, I want you to make three lists. First, I want you to list the five things that you believe are most important to you in life. Next, I want you to list the five things to which you devote the majority of your time and energy. Finally, I want you to list five things that bring you life and feed your soul.

Now take a look at your lists. Is there any overlap?  Or do you find that there is a discrepancy between the things in life that you want to be priorities versus the things in life that actually are priorities? Are the things that you take time to do the things that bring you life?

Our readings today challenge us to make a choice: a choice for life and not for death, a choice for the sort of abundant life that only God can give. It is a choice for discipleship – good fruits born out of a living faith given to us by nothing but the grace of God.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve heard some really great things from Jesus about what the kingdom of God looks like: a place where the poor are lifted up, where those who are suffering are healed, where those who are outcast are embraced, where those who are humble are raised up. It’s been a pretty feel-good message, full of hope for all of the broken places in our world and in our lives. But today’s message is a far harder one to swallow.

Jesus has collected quite the crowd – people who have been watching him heal and listening to him teach, who feel attracted to the kingdom of God for all of the wonderful things they’ve heard about it, and who think they want to jump into this rewarding life of discipleship. But Jesus knows something about this crowd. He knows that many of them only see the reward of the kingdom, without actually understanding the cost. Jesus tells them, in pretty strong words, that a life of discipleship is a costly life. It means being willing to give up everything – home, family, possessions – in order to gain the fullness of the kingdom. I have to believe that the crowd thinned out after hearing the news that discipleship was so costly.

We are not unlike the crowds who gather around Jesus and his hopeful vision of the kingdom. Most of us, when we think about what it means to be in relationship with Christ, think first about the gifts of grace and salvation that were secured for us by Christ’s death and resurrection. We think about a gracious God who by his Spirit offers us hope and healing and wholeness. These core beliefs are certainly at the center of what it means to be a Christian, but they are not the whole story.

Faith and belief, while offered to us freely as gifts of God, are actually anything but free. True faith bears fruit. Where there is faith there is also discipleship - the two are permanently linked. The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer is most famous for his use of the phrase “cheap grace,” which refers to taking for granted the perks of faith without taking on the cost of true discipleship. The opposite of cheap grace is costly grace.  Bonhoeffer says, “Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which has to be asked for, the door at which one has to knock. It is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly, because it costs people their lives; it is grace, because it thereby makes them live."

In a similar vein, the writer Donald Miller in his book Blue Like Jazz says that “the trouble with deep belief is that it costs something. And there is something inside me, some selfish beast of a subtle thing that doesn’t like the truth at all because it carries responsibility, and if I actually believe these things I have to do something about them. It is so, so cumbersome to believe anything.”

Jesus and Bonhoeffer and Donald Miller are all telling us the same thing: faith pushes us beyond ourselves, into the costly life of discipleship. Discipleship means walking through life with a loose hold on all the things that seem so important in the eyes of the world, and with a tight grip on the source and end of our faith. Discipleship means a willingness to leave your home and family and secure job behind, if that is what is necessary to follow Jesus’ example. It is a willingness to rid yourself of your possessions and your activities and your standard of living, if that is what it takes to give yourself space to seek first the kingdom of God. It is a willingness to shed your politics and your worldview and your preconceived notions about the state of the world, if that is what you need to view the world through God’s eyes.

Discipleship means actually following Jesus, not just believing in him. It means loving Jesus and desiring a real relationship with him. And it means making his priorities your priorities: prayer, fellowship with believers, feeding, healing, and sharing the good news of God’s kingdom.

It is certainly not easy. Life, I’m sure you would agree, is pretty crowded. Especially here in Naperville. How many of us work more hours than we’d like, so that we can make enough money to sustain the lifestyles that make us feel comfortable and secure? How many of our children play sports, take dance classes, or have music lessons three, four, five, even six days a week so that we can try to ensure their security and success when they reach high school and college? How many of us run around so much during the week that we want to spend our energy making the weekends family-time? How many of us have seen so much pain in our lives or in the lives of others that matters of faith have been eclipsed by fear, anger, doubt, doctor’s reports, the news media, or the unpaid bills that pile up on our dining room tables? There is so so much in life that wants to tangle up around us. So so much stuff that we love, and so so much stuff that we hold dear...but also so so much stuff that holds us back from drinking deeply the refreshing waters of God’s grace.

On her blog, the artist Jan Richardson reflects upon today’s gospel, saying
I thought of what I have allowed to enter my life: the people, the places, the possessions. I thought of all that I am entangled with, the intertwinings and interlacings that mark my life. I am unwilling to hate the people I hold precious; I am reluctant to let go completely of the loveliness that God offers to us in the tangible things of this world. I think of the furniture my grandfather made for me by hand, the painting my friend Phyllis gave Gary and me for our wedding, the books that feed my soul and mind, the soft bed I share with my beloved. Yet I take Jesus’ words to heart, his fierce call to follow him and love him with a whole and undivided heart. And so I carry some questions with me. These entanglements that twist through my life…: do they reveal the shape of a cross imprinted upon my life? All that I let enter, all that I choose, all that I allow to pierce me: does it create a pattern of life that takes on the same configuration as the Christ who gave himself with such abandon to those whom he loved?
All of the entanglements that twist through your life: do they reveal the shape of the cross? Or is it time to do some pruning? Do the priorities that you live out in your lives, consciously or unconsciously, reveal the faith that is inside you? Or is it time to cut away at the undergrowth? Do you live with enough space to pursue your calling toward an ever-deeper walk with Jesus? Or is it time to clear away a few acres so that there is fertile soil for new planting? Is there a way for your three lists to become one list, and a list that is ordered first and foremost around God’s life-giving grace?

This is why Jesus’ words today - as harsh and absolute as they may sound - are actually good news for us. Jesus knows that schedules, people, things, experiences, memories, and passions tangle up around us. And he also knows that they can suffocate us. So Jesus gives us permission to start saying “no.” To start saying no to adding extra things to our schedules, to start saying no to the pressure to upgrade our iPods and cars and houses and computers, to start saying no to activities that cut us off from our community of faith, to start saying no to dinner invitations with people who tear us down or party invitations from people who don’t encourage our faith. Jesus says “blame it on me, make me the bad guy, use me as the excuse. Tell the world that you can’t come out to play because you have to stay inside and hang out with Jesus instead.” It’s freeing. It is freeing to have a reason to prioritize the things that bring you life - it is freeing to have an excuse to wrestle back control of your day planner from a world that really thinks it deserves first crack at it.

Jesus knows that our entanglements and our priorities reveal the depths of our souls. And when these entanglements reveal anything but the shape of the cross, Jesus promises to help us to get a grip on our lives. He is the master gardener, who prunes and cuts away things that gets in the way our faith and our calling to active discipleship.

We know that God has promised such unfathomably good things to those who believe. But to know the fullness of God’s hope and blessings in our daily lives, we must accept the risky, costly discipleship that our faith craves. The way of discipleship is the way of the cross, where dying to the stuff of this world results in life, and life abundantly. Choosing discipleship is, to quote our first reading, “[choosing] life so that you may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life.”

This, my brothers and sisters, is our first and only call, the call to discipleship: choose life, so that you may live.

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