16 Pentecost: Counting the cost

"Count the Cost"
"Count the Cost"
by Laura Megan Photography, on Flickr
Luke 14:25-33
Now large crowds were traveling with [Jesus]; 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.
It wasn’t too long ago that I found myself in the midst of a conversation about sales tax, of all things. (Riveting, I know. I hang around with terribly interesting people.) The conversation went something like this:

“Wouldn’t it be nice if sales tax was already factored into the cost of the things we buy? Doesn’t matter if it made prices look all funny, like $22.56. It would just be so much easier to know up front what things were really going to cost when you got to the register.”

And then we went on to think fondly of the handful of states in our country that don’t charge sales tax on necessities like food and clothing, not because those goods are necessarily cheaper to buy, but because there is no mystery. The cost is laid out, and there’s nothing more to it.

Counting the cost is something that we do all the time. Often, counting the cost means taking a look at what we think we can afford, and then choosing accordingly. Like how sometimes my beverage choice at Java John’s is determined not by what I want to drink, but by how much cash I have in my wallet. We count the cost when we think about spending money, or time, or energy, or commitment, and the question at stake is always, “Is it worth it?”

Which leads us to today’s gospel. Jesus, like a sales-tax-included pricetag, lays out the full cost of discipleship to the crowds who seek to follow him. He tells them exactly what it might cost them if they choose to walk in his footsteps.

We have to be careful when we approach today’s gospel. On first glance, it is easy to read it as a list of conditions that Jesus requires us to meet before we can become disciples. As if Jesus is saying, “first go renounce your family, then go give up all of your stuff, and then renounce life itself, and when you’ve done all of those things, come back to me and we can talk about your place among my disciples.” It is easy to misread this passage and come to believe that the cost of discipleship is an up-front cost that we somehow need to pay before we can join Jesus’ team.

But that way of thinking is pretty much opposite of the way that God works. God didn’t make us promise to cherish one another and the whole creation before he decided to craft the universe, and when we failed miserably at both of those things, God didn’t make us promise to be good or even to be sorry before he decided to show up in our world in the flesh and walk with us in the person of Jesus. Jesus didn’t make us promise to love him or believe in him before he choose to die for us. And God certainly didn't wait until the world was ready and receptive to raise Jesus from the dead and usher in the promise of new creation.

In the story of our faith, God is always the one who acts first, and God is always the one who loves freely, without making us first check the little box that says we accept his terms and conditions.

And so there's something else going on in today's gospel reading, something different than a message of "sacrifice everything for Jesus or else."

Because what we really have in the gospels is this guy Jesus who shows up on the scene, and starts telling people, “follow me.” He is this rebel prophet and teacher, who gets the religious leaders all riled up with some regularity, and he heals people and does these crazy miracles, and he teaches some pretty incredible stuff about forgiveness and mercy, and he keeps talking about this “kingdom of God,” and as he goes along, he keeps saying “follow me” to people, regardless of their place in life. And he’s interesting enough that people actually drop everything to follow him around.

Which sounds great until you realize that people have left behind families and obligations and livelihoods and possessions to follow Jesus. And that's a really big deal. Leaving behind your family, in Jesus’ time, especially if you were a man, meant leaving them without security, without status, and without protection. Leaving behind your job left you without income. Leaving behind your obligations to your town or clan or synagogue left you with a bunch of angry and confused people on your hands.

Now notice that Jesus doesn’t discourage people from doing all of this. He doesn’t send them home, saying “your family needs you” or “you should probably at least give your boss two-weeks’ notice before you quit your job.” He instead simply makes the point that you’d better be prepared, because following him is likely to come with a cost, because ushering in God’s kingdom of justice and peace and forgiveness and mercy is a big deal, and doing the work of this kingdom is pretty amazing, but it’s going to rock the boat.

And so when Jesus talks about calculating the cost of discipleship, I believe that he's actually just preparing us for the reality that sometimes God calls each of us to such an irresistible calling that everything - everything - we thought was important becomes less important. That sometimes when God moves our hearts to live as disciples, we become oddly willing to leave everything else behind. And that looks really really weird to the world. Because we aren't terribly used to this idea of sacrifice.

Matt and Kristi fell in love over organic chemistry homework. They graduated college together, went to medical school, started a family, and all the while knew, deep in their hearts, that God had a calling for them. So just two days ago, after months of preparation, Matt and Kristi and their two young girls left their Rochester home, boarded a plane, and two long flights later landed in Ethiopia, to begin their first two-year term as medical missionaries in a remote village about four hours from the closest city. Four hours from their mail, four hours from their mission headquarters, four hours from internet. In order to follow God's call, they had to bid farewell to sisters and cousins and parents. They had to sell many of their belongings, and pack and store whatever was left. For them, their call to discipleship happened just like Jesus predicted: giving up family and possessions and livelihood for the sake of the gospel. But note the order of operations. First came the call, then came the sacrifice, and not the other way around. Counting the cost happened only after saying yes to God’s call to discipleship.

So the question at hand in today’s gospel is NOT, “What are you willing to give up for the sake of the gospel?” but rather, “What is it about the gospel that makes you willing to give up everything for its sake?”

Is it the assurance of God’s unconditional love and forgiveness? Is it the hope of a new creation? Is it the promise of everflowing grace and mercy? Is it the expectation of perfect peace and wholeness for our world? Is it the wonder of abundant, eternal life?

What about the gospel is so irresistible to your heart that you’re willing to make sacrifices for it?

For author Sara Miles, a forty-plus year atheist, the irresistible gospel showed up as a piece of communion bread, offered freely and exactly at God’s right time, and the call of the gospel was so strong that she not only found faith, but used that faith to begin a food pantry out of her new church, against all odds.

For Martin Luther, the irresistible gospel showed up as a new understanding of the words, “for it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and not by works,” and the call of the gospel was so strong that he took the risk of reforming the church, and starting a legacy that has followed him five hundred years down the road.

For Matt and Kristi, the irresistible gospel showed up as a summer mission project in Mexico that connected their faith and their medical training in new and enlivening ways, and the call of the gospel was so strong that they’ve shipped their family halfway across the world to offer health and wholeness in God’s name.

Maybe the call of the gospel is clear to you. Maybe you’re still searching. But wherever we are on our faith journey, we yet gather here to hear about the fullness of God’s love and grace, and we keep splashing around the waters of forgiveness, and we keep breaking the bread of life, and we keep sharing the light of Christ, that the gospel message might somehow, someday become irresistible to each and every one of us.

And if there’s anything at all that I can say to you with certainty this morning, it is that the God who has begun the good work of faith in each of us promises to see it through to the day of completion. And whatever it is about the gospel that has drawn us to this place, however feebly, God will sustain us in whatever he calls us to do in his name.

So count the cost if you must. Add up the columns, and compare gains and losses if need be. But know that there is only life to be gained from answering God's call to embody his love and compassion in the world. Know that this life of faith is worth whatever it may cost you. Because Jesus says to each of us, “I’ve already paid the cost in full. So follow me, because there is hope and forgiveness and wonder and boundless love to be found along this road I call you to travel. Trust me. Follow me. It will always be worth it.”

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