September 8, 2013 - Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost

The Rev. Elizabeth A. B. Tesi
September 8, 2013: Proper 18
Dueteronomy 30: 15-20; Psalm 1; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33

Here in Eugene, we have many cyclists, and many hills. I live in the hills myself. No matter what route I take, I always end up with a hill climb on the way home. Near my house, there is a road called Greenhill. It's an awesome road to ride. It's short, but incredibly steep- Strava tells me it can get as steep at 15.2%. You get an amazing view at the top. But sometimes, I am just tired or cranky or I haven't brought enough food on my ride and I'm getting hungry, or I'm nursing a sore hamstring, and sometimes I have just turned back and I skip riding Greenhill. Sometimes, it's just not worth the effort. 

Jesus gives us a difficult message today. Our Gospel today states that no one can be a true disciple unless he is willing to make tremendous sacrifices. Jesus describes a person building a tower and getting his estimates in beforehand to decide if he can afford to build the tower he wants to build. He talks about opposing armies approaching each other. He talks about hating our families. It's a difficult reading, isn't it? It is hard to hear. Whoever doesn't hate father and mother and family cannot be JEsus' disciple. Whoever doesn't calculate the cost of discipleship will fall away from it. And really, if we were to calculate the costs of discipleship, I imagine that most of us would never take this path in life. In fact, a few commentaries tried to downplay what we hear this morning by telling me that "if we have been reading closely" and paying attention for thge last few weeks, we would be prepared for this moment. 

With apologies to the writers and theologians who are undoubtedly better Christians than I am, I was not prepared for this moment. Most of us just don't retain large, multi-week story arcs in our heads these days. I wasn't prepared for those tremendous costs. I wasn't prepared to be faced with this notion of just how short I fall. I confess that reading like this sometimes don't inspire me to do much except make a cup of pity tea and wonder how I could ever measure up to these expectations. I wish I could still be blessed even if I could step back. 

Discipleship, to Jesus, is not just showing up. It's not just making the motions. It's about choosing intentionally to fully share oneself and one's resources, to intentionally make a light footprint upon this world. It's about living a high-cost lifestyle in a high-octane era. For Jesus, discipleship and following God's way means total transformation: giving up our earthly desires for the sake of furthering the work of the kingdom of God. It means giving up our desire to be liked, our desire to acquire things, giving up our desire for earthly success so that God's kingdom comes to this world. 

That is an incredibly high price to pay. I don't imagine that many of us would pay that price easily. Most of us want others to like us. Most of us understand that being reasonably well-liked and having good connections builds us a good safety net for our battered spirits when things get tough. Most of us, especially in this era, want to hoard our resources. We put up food against the long winters. We save money in our bank accounts to gaurd against unexpected expenses. We seek out jobs that have pension plans so that our retirements can be comfortable. We want to be successful in our careers so that we can change things for the better in our professions and the world. Does Jesus suggest that discipleship might cost us all these things. Who would ever want that?

How can we be Jesus' disciple if the price is this high? I was left wondering if it is possible that a person can be a truly good human being, indeed, perhaps even be following God's plan for their lives, if they never make the ultimate sacrifices. Sometimes, to go back to my bike example, dropping Greenhill means I finish my ride happy and ready for another one, instead of cursing humanity for inventing bicycles. By this time in my life, I am aware that the amount of sacrifices we can make differs at different times of our life. Sometimes, just showing up, vertical and dressed, is downright heroic. A single person can make different choices than a parent with a child. I've had a set of friends who returned from living abroad because their parents were aging and they wanted their toddlers to know their grandparents. They intentionally gave up the transforming work they were doing so that their family could know each other. Does Jesus speak directly to people like them when he says "whoever doesn't hate family cannot be my disciple"? Or are they following God's plan for their lives by returning so they can care for aging parents and give their parents the joy of littles in their last years?

A few years ago, as a single woman and a police chaplain, I didn't think twice about charging into situations behind my officers at the slightest request. These days, I would be thinking twice about whether going out in the hurricane was the best idea after all. I havee a spouse to think about. Is Jesus speaking to people like me when he tells me that if I'm not willing to carry the cross and follow whereever he goes I can't be a disciple? Or have I just learned to be responsible with myself and my responsibilities to my family? At St. Mary's, we just achieved the exciting goal of raising every cent we needed to remodel our parish hall and kitchen, but we didn't blow out our reserve funds or take away from our pledges to do that. Did we fail in Jesus' call to give up all our possessions, or are we building a blessed community for generations to come?

We all fall short of Jesus' vision for disciples. But perhaps we are still achieving God's will in our lives. Jesus' life and ministry often feels to me like a sprint. But life is an endurance event. Sometimes, we can move across the world. Sometimes, our family needs to be the most important thing in our life. Sometimes, we can build the tower, or remodel the parish hall and kitchen and celebrate. Sometimes, we have to step back from the battle. I want to believe that no matter what, that we are still a blessed people, beloved of God. I want to believe that I can continue to love God and to serve another day. I want to believe I can continue to build community in the days that lie ahead.