Sermon: 16th Sunday after Pentecost, 4th September 2016, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 4th September 2016

 Rev. Paul Weaver

“COUNTING THE COST”

(Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139; Philemon; Luke 14:25-35)

Once upon a time there was a Premier who wanted to win an election. “I know what will excite the people and get them on side. We’ll build a spectacular Opera House on the shores of the harbour.”  So they held a competition to find the best design. One design was outstanding and spectacular, but it had one problem. Outside it looked wonderful, but inside it was not at all clear how it would work or whether it would work, especially when influential people had different priorities for the building.

Well, the contest was duly won and the contract awarded. You know the story, of course. £3.5 million or $7 million was the daunting original figure. The final cost blew out to around $100 million. There were all sorts of complications. Successive governments found themselves in all sorts of trouble. The architect eventually resigned. There were arguments about parking, about how to use the halls, how to fit the opera orchestra in the pit, what colour the tiles would be, and many more. And of course there is still much disagreement, much dissatisfaction, and much expense as improvements continue to be needed. I suspect that the Opera House lost more elections for governments than it won!

Would the Cahill government have made the decision had they known what the real cost and the fallout would be? I don’t know, but it is clear that they didn’t realize what would be involved. One thing is clear: when you make a major decision, you need to think clearly, you need your eyes open, you need to work out the implications. You need to “count the cost”.

As we heard in our Gospel reading from Luke 14, Jesus raised this idea when he saw how popular he was becoming with the crowds. Jesus was concerned with something deeper than approval ratings and popularity polls: he wasn’t seeking to become a superstar or a cult personality. He certainly wanted people to come and follow him. But he also wanted them to realize what they were doing, so that they made that decision to become his disciple on a sound basis. As we heard, he said things that were likely to put people off, rather than attracting 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.” That’s not nice: it’s very threatening. And it’s confusing when the commandments tell us to honour our father and mother, and to love our neighbour, which certainly includes our family.

Why was Jesus talking about hating anyone at all? He was certainly using dramatic language to make a point. And he was using words that might well describe the way a family could feel about a member who became a follower of Jesus. This tension was not something that could be sidestepped. For when it comes to the crunch, for the Christian, loyalty to Jesus comes ahead of any other loyalty – loyalty to family, to employer, to country. Jesus insists that he comes first in our loyalties.

Now of course, in Australia, this warning seems much more dramatic than actual reality. Most people who become committed followers of Jesus will only get moderate reactions from their families: a bit of knocking, a comment here or there, perhaps a bit of pressure to fit in, sometimes an angry or offended comment. But nothing extreme, unless the way you practise your faith is very upfront, or insensitive to the point of being objectionable.

However, even here in Sydney, and certainly in other parts of the world, there are many people who have had extreme reactions when they have become committed Christians. They have been cast out from their families; disowned and disinherited; symbolically buried; sometimes threatened, injured, even killed. I remember a young man from a former parish who became a Christian, and was threatened with violence by relations, unless he left the church.

Becoming Christ’s follower may indeed cut us off from our loved ones – not because we deliberately seek it – but because they will not accept our ultimate commitment to Christ. “Count the cost”, says Jesus.

He insists that the true disciple is one who “carries the cross and follows him”. Now in Jesus’ day, there was only one place you were going if you were carrying your cross. The cross was not a decoration you wore around your neck, or a symbol in a church.

Nor was it a problem you had to put up with, as I was once told by a lady who sang in a choir, who felt her rather wobbly voice was of soloist’s quality. “The choirmaster doesn’t appreciate my singing. He won’t give me enough solos”, she said. “But that’s the cross I have to bear.”

No, a cross was what you carried on the way to your execution. A cross was an instrument of death, a dreadful means of execution. What Jesus is saying is: “You cannot be my disciple unless you are prepared to die for me.” And countless people have done just that. Christians living in an alien environment or serving in dangerous situations or standing up for the truth when it is unpopular. Christians just being Christians, and unbelievers turning to Christ, in places where violent non-Christians think they should attack them. The Papua New Guinea Martyrs whom we remember today, who lost their lives being faithful to people whom they served in Christ’s name.

The Greek New Testament word for a witness is our word “martyr”. And it is probably true that there have been more Christian martyrs over the past century than over most of the whole Christian era.

Jesus is not calling us to hate our lives in the sense of being miserable all the time. But he is saying that we must be prepared to kiss life itself goodbye if he calls us to. Would we be prepared to do that? I sometimes suspect that my commitment to Jesus is pretty superficial, living in a situation of relative comfort and ease for Christians. Certainly it has not been tested in the way that the faith of so many Christians in different parts of the world has been tested.

Jesus doesn’t make it any easier. He goes on to say: “None of you can become my disciple unless you give up all your possessions.” Once again he insists that nothing that we possess or would like to possess must get in the way of our commitment to him. Our faith is more important than our home, our wealth, whatever it is that gives us pleasure and security in life. Our possessions must be always available for Christ’s purposes.

Now the scriptures never forbid us having possessions, but they do insist that we have a healthy attitude to them. How important are they to us? And how generous are we? How available are our possessions for Christ’s purposes? If it should come to the crunch, would we let go of them?

After all, earthly riches are temporary, but God’s riches in Christ are eternal. Count the cost, says Jesus.

I wonder how I would have felt had I been among those crowds attracted to Jesus, this great teacher and healer, and heard him say that his followers must hate their families and hate their lives and renounce their possessions. I suspect I would have wondered whether Jesus wanted any followers at all! And I might well have wondered what right he had to make such outrageous claims and demands.

Of course, Jesus did want followers. Indeed he knew that it would be through him alone that people would find the forgiveness we all need, and the salvation God offers to all. But he didn’t want people to make that decision lightly: it was far too important for that. Imagine that you are building a tower, he said. It’s a big deal, an expensive business – even if it is not in the Opera House class! Make sure you can afford the cost. You’ll look like a real fool if you start a major job and then run out of money to complete it. Work out whether you are ready to make the commitment. Count the cost.

For us, being Christians may not seem all that demanding. But it still makes demands. It is not just a matter of an hour a week at church. We are called to take our commitment as Christians seriously: it is a seven-day-a-week commitment. Jesus calls us to live our whole lives in his service – serving him day by day, making time to spend consciously in his presence in prayer and reflection, and actively and generously loving our neighbour as ourselves. And as we do that, we can make a difference in God’s world, just as salt makes a difference when it is added to what you are cooking. Our faith must make a difference in our lives: otherwise it is empty and useless.

Following Jesus has its costs. Of course it also has its rewards and blessings – here and now, and of course for eternity. Let’s thankfully seek to live the committed lives that Jesus calls us to live – taking up our cross, with whatever that may mean for us, and following him now and always. Amen.

Paul Weaver