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Sermon for Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, "Unfinished Business," Luke 14:25-33 (Proper 18, Ordinary 23)

Sermon 9/4/16
Luke 14:25-33

Unfinished Business

Some years back, United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon was serving as the Dean of the Chapel at Duke University. He got a call from a very upset parent of one of his students. "I hold you personally responsible for this," he said.
"Me?" Will asked.
The father was hot, upset because his graduate school bound daughter had just informed him that she was going to chuck it all ("throw it all away" was the way the father described it) and go do mission work with the Presbyterians in Haiti. "Isn't that absurd!" shouted the father. "A BS degree in mechanical engineering from Duke and she's going to dig ditches in Haiti."
"Well, I doubt that she's received much training in the Engineering Department here for that kind of work, but she's probably a fast learner and will probably get the hang of ditch-digging in a few months," Will said.
"Look," said the father, "this is no laughing matter. You are completely irresponsible to have encouraged her to do this. I hold you personally responsible," he said.
As the conversation went on, Dr. Willimon pointed out that the well-meaning but obviously unprepared parents were the ones who had started this ball rolling. THEY were the ones who had her baptized, read Bible stories to her, took her to Sunday School, let her go with the Presbyterian Youth Fellowship to ski in Vail. Will said, "You're the one who introduced her to Jesus, not me."
"But all we ever wanted her to be was a Presbyterian," said the father, meekly. (1)
Have you been introduced to Jesus? Let’s take a look at the Jesus we meet in the gospels today. Our lesson today picks up just after Jesus had finished his dinner at the home of one of the Pharisees. In addition to the parables we talked about last week, where Jesus encouraged people not to choose places of honor for themselves, and to make sure to invite those that usually never received invitations. He continues, after last week’s passage, with more parables, all around the theme of the wedding banquet, a metaphor for God’s kingdom, God’s reign. In his next parable, Jesus speaks of a banquet where people are invited, but are too busy to come, and all make their excuses. They would come, but they have to do these other tasks first, they explain. Angry, the host instead invites the poor, the sick, the broken-hearted, just as Jesus urged the Pharisees to do. And the host promises that none of those who were too busy to show up will ever get a taste of the wedding banquet.
It is right after this that our text for today begins, and the theme certainly carries through. Luke tells us that large crowds of people are traveling with Jesus. Just imagine that – everywhere he goes, a crowd goes with him. And he turns to them and says, “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.” Wow. Jesus’ words today make his words about turning family members against each that we studied a few weeks ago seem pretty tame in comparison. The word here for hate doesn’t have quite the “emotional connotation” that we give it today – a passionate rejection of a person based on negative feelings. Instead, it means “to turn away from, to detach oneself from,” to set aside. It “denotes action, not emotion. Jesus’ point is not how you feel about your family, rather, it is about who you will choose if and when it comes to choosing between family and the kingdom.” (2) Even still, it doesn’t make Jesus’ words particularly comforting for the crowds or for us, and he doesn’t mean them to be. When push comes to shove, when you have to choose, do you choose God? Do you turn way from, detach yourself from, set aside your family to choose God? Would that we never had to choose! But if we did… Jesus is saying that coming with Jesus means choosing him above all other things. 
And he doesn’t let up. He says, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” For his first hearers, the cross doesn’t yet get tied to Jesus – they don’t yet know that Jesus himself will be crucified. But they were familiar with crucifixions. It was the preferred method of death of the Roman government that was occupying their homeland of Israel. People who crossed the Roman government, who crossed the Empire, would be executed in a brutal, public fashion, in order to create a climate of fear, to allow the oppressive government to continue to keep people in their places. For Jesus to say that discipleship involves carrying the cross, he seems to be saying that being his disciple could get you in as much trouble with the authorities as he always was. Because the message of Jesus, where the exalted are humbled and the first become last, was a message that flew in the face of the powers and principalities. The Roman government and the religious elite didn’t like to hear that in God’s world, the whole social order was flipped upside down, and the poor and humble would be first in line. To be a disciple, Jesus says, means to take a stand against people with power over your very life. Following Jesus means choosing Jesus above even yourself.
Jesus says that if we commit to being a disciple without realizing in advance what that really means, it’s like we’ve started to build a tower, without ever making blueprints and drawing up a list of supplies and figuring out if we have enough budget for it. It’s like declaring war on another country only to realize after that fact that you’re outnumbered 2 to 1. By the time we near the end of the text and Jesus tells us that being a disciple also means giving up our possessions, it barely registers. What Jesus asks is already so high, so much – letting go of things seems pretty easy after choosing discipleship and the cross over all other paths. 
I think somewhere along the way, many churches have gotten a little confused about their message, their purpose. I read so many articles about “church growth,” and what churches should be doing to help their churches grow. Some of them have thoughtful ideas, but so many of them seem to focus on getting people to “like” what you offer so that they’ll choose you. Don’t get me wrong – I do want people to find us to be welcoming, to offer hospitality in the name of Christ. I do want people to find that we’re loving and encouraging and that we build each other up. But frankly, sometimes Jesus’ message isn’t exactly likable. It’s compelling. Life-changing. Life-giving. But easy? Likable? Hardly.
Bishop Willimon, in a sermon on this text, started out talking about The United Methodist’s Church advertising campaign, and asked, how hard is it to sell the difficult message Jesus has to share with us?  He writes, “Jesus clearly, at least in this text, has no interest in meeting our needs. Rather, he appears intent upon giving us needs we would not have had, had we not met him. He speaks of severance from some of our most cherished values – after all, who could be against [parent]hood, family, and self-fulfillment? Jesus, that’s who . . . What Jesus says just happens to be true because he is the way, the truth, and the life.” Willimon continues, “I didn’t say that he was the way that nine out of ten thinking Americans want to walk. Didn’t say that he was the truth that we think we want or his discipleship was the life we seek. We can’t have a good Jesus advertising campaign because his way is decidedly against the crowd. The only reason why we’re here is not out of our seeking, our wanting. We’re here because, in some surprising way, he has sought us, wanted us, called us to walk a way not of our own devising. And all reason or reservation to the contrary, we believe, despite its patent absurdity, his is the way, though narrow, that leads to life eternal. Forgive me, forgive the church, for sometimes implying that Jesus will make life easier for you, will fix everything that’s wrong with you, will put a little lilt in your voice, a little sunshine in our life. Chances are, he won’t. He can do even better than that. He can make you a disciple. Forgive the church for sometimes being guilty of false advertising.” (3)Our mission statement in the United Methodist Church is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” It isn’t to make United Methodists. It isn’t to make church members or church attenders or church contributors. Those things might happen as a result of our work, and God’s work in us, of making disciples, and I hope they do! But if we had a congregation full of members, attenders, and contributors, and we didn’t have disciples – that’s when we’re in trouble. Disciples are what Jesus is after: people who are ready to turn away from any path but God’s path – or people who are ready to commit to trying each day to do that. People who are ready to risk it all to confront oppression and injustice and anything else that prevents God’s reign on earth from flourishing – or people who are ready to commit to trying each day to do that.
I have many hopes and dreams for us, and I know you do to. I think God is doing great things here. But if I’m choosing, I want you to be disciples, not church members. I’d love if you could be both – but I can tell you that my hope for how we shape this church together, my vision for what we will be is centered on us following Jesus wherever he goes. Sometimes his path is pretty lonely. Sometimes it seems impossibly difficult. He asks us to take a cross with us. Failure seems certain! But we serve a God who picks us up when we fall. We serve a God who walks the road with us. And we serve a God who, again and again, brings life even out of death. Amen.  

(1)   As quoted by Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger, William Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Sept 10, 1995,

(3)   Willimon, William, Pulpit Resource, lesson for September 5th, 2004, pg. 43


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