It never fails. Start any kind of major renovation project – either at home or here at the church – and unexpected and expensive problems crop up. In the midst of the construction of our Christian Education wing in the mid 1960’s, workers uncovered the need to replace or repair 23 floor joists under the Parish Hall. In today’s dollars, this work added an additional $65,000 to a project already stretching our congregation’s financial resources.
The single best leadership decision made by warden Tom Coxe was to organize a crew last summer to take down several feet of drywall in the kitchen in order to find out what was going on behind it. While I don’t know if he had Jesus’ specific words in mind to estimate the cost of building a tower before you start construction, Tom certainly embraces the wisdom of it. Once the drywall was down we discovered significant structural issues the Vestry refused to let go unaddressed. What we hoped would be a $50,000 project, grew in scope to $170,000. Expensive, yes, but at least we knew the cost going in.
In today’s gospel reading Jesus is not giving construction advice nor is he lecturing on methods of engaging war. He uses two very common experiences, each requiring preparation and forethought, to convey something important about the Christian faith. “Be aware from the outset following me is going to cost you. Don’t jump into this only to be surprised.”
Perhaps he is looking right at James and John when he requires his followers to “hate” their families. You will remember after teaching on the shores of Galilee Jesus calls these two brothers to follow him. They drop their nets, leave their father Zebedee and his fishing enterprise, and follow. Old Zeb could not have been too happy with their decision. They don’t “hate” their father, but they do subjugate their allegiance and duty to him and in order to make Jesus their Lord. This comes at a cost. Jesus describes it as “picking up your own cross” in order to follow him.
By the time Luke sets out to write his gospel, the first generation of Jesus’ followers know there is a price to be paid. Forsaking your family’s religious heritage carries with it now the potential for imprisonment or death. It holds the possibility of being ostracized by the local community and shut off from economic opportunity. These conditions still exist in some parts of our world today.
We here at St. Paul’s Church on Main Street in downtown Suffolk have it a bit easier in comparison. Still, we ask a lot of you if you want to follow Jesus by being a part of our faith community:
§ We ask you to wake up on Sunday morning and attend a service.
§ We ask you to give your time; perhaps to teach, or to prepare food, or to sing, or to help on the Altar Guild, or to volunteer in the Food Pantry, or – worst of all – to serve on the Vestry.
§ We ask you to contribute financially without offering the caveat Jesus will repay ten-fold for what you give him. The money you give to our church is money you cannot use to purchase something you want or to save for the future.
§ We ask you to support one another; praying for others when they are in need, attending special events in their lives, taking food when they are sick, and listening with an open heart to their cares and concerns.
§ We ask you to lead a moral and exemplary life. You cannot act one way when you are here and another when you are not.
§ We ask you to endure hypocritical behavior, to extend forgiveness, and to initiate the difficult process of reconciliation when you are in a broken relationship.
§ We ask you to respect the dignity of every human being and will challenge your every prejudice and preconceived notion not befitting this high standard.
§ We ask you to ground your allegiance to one another in our common faith, not shared political opinions or rooting interest in college football.
§ We ask you to renounce your love for worldly things like material possessions, power, and a focus on youth and appearance.
Have I got your attention yet?
The writer Annie Dillard once observed if we really listened to the words of scripture and the liturgy that fills this place every Sunday, and if we took seriously what they call us to do, than ushers wouldn’t hand out bulletins, they would pass out crash helmets. If we took the words at face value Dillard says the pews would have safety belts rather than cushions. I think she is on to something important.
We don’t do real service to Jesus or to the Christian faith when we minimize what it requires of us. Jesus does not try to package his teachings in an attractive, persuasive offer. He does not provide a catchy “five ways your life will be better if you follow me” polished list. In today’s reading he talks only about the cost and demands his audience take it into consideration before signing on.
In some ways the call to the Christian faith is similar to the allure of climbing a lofty mountain. From a distance we behold its majesty and its beauty and wonder if it can be scaled. As we look at it a question within arises: am I up to the task? Do I have what it takes to climb it? Depending on the height, the cost and the risk of the undertaking can be enormous, but neither of these factors diminishes the value of the journey or the reward of summiting.
Jesus invites us to follow him, but first he insists we must count the cost. Perhaps our journey with him will mirror his own. He picked up his cross and was crucified on it. Hopefully our journey with him will be far less hazardous. This one thing he does promise: our journey with him will lead us to new life in this life and to a glorious resurrection like his own in the life to come.