Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Accompanying vs. Following


Luke 14: 25-33

Proper 18 / Year C

Looking back over my records, I noticed when I was an assistant, every time today’s gospel lesson came up, the rector asked me to preach.  That ought to tell you something!  What Jesus says this morning is difficult to hear.  It would be easier if we could dismiss this passage, but our respect for Holy Scripture—all of it—as being the Word of God does not allow for this.  We must wrestle with it, and with ourselves, if we are going to hear, understand, and apply the life-giving message which is found within all the words of our Lord.

Sometimes the key to understanding a passage lies in what seems to be insignificant, an easy to over-look detail.  Notice the first few words of our lesson: “Large crowds were traveling with Jesus.”  A different translation makes the point more clearly, “Great multitudes accompanied Jesus.”  We don’t find that hard to imagine.  Of course folks were attracted to him.  He healed.  He fed.  He gave interesting sermons.  He confronted injustice, oppression, and religious hypocrisy.  It is easy to understand why lots of people wanted to accompany Jesus.  But there is a huge difference between accompanying and following. 

Many are willing to be served, few are willing to serve.  Many are willing to have Jesus sacrifice for them, few are willing to sacrifice for Jesus.  Many people are willing to hang around, few are willing to be disciples.  Many are willing to let Jesus carry their crosses, few are willing to pick up their own cross and follow him.

So Jesus pauses to address those who are tagging along, whose glossy commitment is shiny, but paper thin.  Jesus knows something they don’t.  He knows there will come a time when they will be dragged from their homes and put on trial because of their association with him.  He knows their families will be beaten and tortured and forced to testify against them.  He knows there will be no middle ground where they will be able to stand half-way between the world and discipleship. 

And so his words, which seem to be harsh, are, in fact, loving.  He reminds them of the true cost of following him.  They will have to be willing to forfeit everything precious to them, even their blood relatives, if they opt to be his disciple.  He tells those who would hitch their cart to his horse they are in for a bumpy ride. 

If those who accompany Jesus are going to buy fully into his program they will need to know the cost.  Jesus says to them, and to us, “If you would be my disciple—not just someone who merely accompanies me, but who devoutly follows me—you must pick up your own cross and walk with me every day in every way.” 

It is a teaching which brings to mind yet another memory, and yes, it involves pain.  I was an avid bicycle rider when we lived in Ohio.  One of my favorite places to ride was in the Cuyahoga River Valley National Park.  You may remember, years ago, the Cuyahoga was so polluted it actually caught on fire.  Those days are long gone and that incident does not do justice to the beauty and the serenity of the valley.  The park is now a wonderful place to visit, especially on a bike.

Getting into the valley by bicycle is no problem because, as you might guess, it is all downhill.  Riding in the valley is, again, no problem because, for the most part, it is flat.  But getting out of the valley, now this is a real physical and mental challenge!  The hills are incredibly long and steep—the kind where your car’s transmission struggles even after it has kicked into low gear.  As I pedaled up those hills my lungs burned with pain and my legs screamed in agony.  Inching forward at a snail’s pace, it can take twenty minutes or longer to get up even the most modest hill out of the valley.  Don’t even ask why not just walk up.  It simply is not an option for a true bicycle rider.

However, the more I rode up out of the valley, I more began to notice something.  With each successive trip, the hills got a little bit easier to manage.  Sure, it still hurt, but the pain was not as severe and it didn’t take nearly as long to recover.  I found myself getting stronger and stronger the more I pushed myself up those hills.

For me, picking up my cross is like that.  It is wonderful to breeze down into the valley of easy living.  It is great to have those moments of peace and serenity.  But there come times, more often and difficult for some than others, when we must pick up our cross and make a grueling journey out of the valley.  How many people have found how many ways to avoid this course?  And yet, we find as we pick up our cross, and the more we pick it up, it is not as burdensome as we feared it would be.  It does not destroy us, but rather makes us stronger. 

Still, there is no way to soft sell it. 

If you are going to follow Jesus, then there are crosses you will have to bear.  You will be asked to grieve with those who mourn.  You will be asked to celebrate with those who are joyful.  You will be asked to give sacrificially of your wealth so the Gospel message might go forth.  You will be asked to serve and to contribute, even when it is not convenient.  You will be asked to forgive when everything inside you screams for vengeance.  You will be asked to confess when all you want to do is hide.  You will be asked to proclaim words of hope when despair abounds.  You will be asked to expose yourself to ridicule by not valuing the things the world values as the world values them.  You will be asked to seek and serve Christ by loving the most unlovable people.  You will be asked to lay down your rights and your privileges and perhaps even your life for the greater good of the Kingdom. 

On the surface it doesn’t sound like much of a bargain, does it?  But Christ has revealed to us the way of the Cross is none other than the way of life.   And Christ himself promises we will not go it alone.  He does not say to us, “Pick up your cross and get going somewhere.”  Rather, he says, “Pick up your cross and follow me.”  If we follow Jesus then we are with Jesus and he is with us and we are never alone and our crosses are so much easier to bear when we walk with the one who has won the ultimate victory.