Jeremiah 18: 1-11
Luke 14: 25-33
Delivered by Rev. Ron Coughlin
Your eternal word, O God, is always spoken
as mortal words into a fleeting moment.
As we hear mortal words from long ago,
help us to catch the eternal word behind them.
Enable us to let that word shape us and shape our future.
Give us understanding for our time and our place.
Well, itâ€™s Labour Day week-end. The end of the summer. Students and teachers are back to school. We begin our fall schedules. The list of church announcements begins to grow longer!
It is interesting that Labour Day is not a day of labour, but a holiday â€“ a day to rest from our usual labours. Perhaps this is a good time to think about what the Bible might say about priorities about our life, faith and work. But first a little story.
My grandmother was a strict Methodist. Even after the United Church came into being in 1925, she still thought of herself as a Methodist until her death in 1958. She lived with my family, and one Sunday, I, probably a ten-year-old child at the time, was sitting on the front porch of our flat in Rosemount, Montrealm whittling away on a stick. I was quite proud that my father had taught me how to use a small penknife to make things out of wood. So I was working away on this piece of wood. My grandmother came out and spotted me whittling away. â€œWhat are you doing?â€ she said. I replied â€œMaking a shipâ€. She snapped at me saying: â€œThey must be hard up for ships, if you have to make them on the Sabbathâ€ and went back inside.
Remember what the fourth commandment says? â€“ it says Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath day to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work.
And then it goes on to list all the people and animals who are not to work on the Sabbath. But one person is left off the list. Can you guess who that is? It is the wife and mother! Go ahead and check it for yourself.
Of course for the Jewish nation, the Sabbath is Saturday â€“ the seventh day of the week and some traditions literally do no work on that day, including preparing meals. Other traditions see this as a ritual requirement of the Old Testament, which has little application today, like the injunctions against eating shellfish, eating pork, or wearing clothes made out of more than one kind of material.
For the early Christians Sunday was the Lordâ€™s Day, – the first day of the week – a day to worship God and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Sunday was a day of worship; nothing is said about it being a day of rest. It was later in Christian history, particularly the reformed tradition, which identified the Jewish Sabbath day with our Sunday â€“ the Lordâ€™s Day.
In reality, this idea of a Sabbath Day in the Ten Commandments is a humanitarian commandment. It is a charter for the working person. It is perhaps the first union contract. For a world which worked seven days a week, to have a day of rest from your labours was a novel idea.
With the advent of the five-day week, we today are in a position to observe both a Sabbath day, a day of rest, and a Lordâ€™s Day, a day of worship and Christian service.
But then we come into contact with the lesson from the Gospel of Luke for today, which is probably one of the hardest sayings of Jesus.
Reading this scripture passage reminds me of all the times when I did not live up to expectations. Let me explain. My past is littered with failed resolutions, attempted makeovers and abandoned improvement schemes.
Let me give you some examples. When I was a student at theological school, one of my professors stated bold that unless ministers spent an hour every day in Bible study, prayer and meditation, they would be failures as ministers. So, I took his advice to heart and when I was ordained in 1973 and settled in my first pastoral charge, I tried very hard to spend my first hour each morning in prayer and meditation. I think I lasted two weeks. My mind would wander to all the tasks I had to do. I would be thinking about the upcoming sermon. So I decided that I needed help to spend my time in meditation and prayer so I bought a guided meditation book. I got to about page six or seven and then gave up. When one did not work, I would buy another. I usually blamed the book as not very helpful. At one time I probably had a whole bookshelf of guided meditation books, all of them only partially used.
I guess I have started a variety of new routines and regimens from exercise programmes, eating healthy diets and campaigns against overworking, all to see them soon fall away I have done a variety of personality inventories time management techniques, and spiritual catalogues, all of which have an effect for only a short period of time.
Then one day, I came to my senses. I had a revelation. I said to myself, â€œI have been trying to improve myself since 1946, and it has not had much effect. Maybe I better just accept who I am.â€ That was when I made my last promise to myself: no more makeovers. I find that since that time I am less driven, I am happier, I am more spiritual, I am more effective. I am still growing and learning, especially in terms of my faith. But since I know God loves and accepts me, I can love and accept myself.
And then I read in the Gospel of Luke, probably one of the hardest sayings of Jesus. He says that we need to hate our families, carry a cross and give up all our possessions to be a disciple of Jesus.
Well, I am just going to admit right now that, I, on my own, will never have enough of what it takes to be a disciple.
But wait a minute. Perhaps we are reading this passage the wrong way. Perhaps we are not meant to take these words literally. You will hear me say this many times: I am a person who takes the Bible very seriously, but I do not take it literally. So that when the Bible says that we should not eat shellfish , or that we should stone adulterers to death, I do not take it literally. In fact, I like lobster and shrimp!
Similarly, Jesusâ€™ hard words like these are meant to be taken seriously, but that does not necessarily mean taking them literally.
Letâ€™s put this passage in context. Just before this series of sayings and parables Jesus is at a party. And he tells the parable of the Great Banquet. You might remember that parable. It is a parable of grace. A man holds a banquet and invites his friends and neighbors to come. But they all have an excuse why they cannot come. They have bought a field and must go to see it. They have bought some oxen and need to try them out. They have just got married. They are all legitimate excuses. But the host is angry and orders his servants to go out to the streets and alleys and the roads and the laneways and to bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame to feast at the table. The Great banquet is Godâ€™s banquet and the message here is that Godâ€™s grace is for the untouchable, the unpardonable and the unacceptable. You see grace here is not predictable, it is not earned, it is not the expected response. But rather God acts in surprising, unpredictable, crazy ways. God welcomes those who are not deserving, not worthy, not admirable. This is the foolishness of God.
And you see Jesus acts in the same way. Why would Jesus choose Judas to be his disciple? He betrays him. Why would Jesus choose Peter to be his disciple? He denies him. Why would Jesus choose any of his followers? When he is arrested, all of them, run away and flee and hide in terror. I guess God and Jesus are making a statement that the leaders of the community of faithâ€“the leaders of the churchâ€“would be frail people, sometimes foolish, sometimes fearful, sometimes stubborn. We can never measure up.
This seems to be a theme of the Gospel of Luke. Luke never tires of throwing us off balance. He continually offers real challenges to the early church. His Jesus pulls no punches. Remember when he said, â€œNo one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.â€ â€œSeek first the kingdom of God.â€ â€œCarry no purse, no bag, no sandals, and greet no one on the road.â€ â€œIt is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.â€ This is another in the series of difficult sayings.
And so here comes Jesus, just when he has his largest congregation â€“ the crowds are flocking to hear him and see him â€“ just when he has a huge crowd of people around him, he turns around and says we cannot be his followers unless we hate our families, carry our crosses and give up all our possessions.
So why donâ€™t we all â€“ preachers and believers alike â€“ just turn in our resignations now? Because clearly, none of us has what it takes.
What is really going on here? Letâ€™s look at some of the details in this story. The opening line is significant. â€œLarge crowds were traveling with Jesus.â€ In the previous chapter Jesus was casting out demons and performing cures. No wonder large crowds were mobbing him wherever he went. And so Jesus is on the road again. He is on his way to Jerusalem and what kind of journey is it?
Is it a funeral procession? Not even his closest friends, the disciples have faced the issue of Jesusâ€™ death, so certainly the crowds do not understand. Yes, in the Gospel of Luke, seven times Jesus says that he is going to Jerusalem to suffer and die, but the disciples do not believe him or take it seriously.
Is it a march? Some probably hope so – imaging the clash with the oppressive powers â€“ Jew versus Roman, Galilee versus Jerusalem, peasants versus power, Jesus versus the establishment. They are hoping for a revolution. Is it a parade? Obviously the crowd thinks so. Everybody loves a parade. And so Jesus says, â€œWhoever comes to me and is not willing to put me first, cannot follow me.â€ People have simply showed up, bubbling with enthusiasm, but Jesus is less than welcoming. He tells them to not get their hopes up, that more than likely they have not calculated the cost. Like the builder of the tower or the king waging war, they need to sit down and estimate the cost to see if they can follow through. I suspect that the people were quite puzzled by this response from Jesus.
They all want to go with him. They want to get as close as they can to the energy that radiates from him like heat from a fire. They want to be the first to hear what he says next â€“ to be part of changing the world with him â€“ and they do not have a clue of what this means or what this costs. Jesus wants to tell them, because the worst thing he can do is mislead them and let them believe they are running off with a parade, when they are in fact headed into danger and a battle unarmed.
Why does he say all these disturbing things about hating your family and your life, giving up all your possessions? Well, the first thing to recognize is that Jesus often used exaggeration to make his point. Think about the image of a camel going through the eye of a needle! Also, he was using a figure of speech, which we do not use anymore. In his day, the way you stated a preference was by pairing two things and saying you loved one and hated the other. It did not have anything to do with emotions. It had to do with priorities, so if I said, â€œI love the beach and hate the mountainsâ€, it does not mean I am hostile toward the mountains, but just that the beach is my first choice.
And you see, Jesus here is talking about priorities â€“ not talking about your feelings toward families and possessions. Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem. He knows it is a hard road ahead, leading to death. Luke knows this even more. When he wrote his gospel, Christians were being persecuted for following Jesus. To have a Christian in the family was dangerous for everyone, because the Romans were very thorough. If they found one believer in the household, they would arrest everyone. Once you made following Jesus your first priority, everything else fell by the wayside â€“ not because God took it away from you but because that is how the world works. As long as the world opposes those who set out to transform it, the transformers will pay a high price. There have always been two stories in our world. One is the story of the culture and the other is the story of the Gospel. One is a story of violence and the other is a story of love and peace.
I think that is what Jesus wants us to know. He is not threatening us. He is loving us, as usual. Refusing to lie to us, refusing to make his way sound easier than it is. It seems to me that in this passage Jesus is saying that he wants us to be devoted to him. Thatâ€™s what it means to be a disciple! We may have to give up something, but in return we receive something that is priceless.
What is made very clear in the rest of the Gospels and the letters of Paul is that we do not need to face this alone. We are not left to our own resources in trying to follow Jesus. God chooses us and then gives us what we need. I do not think Jesus is through saving us yet. His best tool has always been the very thing that killed him â€“ the cross that he was forced to carry.
The deeper meaning of these sayings and parables is that I, on my own, will never have enough of what it takes. You see when God calls us to undertake a task or a mission, it is God who will supply the resources. In and of ourselves, we own nothing. Our calling is to be faithful disciples knowing that Godâ€™s supplies are more than sufficient. Discipleship is not mustering our own resources so that we can have what is needed, but rather discipleship is accepting from God the grace to do what is needed. We need to remember that Jesus shoulders the cross for us and with us. I think he just wants us to not take it for granted. He wants us to know what it costs. Amen.