Text: Luke 9:51-62 (the costs of discipleship)
What does it cost to belong to the church?
There is the money we put on the offering plate, money that could otherwise be used for household expenses, luxuries, or savings.
Then there is time we spend — at Sunday worship services, at outreach programs like The Bread Run, and at committee meetings.
Church may also exact an emotional cost. Perhaps church meetings leave us feeling frustrated. Perhaps we feel embarrassed when friends and neighbours find out that we belong to a church. Perhaps the sermons on Sunday annoy us, or just leave us scratching our heads.
Today, I am asking what it costs to belong to the church because of the Gospel reading. In it, Jesus suggests that following him means being rootless; neglecting social duties; and turning one’s back on one’s family.
Is this right? Does following Jesus really mean that we will be less well-housed than foxes in their dens or birds in their nests? Does it really mean we have to neglect the duty to bury a parent that has died? Does it really mean we can’t say goodbye to our families as we set out on the road with Jesus?
Jesus says that he has nowhere to call his own. He tells an admirer to let the dead bury the dead. And he tells another man to not look back to the family he is leaving before setting off with him to Jerusalem.
I find all of these statements puzzling. Why can’t a disciple bury his father before joining the journey to Jerusalem with Jesus? Why can’t one say goodbye to loved ones before setting out? Why can’t one devote one’s life to a mission of justice and love while also living in a house that is at least as convivial as a fox’s den is to a fox or a bird’s nest to a bird?
But perhaps I misunderstand; and to be frank, I don’t find this passage perfectly clear. When Jesus uses the phrase “Son of Man,” is he referring to himself, and if so, why doesn’t he just say that? Why does Jesus use the metaphor of putting one’s hand to the plough given that metaphors can muddy as well as clarify the meaning? And what does Jesus mean by the phrase “let the dead bury the dead?”
This latter phrase gives me a possible clue to the passage. Perhaps Jesus is using the word “dead” to refer to a person’s spiritual state. His Parable of the Prodigal Son is an example of this. In the Parable, a son who wastes his inheritance in riotous living in a distant land is described as having died. When he returns to his senses and his family, he is described as being alive again.
Perhaps Jesus is saying that those who take up their cross to follow him on his fateful journey to Jerusalem have woken up from a spiritual sleep while those who have not yet responded to the call can be considered unconscious or dead in some sense.
Followers of Jesus have woken up to the realities of life with all of its wounds and blessings. In this process they are free from old traditions. They can leave old ways behind and continue the journey with love and joy even if they might seem adrift or homeless to those of us who still follow conventional wisdom.
There are many other things besides enlightenment that we gain when we follow Jesus — fellow pilgrims on the journey; a sense of purpose in caring for our neighbours and the world; and a community in which to mourn, celebrate, and give thanks. I hope you came up with others in the time of sharing a few minutes ago.
But glimpses of enlightenment are the most precious gifts I have gained so far on the path of faith, hope and love, even if these glimpses have been fleeting. I consider enlightenment to be a pearl of great price.
Indeed, waking up does not come without cost. There are not just the rigors of the activities that might help us to wake up — things like meditation and prayer; self-giving service to family and neighbourhood; and collective struggles for justice. There are also the realities we notice when we do wake up.
Take some of the reports in the news media last week. The week began with video of two more black people shot to death by police without seeming cause. This was followed by the shock and horror of the shooting of 12 police officers by a sniper in Dallas in which five of them died. These reports of violence reveal some of the harsh realities of racism and racial division in the United States.
Then on Wednesday, a seven-year long official British inquiry into the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 released its report. In 6,000 pages, it confirmed what many people suspected: that the U.S.- and British-led war in Iraq, which cost more than 3 trillion dollars and which led to the death of thousands of U.S. and British troops and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, was fought under false pretences and with no plan for what would happen afterward. Not only did the war not achieve many of its aims, it helped unleash a cauldron of sectarian hatred that continues to scar the world with terror and death.
Finally, while preparing for this service, I took a break to watch the recent film “The Big Short” on Netflix. This Hollywood docudrama is about the collapse of the housing and financial markets in 2008. It details how the financial and political elites in the United States engaged in outrageous levels of fraud, greed, and stupidity. Virtually no one at the top was prosecuted for these crimes while millions of ordinary people lost their jobs and homes.
In these reports and this film we see some of the realities of our society: racism, violence, and official criminality. But do we really want to know about the mistakes or crimes of our leaders? Such exposes might make one cynical; and so I wonder if it might be better to not know.
But in the end, I have decided I would rather know about the reality of what we are up against than not.
On a personal level, there are also key realities we may want to ignore. Do we really want to wake up to the fact that we are fragile and mortal? In my mind, this is the central meaning of Jesus’s call for us take up our cross and follow him. But would it not be better to forget about this?
Much of the time we do deny some of our personal and social realities. On most days, I am content to be one of the “dead” who is engaged in burying other “dead people,” so to speak.
But then a moment of grief or joy wakes me up to a deeper reality, and I am grasped by the realization that despite fragility and social oppression, all is well, and all will be well. The source of Love we call God supports us. Death holds no sting. And we are free to pursue love and justice without illusions and with great joy.
By accepting our mortality and our relative powerlessness in the face of social oppression, we lose old fears and rise to a new life of freedom and joy. We can let the dead bury the dead while we walk further along God’s path with fellow pilgrims awake to the moment in all its many colours.
How do we get there? Does acceptance of reality require 10,000 hours of meditation? Dedication to social justice causes over decades? A faultless record of Sunday worship attendance? A bank account emptied in support of one’s church?
My answer is none of the above. To be sure, I consider spiritual discipline, activism, and devotion to the church wonderful things. But Grace means that we don’t get to acceptance through our own efforts. The power to get there comes from a source beyond us and which takes us beyond ourselves. Grace is solely from God.
So what, then, does it cost to follow Jesus? It can seem like a lot. But I think the real answer is this: it costs nothing more than the joy and pain of being awake in a few moments of living in the light, moments that come to us as God’s gift through no effort of our own.
And for this sacred truth I say, “Thanks be to God.”