Sunday, September 8, 2013

Counting the Costs - A Homily for Proper 23, Year C, 2013

Homily for Proper 23, Year C, 2013
Sunday, September 8th, 2013
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Luke 14:25-33

“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
-Luke 14:27

Not too long ago, a friend of mine who is a priest in a rural setting made the comment, “You know Dan, all ministry has a cost.”  What he was talking about was the personal cost for us as clergy. He meant that if we want to do ministry, we have to expect that it will take a toll on us personally, that we will have to make sacrifices that are hard, and that this is a good thing for the sake of the gospel. His comments especially had to do with how it is sometimes harder for clergy in more isolated rural areas, and how the costs for a cleric and their families is sometimes greater than those in urban and suburban settings. The support networks aren’t there, and sometimes it feels like colleagues in the bigger, city churches just don’t understand what rural ministry is like.  Usually the funding of such ministries is a struggle, sometimes because of this, it is hard to find good clergy to go to such places, and the ones that offer themselves do so at incredible personal cost.

My friend was talking about the more rural areas of this Diocese, but in my years working for the National Church, I met a lot of clergy (and bishops!) from truly isolated places in this country and around the word, and I can say that it is true, that many clergy have indeed sacrificed much for the gospel.  I surely count myself blessed to be in this wonderful place in which the challenges we have had to meet have been relatively easy.  To be sure we have had to make sacrifices, our shared ministry has had its costs to count, but we are truly blessed.

Today’s lesson from St. Luke reminds us to count the costs of ministry.  The words of Jesus are hard ones.  Unless we are willing to abandon, nay hate (!) family are we able to follow Jesus? How about giving up all our possessions?  Which one of us is able to do these things?  Is Jesus actually asking us to do these things?

Perhaps Jesus is indulging in a bit of hyperbole here.  He also speaks of the builder who carefully measures how much the project will cost and does not take on the project unless he knows he can finish it.  He speaks, too, of the king who first considers if he can win the battle before he wages the war.  Is Jesus asking us to sell all? Is he asking us to abandon our families? 

As I have noted before, and as we have been discovering in our Gospel of Luke study, we are pretty confident that Luke’s Gospel was written to a wealthy house church, whose patron was a wealthy householder named Theophilus. When today’s passage is taken in the context of the whole gospel, I think things become a bit clearer.  Luke consistently relates stories and sayings of Jesus that encourage those who have much to use what they have not for their self-aggrandizement, not for their own glory, but for the building up of the kingdom of God.  This means breaking down those social boundaries of rich and poor, and counting the outcast and the weak as family.  It means using what one has been blessed with, not in small measure, but in sacrificial measure, to right the inequities of the world.  It means using the power that has providentially fallen upon them to reorder the world under the principles of God’s righteousness, God’s justice. 

Jesus suggests, throughout Luke’s Gospel, that the poor already have a leg up on the rich, ironically enough, for they have nothing to lose.  They have nothing that holds them back from clinging fully to Jesus.  They have nothing that holds them back from following Jesus.  They have no investments to worry about, or great houses to tend.  They can follow Jesus without counting the cost, because the cost of not following him is even greater for them.

But for those who have much, who have to worry about mother or father; or for those who have to worry about their homes and their investments, about their staff or their status, following Jesus is much harder and the cost is greater.  That is why Jesus says be like the builder who counts the cost of his building project.  That is why Jesus says be like the king who carefully establishes whether or not he can defeat the enemy.  The cost of not finishing the building or winning the war is great.  If you cannot bear the ultimate cost, then do not embark on the project in the first place.

This is why Jesus reveals to them the worst case scenarios of discipleship.  Those who love you most may hate you for following Jesus, and you may have to say goodbye to them.  Now this may not actually happen, but it has the potential to happen, and Jesus asks, are you prepared for it? We know of course that the way of Jesus is the way of the cross.  If you follow on my way, are you prepared to take up your own cross? Will you suffer death for my sake as I am prepared to suffer death for yours? 

These may seem like distant questions to us, but there are many Christians around the world whose families would hate them for becoming Christians.  There are people who have given up everything to serve Jesus, at extraordinary financial cost.  And even in these days we hear of people dying for their faith. There are Christians still taking up their cross and dying for Jesus, confessing their faith.  In truth, when we cast our glance a bit farther afield that normal, we will find these stories not that distant after all.

But what of the cost of ministry here in Bradford?  Perhaps the scale is not the same as Jesus suggests in today’s gospel, and yet, Jesus uses the extreme case to illustrate inclusively all manner of sacrifice.  The road to recovery in this parish has been a hard one. There is no denying that.  All of you have made sacrifices to restore this church to a place where it can offer viable ministry that makes an impact in this community.  And during harder times, you made extraordinary sacrifices to keep this church community alive hoping against hope for a better day, working tirelessly in faithfulness to those who built, and in commitment to those who will follow.  Most importantly, in the midst of extraordinary sacrifice, you continued to believe in and follow a loving God who has never left you, even during challenging times.  You continued to believe in God’s mission.  You continued to believe in the kingdom values of the Gospel, even though the cost was great. Together and as individuals, each of you something of the cost of discipleship.

But there is one other point, a very important point that is perhaps not so evident from today’s passage from Luke, but becomes clear in light of the whole gospel story.  When we count the cost of discipleship, we can do so with confidence in the outcome, in confidence of what we have to give up, that the cost will not be so great that we cannot bear it, because it is not ours to bear alone.  Yes, we must take up our crosses, but only because Christ has first taken up his.  Our crosses are bearable, because the weight of all those crosses is shared in the weight of the cross that he carried on his shoulders.  And when the weight seems so heavy, when it feels like we are buried under the weight, like we are in a tomb, and we cry who shall roll the stone away, the stone is moved, the weight of the cross is lifted, and the light of the resurrection breaks through! 

Discipleship has a cost, to be sure. And it is a cost that must be counted and faced if we wish to follow Jesus.  Yet, we must never think that it is our cost to bear alone. We must never think that the weight of the cross falls fully on our shoulders.  We will be called upon to bear our portion, but that portion will be all the lighter when we realize that we are part of host of witnesses, a company of disciples, each bearing one another in love through hardship, and bearing us all up, is the one who takes the weight of the world on his shoulders, Christ our God.

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