Sermon: "Consider the Cost"
St. Paul’s Episcopal -- Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Jeremiah 18.1-11; Psalm 139.1-5, 12-17; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14.25-33
Today’s readings contain numerous images, convey tough messages, and raise critical questions. In Jeremiah 18 the Lord tells Jeremiah to go down to the potter’s house where God will speak to him. As Jeremiah is watching, the potter spoils a pot.
In ancient times, casting a pot required more coordination than today. The potter spun the wheel with his feet and shaped the clay with his hands. Hence, the potter often had to rework the clay into another vessel. As Jeremiah observed this process, God spoke to him: “Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand” (Vs. 6; NRSV). God may declare God’s intention to pluck up, break down, and destroy a nation or kingdom, or conversely, to build and plant. If a nation God intends to build and plant chooses to do evil, God may change God’s mind. The reading ends as follows: “Look. I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you, from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings” (Vs. 11b; NRSV).
Our own country would be wise to consider how its actions fail to reflect God-given values; we need to turn from the evils of perpetual war, rampant consumerism, economic and racial inequality and injustice, and disregard for the poor and the stranger. Too many of our policies and actions reflect a lack of love and justice.
Although Jeremiah understood God as saying, “I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you,” one might critically question whether this accurately reflects God’s nature. Does God shape and visit evil against those who act contrary to kingdom values? Perhaps God only withdraws God’s grace, thereby permitting the natural occurrence of evil. We reap what we sow.
The psalmist assures us that God intimately knows us, our actions, our words, and lays God’s hand upon us; God knit us together in our mother’s womb. Here, as I have previously mentioned, I see the strands of our DNA coming together in the marvelous act of creation. Although made in secret, and woven in the depths of the earth, our body was not hidden from God. When we pause to consider God’s thoughts and works, we stand in awe. The majesty and power of God is revealed in the natural cathedral.
In Paul’s letter to Philemon, we see how new birth in Christ changes one’s status. Although a prisoner himself, Paul writes Philemon, and the church which meets in his home, on behalf of Onesimus, a run-away slave, who, by law deserved capital punishment. Paul informs Philemon that Onesimus has been born again through Paul’s teaching – he is Paul’s spiritual child. Paul acknowledges the joy and encouragement he has received from Philemon’s love, then appeals to Philemon based on love. He asks that Philemon accept Onesimus not as a slave, but as a beloved brother in love – in the same spirit as he would accept Paul.
Paul’s letter is masterfully written. Paul concludes, “Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say” (Vs. 21; NRSV). We are never told how Onesimus was received. In that the letter was openly addressed to Philemon and to the church which met in his house, it is reasonable to assume that Philemon honorably met Paul’s request.
When we are reborn in Christ, we become members of God’s family and we stand equal in the eyes of God. Yet, we, the Church, still struggle with living as a family. Many of us will not permit our brothers and sisters to share the same cup. And let’s be honest, we find it difficult to worship or fellowship with Christians whose worship practices or beliefs differ significantly from our own. Sunday morning remains one of the most segregated periods of American life. Yet the love of Christ compels us to love all, not just fellow Christians, but Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus -- peoples of all races and creeds.
And now we come to our reading from the gospel of Luke. Remember, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. He has shared a glimpse of the future with his disciples. As he has traveled and taught, Jesus has performed many miracles – he has fed the hungry, he has given sight to the blind, freedom of movement to the crippled, cast out demons, restored people to their right mind, and cured many of leprosy. Consequently, as Luke tells us, “large crowds were traveling with Jesus” (Luke 14.25; NRSV). We might say most were travelers with Jesus as opposed to followers of Jesus. Jesus turned to them and set forth three conditions for discipleship:
They must “hate” their family, even life itself.
They must carry the cross.
They must give up all their possessions.
These conditions seem rather extreme! I suspect the crowd diminished significantly. How are we to understand these conditions. Let’s look at them considering some of Jesus’ related teachings.
In Matthew’s parallel account we read: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10.37-39; NRSV). “Reginald H. Fuller notes the original Aramaic for “hates” may have conveyed the sense of “loves less than.” He further observes, “This in turn is probably too weak. The real meaning is that following Jesus means the surrender of the whole of one’s life. ( http://liturgy.slu.edu/23OrdC090819/theword_indepth.html ).
Carrying the cross conveys the necessity of sacrificing one’s own desires, goals, and ambitions for life in Christ. Our old self, our egoistic self, is sacrificed on the cross that we might live into our true self and true nature – “those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
And how are we to understand giving up all of one’s possessions. Again, let us consider Jesus’ words in two short parables recorded in the gospel of Matthew: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it” (Matthew 13.44-45; NRSV). Here Jesus tells us what is to be gained is so great that we will willingly give up all our possessions to attain it.
In the gospel of Luke, after having told the crowds the first two conditions (hating one’s family and carrying one’s cross), Jesus told the crowd two short parables or analogies to get his point across. If one is going to build a tower, one first sits down and considers the cost to assure he/she can complete it. One who proceeds without such calculations, and fails to complete the tower, is subjected to ridicule. Likewise, a king who would go to war first sits down and considers the likelihood of a favorable outcome. If success is highly doubtful, it is better to ask for terms of peace. In both instances, one sits down to consider the cost. Jesus clearly tells the crowd to consider the cost of following him – the forfeiture of all of one’s possessions.
I suspect Jesus realized the necessity of thinning the crowd. In this instance, Jesus presented the costs but did not convey the benefits. As we have seen, the benefits are more clearly conveyed elsewhere. In losing our worldly life, we gain our kingdom life. The benefit is easier to see when one looks backward. When deciding to become a disciple, Jesus would have us consider the cost. If we decide to become followers, to be his disciples, the master potter then sets about shaping our earthen vessels such that they reflect the beauty of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God.