Someone newly home from a trip shared that they were pretty sure the pilot of their flight was new to the job. The traveler said, “I base that on his pre-flight announcement, ‘We’re going to be taking off in a few…Whoa, here we go!’”
The folks in my congregation reconvened after the adventures of summer, jumping back into the waters of discipleship. We’re never done navigating that journey. There are always challenges that become points of learning. In some ways it’s always new so we hang on to each other in the church and kick off another program year with our sights set high!
Our local newspaper, The Rockford Squire, shared a story several years ago about trout that had been farmed in the Harrietta Fisheries Station. When they were mature, more than 30,000 were collected out of the hatchery and carried off in tankers. The trucks made their way to the Rogue River’s edge where they were shot through a pipe with a swoosh of water, landing in their new home! Imagine how terrifying that journey would be, leaving the still waters of their early development. But then imagine how amazing it must have felt to have a whole river to explore! All that their bodies had been designed to experience could be found in their new habitat. But there was work to be done with their independence. They had to search for their own food. They had to acclimate to a new environment, no longer coddled. At the right season they knew by instinct that they had to swim upstream, using all their energy to ensure the propagation of the species. It’s not easy to start a new life that requires a set of skills you haven’t yet developed.
For those of us baptized into the faith, we find ourselves swimming in water that is both exhilarating and challenging. The story from Luke’s 14 addresses what we have committed to as disciples. With our sights set on Jesus we pledge, like the very first believers, to follow Him whatever the cost. In this chapter of Luke we see how the stakes rise as we wade through it. Last week we reflected on Jesus’ teaching about table manners. Don’t just invite people to join you for a meal who can return the favor. Bring to your table folks of limited means, those who never receive invitations and make sure that everyone is equally welcomed and fed. As a guest, take the lowliest place for your seat rather than presuming that you are deserving of the best seat in the house! Humility. Gratitude. Loving acceptance were Christ’s lessons.
The reading that begins at verse 25 requires that we jump into the deep end! We can imagine people in the crowd asking Jesus what it costs to follow Him and He offers this unexpected answer. This is the only place in the New Testament where the word “cost” is used. What are we willing to give up so as to acquire something desirable? The Greek word involves a measure of sacrifice and personal loss. Where there is a cost to us, we have to expend effort. It isn’t something that just falls into our laps!
So what do we need to give up so that we can be joyful disciples? What does our baptism cost us in order to grow as followers of Jesus? The examples He gives are jarring! It might cost you your whole family: Your spouse, daughter, father, mother, son, in-laws! You may lose these relationships that are foundational to our self-understanding in order to more closely follow Jesus. How’s that for family values?! Folks come back to worship after a summer of roaming, resting and reuniting to hear this? What kind of crazy talk is Jesus spouting?
A word that jumps off the page of this scripture passage is the word “hate.” How many of you have or had a rule in your household that you can’t use the word “hate”? Why is that word forbidden? It’s so strong, isn’t it? Hate is what lurks behind the almost 300 mass shootings we’ve already had in our country this year. Hate undergirds wars in which our men and women, our daughters and sons are killed. The #metoo movement addresses hateful acts that violate and debase. We teach our sweet children that the word is off limits. Yet Jesus tells the large crowds following Him: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Wow! Did anyone stick around for the Discipleship 201 course? It’s a hard passage that confronted us as launched a new program year with enthusiastic families sitting attentively in the pews! I’ll blame it on the lectionary for putting this unpleasant story before us today!
As much as we’d like to reject this sermon, we recognize truth in it! At our summertime family reunions there are people we avoid. We have relatives whose values are very different from our own. After a gathering of kinfolk we have to explain to our children that Uncle Larry says things he shouldn’t and Cousin Amanda fights too much with her boyfriend and sometimes grampa drinks more than he should. We don’t choose our family and for many of us, things work out very well. Parents raise their children with loving acceptance, taking them to church so that they can learn that Jesus loves them! Children learn to share with each other. Parents model a sacrificial love for each other that the children absorb and emulate. Grandparents embrace grandchildren in healthy ways, adding to their base of support for navigating life.
But others are not so lucky—I mean, blessed—when it comes to FAMILY MEMBER ROULETTE. Dysfunction is the common denominator in the childhood of too many people, including those in our congregations. Walls are erected. Relationships are severed. Reunions are avoided. Divorce, addiction, exclusion, and abuse are named behind closed doors with a trusted counselor who tries to bring healing. We can’t choose our family but we can choose our closest relationships. Growing up, many of us had an “aunt” or “uncle” who wasn’t biologically related to us. We loved them and gave them titles usually reserved for blood relatives. In deep ties of friendship we discover the kind of intimacy that God intended for us in Christian community. These are the folks with whom we choose to spend our holidays if the family Christmas party leaves us feeling battle-weary and war-torn.
I took my dog with me when I headed to my family’s cottage for a week on the lakefront. He’s gone with me before. Family and friends come in as they are able to enjoy time away from chores and professional obligations. But a good portion of the time it’s just my dog and me. Hunter has always enjoyed the different smells on Lake Michigan. He patrols the beach and sniffs things in the woods as I let him out each morning. The main attraction for me each day is the sunset. I sit on a deck overlooking the lake and he comes with me. Hunter is older this year. Life is harder. He checked things out along the edge of the deck the first few nights. But the fourth night I noticed he wasn’t nearby. I had to stand up to locate him. He was sitting right near the house, quite a distance from the deck, looking right at me. He didn’t come when I called. He was so over the sunset! In fact, he seemed subdued, even depressed. When my kids came down near the end of the week I told them to take him home. It dawned on me that I hadn’t packed any of his friends for our week away. On the main floor we have a laundry basket that is filled with stuffed animals, bones, balls and other odd objects he has claimed as part of his community. When we leave for work each day, he goes to the basket, whining, and finds solace spending the day with them. When we are gone, he is NOT alone! When we are all home for the night and he’s been fed, he finds one of his furry friends, carries her around whining to celebrate what a beautiful moment it is for him. I realized that I had taken him away from his community and he would be better off alone at our house, but in the presence of his laundry basket village. I thought that staying with me in a lovely vacation spot was preferable to being left alone at home while folks were at work. But, when I left him in the cottage to run errands, he was completely alone in a manner I hadn’t considered. His many-colored, soft pals are a big part of his life when his human family is absent! Joe took him back on Thursday night and the reunion video was tender and sweet!
We gather in our churches from week to week because we care for one another. Some folks have extended family members who sit with them in worship. Others arrive with no previous history. There are deep friendships in our congregation and some folks are just getting to know each other. The beauty of life in a church is that we are forging those ties that turn acquaintances into family. The more we deepen our love for Jesus, the more we are drawn to others who share that faith perspective. We want to spend time with friends who will pray for and with us when times are tough. We are glad to be with people who begin each meal with grace, who teach their children Bible stories, who confess when they realize they’ve strayed and who are transparent about their faith struggles. In the setting of the Church our hunger for meaningful conversations is sated and these are the human ties we seek out. These bonds of Christian community are not meant to replace our biological families. Rather they broaden the base of support we establish so that, when we are shot into new waters with no warning, others will be with us to make sense of the unfamiliar tides.
In this passage Jesus makes it clear that commitment to a Christian lifestyle is not easy. He urges us to look at the people and circumstances that compete for our limited attention. What do we need to do to be joyful servants? What’s got to go and what should we add to our daily routine? Jesus uses the example of building a tower or fighting a war against 20,000 soldiers! He knows that we run up against seemingly impossible odds and mighty forces that would seek to distract us away from the life Christ offers. Jesus reminds this large crowd of fans that they must be ready to suffer—to carry their cross, a means of public execution—if they want to follow Him. This is not a good publicity ploy on His part! Why would we want to do this?
Those of us who are engaged in the life of faith know that there are gifts that come from our baptismal commitment. We find dear friends who become family. They walk with us in the ups and downs of life. We talk meaningfully in Bible Studies that support and challenge us. We roll up our sleeves in mission work and discover the joy that comes from helping others. We are reminded that prayer must be our primary conversation every day, a talk with Jesus that brings us peace even when we find we find ourselves in the cockpit on our first flight lesson and have to land the plane on our own. That was the experience of Australian Max Sylvester last week when his instructor passed out mid-flight! Air traffic controllers coached him into a safe landing as his wife and three young children watched from the ground. There will be times when we are out of our element. The question Jesus asks is “Where will you turn for help?” This passage invites us to reflect on who we choose for our community. It requires action. The result is we are transformed more and more closely into the ethics Jesus preached. We look in on our lives and realize that we are very different people than we were before we invited Jesus to direct our journey.
After the respite of summer church folks reconvened this past weekend to recommit to another program year of growing together in the love of Christ. We are not perfect—that’s the good news! But we are people who need each other and choose to swim up-river, soar to heavenly heights, with our sights set on the One who calls us His friends, Jesus Christ.