Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 8, 2019
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
One of the longest running and most successful ad campaigns in history is the Mastercard “priceless” campaign. It has been running with various versions for nearly twenty years now! One of the first versions showed a father and son going to a baseball game. There was a voiceover and words appearing on the screen which counted the cost of going to that game: “Tickets: $46, Hot dogs and sodas: $27, Signed baseball: $50.” And then it ended by showing the father and son talking and enjoying their time together and it said: “Real conversation: priceless.”
The dynamic this ad captures is that there are real costs to going to that game, to be sure, but that there is also something happening there that you can’t put a price tag on. There is something happening there that is sheer gift, something that is precious beyond cost. There have been several other incarnations of this ad which count the cost of various activities, but then always end by pointing to that which cannot be purchased or earned, that which is priceless.
While I’m a little reluctant to let a credit card company help me make a point about the Christian life, I think this campaign captures some of the important dynamics of what it means to follow Jesus. More specifically, I think it can help us understand what is going on in our gospel reading for today.
Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. He’s attracted large crowds now. There are all kinds of people following him, and many of them don’t seem to understand what they’re getting themselves into. So, Jesus turns to this large crowd and tells them that before they take another step in following him, they need to count the cost. Jesus tells them that whoever comes to him and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and yes, even life itself, cannot be his disciples.
That’s one way to thin out a crowd right? What’s going on here? The first thing to understand is that Jewish people in Jesus’ time, including Jesus himself on a number of occasions, loved to use hyperbole. That is, they often used extreme rhetoric to make a point. Recall how Jesus said, “If your hand causes you to sin, you should cut it off.” That’s another example of hyperbole. This is language that is not intended to be taken literally – but it is to be taken seriously!
Jesus is not literally asking his followers to hate their parents. Jesus himself keeps the fourth commandment – honor your father and your mother – in a tender scene from the cross when he entrusts his own mother to the care of the disciple John, saying first to Mary, “Woman, here is your son,” and then saying to John, “Here is your mother.” He is loving and honoring his mother even as he carries out his mission.
Jesus is not literally asking his followers to hate their spouses and children. Though our Lord himself did not marry, when he is asked questions about marriage he honors marriage as a divine estate, citing Genesis 2:24 as authoritative, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Then Jesus goes on to put his own exclamation point at the end, saying: “Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Though Jesus did not have children, he rebukes those who would prevent them from coming to him. He lifts children up as an example of faith. He warns that it would be better for those who lead children into sin to have a millstone hung around their neck and be thrown into the sea. Doesn’t it sound like he wants us to love our children? Not only our own biological and adopted children, but all children?
Jesus does not expect his followers to literally hate their brothers and sisters. Jesus calls his followers to love everyone! Jesus even calls us to love our enemies, and somethings our siblings fit that description – am I right?
These harsh, shocking words of Jesus shouldn’t be taken literally – but they should be taken seriously. Jesus is telling us that there is a cost to following him. Our Lord surely wants us to honor and love our parents and our children and our siblings, but he also doesn’t want those relationships to become an excuse for not following him completely, 100%. He uses this hyperbole to get our attention. He speaks in this shocking way to call us to put him first, even above those relationships we cherish most.
There is a cost to following Jesus, and Jesus encourages both that large crowd and us here today to count the cost. What builder, Jesus goes on to say, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down to estimate the cost before breaking ground? Or what king, intending to wage war against another king, doesn’t first sit down to consider whether he has enough troops?
What does it cost to follow Jesus? You know what it costs! Sometimes it means enduring ridicule or scorn from others, perhaps even those closest to you. Following Jesus means carrying a cross. It means being willing to suffer for his sake. It means living a life of sacrificial love. The Christian life is not always pleasant and fun and entertaining and easy. There are crosses for us to carry. Jesus says that following him means giving up all our possessions. This is not a vow of poverty, but another call to put Jesus first, above everything else in life, being willing to give up anything and everything that gets in the way of following him. We are called today to count these costs – to tally them up, to acknowledge them, to reflect on them.
I have to admit that at first I was mortified that this was the gospel reading for Rally Sunday. It’s little heavy for the kick-off to our program year, don’t you think? Rally Sunday is supposed to be a day of celebration, right?
But as I let this scripture get ahold of me I came to see how perfect it is for today. You see, now that the new school year has begun many of our families are counting the cost – both financial and in terms of time commitment – of being part of various extracurricular activities. Our members of all ages here at OHLC are counting the cost of being involved in our various ministries here as we begin a new program year: Do I have time to check out that adult Bible study? Will I help out at Munchy Monday this year? Should I sing in the choir?
And whereas my personality is such that I would mostly hang back and let you figure out what you want to be part of, perhaps gently guiding and encouraging you, today through our gospel reading Jesus is all up in your face! He’s all up in your business saying: “PUT ME FIRST! If you want to be my disciples,” he says, “it is going to cost you something!” Maybe it’ll cost you some time beyond Sunday morning. It might even cost you some other opportunity. It might cost you your reputation with some people as they find you your hanging around with THOSE people. It might cost you some measure of comfort as you learn to live in community with other sinners. But if you want to follow me, Jesus says, it’s going to cost you something. And so we have this call in our scripture reading for today to count the cost and follow Christ.
But this isn’t the whole of Christian life. This isn’t the whole of what scripture has to say to us. This isn’t the end of the story! This comes from one of the gospels, but it is not yet the Gospel, the Good News. For that, we have to look elsewhere. For that we need to move ahead in the story.
You see, after Jesus said all of this to the large crowds that were following him, he continued his journey to Jerusalem. And it was there in Jerusalem that he would carry his own cross. There, having counted the cost, Jesus entered into the battle against sin, death, and the devil. There, Jesus paid the ultimate price to defeat these enemies and save us all. There, Jesus earned us forgiveness, life, and salvation by giving up everything he had in his own display of sacrificial love. There, Jesus made it possible for us to live a new and abundant life with him. There, Jesus paid our way! He paid the entire cost for our salvation with his own precious body and blood. And so St. Paul would later write: “For by grace you have been saved by faith. And this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.”
When it comes to the Christian life, two things are true at the same time. Our life in Christ costs us nothing, while at the same time it costs us everything.
We are called to give Jesus everything we have and everything we are. We are called to love and serve him with all our hearts and all our minds and all our souls – even when it is hard. Especially when it is hard. We are called to calculate the cost and willingly, joyfully pay it.
But we do all of this as a response to what Christ has already done for us. What he has done for us is something we can’t put a price tag on. The forgiveness and life and salvation he has won for us is a sheer gift, it is not something that can or needs to be purchased or earned.
And so even as we count the cost of discipleship today, we do so knowing that Christ’s love for us is truly priceless.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church