Perhaps It’s Time to Count the Cost
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Nina R. Pooley
at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Yarmouth
on June 25, 2017
TEXT: Matthew 10:24-39
These are my two sparrows, made of rod iron, nice props for today. We need some nice props, because other than the sparrows, this is a really difficult Gospel text. Jesus is pointing out some difficult truths that his disciples need to hear, and so do we. Jumping right in, then: As much as we might love being here, and belonging to St. Bart’s, this is not the point of the Gospel – belonging to this or any church. (We know that, right?)
The call of the Gospel is the call to discipleship, to following Jesus with our whole lives. This community exists to support that call, and make that road easier. The church itself is not the destination. The church is the vehicle we have created to move us toward the kingdom of God. Discipleship is the path Jesus sets before us, and the kingdom of God is the destination. This morning’s text from Matthew’s Gospel is a portion of Jesus’ explanation about what discipleship means, and what it costs.
Jesus’ public ministry begins when he walks around the sea of Galilee, and calls his first disciples, saying, “follow me.” They will become his own, as apprentices to a master, they don’t get to “sort of” follow him. Discipleship is all or nothing. He calls them to follow him and leave everything else: jobs, families, life, community, everything they have known before this moment. They have a choice, but they have to choose. It won’t be easy, or simple, it won’t always make sense to them, and it won’t be peaceful, or a life of security or prosperity. The powers of their world will never understand, neither will their families, or their friends, or really anyone else outside of this small group of people. Following Jesus subverts the world’s values, changes everything, changes the way you see everything, alters your lens forever. Your values are now God’s values, you understand where true power lies, you seek God’s justice and God’s peace. You live by a completely different set of rules. You include all people in your circle of those who matter and are of value: there are no slaves, no outcasts, no rich or poor, no gender or race or class biases… all means all; and together you strive for God’s kingdom.
Those of Jesus’ community, and of Matthew’s a generation or two later, followed in the ways of Jesus, shared their wealth, their food, created a new social structure, fed the poor, showed compassion for the most vulnerable, and shared the good news of God in Christ. Through it all, they risked everything, because they were oppressed, persecuted by the powers of their world.
But since the time of Constantine, Christianity has been the power of the empire, and that has morphed culture and Christianity into shapes that Jesus would not recognize.
In the words of Mary Oliver, from her poem:
Of The Empire We will be known as a culture that feared death and adored power,
that tried to vanquish insecurity for the few
and cared little for the penury of the many.
We will be known as a culture that taught and rewarded the amassing of things,
that spoke little if at all
about the quality of life for people (other people),
for dogs, for rivers.
All the world, in our eyes, they will say,
was a commodity.
And they will say that this structure was held together politically, which it was,
and they will say also
that our politics was no more than an apparatus
to accommodate the feelings
of the heart,
and that the heart,
in those days, was small,
and full of meanness. Mary Oliver, Red bird: poems (Boston: Beacon Press, c2008.)
It is extraordinarily more difficult to live a life of discipleship from a place of empire, power, and privilege. There’s a reason why Jesus calls poor fishermen and powerless people to be his disciples. They are less likely to confuse their power with God’s power, their will with God’s will, their way with God’s way: which is the way of self-sacrifice, the way of the cross.
In our text, Jesus says, “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.”
This is first mention of the cross in Matthew’s Gospel, and it is used here in reference to discipleship, long before it is used to describe the way Jesus will die. Taking up the cross of discipleship as a follower of Jesus, being willing to sacrifice self for others, without regard for the cost.
I keep hearing this prayer by St. Ignatius of Loyola, which was the school prayer for St. Paul’s Middle School:
Teach us, Good Lord,
To serve Thee as Thou deservest,
To give and not to count the cost,
To fight and not heed the wounds
To toil and not seek for rest
To labor and not to ask for any reward
Save that of knowing that we do Thy will;
Through Jesus Christ, our Lord.
But we are always aware of the cost. We can’t help but be. The discipleship Jesus is offering us is costly – and powerful. It will change everything, and therefore it costs everything. It’s not a Christian lifestyle, or an hour of fellowship weekly, it is a transforming conversion of life and self. It reorients every aspect of your life. Every relationship. And because of that, it is divisive – you can’t be both in and out. You must choose and then be all in. And once you are all in, life ceases to be self-absorbed, and self-centric. Life becomes Christ centric. And life that is Christ centric is expansive and open, because it is oriented around serving others, seeking justice for others, and seeking God’s peace. And this kind of cost and self-sacrifice is completely foreign in our current context.
We are post empire, we are post-colonial, post-modern, and definitely post-Christian. We have become a culture of independent, self-centric consumers, searching for like-minded others to agree with us, and affirm our choices, as if that will give our lives meaning. That way leads to madness – we know it, we are witnessing it, we’re living it.
So my friends, I wonder if it’s time for us to count the cost? And maybe consider what our lives are worth, and what we would pay for a life of meaning, a life worth living?
As consumers, we understand value and cost, and worth, and that you get what you pay for.
Jesus understands this as well. He doesn’t ask the disciples to join him once in a while, if they have the time, to give God a little bit. He asks for everything. All of them, their whole lives. He walks around the sea of Galilee and then throughout Judea calling people to leave their lives and follow him.
Jesus asks us for everything. For all of us, our whole lives. To leave our stuff and follow him. To walk in the way of Jesus, to bring the good news of God to others, to lead people to the kingdom of God, to create God’s justice and peace in the world, to live in the way of Jesus, to be disciples. All in. All the time.
It will cost us everything. And we will gain everything: a life with God, a life lived in community with God and those who understand what really matters, a life of meaning, a life that isn’t easy but one that extends beyond ourselves, a life of living out God’s own compassion for the world’s most vulnerable. A life lived knowing we are beloved and valued, God’s own.
You either are a disciple or you aren’t – you get to choose, but you can’t be disciple-ish, when it suits you – that’s not how it works. It comes at the highest cost, and it is worth everything.
That’s the point. We are called to this life of discipleship, to be followers of Jesus, to be people of the Way. We create churches as communities to support one another as we walk this path together, to share our resources, to love one another well, and to love our neighbors well, to join the work God is doing in the world, to hold one another up when we stumble, to celebrate our joys and grieve our sorrows together, as followers of Jesus, on our way to the kingdom of God.
The Rev. Dr. Michael Battle writes:
The Kingdom of God is that place where our behavior and thought fully reflect our living in the presence of God; whereas, the church is the rough and tumble people of God on the way to this ideal state of being. The kingdom is the destination already in sight. The church is the van full of people trying to get there. (Drawn from my personal notes, March 2012; he is often quoted in Sojourners and Emergent Village)
I’m awfully glad to be on this particular van with you, even if the van isn’t end goal.
This summer, as our vestry considers new approaches to church in-reach and to service times and seating, I hope we can remember that the over-arching goal is really an invitation to discipleship together. To move us out of our mindset of being consumers of church and to provide ways for each of us to be an active participant. Because being involved in community, being part of the worship, caring for others within and beyond this community is part of the call of discipleship. We are extending a hand to each member of this parish, to pull each of us onto the path, as a fellow walker on the way. Inviting each to join us more fully, and making room so we can include others. That too is part of the call – to make room so we can support others as they join us on the way.
It’s time to count the cost and to make the decision to pay it. To be all in. To live lives worthy of our lives. To become people fully committed to the way of Jesus, to travel this way unafraid, for we are in it together.
Jesus said, “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”