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Jesus Thins Out the Crowd

San Williams

September 8, 2013
Luke 14:25-33

09-08-2013 Sermon Wow.  What a terrible scripture reading for Rally Sunday! Now that summer is over, folks are back from vacations, students are back in school, and we’re thrilled to have a larger crowd in worship this morning.  We’re doing our best to make everyone feel welcome, safe and comfortable.  However, Jesus himself makes it hard for us. In our lesson today, he turns to a crowd of would-be followers and says, in effect, “Whoever would be my disciple had better think twice about it.”  To illustrate, Jesus asks what king would wage war without first sitting down to calculate his chances of winning.  And what contractor would start building a tower without first estimating the cost, to see whether he has the resources to finish it?  If you want to be my disciple, Jesus instructs, first count the cost.   

Obviously, Jesus isn’t familiar with church growth strategies.  Apparently he didn’t get the memo that the best way to attract new members is to make everyone as comfortable as possible.  He didn’t read the book on how to make your church user friendly.

To be blunt about it, when Jesus addressed the crowds that were traveling with him, he wasn’t friendly at all.  To the contrary, his words are shocking, offensive, even dangerous.  “Whoever comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple…none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”  While Luke doesn’t say, my hunch is that after this little sermon the very large crowd that was following Jesus became a much smaller crowd.

But why would Jesus intentionally shock people?  As we know Jesus could, and did at times, speak words of comfort and reassurance. Words such as, “Come to me, all who labor and are over burdened and I will give you rest…my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”  How I wish that scripture could have been the reading for Rally Sunday.   Yet there’s nothing easy or light about what Jesus says in today’s reading.  In fact, he radically undermines the very things we value most—family, self-preservation and possessions.  Why does he do this?  

When Southern writer Flannery O’Connor was asked why her stories were so often shocking and offensive, she responded:  “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; (But) when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard-of-hearing, you shout, and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures.” 

Well, for perhaps this very reason, Jesus blasted the crowd with hyperbole and off-putting language.    Jesus must have known that the large crowds following him didn’t share his vision of God’s Kingdom.  They were so entrenched in the world of family, clan, nation, and religion that they couldn’t conceive of a world that transcended and reconfigured all these loyalties. To read Jesus literally, as ordering hatred of one’s family, is to misread the purpose of his shocking rhetoric.  Most likely, Jesus is attempting to startle us out of an orientation based on me and mine, to one that includes they and theirs.

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas wrote an essay based on this text from Luke, to which he gave the provocative title, “Hating Mothers As the Way to Peace,” which, by the way, is probably not a good title for a Mother’s Day sermon! Hauerwas employs shock value to make the point that most of the violence in the world is not carried out by psychopaths who love to kill, but by peace-loving people protecting the things and people we care about most.  We fight wars to protect family, nation and religion. Hauerwas writes, “The New Age is here in the person of Jesus Christ, so we are no longer under the powers of the old age—powers that feed on our fears and our loves, leading us to kill other people’s children in the name of protecting our own.  Hating mother, father, spouse, and children only makes sense if we live in a time when everything is being made new…when we can love our children without threatening the children of others.”  

Everyone here this morning feels the anguish, sadness, and even perhaps moral outrage at the killing in Syria, and especially the use of chemical weapons. Our President is pressing the nation to make a military response. Such atrocity does demand a response. But the question is:  What kind of response? Are we are so committed to what Walter Wink called The Myth of Redemptive Violence that we can’t even imagine a better, more creative way to respond?

The current clamor for military strikes against Syria calls to mind the late William Sloan Coffin’s remarks in the aftermath of 9/11.  Coffin made note of what the President could have said after those attacks:  “We will respond, but not in kind.  We will not seek to avenge the deaths of innocent Americans by [bringing about] the death of innocent victims elsewhere, lest we become what we abhor.  We refuse to ratchet up the cycle of violence that brings only ever more death, destruction and deprivation.  I promise as president to do all in my power to see justice done, but by the force of law only, never by the law of force.”  As Pope Francis said this week:  “War brings on war!  Violence brings on violence.” 

Admittedly, there are no risk free courses of action in Syria, but as Christians we are called to proclaim and live toward a vision of the world as God is reconfiguring it to be—a nonviolent world filled with peace and justice. Thus, Jesus warned his disciples that following him would be both costly and difficult.  I think again of Flannery O’Connor, who wrote, “What people don’t realize is how much religion costs.  They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It’s much harder to believe than not to believe.”  She’s right.  It is hard to believe.  It’s hard because God’s ways are not our ways.  Our loyalties are too narrowly drawn, our loves too limited, our reliance on our possessions too tightly held, and the temptation to violence too eagerly accepted.

In the end, there’s no getting around it: Jesus’ message is a shock to us.  He totally reorders our priorities and redefines our loyalties.  It’s no wonder that the large crowd that followed Jesus at the beginning of his ministry had mostly deserted him by the end.  We, too, when we hear a scripture like he one today, may throw up our hands thinking, “I can’t be a disciple of Jesus.” But remember: the word disciple means “learner, student.”  Discipleship is a journey, a road, a way forward.  It is practice, not perfection.  So even though Jesus often confounds, astonishes, and challenges us, let’s not be among those who turn away. True, the gate is narrow and the way is hard, but it leads to life—the life of peace for the whole world.