Count the Cost (The Cross is too Heavy)
St. Thomas Memorial Episcopal Church
September 8, 2013
What does our Gospel lesson mean? “Hate your mother and father, your wife and children, your sisters and brothers.” I took a bus home this weekend to be with my family for the funeral of my grandmother. I got to see my mother and father, my brother, my aunts and uncles, my cousins. My own flesh and blood. The people closest to me in the world. The only people in this dog-eat-dog world who will have my back no matter what. And the text I’m supposed to preach on when I get back says that if I want to be Jesus’ disciple I must hate each and every one of them.
I didn’t admit it to myself until a few days ago, but I’m offended by this text. Why would the “Prince of Peace,” the one who “so loves the world” talk this way? This is a shocking passage. If it doesn't scandalize you--if it doesn't offend you--then you aren’t reading it correctly. It goes against the core values of this and every generation. It’s meant to be in your face. It’s meant to be offensive.
Have you seen the Godfather movies? Family is everything in these films. It’s what we admire about the Corleone family even if their methods are less than upright. You take care of your mother and your father, your wife and your children, your sister and brother--even at the expense of others--because they are all that you really have in this life. We see this tribalism in these and other mafia flicks, and we love it even as we condemn it. There is a rootedness, a connected-ness in these movies that we all desperately want and is so very elusive in our in 21st American life. The shortcomings of the Corleone family are evident--familial loyalty is limited to reciprocity (if you don’t act in accordance with family interests, you’re toast)--but, at the end of the day, they have each other and they sure don’t seem as lonely as you and me.
“Hate your mother and father, your wife and children, your sisters and brothers.” Could Jesus possibly mean what he says?... No. We know this because we are explicitly told elsewhere in the New Testament that the believer who does not take care of his own family is worse than the unbeliever… We also know that with his dying breath, Jesus was sure to tell the apostle John to take Mary, his mother, into his home to care for her... What then might Jesus mean in the passage at hand? And why does he use such offensive language?
I think that the two short parables that follow give us a clue. Both, simply summarized, are about estimating the cost of a venture... When building a tower a person ought to consider how much it’ll cost to build the whole thing before hastily laying the foundation... When a king is angry with another king, he ought to consider the fact that the other ruler has double the manpower before initiating conflict.
So the message of today’s gospel lesson is to count the cost of following Jesus before jumping in head first. Thus, it would seem that the reason that Jesus is so intentionally provocative in verse 26 is to maximize the effect of his point made clear in the parables. Before you embark on following him, consider what it might cost you.
In following him, others may ridicule you. Your mother and father, your wife and children, your sisters and brothers may look down on you for your unwavering allegiance. Would it still be worth following Christ and making the Church your new family, if you were to be disinherited by your own flesh and blood for being “unashamed of the Gospel of Christ?” Jesus says, “Count the cost.”
But Jesus does not stop with our immediate family. As if he weren’t bold enough already, he goes so far as to say that unless you “hate life itself” you cannot be my disciple. Now it must be said at the outset that Jesus is not calling for self-loathing. Much like he doesn’t actually want you to hate your family, he also doesn’t actually want you to hate yourself. In order to “love others as you love yourself”--as you are so called--you have to take care of yourself. But, with that said, Jesus is making it clear that we must put him above ourselves. We are called to bring our desires in accordance with his.
In all of this, Jesus is inviting you and me to a Cross-shaped life, but first we should count the cost. We are promised victory, light, and life, but we must not forget that Christ’s victory didn’t look like victory. His victory was won through death; a brutal death on a Cross of wood. The Christian life is not easy. Since when was self-sacrifice the popular choice? Therefore, we are told to count the cost before enlisting.
And one way that we count the cost is--quite literally--with our wallets. I think it’s funny, but I also hate the fact, that immediately following Jesus’ parable about estimating the cost of following him, he talks about money. He says, “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Again, a shocking, scandalous command. Some in the history of the Church have read this passage and truly given up everything. St. Antony and St. Francis of Assisi read this and other passages and felt called to embrace a life of poverty. Not everyone has felt so called. Not everyone need feel called. For again, Jesus is being intentionally provocative. He gets in your face for effect. He’s saying, “If money is your true God then follow money and don’t bother with me, we conflict too much.” Do you and I see all of our stuff as a gift that can be parted with just as easily as it came? Count the cost.
Last week I was in New Jersey. The land of stripmalls and shopping plazas. I went to these bastions of commerce when I first got home and then later when I had to replace the smartphone that I accidentally swam with. By the time I was ready to leave for Pittsburgh, I needed a new eight-inch Samsung Galaxy Note tablet. I don’t need a new eight inch Samsung Galaxy Note tablet, I don’t even need this seven inch Kindle. I tell this story because as I thought about this need later, I saw just how enslaved I am to my possessions.
Jesus said “Give up all your possessions.” If need be, am I ready to part with my favorite Brooks Brothers shirts and every other nice thing I own? Maybe right now because I just read the text, but three hours from now? Who knows. Is my money so important to me that I just can’t ever give any of it away? Sometimes. If I’m honest, most times.
Jesus says, “Count the cost of carrying the Cross.” The Cross is heavy. It weighs more than you or I could ever carry, and that’s why we need a Savior. We need outside help, an external intervention to save us from these good and just demands that we just can’t seem to keep. And so the same man who told us to carry our Cross later took his own to Calvalry in our place. In so doing, he fulfilled his demands of the law for us. This is why in addition to saying “count the cost” and “carry your cross,” Jesus can also say “take my yoke upon you… for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
So in response and by the power of the Holy Spirit--for we need an external intervention just as much after we become Christians as before--we carry our cross to love and serve Christ, even when our families make fun of us for it. We hold our possessions lightly, because we know that they’re all a gift, and that the pesky biblical adage that it is better to give than receive might actually be true.
Jesus wants you to love your family and yourself, and he doesn’t mind if you own a thing or two, but like a jealous lover he wants your heart completely. The king of glory wants your complete allegiance for his own benefit, but also for yours.