Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 4 September, 2022, the Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost.

Lectionary Readings:   Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 1; Philemon 1:1-21; Luke 14:25-33,

25Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26“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. 27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. 

A first sermon to a new congregation can be awkward, can’t it?   

You’re looking at me and wondering, “is he a long-winded bore?”   “Is this going to be relevant to me?  Will I understand it?”  Which is fair.   When I was leaving my first congregation, one of the wardens told me “Michael, for the first few years, we didn’t have a clue what you were saying up there in the pulpit”.  I like to think that my preaching has improved since then, but if it hasn’t, please don’t wait four years to tell me!

As for me, the new priest, I’ll be watching you for signs of boredom, looking for nodding heads, that surreptitious glance at a wristwatch.  When I was ordained, my father confided in me that the sermon is a place where one can lightly rest one’s eyelids.   For all I know, some of you may be of that school of thought!

So let me, as your new priest, lay my homiletical cards on the table.   Yes, preachers should know their personalities, and should strive to be organized, make a clear point, and use humour and topical examples to make their sermons relevant and interesting.    But, at the end of the day, the sermon is not about me.   I’m not even sure the sermon is mine.   The sermon is a response to the gracious and living word of the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who wants to be in relationship with us, who wants to guide us, and who wants to save us.

To put it another way, the sermon is an opportunity for all of us to ask ourselves, first, how do we hear and understand the word of God in our Sunday lessons, and second, what is that word asking of us?

Which brings us to today’s gospel.   And what a difficult gospel reading it is!  No doubt some of you are still getting over the shock of hearing Jesus say this:

26“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. 27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

Where on earth do we start with these stern words of Our Lord?  How do we understand them?  I find Jesus’ words about hating family particularly awkward, seeing as some of my wife’s family were kind enough to come here to support us on our first Sunday with you.    No, it’s ok, you can stay.

The reason you can stay is that we take Jesus’s words in context, which is why there’s never been a church anywhere with a sign saying, “Welcome to Saint Swithun’s, all are welcome, unless you’re related to a parishioner, in which case, get out”.  We don’t have such signs, for good reason.  Hostility is not a gospel value, it’s not a Christian ethic, unless it’s hostility to sin (but not the sinner).

So it would be very odd to conclude that Jesus was telling us to renounce loved and loving family members who shared our faith, like Joy’s family that have come to be with us here today, or like my siblings who are watching online.   What Jesus is saying instead, I think, is that his followers shouldn’t let family and friends hold them back from their vocations as his followers.

You may recall an earlier moment in Luke’s gospel, when great crowds are following Jesus because of his teachings and miracles.  Luke tells us that in the midst of this uproar,  someone tells Jesus that his mother and brothers want to speak to him.   Jesus isn’t interested in meeting them.  He says that  “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Lk 8:21).

Why does he seem to be so callous to his family?  It could be that we are hearing an echo here of something Mark tells us in his gospel, that Jesus’ family were trying to restrain him from speaking because they were afraid he was going to get in trouble (Mk 3.19b-22) since some people were accusing him of having a demon.  But Jesus isn’t interested in playing it safe to please his family.   He has high expectations of himself and what he needs to say and do, and he has similar expectations of others, which elsewhere in Luke’s gospel can be a deal breaker.  Several times  Luke tells us that Jesus meets people who would like to follow him, but not if it means breaking their obligations to their families and kin (Lk 9:57-

Jesus’ words about choosing the way of a disciple over one’s family no doubt made a lot of sense in the first decades of the church, when Jewish followers of Jesus would face expulsion from their synagogues and banishment from their followers.   As time went on, believers in the Roman world faced pressure from their family to renounce Jesus in the face of persecution from the authorities.   In today’s culture, we don’t face the same pressures from family members over religion.  

Because we have largely replaced religion with politics as our greatest source of meaning, families are much more likely to be bitterly split over issues such as vaccination, conspiracy theories, or attitudes towards a certain former American president.  We’ve all heard cases of family members who have just stopped speaking to one another these past few years.

That’s politics and sometimes we have to make difficult decisions about family and friends whose political views we find toxic. But when it comes to faith, I think most of us have learned that in our increasingly secular age, we can still have relationships with non-believing friends and family, indeed, I think we should have such relationships as part of our calling to be witnesses to Jesus, but we will have to manage differences in our values.  

 For example, some of you may have adult children who refuse to have your grandchildren baptized.  We may have to deal with friends and family who have formed a decidedly hostile view of religion, often for good reasons, and who wonder how we can believe this stuff.   With such people, sometimes the best answer is that we don’t follow a religion, we follow Jesus.  If that doesn’t work, being sane, loving, and non-argumentative is also a good strategy.

We may also find that our decision to follow Jesus complicates our relationships with our wider circles and networks.  You may lose opportunities, even face hostility, because your faith won’t allow you to participate in unethical business practices, or because you call out that person who sends you emails with racist or demeaning jokes.  We never know when we might have to choose Jesus over our kin and social networks, but Jesus is very clear that the decision to follow him may mean sacrifices

The other thing that Jesus makes clear is that the decision to be disciple is one that we have to make daily.  “Take up the cross and follow me”, says Jesus.    This saying is one of those wonderful paradoxes of our faith, in that Jesus seems to call on us to choose a difficult way of life, but elsewhere promises that “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mt 11:28-30).  The paradox is a way of saying that our lives are actually easier and more fulfilling if we put Jesus at the centre of them, but that’s a decision that we have to make every single day.   Earlier in Luke, Jesus uses the same “take up the cross” metaphor to describe discipleship, but he adds the word “daily”:

“If any one want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me”  (Lk 9:23-24)

Does that word “daily” seem challenging to you?   It’s certainly more than the occasional Sunday, or even every Sunday.   Following Jesus is how we act and think, as fundamental as brushing our teeth or eating.    Jesus wants us to put discipleship at the centre of our lives.  Jesus says that “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Lk 8:21), meaning that every day, we have to ask ourselves, “what would Jesus want me to do or say in this situation?”

Dear saints, I don’t think I’m telling you much that is new.  I think you have this discipleship business pretty much figured out.   When Bishop Riscylla asked me to come here as your priest, it was a pretty easy ask.   I very much wanted to be part of this vibrant parish which has a reputation as the church that feeds people.

Over the months to come, as we get to know one another, I’ll need to learn more about you and what you do, and we may even consider some new goals and projects.  But here’s a final thought about that from today’s gospel.  Following Jesus is never a project, it’s not something that we do on our own.   I think this is what Jesus means by his two parables, about the man who builds the tower and the king who goes to war.   In both parables, the enthusiasm for the initial plan quickly goes wrong because they have overestimated the costs and underestimated their resources.   Jesus here I think is saying that if would-be disciples underestimate the costs of being a disciple, then they will give up.

The lesson here I think is about dependence.     Anyone who tries to decide how much resources they will allocate to their faith lives – how much time, talent, and treasure – is sure to fail because you’ll always hold some resources back and one day you’ll weigh the cost of your faith against your other desires.

In contrast, Jesus is saying, go all in, make me the focus of your whole life, don’t hold anything back. When your own resources seem limited, when you feel old and tired and fewer than you once were, remember that the infinite resources and rewards of the kingdom of God are at the disposal of those who follow Jesus.   So let us resolve to be disciples of Jesus daily, taking up our cross and finding it easy, light, and the way to real life and real freedom.

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