Preached at St. Thomas à Becket on September 8th, 2019.
Proper 18, Track 1, Year C.
Gospel: Luke 14:25-33 as translated by David Bentley Hart.
And many crowds journeyed along with him, and turning he said to them,
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, and even his own soul as well, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, he cannot be my disciple.
“For which of you, wishing to build a tower, does not first sit down to estimate the cost: whether he has enough to complete it? So that when he has laid a foundation, and is unable to complete it, those watching him should not begin to mock him, saying: ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, journeying to another king to engage him in war, does not first sit down and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet the one who is coming upon him with twenty thousand? And, if not, he will while he is still far off dispatch an embassy to sue for peace.
“So, therefore, no one of you who does not bid farewell to all his own possessions can be my disciple.”
There was a saying that was hugely popular when I was in high school. Its four-letter acronym quickly moved from a late-eighties Michigan youth group project to massive capitalization by the so-called “Christian retail business.”
A decade later, the original manufacturer of the 35-member youth group’s bracelet was selling 1 million of them per year. The largest Christian-branded retail chain stocked 75 unique items related to the phrase. Armani and the NBA got into the business. Janie Tinklenberg, the youth leader who started it all, only tried to trademark the phrase once she saw it on $400 bracelets, in a failed attempt to control the capitalist excess.
This is both ironic and strangely appropriate, considering the origins of the message. This resurgence of enthusiasm was inspired by a bestselling novel published a century earlier by a preacher named Charles Sheldon.
In 1886, Sheldon began a series of popular sermons structured much like a weekly soap opera complete with cliff-hanger endings that drew the crowds back for more. These sermons developed a set of characters in a small town who were confronted in their lives with the challenge of living out the teachings of Christ in their modern context, rather than simply going through the motions of church attendance and leaving the teachings behind during the week. It was put into book form in 1896 as In His Steps, subtitled: “What Would Jesus Do?”
In this novel, Rev. Henry Maxwell, his congregation, and eventually surrounding business and religious leaders are convicted by the appearance of a homeless man during a service who lays out the challenges of his life before collapsing and later dying. By the following Sunday, Maxwell is so deeply moved that he presents a year-long challenge to his congregation: “Do not do anything without first asking, 'What would Jesus do?'" Those who take this seriously include a newspaper publisher who stops printing prize fights and discontinues the Sunday edition with the consequence of losing revenue; a railroad executive who resigns over discovered-fraud and must settle for an entry-level job elsewhere; and others who begin several inner-city reform movements as the effects cascade beyond the one town.
Just as with the W.W.J.D. bracelets, the copyright for the manuscript was accidentally not obtained, and the book spread like wildfire with many publishers profiting on the sales. But Sheldon didn’t mind—he was much more interested in his writings getting read than in making money on them. After all, on his own he “was an advocate of Christian socialism, despising capitalism...a firm supporter of gender and racial equality, as well as an advocate for the humane treatment of animals, including being a vegetarian”—all in the late-19th century in America!
It was Sheldon’s book that Walter Rauschenbusch credited with inspiring his leadership of the Social Gospel movement in the early 20th century, laying the foundation of the mainline tradition of activism on “issues of social justice such as economic inequality, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial tensions, slums, unclean environment, child labour, inadequate labour unions, poor schools, and the danger of war.”
So, it is deeply ironic, even tragic, that the WWJD frenzy which took off in the 1990s was so firmly centered in the conservative evangelical church. This is a church tradition which largely endorses greed-glorifying capitalism, which roundly condemns social justice work as AntiChrist, and which is the direct inheritor of the 1920’s movement called Fundamentalism which was founded to combat the legacy of both Sheldon and Rauschenbusch.
The heyday of WWJD, as I experienced it, was about buying and displaying branded merchandise in order to claim Christian identity and hope to spark conversionary conversations with unbelievers, be they mainliners or Catholics—there weren’t many other “non-Christians” I was aware of where I lived.
In all of this, the original point of the phrase was never actually explored: what did it mean to ask “What Would Jesus Do?” in a given everyday circumstance, based on our Scriptures rather than our megachurch pastors? The ironic thing, for those youth pastors of my time, is that many of the kids back then actually did start asking that question eventually, which is why so few of us my age and younger are still in the church.
And that brings me, finally, to our Gospel lesson today. Although here the question is less, “what would Jesus do,” and more directly “what did Jesus tell us to do?”
In this passage, Jesus turns to look at his followers, behold: they make up “large crowds.” So what’s a religious leader to do? Form them into multiple campuses with video sharing and small groups? Develop a multi-level-marketing approach to denominational organizing? Not this guy. His method is much more effective, though unorthodox.
“If you want to be my disciple...”
A moment here—to be a disciple primarily means to be a “learner,” “a follower or student of a teacher, leader, or philosopher.” Otherwise known as an “adherent, believer, admirer, devotee, acolyte; pupil, student, protégé, learner; or an upholder, supporter, advocate, proponent, apologist.”
So, granted, this is a subset of Jesus’ people—he heals and feeds any who come, but to be a disciple has requirements.
“If you want to be my disciple...” Jesus says, “you must give up your loved ones, as if hated. Give up your ego, your self-identity. Give up your career, your goals in life, your very clinging to life itself. And give up every worldly good you have.”
He’s not shy about this, nor does he mumble. No wonder WWJD is easier to print on a bracelet and sell for a profit than it is ponder the actual question and seek to follow the answer.
“Hate your parents, your spouse, your kids, your siblings.” Now, this is not an emotional “hatred” in the Greek, but it is a very strong “disregard” or “abandon”: to radically subordinate, to rupture, all bonds of family and friendship in order to devote oneself to wholeheartedly to this teacher and his Way.
To “take up your cross” is literally a fool’s errand—knowingly setting out on a path of no return, of no reward, of no future or legacy.
And to “say farewell” to, to “renounce and be separated from,” all one’s possessions—there is nothing left.
No wonder Jesus warns his followers to “count the cost” and not enter quickly into this bargain. There are few who are capable of making this sacrifice. But to treat it as mere hyperbole, as some commentaries would have us do, seems to miss the constant theme in Luke’s Gospel against possessions and wealth, or even a home or farewell to family (chapter 9). And we know of those who took and still take vows like this—from Jesus’ example himself, to saints like Francis and many monastics, and others from traditions such as Hinduism known as sadhus in India for example.
But where I’ve been wrestling with this passage all week is—what do we do with these teachings today, in our time, in our culture, with the real responsibilities, good relationships, and reasonable amount of possessions we may have?
The first thing to admit is: I don’t have a final answer. And it’s not been just a week that I’ve been wrestling with this, but for years and continuing.
It could be that Jesus is simply laying out the possible cost of following his radical teachings: that he knows from personal experience what rejection and loss must be faced. After all, his own family publicly called him crazy and tried to institutionalize him at the beginning of his ministry. By this point he’s been chased around Galilee by religious traditionalists and he’s under suspicion by the Roman authorities as well, knowing full well what usually happens to trouble-makers like himself. And he’s given up whatever he may have called his own in following his mission.
Another way to consider these teachings is less prediction of what may happen later, and more honesty about may happen in that very calling to discipleship.
Stephen Colbert and Anderson Cooper recently recorded a deep conversation. Both men experienced tragic loss from a young age, losing their fathers at age 10. And it is from this, as well as the recent loss of his mother, that Anderson tearily asks Stephen how he could say that he learned to “love the thing that I most wish had not happened.” He quotes Stephen as saying “‘what punishment of Gods are not gifts?’” and then asks “Do you really believe that?”
Colbert replies, “Yes. It’s a gift to exist and with existence comes suffering. There’s no escaping that.”
This is a hard teaching, but it is reflected in the lives of so many of our saints. Yesterday I read the wonderful memoir of Mirabai Starr, an inter-spiritual teacher and acclaimed translator of Christian mystics such as Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. It was on the very day that the advance copy of her first translation—St. John’s The Dark Night of the Soul—arrived at her house that her teenage daughter died in a tragic accident. And it is this pairing of events that she later looks back on as the true beginning of her spiritual journey no matter how much she still wishes it had never happened.
Near the end of the book she wrote, “Grief strips us. It stripped me. I couldn’t help but notice that this radical naked state resembled what all my favorite mystics had been trying to teach me for decades. You can’t have divine union encumbered by spiritual addictions and cosmic concepts. You can’t make love with your clothes on. Now here I was, disrobed by loss, dipped in fire, pretty much annihilated...a state of no-self.” (p. 240)
I too have faced loss of family, career, and possessions both by happening and consequence. Our young second daughter died 12 years ago; that was one form of loss. When I returned, broken, from our short stint as conservative evangelical missionaries, and joined the liberal mainline, my extended family all but disowned me, which was another form of loss. So I’m wrestling with these things from my personal experience, not just in the abstract. I confess I still don’t know how to apply these properly—but I do know we cannot ignore this teaching as Christians. We must continue the wrestling; not to ignore or embrace too quickly or too lightly, but to count the cost and wrestle with the question. What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus today, in our time? What does it mean to consider taking a step beyond being fed by Jesus at the table—being assured there is nothing shameful with simple contented acceptance of this joyful gift—and following In His Steps?
I hope this is where the work of discipleship—“learning”—here at St. Thomas à Becket will begin, in our new Adult Formation Hour starting two weeks from today at 9:15. I hope for serious, earnest, honest wrestling with how to live out our lives of faith in our world today, for debate and doubt and despair and joy and companionship.
But I also warn you to count the cost, as Jesus does—in my experience, encountering our Scriptures and the spiritual tradition is not all pure bliss and enlightenment. It challenges, convicts, confronts, and unsettles. Is it worth it? That is something each of us must decide on our own.
I’ll end with this last quote, from a former nun who raised four children and then found herself losing her very self—the soul Jesus warns must be given up by his disciples—on a spiritual journey for which she was unprepared; ending up for a time alone for months on a mountain trying to re-establish a base from which to continue living. Out of total loss she still wrote “…until I went to the mountains I had never truly lived. Not for a single day in my life had I ever lived before.” (From The Experience of No-Self by Bernadette Roberts, p. 33.)
Jesus did ask much, but he also promised much. The call is worth considering.