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Edward F. Markquart

Series C
The Cost of Discipleship

Pentecost 15     Luke 14:25-33

Perhaps you have had this experience. You plan to buy something but you haven’t really calculated the true costs of this item and you gradually discover that you can’t afford to buy it. You also may end up being embarrassed when you discover it is too expensive and you can’t afford it. Let me give you an example of what I am talking about.

Some years ago, a long time ago, I was a high school junior and was going to attend the junior prom with my date and love of my life, Lorna Finkelbaum. We were really gussied up for this prom; she with her lovely corsage on her wrist that matched her lovely formal. I was looking smashing with my dark suit and bright white socks. We had reservations for dinner at the Mankato Steak House, some eighty miles away from my farm town of Jackson, Minnesota; eighty miles and sixty minutes of driving time in those days. Now, you need to know that Jackson was a little berg of some 2500 souls and there were no fancy restaurants in my hometown. Thompson’s Café was probably the best restaurant, owned by my Uncle Fat Thompson, and all the menu items cost about two to five dollars. Of course, the menu of Thompson’s Cafe never used such a fancy word as “ala Carte.” (Pronounced, alee cartee.) So, not knowing the concept of “alee cartee,” and each item costing so much money, we traveled to Mankato to the Mankato Steak House. The Mankato Steak House had all their menu items listed as “alee cartee.” There were other words such as “horderveees, saladas, entries, and desserts,” and each of these items were price at about five dollars. Lorna and I ordered each of them, an hordeervee, a saladee, an entrie, dessert, plus non-alcoholic drinks. I anticipated a bill of five dollars, times two, or ten dollars, and I had plenty of money for that in my wallet. At the conclusion of our feast for the prom, the bill finally arrived at my table and the cost was about $40. I was shocked. I was anticipating $10. I didn’t’ have the money to pay the bill. That night and in that situation, I learned about the definition of the word, ala Carte.  So I telephoned my parents to ask them to drive up to Mankato and help me out, but they weren’t home. Nor were my brother and his wife. So I was humiliated enough to have to call Lorna’s father to come and help us out. Yes, sometimes we do not calculate the costs of what an event will actually cost us and it can prove embarrassing.

I asked my wife when this first happened to her, when she did not calculate the costs of an event and it became embarrassing for her. She told the story of her college roommate and how the two of them traveled from St. Olaf College in the Midwest to the Big Apple, to New York City, for a holiday. The two of them were so excited to experience a spring break at the Big Apple, having never been to the East Coast before. They were soon in a fine New York French restaurant and enjoying the ambience. The menus on the table were tall, slim and slender. The napkins were made of fine linen and were folded out onto their laps. The glasses of water were icy, with a touch of lemon. How they enjoyed their moment of French dining. They opened their French menus and looked at the prices, and they knew instantly that they too could not afford the prices. The eyes of the two young women met; they tapped their watches as the waiter stood tall above them; and they both got up to leave, saying to the distinguished French waiter, “Time got away from us. We have an appointment with the director of a play. We are auditioning for a part.” And away they went. Their problem?  They didn’t have enough money to afford the meal. They had not calculated nor anticipated the true costs for authentic French dining.

I have a pastor friend who took a “call” or a “job” in California. He resigned his church here in Washington and traveled down to California to find a new home. The prices of homes were outlandish, and he could not afford it. So he told the church in California that he couldn’t receive their call and tried to get his old job back being a pastor back in Washington but couldn’t. It was embarrassing. He couldn’t afford the position in California.

Sometimes, you try on a sport coat or dress, check the price tag and immediately return it to the rack. Or you may investigate the cost of a vacation or a condominium and you try to read the fine print, so you do not incur additional hidden costs. We are all forever trying to calculate the costs so as to avoid embarrassing situations.

It is with this mood and movement of logic, that we approach the gospel lesson for today. Jesus told us to count the cost of discipleship before we enter into their discipleship and discover that perhaps we cannot afford the cost of being his follower.

The opening line of the gospel lesson for today is that “great crowds followed him,” and those words always signify a problem. Whenever there are great crowds following Jesus, you immediately understand that these are not disciples. Jesus’ popularity was running some 95%. That is, if you had a backache, Jesus would heal it. If you had a headache, Jesus would heal it. If you had heartache, Jesus would heal it. Jesus was the great physician who would heal all your problems and therefore Jesus was enormously popular to the crowds. Hordes of people were joining the Jesus bandwagon. Looking at the mass of would-be disciples, Jesus said, “Whoever does not hate his mother and father, brothers and sisters, spouse, and his own children (and I would add grandchildren), whoever does not hate these people cannot be my disciple.” “What? How outrageous,” the people thought. Jesus continued, “Whoever does not pick up and carry his cross of suffering, cannot be my disciple.” “What? Outrageous! Who does he think he is?” Jesus continued, “I want to tell you a story. A man wanted to build a tall watchtower so he could stand on that watchtower and look down on potential thieves who may want to rob his crop from his fields. The man started to build his watchtower, ordering the lumber and the rocks, and began building the tower. But the costs of the building the tower quickly escalated and he ran out of money. He hadn’t anticipated how much the building project would cost. How embarrassing. Do you people get it?”  No, they didn’t get it. Jesus then said, “I will tell you another story. There was a king who had ten thousand soldiers and he was planning to wage war against a king who had twenty thousand soldiers. The king had better figure out the cost of this war because the ten thousand soldiers will lose to the twenty thousand, and the king with ten thousand better sue for peace immediately, or he will lose the war. Do you get it? You need to calculate the cost in advance?” No, they still not get it. So Jesus finally said, “Unless you renounce all that you have, even life itself, you cannot be my disciple.” And the story ends with the famous line, “And very few followed him.”

You would have expected Jesus to say to those massive crowds: “Come, come, come. Come to the waters. Come to the Spirit. Come to the kingdom.” Instead Jesus said to the crowds, “Count, count, count. Count the cost. Count the expense to you. Count the price of being my disciple.”

As Jesus looked over the great crowds following him and listening to him, you would have thought he would have enticed them into discipleship. You would have thought he would have made it easy; that he would have put the bar of discipleship very low. You would have thought he would have said, “It is easy being a disciple. Love your wife. Love your kids. Show up to work on time. Be nice to the neighbor next door. Go to synagogue. It is easy to be my disciple.”

But Jesus did not want a large number of “little bit” disciples who had a “little bit” of prayer, a “little bit” of commitment, a “little bit” of dedication, a “little bit” of love. Jesus didn’t want one hundred and twenty “little bit” Christians but he wanted twelve disciples who were truly committed to prayer, to discipleship, to being ruled by Jesus as their king. And with these twelve dedicated disciples, Jesus would change the world. A small-dedicated cadre of people can change the world, for good or evil, and Jesus wanted a small number who would transform the world positively. Today, more than a billion people gather to worship Jesus, not because of “little bit” Christians but people who pay the high cost of discipleship.

We need to talk about evangelism and the Christian cultural push for larger growth and larger churches. It seems to me that we, the contemporary American church, are forever talking about the pleasures and benefits of belonging to a particular Christian congregation. We hear such phrases in our congregation as “We have a great schedule and you can even come for the “early bird special” when the church is open for business at the 7:30 AM worship. At the next service, we have a great church choir and the quality of music rivals the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. At the next worship service, we have a great contemporary worship service with a band that excels all others. We have a great senior’s program with so many activities that a senior has an activity planned once or twice a week. We have a great youth program and your child will be influenced by Christian values and Christian friends.” And so information about a congregation is presented in such a way as to persuade people to join our congregation. … All the while, no one seems to talk about the fine print as to what this will cost. No, I am not referring to offerings to pay the bills, but what it means to be a Christian, to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

During the era of World War II, a person by the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a book entitled THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP. Bonhoeffer was a person who tried to assassinate Adolph Hitler and was martyred or killed for that. In his book, he wrote, “True Christian will always be small in number. The true church will always consist of the few.” These words are typed onto a slip of paper above my reading light in my office, that slip of paper yellowed with time, but the words echo a truth for me in the midst of a cultural push for church growth: “The true church of Jesus Christ will always be few in number.” In other words, we can measure church membership but we can never measure Christian discipleship, people who are truly committed to Jesus Christ and his mission in the world.

What does it mean to be a Christian? Today, I would like to talk with you about the cost of discipleship. According to the Biblical story for today, Christ-centered discipleship will cost you your family, cost you your possessions, and even cost you your life itself. And that is what I would like to talk with you about today.

Briefly, we need to mention that there have always been those people who take the Bible literally, and therefore they literally interpret these passages so that true Christians are called to live a life of poverty with no possessions, a life of chastity with no family, and life of obedience with nothing but a marriage to Jesus Christ. In other words, there is a certain higher class of discipleship and we call them priests. The priests of higher morality and a higher ethical plane are to take a vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience. They take these words literally, and there are always Christians who take certain parts of the Bible literally in every generation. For example, the Bible tells us literally that anyone who marries a divorced person commits adultery or the Bible gives us literal permission to own slaves. If you take this passage in Luke literally, you as a Christian take a vow to poverty, chastity and obedience.

Some of you erroneously think that such theological reasoning exists only in past history. I am keenly and personally aware of a relative of mine who is choosing this pathway in the Roman Catholic Church and is choosing to become a nun. That means, as a college sophomore, a beautiful young woman who carries my mother’s name, broke up with a fine young man who was apparently in love with her. This means that in the years ahead, in her particular cloister, she will not be able to attend the future funeral of her mother or father. She will take a vow of literal poverty, chastity and obedience.

So it is important to know how to interpret the Bible and we all interpret the Bible differently. What does Jesus mean for us today that follow him will cost us our family, cost us our possessions and cost us even life itself?

To be a disciple of Christ costs you your family. As we know about life, the devil is very devilish and takes the good things of life and twists them.  The power of evil will take the good things in our lives such as family and turn us into ourselves whereby we begin to love our family more than God. Now, you people have heard me tell on previous occasions that I come from a good family. I have had a loving mother and father, brother and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins, a loving wife, children, in laws, grandchildren. I feel blessed enormously and immeasurably in my family life. God has given me no better gifts than the family I love and enjoy. And the devil can be very devilish and turn me into myself whereby I begin to love my family more than God. It happens so easily. It happens all the time. And then when a tragedy happens in my family, when a mother or father, brother or sister or son or daughter die prematurely, I blame God and get angry at God that God has taken this loved one too soon. It happens to quietly. It happens to slowly you don’t even see it happening, where you begin to love your family and close friends more than God and blame God at their loss. … But as time goes by, you learn another lesson in life. You learn that eventually and sometime, you are going to let go of every hand that you hold: let go of your mother’s hand, your father’s hand, your brothers, your sisters, your spouse, your children, your grandchildren. Inevitably, you will let go of every single hand that you held during life, and in your death, you will discover that there is one hand left: the hand of God who will never let go of you and me as we die. So isn’t there a wisdom to God that God invites us to love God more than we love family? Isn’t there a reasonableness to God that we love God more than our mothers and fathers, children and grandchildren, all of whom we will eventually let go of? Yes, to be a disciple costs you your family. We are to love God more than all of our family members. It does cost plenty.

The next thing in the Biblical text for today is that to be a disciple of Jesus Christ costs us our material possessions. Jesus says, “Unless you renounce all that you have, you cannot be my disciple.” It seemed to me that Jesus was being a little strong here and so I looked up this sentence in the Greek language, to make sure that this is what the Bible says. I am not a Greek scholar, but know enough Greek to look up a passage and investigate it. Sure enough, the English language accurately translates the Greek equivalent: Unless you renounce all that you have, you cannot be my disciple. To be a disciple of Jesus Christ costs all of your material possessions.

Now, as we have discovered, the devil can be very devilish and will take the good things of life and turn us inward on ourselves so that we begin to love our material possessions more than the God who gave us our material possessions. As many of you know, I really love our family home and the best thing I love about our family home is the chair with arms at the kitchen table, and the body that sits in that chair looks out the kitchen window at Puget Sound. For you old timers, it is an “Archie Bunker” chair and the chair at the other end of the table belongs to “Edith Bunker.” In other words, that is my personal chair and I love it. And the devil can be very clever and devilish and slowly and almost imperceptibly, I begin to love my home and kitchen chair more than God who created the warmth of our kitchen and the beauty of Puget Sound. … The devil is also very devilish in tricking us to believe that happiness derives from material things; that the more material things we have, the happier we will be. What a huge mistake we often unconsciously make. I remember being at our sister church in Haiti and being with some of the poorest people in the Western hemisphere and them coming out of their mud hut with enormous smiles on their faces. Down the block were home built of cement, but our fellow Christians lived in mud huts and I thought to myself, “Where do those smiles come from? Why are they seemingly so happy? Are they putting on a false happy face?” I remember years ago, being in slum outside of Nairobi, Kenya, East Africa, and seeing the beaming face of Sister Mary who worked in that slum and seeing the beaming faces of the children who were in her school in that slum. “Where did they find such happy faces? Was it all a façade?”  You see, down deep inside, we have often come to the inner conclusion that happiness is the result of the accumulation of material things, and we work at hard and frugally so we can buy those things that we think will make us happy. All the while, God tells us that true happiness and true meaning comes from the quality of relationships, with other human beings and God. And not quite believing this, that happiness comes from the quality of relationships with loved ones and God, we accumulate things and become angry and irritated inside when we can’t afford certain things. … You have heard me ask before: Have you ever seen a funeral hearse driving down the street with a casket inside that hearse, on the way to a cemetery, and that hearse pulling a U-Hall trailer? Of course not. Funeral hearses don’t pull U-Hall trailers. But in our minds imaginations, we see the funeral hearse pulling a U-Hall and approaching a cemetery lot with two holes, one for the casket and one for the things. What a joke. We all know we cannot take a single item along to heaven. In fact, after we have died, most of our valuable things will be sold or given away to Good Will by our family. Like the family members we love, we let go of each of their hands; and life teaches us that we also let go of every single thing that we have loved. And what remains is the God, the loving God, who was the source of every good thing we enjoyed. Is there not a wisdom; is it not reasonable that God asks us to love God more than all the material things we have been given in life? Is there not a serious danger in loving material things more than God?

The third that that being a disciple of Jesus costs us is life itself. In the Biblical passage for today, we hear the phrase, “whoever does not renounce all of his possessions and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”  Once again, the devil is very devilish and slowly and seductively, we begin to love life itself more than God who gave us life. Like you, I am a person who loves life. I love being alive. I loved walking with my wife last night and enjoying the sunset over Puget Sound. I loved being with the seventh graders yesterday on our retreat to Blake Island, seeing the moonrise over Seattle, seeing the big broad sky so full of stars at night, seeing the sunrise in the earning morning as the sun came up over the Seattle skyline. But more than this, I loved being with the seventh graders themselves. Each one of them is like an individual flower, just beginning to blossom, revealing the beautiful colors in each one of their lives. Being with them is like being with thirty different flowers freshly blossoming in springtime. It is so wonderful. And that is the way we all are. We love life, and the devil is so devilish and seductive that this good and beautiful experience can be turned in on itself whereby we begin loving life more than God who was the author of all of our lives. … I talked to my friend, David, after the earlier service, and he reminded me that he was a walking time bomb, that his heart could self destruct at any time, and it was easy to love life more than God. But he was also at the time in his life when he understood the wisdom of God, the reasonableness of God to love God more than life itself.

Discipleship of Jesus Christ is costly. It costs us our family, costs us our material possessions, and costs us even life itself.

Today, we could have talked about how pleasureful it is in being a member of Grace Lutheran Church, but being a member of Grace Lutheran Church does not count for anything if you are not a disciple of Jesus Christ. Amen.

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