Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Luke 14:25-33
Happy Labor Day Sunday! On this day when we celebrate the gift of labor, let’s consider this interesting illustration: A hen and a pig approached a church and read the advertised sermon topic: “What can we do to help the poor?” Immediately the hen suggested they feed them bacon and eggs. The pig thought for a moment and said, “There is only one thing wrong with feeding bacon and eggs to the poor. For you it requires only a contribution, but for me it requires total commitment.” That story serves to illustrate a key point that the Scriptures drive home to us today: Discipleship, following Jesus, must be the primary labor of our lives. Are we casual contributors, we participate gladly but with little real sacrifice or are we all-in committers, making sacrifices when necessary?
In our reading from Deuteronomy, God plainly tells the people of Israel, as they prepare to enter the promised land, that before them was a choice; between life and prosperity, or death and adversity. Would they commit to the covenant, follow the commandments as laid down before them? In the same way, the scriptures today call us to make equally important choices. How we live our lives must reflect that we follow Jesus. Our discipleship must inform how we order our time and resources. Our discipleship must guide how we treat our family, our friends, our church and all with whom we are in contact. Discipleship orders how we use our work time as well as our leisure time. Discipleship is a total life-encompassing experience. It’s an all-in commitment, not a causal contribution.
We see this in Jesus’ stunning words: some of the strongest hyperbole common in the Semitic languages: “whoever comes to me and does not hate father or mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Jesus says this disciples must pick up their cross, count the cost, assess the situations they find ourselves in – like builders who must assess if they have all they need to build a tower – like a king who must figure out if he has enough force to overcome an opponent. Jesus is not saying we should literally hate our family. Jesus’ point, however, is that love of God must be even stronger than our love for our family. Discipleship requires all our resources. Discipleship must be our priority in all our decision making. We must be more than contributors; we must be all-in committers.
Jesus began to talk this way because of the large crowds following him. Most of these crowds were attracted to the miracles and healings Jesus did, his charisma, the power of his teaching, the way he took on the local authorities. Most of the crowds were probably hoping Jesus would perform a healing for them as well. For some it was the latest fad, bordering on entertainment. But Jesus knew better. Jesus knew the sacrifices his teachings demands - to love unconditionally, to give sacrificially. To repent and give up selfish habits. So, Jesus warned the crowds about following him. There would be a cost. And he said, if you don’t carry your own cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciple. Discipleship is all-in commitment.
What does it mean when Jesus says to carry your own cross? When some people talk about bearing their cross, they often mean putting up with an illness, a handicap, or a bad situation that won’t go away. But Jesus means more than this. Jesus was not just talking about the suffering that is just part of life, that we don’t choose. He was referring to the situations we find ourselves in because we love God and are following Christ. Re-ordering or even giving up, rededicating resources. Sometimes we might face rejection, humiliation or hostility for the Christ-like stances we are called to take. Jesus warns us the walk of faith isn’t always a bed of roses. There are thorns on the trail.
To be all in committers, we accept the cross of acting like Jesus, choosing to love and care for others and put the needs of others before our own. We sacrificially love those who need our help. We must be willing be perform caring tasks day in and day out, over and over again. Everything we do connects to discipleship.
We’ve been talking a lot over the summer about our yearning and desire to become a vital congregation. However, the most blaring dilemma we face is that we as leaders, we as church members, as parents, is figuring out how to put Jesus first. We feel badly about sports and activities being scheduled on Sunday mornings. Stores that are opened at all hours. Gatherings that conflict with church attendance or programs Yet the truth is, over time communal worship has become optional in the grand scheme of things. It is painful to say this, but we might have grown accustomed to choosing Jesus and worship only when it is convenient for us. We hold back from the painful conversations that perhaps we need to have in order to figure out what time does work better for worship or when we can gather together.
Faith communities will continue to decline, will continue to be stuck in a perpetual malaise if we refuse to do what Jesus teaches: put discipleship first. Until we are willing to sacrifice, to fit in Jesus first, and let everything else come after, we will not thrive, we will not be a vital congregation. This does not necessarily mean giving up Sunday morning sports or other gatherings. What it does mean is that discipleship must be important enough in our lives that it becomes urgent enough to us to have those important conversations about how to make discipleship work in our day and age. We must come up with a better solution. The conversation needs to take place. We don’t know where the Holy Spirit will lead us but the important thing we must do is step out in faith. We must be all-in committers.
Jesus is not looking for crowds. If he was, he would have been delighted with the throngs that were following him. As we prepare to enter a new church season, are we willing to make Jesus number one in our lives? How can we turn into all-out committers?
One day a man stood in front of the group of high-powered over-achievers he said, "Okay, time for a quiz." Then he pulled out a one-gallon, wide-mouthed mason jar and set it on a table in front of him. Then he produced about a dozen fist-sized rocks and carefully placed them, one at a time, into the jar.
When the jar was filled to the top and no more rocks would fit inside, he asked, "Is this jar full?" Everyone in the class said, "Yes." Then he said, "Really?" He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped some gravel in and shook the jar causing pieces of gravel to work themselves down into the spaces between the big rocks.
Then he smiled and asked the group once more, "Is the jar full?" By this time the class was onto him. "Probably not," one of them answered. "Good!" he replied. And he reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand in and it went into all the spaces left between the rocks and the gravel. Once more he asked the question, "Is this jar full?"
"No!" the class shouted. Once again, he said, "Good!" Then he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in until the jar was filled to the brim. Then he looked up at the class and asked, "What is the point of this illustration?"
One eager beaver raised his hand and said, "The point is, no matter how full your schedule is, if you try really hard, you can always fit some more things into it!"
"No," the speaker replied, "that’s not the point. The truth this illustration teaches us is: If you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all."
The point is Jesus is the rock that we must put in our lives first. Can we commit today to make Jesus number one? Can we commit to ask the hard questions of ourselves: what do we need to do as a church to help each other make worshiping together, serving together at the core of our lives? Are we willing to get uncomfortable, to change, to turn things upside down, in order to establish new priorities of God, faith, and following Jesus? Can we make the labor of discipleship our primary effort? The choice is before us like it was before the Israelites as they prepared to enter the promised land: life and prosperity: death and adversity. What will we choose? I pray we chose life, and may we live, carrying our cross, counting the cost, -- and in doing so, to know what it feels to be overfilled with the love, mercy, joy and peace of turning ourselves into all-in committers to Jesus Christ. Amen