Sermon for September 8, 2019
There once was a man by the name of Oscar who went sky diving for the very first time. He jumped from his plane at the appointed time and pulled the rip cord of his parachute. When the canopy failed to open, Oscar tried his reserve chute, but that didn’t work either. Saying a little prayer, Oscar looked down to the ground below. To his amazement, a woman was rocketing up through the air toward him at the same speed that he was falling. As they passed each other in mid-air, Oscar shouted desperately, “Hey, do you know anything about parachutes?” “No,” the woman shouted back. “Do you know anything about gas grills?”
How good are you at planning ahead? Do you always carefully calculate what you are about to do, in order to minimize the risk involved? Do you frequently look before you leap? In today’s gospel, Jesus gives the crowds who are following him two examples of what it means to count the cost of our actions. He says, “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?” A little bit later on he says, “What king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with 10,000 to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand?” Which then raises the pivotal question, “Must you and I have answers for all the questions of life? Must we know all there is to know about parachutes and gas grills before we use them?” Need we have answers for everything? In the light of this morning’s gospel, therefore, I would like to reflect with you briefly, upon searching, upon risking, and upon trusting.
There is probably not another passage in all the gospels, in my opinion, that is more confrontational, and, at least initially, more disturbing than the one we heard read a few moments ago. Jesus says that whoever does not hate his or her own father, mother, sister, brother, wife, husband, children, friend, and even life itself, cannot be his disciple. St. Matthew phrases it somewhat differently when he has Jesus say, “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” Either way, these are harsh words, and seem to be out of character coming from the One who elsewhere has called us to love and serve our fellow human beings. However, when we study Semitic customs and ways of thinking, we soon learn that to hate father and mother did not mean on the lips of Jesus what it conveys today to the Western reader. The Semitic mind is comfortable only with extremes — light and darkness, truth and falsehood, love and hate — primary colors with no half-shades of compromise in between. The Jewish way of saying “I prefer this to that,” is to say “I like this and hate that.” Thus, for Jesus’ followers, nothing else is to come before one’s commitment to God’s kingdom — not ties of kinship, not possessions, not reputations, not anything else. That means that sometimes difficult choices will have to be made.
A while back Will Willimon, when he was Dean of the Chapel down at Duke University, got a call from an upset parent, a very upset parent. “I hold you personally responsible for this,” he said. “Me?” Will asked. The father was hot, upset because his graduate school bound daughter had just informed him that she was going to chuck it all (“throw it all away” was the way the father described it). She told him that she was going to do mission work with the Presbyterians in Haiti. “Isn’t that absurd!” shouted the father. “A BS degree in mechanical engineering from Duke and she’s going to dig ditches in Haiti.” Will replied, “Well, I doubt that she’s received much training in the Engineering Department here for that kind of work, but she’s probably a fast learner and will probably get the hang of ditch-digging in a few months.” “Look,” said the father, “this is no laughing matter. You are completely irresponsible to have encouraged her to do this. I hold you personally responsible,” he said. As the conversation went on, Dr. Willimon pointed out that the well-meaning but obviously unprepared parents were the ones who had started this ball rolling. They were the ones who had her baptized, read Bible stories to her, took her to Sunday School, and let her go with the Presbyterian Youth Fellowship to ski in Vail, Colorado. Will said, “You are the one who introduced her to Jesus, not me.” “But all we ever wanted her to be was a Presbyterian,” said the father, meekly. When confronted with life’s tough choices, we are all tempted to search for easy answers. There certainly are no easy answers facing President Trump as he seeks to decide how to respond to the current situations in Afghanistan and Iran. A seriously divided Congress, unfavorable opinion polls, and the lack of foreign support make the landscape extremely complicated. When it comes to God’s kingdom there are no easy answers either. Jesus said that to become a disciple of his you need to look ahead, you need to calculate the cost, you need to make critical choices, and that there most certainly is risk involved.
Six years ago, before we had actually moved here to Arizona from New Jersey, Susan and I flew into Sky Harbor Airport. We had gotten off our plane and had just retrieved our luggage. Daughter Amy had met us at the airport and was taking us to her car, when all of a sudden I heard a strange noise after we had walked past the escalator. I turned just in time to see a small metal suitcase come sliding down the full length of the escalator, apparently having slipped out of the hands of its owner up at the top. The suitcase gathered speed as it careened down the moving steps and proceeded to hit a woman who was just about to get off the escalator. She had no idea of what hit her legs from behind as she immediately fell to the ground, hit her head on the sharp edges of the steps, and started to bleed in several places. A few people rushed over to help her, including our daughter Amy who is a nurse practitioner. In seconds a bunch of people had gathered at the base of the still-moving escalator, some falling over one another in their attempt to help. I quickly realized that the escalator needed to be stopped before more people became entangled and possibly injured, and so I found the emergency button and punched it. The escalator immediately stopped and police and EMTs began arriving. The woman was eventually taken to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries and everyone else was alright. The entire incident just proved that even riding an escalator can be risky at times. Jesus had another kind of risk taking in mind in this morning’s gospel, when he said, “Whoever does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
In the summer of 1939, a young German theologian by the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer sailed from Hoboken, New Jersey, back to his native country. Hitler was in control of Germany, Jews disappeared daily, and the opposition had been silenced. Bonhoeffer had written and preached against the Nazis while in this country, and Union Theological Seminary in New York City, impressed with the young theologian’s work, had offered him a teaching position there. But Bonhoeffer wrote to Union’s president, “I have come to the conclusion that I have made a mistake in coming to America. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war, if I don’t share in the trials of this time with my people.” So, Bonhoeffer returned to Germany and was subsequently arrested by the Nazis in 1943. He was hanged in Flossenburg Prison on Palm Sunday, 1945. You and I may never be called upon to make such a total and complete commitment of our lives, but disciples of the Lord’s Christ in every age have to realize that one’s calling as a disciple is never without its risks, and always comes at a price. That is why he used the cross as a symbol of the torment and degradation which his followers had to be prepared to accept as the price of their calling.
Jesus said, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” To follow me, to come with me, means to trust me. Our commitment to Jesus Christ, your commitment and mine, is a life that has trust at its very center. Whenever we look back on that time that Jesus spent in the Garden of Gethsemane, it is tempting for us to believe that Jesus knew exactly what was going to happen to him. But the truth is, Jesus did not know what was going to happen in Jerusalem, whether he would be put on trial, whether he would be crucified, and if he was to be crucified, whether he would rise from the dead. He did not know. Instead, he trusted. And there is a difference. We worship that same Jesus, the Christ, today, because He trusted. You and I, in that same spirit, are called to be people in whom others can put their trust. You and I are called of God to be trust worthy.
In the late 1950s, doctors discovered a tumor in the bone marrow of 11-year old Susan Stevens’ right ankle. She went to the UCLA Medical Center for tests and treatment. One day a rather frail-looking, freckle-faced, red-haired boy named Richard came into Susan’s room and began chatting with her as if they were old friends. They talked about their favorite games, television shows, places to visit, and how sick Richard was. Richard loved to perform small skits, and kept many of the other children on the ward laughing. Richard’s father came to the ward also, and was just as funny as Richard. All the children enjoyed his visits and the humor and laughter and warmth that he brought with him. Then one day, Susan’s doctor told her that she needed surgery. Gently, he told her that there was a good chance he might have to amputate her leg. Susan cried in fear for hours that night. Because her mother had three small children at home to care for, she couldn’t be with her, and Susan felt alone and scared. She had a difficult time falling asleep, but when she finally did, it wasn’t for long. Susan awoke to find Richard’s father asleep in the chair next to her bed. He woke up soon after she did, and in a very gentle voice kept telling her that it was going to be okay, and that she just had to believe. He stayed for most of the night. Susan would sleep for a while and then wake up to see him still there. Sometimes he was asleep; at other times he simply smiled and comforted her. Susan’s surgery went well the next day, and she didn’t lose her leg. However, she was in and out of surgeries, casts, and the hospital for the next two years. During the second year of her illness, her friend Richard died of leukemia. In Susan’s own words: “Richard’s father became my hero then and in later years. During the time I knew Mr. Skelton and his son, I saw only their courage, compassion, and tender hearts. I saw the man who when “in character” made children laugh and forget their illnesses. I also saw a very gentle man who, when not “in character” sat by the bed of a frightened, fatherless, eleven-year old girl. Setting aside his own fears and sadness, ‘Red’ Skelton, the clown, who entertained millions during the early days of television, helped me face a scary situation with the hope that everything was going to be okay.” Red Skelton was that trust-worthy person for Susan Stevens. You and I, also, are called to be people of trust, who are worthy of the trust of others. Just as Jesus trusted his heavenly Father, and has called us to do the same, so we, too, as his disciples, are to fashion our lives as those in whom others can place their trust. “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
So, today, as we gather as a parish family to worship God, to hear and proclaim the Gospel, to celebrate the sacraments, to renew old friendships and make new ones, and to pray for those in need, let us remember that we shall never — not now or in the future — have all the answers we need in our search to make a meaningful commitment to follow this Jesus, the Christ. Even now, he reminds us that there are critical choices for us to make, there is a cost to be counted in becoming one of his disciples. The element of risk will always be present — it can never be eliminated. Taking risks is simply a part of the life to which God calls you and me, and the cross will forever be a symbol of the dangers that discipleship carries with it. Yet throughout it all, we remember Jesus’ words, “Follow me.” They are words of trust. You and I are called to a life which has trust at its very center. We are called to fashion our lives as those in whom other people can put their trust. The Lord’s Christ says to each and every one of us here today: “Come, pick up your cross, follow me, be trustworthy, become my disciple.”
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