WORSHIP September 4 2022 9:30 Informal Worship Service
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“What do we need to Leave Behind?”
I want to begin this morning by saying thank you to Holy Trinity and to all of you who are a part of this congregation for the gift of time this summer. When I was first called to this church, part of what they offered was that after seven years I could have a sabbatical, or in other words some intentional time away to be renewed and refreshed for ministry. This last May marked seven years and three months since I began at Holy Trinity and the council approved my taking a sabbatical over the summer. I do not take this gift for granted and am very grateful that this congregation would support its pastors and deacons in this way.
One thing I enjoy doing that restores my spirit is hiking, and over the course of the summer I got to do a lot of little day hikes and just soak in being outside in God’s creation. As I was reading today’s passage from the book of Luke, I was thinking that Jesus would have been a good backpacker. The most obvious reason I think this is because Jesus was a great walker. Besides the time he rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, Jesus is traveling all over the countryside just on his own two feet. The other reason I think he would make a good backpacker, however, is because Jesus was aware of the importance of knowing what to leave behind. He knew that sometimes in order to reach a goal or accomplish what you set out to do, you might need to detach yourself from some of the things you think you might need.
This means it can be important to count the cost ahead of time to see if you are really ready to do what it takes. Jesus gives two examples in the passage from Luke today to get his listeners to think about this. One has to do with a builder who is going to construct a tower. Before he begins, however, he knows he needs to estimate the cost the building so he can be confident that he can finish it. The other illustration Jesus gives is that of a king preparing to go to war. If the king is wise, then he will weigh whether or not victory can be achieved and if it does not seem likely, then he will leave behind that idea and try to negotiate a peace deal instead. The point Jesus is making seems clear: before fully committing to something you need to count the cost, you need to estimate what it will really take. You might also think about what expectations you might need to leave behind or what you might have to give up to get the job done.
The question of what we might be giving up hit me and a group of high schoolers as we were preparing to go on a summer backpacking trip years ago. I had tried to get the students ready before we had gone to the Christian camp who would be taking us on the trip. After church one Sunday we had talked about what to bring or not to bring on the week-long hike. I had even brough my own backpack and tried to demonstrate what to pack and what could be left at home. But nothing could have prepared us for the shock we experienced around the campfire the night before we were to leave on the trail.
Our trip up the freeway had been positive. There had been singing and conversations in the van. The youth seemed to be in a good mood and excited for the trip. Everyone had their bags packed and were confident they had their supplies. Our spirits were high that night as we sat around the campfire singing songs and getting to know the counselors who would be our guides. Then things got a little more serious as the counselors began to talk about what to expect on the trail and their expectations of us as a group. One of those expectations was that we did what we could to leave no trash out in the wilderness and that included being careful about how much toilet paper we used. In fact, they said, we had to think about how many individual panels of toilet paper we would really need and only take that much in our backpacks. They said they knew it might be hard to estimate but to do our best and to trust them that it was going to be ok.
Suddenly the reality of the journey we were about to embark on really hit home. It was one thing to agree that five extra t-shirts were not necessary for the trip or that a bottle of shampoo would be too heavy to carry, but toilet paper? Were our counselors serious? Our group laughed nervously as we looked around at each other. The somber expressions on our counselors faces said they were completely serious. One by one the three counselors challenged us to really think about how many panels we needed as they themselves explained why they only needed two or three panels of what was quickly appearing to be very precious toilet paper. As the roll began to get passed around you could see the struggle on the teen’s faces as they wrestled with wanting to follow the example of the counselors, but were also uncomfortable with the thought of having so little toilet paper for the week. I gave my group credit. Many of them bravely only took three or four panels like the counselors did. Watching them, though, I was worried. It was my job to take care of them. Would they really be ok with so little to wipe with? I might have to talk to these counselors afterwards.
When it came time for my turn, I too wrestled with what I should do. I wanted to be a good example, but this little luxury was something I didn’t want to give up. I ended up counting out about fifteen panels. That seemed like not too much, but a realistic number for the week. When the roll of toilet paper got back to the counselors we all waited with bated breath to see if we had taken too much or not. Then the counselors let us in on the joke and we all breathed a collective sigh of relief from the initial shock we had felt. They informed us they would be taking several entire rolls for the group after all, but the panels were important for a get-to-know you game. For every panel we had we were to share an interesting fact about ourselves. Those who had been courageous and trusting while following the lead of our counselors only had to think of a few things to share while those of us like myself who had been more fearful and greedy had to try and come up with fifteen panels worth of interesting facts.
I don’t think Jesus was joking when he addresses the crowd in today’s Gospel lesson, but I do think he is going for some shock value. Certainly, he says some shocking things. He says that people cannot be his disciples unless they hate their family. They cannot be his disciples if they are not going to carry the cross which was a tool for public executions. They cannot be his disciples unless they give up all their possessions. These statements would have probably been as shocking to the crowds way back then as they are to us today, and that may have exactly been the point.
It’s important to note the context of the sayings of Jesus in this passage. Just before Jesus makes these declarations the Bible says that large crowds were following him. If you’re wondering why such crowds were following him you just have to go back a little earlier in the book of Luke to hear how Jesus has been healing people and performing miracles. He has been teaching and preaching and giving desperate people a sense of hope. Jesus seems like a winning team and people are ready to jump on the bandwagon. It’s like the traveling Jesus show has become a kind of parade that just picks up more people along the way. Jesus’ ego could have swelled with the size of the crowd, but instead he seems a little irritated. He seems a little frustrated that the folks are so excited while not really considering the costs of what they might be getting themselves into. They all seem hasty to step up and say that they want to follow him, but are they really thinking about what they are doing? Are they really willing to stay with him all the way to the cross?
It’s like Jesus is using hyperbole to give the crowds a good dose of reality of what it means to actually follow him. An analogy to what Jesus is doing might be what coaches sometimes do when an athlete comes to them who wants to make it into the big leagues. The coach might test the athlete’s sense of commitment by listing all the sacrifices and difficult things they are going to have to go through in order to reach their goals. Then they will ask if they are willing to do all those things–to actually do what it takes to make it as a professional.
I watched a movie this summer called “Hustle” about an NBA basketball scout who finds a very special player while on a scouting trip to Europe. The player is so special the coach thinks he could coach him to become an NBA player. To do that, however, the young man will have to leave his home country behind along with his mother and his young daughter. He is conflicted, but they encourage him to go. Once in the US he has to make other sacrifices, getting up at 4am to run hills and going to all kinds of training camps. At one point he wants to give up, but the coach reminds him that, yes, he has had to detach himself from many things in order to make basketball his priority, but in the end it will be worth it. Eventually the sacrifices do pay off and he makes it into the professional league. This means the family he left behind is also able to follow him to the US and have a much better life.
One of the most shocking words that Jesus uses in today’s passage is the word ‘hate’, when he says no one can be disciples unless they hate their fathers and mothers, or brothers and sisters. When examining this word more closely, though, we may see that it is less about not liking someone, and more about priorities and being able to detach from relationships when needed. When we think of the word ‘hate’ we tend to think about having contempt for someone or something, or having a revulsion towards it. The Greek word translated ‘hate’ is Mise-o and it can have this meaning, but it can also have the softer sense of detaching from something or loving something less than something else. What Jesus might be talking about then is how his followers are to love their other relationships less than their relationship with God. In other words, God is to have first priority, which means they are called to see others through the eyes of God rather than just their own narrow lens.
I like the way Professor Fred Craddock puts it as he comments on today’s Scripture. He writes, “What is demanded of disciples is that in the network of many loyalties in which all of us live, the claim of Christ and the Gospel not only takes precedence, but in fact, “redefines all the other things that would lay claim to our lives.” Jesus is saying to the crowds and to us today that following him means a full commitment. It means leaving behind our selfishness and greed so we are willing to share our possessions. It means re-orienting our relationships in light of God’s love and grace. It means viewing the world from the perspective of the kind of mercy that we see from the cross of Christ. Amen.