Sticks, Carrots, and the Cross

This sermon was preached at CSMSG on September 4, 2016, the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity (Pentecost 16, Proper 18).

Collect: Grant us, O Lord, we pray thee, to trust in thee with all our heart; seeing that, as thou dost alway resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so thou dost not forsake those who make their boast of thy mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25-33

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

All sermons, in one way or another, are pieces of persuasive speech. And as such, each of them falls broadly into one of two categories: they are either a carrot, or a stick. Preachers have to be careful! Too many carrots and we can all grow complacent. Too many sticks, and it’s just so much abuse.

Today’s passage from the Gospel falls into this latter category: it is definitely a stick! Jesus says a number of hard things. First and worst, that we cannot be his disciples unless we first hate our fathers and mothers. And second, that we must each take up our crosses and follow him. He continues by reiterating the great cost of being his disciple, as a king goes to war and counts his troops compared to the opposing force; or as the builder of a tower counts his resources before beginning construction.

Like several other passages in the gospels, this is a sticking point, both for the disciples who heard it so long ago, and for us who hear it today. I confess I have neither the skill as a preacher nor the hutzpah to convince you that this stick is really a carrot after all. So what I will do is offer a few ways to think about this before we carry on with the Creed and the Great Thanksgiving.

“If anyone dos not hate his own family and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Is this really the same Jesus who said, “Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you?” Who said, “Love one another as I have loved you?” Aren’t we supposed to love our families first and best of all? Yes, yes, and yes. Then what is this about?

First of all, remember that for us today, the family is our fundamental emotional unit. It is usually our fundamental economic unit as well. But it Jesus’ day, not only was the family the fundamental economic unit, it was also the fundamental political unit. Jesus is making a point here about where we most fundamentally belong. And in Luke’s Gospel especially, that is the Kingdom of God before and above all else, before and above any other allegiance. The Kingdom of God is our true home. And while we may love our families in light of that kingdom, it is that kingdom and its Lord who has given them to us in the first place, not the other way around.

Jesus is also making a very practical point. While we may want to think of our families as the places of greatest emotional stability, personal security, and happiness, we know that this is not always the case. Or rather, that there is more to the story. Families are also the places where people most frequently experience abuse and the breakdown of relationships, which undermines trust and inhibits human flourishing.

There is an old Latin phrase, corruptio optimi pessima, which means “The corruption of the best is the worst.” Too many people know the pain of abandonment or betrayal within their families. Even in families which are otherwise the pictures of patience and support — perhaps even more in those cases — people are still capable of hurting one another in profound ways. Not always intentionally, but still it happens. We hurt more when the one who hurts us is one we love. In this context we can begin to see how it might make sense for Jesus to aim at a higher allegiance than our families; how it might make sense for him to point to a kingdom where whatever is lacking in our love for one another is finally perfected in the love of God, and every tear is wiped from every eye.

But what about the cost? More than anything else this Gospel passage is about the cost of following Jesus. A king counts his armies. Does he have enough troops to prevail against his enemy in war? Or would the cost be less to sue for peace before it comes to blows? A builder wants to build a tower. Is there enough money, enough organization, enough motivation to see it through to completion? In Chicago there is an enormous, abandoned hole in the ground, where a developer began construction on what would have been the new tallest building in The United States and one of the tallest in the world. But money ran out too soon and now it sits derelict on prime waterfront property, one of the most expensive ruins on the planet. The cost was too great.

What is the cost for you and me? What does Jesus ask of us in this Gospel? “Whoever does not take up his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” The cross. “We all have our crosses to bear,” or so we tell ourselves when life starts getting rough. But what about when life is good? What is the cross then? For some people the cross is obvious. A wayward son or daughter. Some great and terrible grief. A mental or spiritual ailment. Sins: the memory of past sins, or the anticipation of future sins.   

What is the cross you bear? For Christians in the Middle East today, the cross might actually be a cross, upon which they are murdered in the same way as our Lord. For many of the rest of us, I suspect, the cross is not always obvious. What if we are like the rich young ruler, who comes to Jesus and says he doesn’t have any particular sins, he has kept all the commandments from birth? What if our conscience is clear and we can point to no serious infraction? If you are one of these happy, probably deluded people, I suggest you broaden your vision. Whom have you not forgiven? For whom do you have no patience? Jesus went to the cross not for his own sins but for yours and mine, to work our forgiveness. The cross for you and me can be no less: even more than the cross of death to self, it is the cross of forgiveness and life. Whom do you have to forgive? To whom has it been given you to offer life? This is your cross, at least as much as any challenge or hardship or guilt you may bear, and probably more: to be an agent of forgiveness and life.

The cost of discipleship is always the cross. And the cross is always, every day, waiting for us to approach again, to make our choice to pick it up again, one more time. Every day we are called afresh to take up our cross and to follow Jesus. There is no other way. There is no shortcut, no buying or talking your way out of this. Spend some time in prayer, take an honest look at your life: your family, the projects you’re working on, the people you’re working with, all those who make demands of you. Where is your cross? It is there for you to bear, often where you least want to see it.

The Gospel lesson may be a stick, but there is also a carrot, which I’ve saved for last. If you or someone you know is in recovery, you may have heard the phrase, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” At first it sounds like cheap advice, the kind of thing you’d find on an Internet meme or a greeting card. But it is both incredibly costly, and incredibly hopeful; it is the carrot for today’s stick. “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”

The cost of discipleship is always the cross, whether literally, as for Christian martyrs in Syria and Iraq, or figuratively, as for us in quieter places who nevertheless bear the responsibility to forgive, and to be agents of life in the world. The cost is the cross, and we must pay it every day as for the first time, afresh, anew. But just as recovery happens one day at a time, one moment at a time, with new life unfolding one painful step at a time, even so does our own procession with our cross. As we choose the cross of Christ yet again, in whatever temptation or difficulty we face, day by day, we find ourselves at the very brink of the kingdom of God. Pick up your cross, and see that kingdom stretching out before you in all its peaceful splendor, filled with the light of God’s glory, adorned with all the graces and populated with all the redeemed from every age. Every time we choose the cross we find ourselves on the brink of this kingdom, and our lives in the world reflect just a little bit more of its beauty.

It will cost us dearly, and before the end we will see ourselves poured out to death on our own crosses, in imitation of our Lord on his. And yet, like Moses on Mt. Nebo, today the promised land stretches out before us. We have only to choose it, again, today, to dwell there. Let us pay this cost gladly; let us take up our cross and follow Christ. So might we find this world, our families, and our lives, reflecting the glory of his kingdom: offered upon the cross, broken for our freedom, given to eternal love.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Amen.