Sermon at St James and All Saints on Trinity 15 2016
Deuteronomy 30:15-end; Luke 14:25-33
A very long time ago, I climbed Scafell Pike, the highest mountain in England. Naturally, I set out properly equipped: good walking boots, layered clothing, waterproof jacket and emergency food and water in my rucksack. Naturally? Well, when I got to the top, I was joined shortly after by a lady wearing a pencil skirt and high heels. If you’ve been on the top of Scafell, which is composed of interlocking boulders over which you have to scramble, you will appreciate her achievement – or foolhardiness. I must admit that one of my pet hates is people who set out ill-equipped on mountains or the sea and then cost an enormous amount in time, money and danger to others when they need rescuing. We’ll come back to this later. Meanwhile, let’s consider choosing setting out on something, a challenge given in both Deuteronomy and the Gospel reading. Most of us wouldn’t take out a mortgage without working out whether we could pay for it. But what about embarking on a relationship or deciding to have children? Do we really know what the consequences, the price, of this will be? It is a journey into the unknown.
So, are you the kind of person who sets out on a journey without a map? And is this foolhardy or adventurous? When we are born, we set out on a journey through life. We have no map and at no point in that journey can we predict what will happen next. Foreknowledge belongs to God alone. So how do we steer our course? Is part of the map the lives and examples of other people around us as we grow up? I think in my own life that is certainly true, because I can’t remember a time when God was not part of my family and the most important member of it. Knowledge and love of God is the compass and the anchor and the only safety in the voyage we undertake, but, if we could see the way ahead, would we ever choose to set out?
This is the hard choice Jesus is asking the crowds following him to make. Why were they there? Perhaps from sheer curiosity, because he’d become famous. But he points out that it is not enough to be swept along with the crowd, to be carried by other people’s belief. Perhaps because they longed for a leader and saviour. But he tells them that following is not just a matter of walking behind him – they need to look at where he is going, to Jerusalem and to the cross. Jesus is saying ‘here’s the catch’ and ‘read the small print!’ (DO you read through those agreements when you tick that box that pops up on a website?!) Jesus’ intention appears to be to turn away half-hearted potential followers. He is not interested in growing his group just for the sake of growth, but in drawing in those, who are going to live his sacrificial love. This forms a very pertinent contrast to the current emphasis in the Church on numerical growth and certainly puts an edge on the ‘Follow’ campaign in our own diocese.
Jesus uses uncompromisingly strong language to challenge his would-be followers, as does the writer of Deuteronomy. Both are concerned with the consequences of choosing to follow and to love God more than anything else. Jesus’ choice of words, demanding that we hate those closest to us, is dismissed by some commentators as rhetorical hyperbole, exaggeration for effect. But isn’t he actually grounding his teaching about what it means to follow him, in the reality of what will happen and its cost? It is easy to see this passage as just calling us to count the cost, which is renouncing literally everything and everyone that one has, in favour of following Jesus. In fact, it is about much more than counting. It is about paying the cost – the cost of total, unconditional love for God. This is a cost that runs counter to the values of our present day society, where, for many, family is still the central focus of the choices that are made. It was even more so in Jesus’ own time, when family groups were much more intimately dependent for survival than they are today. Following Jesus was and is an enormous choice to make. And, as one commentator has said: ‘That kind of choosing, it seems to me, has to be cast in the strongest language possible, because we will domesticate the gospel and make it a matter of enhancing ourselves and our families until we hear this kind of extreme language and let it shake us.’ One of the challenges of today’s readings is to ask ourselves: have we become ‘comfortable Christians’?
So we face this huge challenge of what it means to be a real follower of Jesus. Are we going it alone? It is a case of ‘get on and carry your cross by yourself’? In which case most of us will probably never get started, just as we would never get started on life, if we knew what the future held. Fortunately, God expects us to use our common-sense in our choices but not to be all sufficient of ourselves. In Luke’s gospel, as I’ve observed before, we need to look closely at the context of each passage. Immediately before our gospel are two banquet stories, both of which say that the uninvited – and therefore the unprepared – guests are the main participants. And – guess what? - family is an excuse for not attending here! Immediately after it come three parables about losing and finding something precious, culminating in the family story of Prodigal Son and the fact that God is always watching out for us. We are each precious to him and should therefore be assured that he will take care of our family as well as us. Which brings me back to those people who need rescuing from the mountains and the sea. God does not leave us to flounder and perish on our own as we try to pay the cost of truly serving him. It is in his strength and love that we can undertake it at all. And, having received this support ourselves, we face a further challenge of how we can become God’s instrument to help other people, who are struggling with the same cost of really following Jesus.
In facing this cost, we also need to remember that Jesus is not imposing conditions on us: he is not saying ‘do this or I won’t let you be my follower.’ He is rather underlining the fact that if we cannot put him in the centre of our love and let all other love flow from this and if we are not prepared for what this will cost, then we will not be able to follow him. It is our choice. Choice is also central to the passage from Deuteronomy. God’s love is not conditional. The gift is already given – long life in the land which God has provided - but it is not automatic, it is accessed and claimed and activated by choice. This is the only passage in the Old Testament where human beings choose. Normally the verb is only used of God. God chooses. So in taking this choice, we humans become like God, and being created in his image, we activate our potential to become eternal, immortal, fully living beings. This choice is not a way to get into a relationship with God. That relationship already exists: the writer reminds us in the verse immediately before our passage that “The word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so that you may obey it.” In pre-literate times, memory was created by repeating aloud until the knowledge was totally part of your heart and mind and life. So the relationship with God already exists, but its future, how it will grow and develop and ultimately come to fruition, depends upon choosing to live in it. As with the gospel reading, it is a choice about priorities. In Deuteronomy we find the summary of the law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” These are words that Jesus used to encapsulate what it meant to choose to love God first and most of all, the bedrock love beside which all other love is as remote as hatred, but from which all other love flows. The intensity of this love is emphasised in the instruction on how to live as a result of this choice: “love the Lord your God, listen to his voice and hold fast to him.” ‘Hold fast’ has personal, emotional import – in Genesis it refers to marriage of man and wife and, in Ruth, it is the way Ruth refuses to leave Naomi. It is a total and exclusive commitment beside which all others are nothing. That is the price Jesus asks us to pay and that also is the source of life in him.