Counting the cost

Trinity 12 at St James on 4th September 2022

Deuteronomy 30: 15-20; Luke 14: 25-33

To listen to the recording of the sermon as delivered:

I don’t suppose that I’m the only one who is beginning to think twice about things like - how long I shower for, whether I really need to turn the oven on again, or how I can make a car journey work for more than one errand.

As summer cools into autumn and winter, and the price of energy rises beyond many people’s ability to pay, there’s no doubt that we are all going to be counting the cost of everyday things that we might previously have taken for granted. There will be sacrifices to be made: whether it involves holidays, meals out, entertainment or, for far too many people, the stark choice between food on the table for the children, or a basic level of warmth—choices which may even add up to the difference between life and death, especially for the old, the young and the vulnerable.

This necessity, to count the cost of our choices and perhaps make some sacrifices, resonates in some way with both our readings this morning.

In the passage from Deuteronomy, we heard Moses addressing the Israelites. After forty years of wandering in the wilderness, they stand poised to cross over the river Jordan into the long-awaited Promised Land. These verses are the culmination of a long sermon, in which Moses reminds them of the laws by which God would still require them to live once they were settled there.

Finally, he spells out the choice before them:

So then: choose life, that you may live!

It sounds like a simple choice, doesn’t it? And who wouldn’t choose life over death? But it can be a costly choice to make, and one that has to be made over and over again.

The truth is that we live in a world of distractions and competing demands on our attention. Maybe when we’re faced with big decisions, we think about what God’s way might be, and how to obey God’s will. But it’s not so easy to hold fast to God in every moment of the day: to be always loving in the heat of the moment, in conversations, meetings, when we’re being criticised, when we’re feeling stressed.

Most of us don’t literally bow down to other gods, but we certainly struggle with priorities, when God’s call conflicts with whatever else is making a call on our time and attention—whether it’s relationships, leisure pursuits, money, acquisitions or simply maintaining status.

When we look closely at our lives, as perhaps we might do in prayer at the end of the day, we might ask ourselves this question: have our words and deeds this day been life-giving or life-denying?

Because I think that we shouldn’t miss what Moses is saying here. Choose life, he says, - that we and our descendants may live.

The choices we make every day in ways big and small affect not just ourselves but others, the community, future generations and the whole of creation. The sacrifices, we make to honour God’s call on our lives to care for creation and all of God’s people, don’t just bring life to ourselves but contribute to the kind of world, in which we want our children and grandchildren to grow up.

In the gospel reading we see Jesus confronting the crowds with a similar challenge. I wonder if he wasn’t a little frustrated by the ever-increasing numbers of people who seemed to be following him, not for who he was, but for what they might get from him—whether a free meal or miraculous healing. Crowds were certainly flocking to him, but most were yet to understand that to truly follow him as a disciple required a response, a positive choice for a radical redirection of their lives.

So, like Moses, Jesus spells things out for them; he challenges them: to look at their priorities and attachments, to understand the sacrifices they might need to make if they are to truly follow him, to live life God’s way; to count the cost.

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters—yes, and even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. Whoever of you does not renounce all that he has, cannot be my disciple.

There’s no denying these are harsh words which Jesus has for them, though we have to understand them not as inviting hostility towards our nearest and dearest but as a re-ordering of our allegiance first and foremost to God. There’s no denying too that living an authentic Christian life does demand sacrifice—whether of time and money, or status and relationships—and Jesus says we need to be aware of these, to count the cost as we might before a building project or a military campaign.

I do wonder, though, how many of us can genuinely assess whether we have the resources, to stand firm in the face of whatever unknown challenges might come our way when we make the decision to follow Christ. Even Peter, who had left everything to follow Jesus, couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge Jesus, when he felt his life to be in danger.

What I do know is that growing in faith and discipleship brings untold rewards of its own. With the right resources, the tower gets completed, the military campaign won.

We have to remember that these hard sayings of Jesus should be heard within the context of the full message of the gospel.

Because when we choose life, and love, obey, and hold fast to God, when we commit to being a follower of Jesus, we enter a life of grace, receiving mercy and forgiveness within the boundless love of God.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian put it like this: The call to discipleship is a gift of grace and that call is inseparable from grace. But it’s a ‘costly grace’: it is costly because it costs people their lives; it is grace, because it thereby makes them live.

What are the sacrifices that we need to make, what are the costs that we must find, I wonder, in order that we may hold fast more closely to God, and share the gift of life with those in our community who are struggling simply to live? Maybe that’s something we can factor-in to the choices we make as we enter this time of crisis in both economy and climate.