Counting the Cost

Nov 11, 2018 by

Sermon for November 11, 2018          Paula Papky for MacNeill Baptist Church

Genesis 4:1-16     Psalm 89:5-18   Ephesians 6:10-17     Luke 14:25-32

 

As far as I know, those in my family who went overseas in World War I came back home.  My mother used to tell an amusing story about one of her uncles who had fought in that war.  While he was away, he met a woman in London and married her.  But when the war was over and he was heading home, she decided she didn’t want to go to live in Canada.  Mom’s uncle arrived home and told everyone his new wife had died in a London bombing.  But then…a few months on, she decided she would come to Canada after all.  And so, as we used to chime in, her uncle had to “undead” his wife.

I don’t know any amusing stories about my father’s father and his war experiences.  I know he lied about his age when he enlisted.  He fought with the 4th Canadian Battalion in France and was awarded a medal for bravery in the field.  He was gassed over there and his health was ruined but he did come home with no visible wounds.

At what cost did those soldiers choose to enlist?  They left behind family, community, and country – everything that defined who they were.  They took on a new identity:  being ranked, following orders, forming new bonds with people in their unit, putting their lives on the line every day and night.  They had their courage and their honour tested.  They didn’t know how many would die (in the case of Canadians, it was nearly 61,000) and where and when.  They didn’t count the cost beforehand of lost limbs, terrible burns, blindness or deafness.  They suffered shell-shock, what we now call PTSD.  It’s heartening to know that his year, Anita Cenerini, whose son returned from Afganistan with PTSD and three months later took his own life, was named the Silver Cross  Mother.  And you wonder, if those soldier then and now knew what they were getting themselves into, would they have been willing to pay the price of seeing, all around them, spilled blood.

It’s just a few pages into our Old Testament that we encounter a shocking story of spilled blood.  Genesis begins with stories of the creation of a world teaming with life, reproducing, making the Divine Heart rejoice.  It’s a story of a   world of peace.  Then comes chapter three.  The harmony between the Maker and the first couple is broken, courtesy of a talking serpent.  Man and Woman, having disobeyed the one and only commandment of God, do not eat from that tree, now hide from each other and from their God.  They live on, but outside the garden, and their life is to be hard and limited in years.

By chapter four there is blood on the ground.  Cain murders his brother, Abel, out of jealousy.  God says to Cain, “What have you done?  Listen: your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!”  You get the feeling that bloodshed will be part of the human story told in our Scriptures from then on.  And that premonition proves true.  The world of the Ancient Middle East in which the Scriptures stories were formed was indeed a bloody one, and the stories reflect that horror.  Kings rise against kings, victorious armies bring back the defeated peoples as slaves, leaving blood crying out from the ground.  And the central story of the New Testament is the shedding of Jesus’ own blood.  Those who followed him in the decades after his death were slaughtered, many thousands crucified, and some sents to entertain the Romans in the coliseum.  It was indeed a costly era for Christians.

As Luke tells the story, not long before his arrival in Jerusalem and the bloody events that happened there, Jesus tries to explain what following him will entail.  When we picture that crowd listening to him, we must also picture soldiers on every corner, on the city walls, and among the throng along the roads.  The soldiers were always heavily armed and on the lookout for any threat to the famous Roman Peace.  And so, it makes sense that Jesus would warn the crowd that following him would be dangerous.

He really levels with them, saying,  “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”  Wow!  That’s the cost of following Jesus?  Hate from the One who had compassion for the poor, the hungry, the sick and the excluded?

It must be understood that to hate in that culture wasn’t an emotion, the way we understand it today.   To hate was to detach oneself from one’s family and all that was familiar.  Similarly,  to love was to attach oneself to a family, to be embedded in one’s family, neighbours, village or town, with all that gave meaning to life.  To follow Jesus, to hate all that, meant giving up one’s identity, one’s security, one’s honour…and finding life’s meaning in another kind of family, the one Jesus was gathering.  We tend to think Jesus had his eye on building a world-wide network of followers, a political and economic and religious force, but the gospel stories seem to say that it was more like a new family that Jesus had in mind.  It was about love expressed as loyalty to Jesus and to other followers.

Before the Gospels were even circulating, when only the letters or the epistles were being passed around the churches, it was obvious that the new community was growing much, much larger than even a metaphorical family.  Writers like Paul pictured this expanding church as an army, a fighting force at war, with Christians as soldiers, with Christian virtues described as armour, with the church’s mission as a battle.

You can see that image in today’s Ephesians letter, the writer urging the early church to put on the whole armour of God.  That metaphor has had staying power through the centuries.  How many hymns speak about the church as a mighty army, marching as to war?  We’re uncomfortable now singing, “Onward Christians Soldiers,” but it was not that long ago that this hymn was sung lustily in many churches as the children marched off to Sunday School.  And recently – maybe a generation ago, we sang with gusto, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” How many hymns in our hymnbook today still describe the church as “triumphant”, as an army conquering the heathen?

The war metaphor may be the most used image in our modern story, common even in secular circles.  Reading the obituaries, we find people who fought valiantly against cancer; people who lost their battle against disease.  But in some churches, and certainly here at MacNeill, we are reaching for new metaphors to describe ourselves.  We are again searching in the Scriptures for a counter-image to church as army and church as corporation.  We find in the final sentence of today’s text from the Ephesians letter, after the words about putting on our armour, the sentence that saves that text from being distasteful.  It ends, “Make ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”  These are the hymns we reach for as we reject the war images.  It means learning some new hymns, though, as we try to think of ourselves and our mission in new ways.

I think the old metaphor that Jesus himself used is being reclaimed:  the church as family, as community.  A family gathering around a table to share bread and wine.  A community that rejects status, that includes the vulnerable, that creates peace.

Jesus speaks of the cost of discipleship many times in the Gospels.  And it hardly ever sounds like good news to us.  In today’s story Jesus ends his warning to would-be followers by saying that following him would demand everything, “All your possessions.”  Now you might think the disciples didn’t have much to lose:  one tunic, one cloak, sandals, a small house that accomodated animals as well as people.  Most, though not all, were poor, very low on the status scale.  They were deprived of their land, weighed down by taxes, hungry, …But they had some prized possessions:  family, honour, and the land of their ancestors, even if they no longer owned that land, but merely worked on it for a master.  The family was not only the highest value in that society; it was also the individual’s source of reputation and rank.  Kinship obligations and benefits covered the whole of life from birth to death.  Leave your family behind?  That would be harder than we can imagine.  Leave even the children, who were the future wage earners?  Abandon them all for Jesus’ sake?  What a costly decision!

And I say to myself, surely Jesus doesn’t mean that all these centuries later,  who wish to follow, to keep on following, must turn our backs on what we most serve and value!  Is it even possible for us to detach our hearts from our possessions and closest kin?  It seems a bit ridiculous to expect us to detach from what we value highly:  nice homes and cars and travel and fine food and wine in order to follow Jesus!  What a choice to have to make in a culture of affluence, in which some preach the gospel of prosperity, not peace.

And yet…if we don’t follow through on our promise to follow, we are left with life as merely a random series of events:  some joy, some sadness, some gain, some loss, and nothing to connect it all together, to give it meaning.  But a life of attachment to Jesus Christ and to Christ’s people is being offered:  a life rich in companionship and compassion and generosity and forgiveness, all those things that are possible in Christian community, that give our life meaning.  Will we follow through on the journey in which we know love and belonging, and wonder and awe?  All those are offered to us when we choose to follow Jesus as family.

And yes, there will be suffering.  Jesus tells the crowd, “Whoever does not carry the cross cannot be my disciple.”  Well, there is always suffering:  in human life; in the life of all those non-human creatures we are to care for; and in the very life of our planet , the air we breathe, the water we drink.  All are suffering.  To carry the cross is to not look away from suffering or pretend it isn’t happening.   It is to look at suffering and search together for how to bring healing.  We sing the hymns together.  We gather as family at the table and remember the One who died, who rose, who will live again.  And today, we remember with sadness, but also with pride, those who fought for us and for our freedom, laying down their lives.

And following Jesus is not all suffering, we know that.  It’s joy, too.  A new granddaughter born.  Our young people preparing for baptism, extending the life of faith which we pass on to them.  New faces here at worship, coming to the communion table with us.  Here we offer each other opportunities to learn how to heal our suffering planet.   This week’s Bread For The Body, Food For The Soul, led by Gary Purdy and Bob Bond, will be helping us learn about climate change and the ways we, as Christians, might respond to it.

Here, as a community of faith, we have the opportunity to put peace into each other’s hands, as the next hymn expresses the good news of following Jesus Christ.  Peace is a treasure to be protected; it is warm words and ways to be with one another and the earth; it is the bread broken and shared; it is a life devoted to caring.  Amen.

 

 

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