Sunday, September 19, 2004

Sermon: Trinity 15 (Pentecost 16)

19 Sept 2004 at Redeemer L.C., Mandeville, LA

Text: Luke 14:25-33 (3 Year)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

In our Gospel text, Jesus starts off with a large group of listeners. They are all “walking together” along the road, which in the Greek is closely related to our word “synod.” Jesus is enjoying an ideal situation for a synod that is obsessed with numbers, with worship and preaching designed to increase numbers, and various programs put in place to bolster numbers. So Jesus has a growing congregation, and what does he do? Does he entertain them, or tell them what they want to hear? Does he give them a simple message designed to keep the numbers on the upswing? Well, no, he doesn’t exactly do that.

Jesus is one of those preachers that District Presidents lose sleep over. Jesus tells his congregation to hate their families, to hate their own lives, and to bear a cross, or else they are out of the church. He compares being a Christian to being an architect who doesn’t get involved in a project unless he calculates the cost and determines whether or not he can pay it. He further compares the Christian life to being a military strategist, holding off going to battle until one has sufficient might to win the war. Jesus then gives the ultimate stewardship sermon, demanding that his parishioners renounce all possessions as a requirement for church membership.

Of course, such preaching won’t win our Lord a feature article in Lutheran Witness, nor make him a model of the Ablaze program. Furthermore, Jesus’ use of the word “hate” can be troublesome to Christians – many of whom will not even allow their children to use the word as though it were the foulest of four-letter words.

One can just imagine the reaction of Jesus’ congregation to this sermon. One has to wonder if the “great crowds” thinned a little at such harshness. A couple weeks ago, Jesus had similar things to say about division and families – telling us that he, the Prince of Peace, the one who admonished Peter to put away the sword, did not come to bring peace, but a sword. This same Jesus who orders us to love our enemies is now commanding us to hate our parents.

Non-believers point to such passages and call them “contradictions.” They gleefully tell us that the Bible is filled with such “contradictions.” In the Ten Commandments, we are told to honor our parents, only to have Jesus tell us to hate them. In one passage, Jesus tells us his burden is light, and in another he tells us we must take up our cross. We Lutherans cite Paul that we are saved by grace, through faith – and yet Jesus tells us there is a cost of discipleship, a cross that we must bear, possessions that we must renounce, family members we must hate. Again, the scoffers (those referenced by our Old Testament lesson) sit on the sidelines and mock. They tell us our faith is a superstition, that Jesus is a lunatic, and that we Christians can’t decide what we believe.

So, dear Christians, what are we to make of a Jesus whose remarks seem at odds with our own synod, with our own sense of devotion to family, with the world, and with reason itself?

Perhaps the first difficulty of this passage concerns the word translated here as “hate.” This word is very strong in English. It is closely tied to emotional rage, to prejudice, to violence. It is a word that conjures up images of concentration camps and burning crosses. And to complicate matters, “hatred” in Scripture often has this connotation. But there is another sense in which the word is used. It is often used comparatively. In fact, it often means “to love less.” It is a comparative word. It is along the lines of Jesus telling us we cannot serve two masters – one we will love, and the other we will hate. In other words, we can only fear, love, and trust one thing above all else – the rest we will “love less,” we will, by comparison “hate.” And of course, we should “fear, love, and trust in God above all things” – even above our prized worldly possessions, even above our own families. Jesus is speaking here not of a hatred that would do violence and hurls profanity – but rather a “hatred” that places God in a position of priority. And Matthew’s rendering of this same passage confirms this is how Jesus uses the word “hate.” Instead of hating our family members, Matthew writes of not loving our relatives more than God. The “hatred” Jesus speaks of here is a way of emphasizing our love for God, even over and above our families, our property, and our very lives.

And what about this cost of discipleship? How are we to understand the Gospel of salvation by grace alone when Jesus speaks of our bearing the cross? Why must we also be crucified if our Lord’s sacrifice on the cross atoned for all of our sins?

Many of you may be familiar with Dieterich Bonhoeffer. He was a brilliant young German Lutheran pastor and professor who spoke out against the Nazis. He would eventually be martyred while a prisoner of the Nazis only days before the end of World War II. Dr. Bonhoeffer’s most well-known work is called “The Cost of Discipleship.” In this book, he coins the terms “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” Of course, grace doesn’t cost us anything. We Lutherans sometimes use the Latin expression “sola gratia” – by grace alone. This word “gratia” is where the term “gratis” comes from. It means “without charge.” So if grace is, by definition “free,” how can a Lutheran theologian speak of “costly grace”?

The answer is this: “free” does not mean “cheap.” In fact, “free” can mean “costly.” During the recent hurricane, many of us in the New Orleans area evacuated. We could not bring everything with us. We had to determine what was irreplaceable – maybe pictures, heirlooms, things of great value. Certainly, many of our most valuable things didn’t cost us anything. They were given to us by friends, or were willed to us by family members. The most precious things we have are often things we received for nothing, without charge, gratis, by grace. And yet they are not “cheap,” not trifles to be treated frivolously, not things to abandon like a dirty napkin when a storm threatens.

This is how salvation is. It is precious, though free – for us. But it was not free for our Lord. Grace is a gift that is given to us, but was purchased at the ultimate cost – the life of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our free salvation was bought and paid for with the flesh and blood of God. And so this grace, though free, is not cheap. Rather it is costly. Though it is handed to us, his heirs, on a silver platter – though we don’t deserve it – it was indeed earned by the blood, sweat, and tears of our benefactor. And like spoiled rich kids, we often see that which is given to us for free as “cheap.” We don’t appreciate how fortunate we are, how precious the gift of salvation is. We see sin as a trifle, after all, we get forgiven every Sunday – and don’t even need to confess in person to a pastor. We can come again and again to the rail to receive the holy Body and Blood of the Lord and we aren’t required to do anything. Like the playboy grandson or party-girl heir of the business mogul, we enjoy the good life without concern of the cost, the work, the sacrifice that earned the benefits we enjoy.

While our Lord indeed gives us all that he has with no strings attached, we can indeed spurn his good gifts by holding them in contempt. Can a person truly be a Christian without praying? Without reciting the Ten Commandments? Without receiving the Lord’s Body and Blood as often as possible? Without confessing the faith at every opportunity? It’s not that we earn the gift, dear friends, it is a gift. But if we are honest, we must all confess that we take the gift for granted. We “poor miserable sinners” love ourselves, our families, our property and hate the Lord. We fling down our cross and seek to serve the Lord carrying bags of loot instead. We cling to cheap grace and want no part of anything that calls us to repentance, that demands that we make the Lord a priority, that confesses the costliness of grace and our unworthiness as heirs. And, dear friends, this is why we are here. This is why our Lord preaches such an admonition to us. For when we confess these things, our Lord lovingly places the cross back on our backs and bids us to join him once again on the road. As Bonhoeffer puts it, when Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die.

So what is this cross we bear? According to St. Paul, we share in the Lord’s cross. “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me. And the life I live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” In sharing our Lord’s cross, we share in his death and resurrection. How does this happen? Must we seek out suffering so we can share our Lord’s burden? Must we become martyrs in order to share in our Lord’s cross and resurrection? St. Paul again preaches: “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

And this, dear friends, is how we are to “hate” our families, our lives, and our possessions, having a proper priority of God, being able to “fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” This sharing in our Lord’s cross, this living in the newness of life is also a gift, it is also grace, it is also paid for by our Lord’s sacrifice. It is given to us through water and the Word at Holy Baptism. This is the mystery of how our Lord’s burden is light, and yet demands our very lives. This is how we can be heirs who receive everything by grace, for free, and yet we are able to follow our Lord renouncing all that our sinful flesh lusts after. This is how we poor, miserable sinners can indeed love God over and above even our families. We are truly sinful saints, and saintly sinners. We are at the same time dead in sin and alive in Christ. We are certainly unworthy, yet worthy recipients of God’s grace.

For our Lord did indeed do the math for us. As the creator of all things, he indeed “counted the cost” and then paid it with his own body and blood. He did indeed, as a warrior-king, calculate the forces needed to conquer his enemy, and then proceeded to go into battle – without a thought of asking for terms, or seeking peace. Our Lord did indeed come with a sword to make war on sin, death, and the devil – and we unworthy sinners benefit from his warfare.

The truth of the matter is that Jesus has hated his family in obedience to God – even leaving his mother without a Son – and yet loving her enough to give her to John. Jesus did indeed hate his own life in order to save ours – allowing his flesh to be beaten and his blood to be drained, so that his Flesh and Blood could be given to us today. Jesus did renounce all possessions, as the king of the universe to be mocked as a false king, crowned with thorns, and enthroned on a cruel instrument of torture – all so that we might reign with him eternally, sharing in his glory and kingship, sharing with us his ownership of all of heaven and earth for eternity.

So, dear friends, let the synod search in vain for worldly formulas for the Church’s success, let the world mock our faith as a house of cards full of contradictions, and let our own sinful flesh, in league with the devil, argue that we are not worthy. Our Lord says otherwise. And as a result, we heirs with silver spoons in our mouths are free to walk with Jesus, free to give him thanks by serving him, free to let our light shine before men as a testimony to the very Light of the world, free to put all things into proper perspective, knowing that our Lord will tend to our physical needs and will take care of our families. We are free to love him who first loved us – even while we were yet sinners. We are free to revisit our baptismal waters every time we confess our sins and repent. Our Lord takes us by the hand as we walk with him, and he has promised not to let us go. We are his disciples not because we follow him, but rather because he leads us.

Thanks be to God!

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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