Called to Discipleship

At almost every turn our passage today from Luke’s gospel confronts us with an image of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus:

“And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (v. 27)

“In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has, cannot be my disciple.” (v. 33)   Luke 14: 25-33

 These images of what it means to be “called to discipleship” and what is “the cost of discipleship” are far removed from today’s complacent Christianity that is found in today’s American churches.

The Gospel’s message more than likely unsettles our assumptions about life, but it is still “good news.”

“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower.  Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it?  For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’  (vv. 28-30)

Some of you might be familiar with the Sagrada Familia Church in Barcelona, Spain.  From a distance, the four main towers of the church look like giant drip sand castles on the beach.  But as you get closer, you discover that these intricate towers are psychedelic, spindle-shaped, and mind-bending masterpieces.

The architect Antoni Gaudí, was born in 1852; some love his work; some hate it.  But everyone agrees that Gaudí is gaudy, showy, and ornamental, full of geometric shapes and images plucked from nature.

Gaudí’s church is still incomplete after 130 backbreaking years. When the cornerstone was put in place, Chester A. Arthur was president of the United States, and Queen Victoria was the monarch of England. For all that time, Sagrada Familia has been wrapped in scaffolding and cranes, and the work has inched along, except for the interruption during the Spanish Civil War in 1936.

Finally, yes, finally, the interior was finished and an organ installed in 2010, allowing the still unfinished building to be used for religious services.  Then, later that same year, the church was consecrated by Pope Benedict with a congregation of 6,500 people. 50,000 people followed the consecration Mass from outside the basilica, where more than 100 bishops and 300 priests were on hand to offer Holy Communion.  Gaudí, who was a devout Catholic, would have been so overjoyed to attend.

“For which of you,” asks Jesus in the gospel of Luke, “intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?  Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish’” (vv. 28-30).

This passage might have kept Gaudí awake at night, as he labored over his church.  He worked on it for 43 years, and during his last 12 years he focused on nothing else.  Indeed, he sacrificed his life to the project; in fact, he was killed in a streetcar accident in 1926, as he walked to the job site.

Gaudí held nothing back.  He gave his all to God, at least in the building of the Sagrada Familia, which when translated means the Sacred Family.  The Tower of Jesus was started by Gaudí and the goal is for it to be finished by 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudí’s death.

This incredibly long and intricate building project raises questions for us today:

What are the towers that Christ is challenging us to build, and do we have the perseverance and commitment to complete them?

In our contemporary culture of instant gratification, building for the next generation is a rare and faith-filled act.

Today’s passage from Luke suggests three distinctive towers, structures that will serve both us and our children well, if we can muster the resources to build them. They are the towers of Commitment, Sacrifice and Generosity.

First is the tower of commitment. Jesus begins his speech to the crowd by 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” (v. 26).

You can just imagine the members of the crowd looking confused and saying, “Hate?  Hate my father, mother, wife, children, brothers and sisters?  Sure, they are at times annoying, but I don’t hate them.”

But Jesus isn’t talking about hate in the sense of intense anger or strong hostility.  No, he’s setting up a love-hate dichotomy that’s more like the loyalty we have toward our favorite sports team. If a person says, “I love the Chicago Cubs and I hate the St. Louis Cardinals,” that person is saying that he/she is a committed Cub fan and will always support them over the Cardinals. Their love for the Cubs is unshakable, steadfast, eternal, and as a Sox fan, I would say it is irrational, but the Cubs will always be their favorite team, win or lose.

When one says, “I hate the Cardinals,” one is really saying they could never, ever support them.  Not in a million years.  They don’t know the players personally, so they couldn’t honestly say that they feel anger or hostility toward them.  If as a sports fan we have an intense hatred for an opposing team or player, then it’s time to turn off the television and seek some professional help.

So Jesus is holding up a big foam finger and saying, “If you want to be my disciple, I’m Number One!”  He wants us to be committed to him over anyone else, namely our fathers, mothers, wives, children, brothers or sisters.  If Jesus pulls you one direction and your family pulls you another, Jesus is saying, “Follow me.”

You can just imagine the crowd around Jesus beginning to murmur at this point, saying, “I really cannot make that kind of a commitment.”

But here’s the interesting thing:  When Jesus is Number One, your family does benefit.

A husband who has strong ethics and moral principles that are rooted in the gospel imperative; is going to be faithful to his wife and family.

A mother who focuses on Jesus isn’t going to live through her children in an unhealthy way.

A teen who knows that Jesus loves him isn’t going to search for approval by following a dangerous crowd.

A child who is taken to church instead of the mall isn’t going to get enticed so quickly and completely into a world of conspicuous consumption.

The tower of commitment is an important structure for us to build, for ourselves and for the generations that follow. It’s a rare and faith-filled act.

The second tower is the tower of sacrifice.  In the very next verse, Jesus says: “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (v. 27).

He’s making it crystal clear that you cannot truly be a disciple unless you’re willing to make sacrifices for what you believe in.  For each of us, the sacrifice is going to be different:  for some it will be a sacrifice of time and energy, while for others it will be the giving up of a habit, a hobby, or a particular career path.  The only common denominator is a willingness to lay down our lives, as Jesus did.  Such sacrifice seems extreme until we realize that people are doing it every day.

Several years ago the Academy Award for Best Motion Picture went to The Hurt Locker, a film that took viewers into the world of ordinance disposal units in Iraq.  The soldiers in these units are the guys who step right up to IEDs, improvised explosive devices, and their job is to defuse those bombs, obviously at the risk of their life and for the benefit of others. The movie didn’t present Iraq as a “good war” or a “bad war,” but simply as “the war.”  That movie challenged us, says reviewer Marc Newman, to “appreciate the mental toughness and sheer bravado required to snuff the life out of a 500-pound bomb.”

Compared to defusing a bomb, the challenge of sacrificing time, energy, habits, lifestyle, and hobbies doesn’t seem so daunting.

However we build it, the tower of sacrifice is an essential structure in the life of discipleship.

The third tower is the tower of generosity.

Jesus tells two quick parables to make the point that only a fool will start a project he cannot finish.  A man won’t begin a tower without the money to finish it, and a king won’t commence a war unless he has the soldiers to fight it successfully.  Without the proper resources, they will end up embarrassed, defeated, or both (vv. 28-32).

“So therefore,” says Jesus, “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (v. 33).

The tower of generosity must be built by everyone who wants to follow Jesus, constructed with gifts of time, talent, and money and effort, offered in the service of something much bigger and more lasting than ourselves.

Like Antoni Gaudí, we are to hold nothing back but give years of our life to God.  Like members of the early church, we are to share our goods and possessions so no one in the community is forced to live in need (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32).

Of course, the irony of generosity is that it enriches rather than depletes us.

When we give to the church, or a worthy cause, we make the world better for ourselves and for people around us.

When we share our time and talents, we build up the kingdom of God in ways that never would have happened if we had kept to ourselves.

Working at a food pantry or a soup kitchen by helping to provide food for the hungry, helping a refugee family, building or preserving a beautiful church, all of our acts of generosity leave us feeling richer, not poorer, with a sense that we’re leaving the world better than we found it.

Because none of us can exit life with any of our possessions, it just makes good sense for us to be generous as we seek to provide for others and build things for the generations that follow.

On this “welcome back” Sunday as we begin the church’s program year, and as you move closer to calling a new senior pastor, may all of us here at Kenilworth Union Church hear the call to discipleship.  Let us build the towers that Christ is challenging us to build, the towers of commitment, sacrifice, and generosity.

Yes, they will take years to construct, but they will last for centuries and benefit the community and the people who will come after us.

In a world of instant gratification, these towers of commitment, sacrifice and generosity are long-term acts of faith, entirely consistent with a life of discipleship, a discipleship to which each of us is called.