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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 09/08/2019

Kathy cautions me about making too many references to old TV shows like I did in the newsletter article about Cheers where everybody knows your name, but I can’t help it. As opposed to more useful things, those are the kind of things that float around in my head and I figure if I remember these shows many of you probably do too. Anyway, today’s gospel text reminded me of an All in the Family episode when the discussion came around to capital punishment. Archie of course was in favor of it and he defended himself in part by saying that even Edith was in favor of it, Edith being as kind hearted as one could be. So daughter Gloria says, “Ma, is that true? You’re in favor of capital punishment?” to which Edith says, “Sure, as long as it ain’t too severe.”

Today’s gospel makes me think that when it comes to discipleship, many of us would say that we’re in favor of it, as long as it ain’t too severe. Unfortunately, that’s not what Jesus says. A couple of weeks ago I mentioned things we wish Jesus hadn’t said and he’s kind of been on a roll for awhile. If this text isn’t at the top of the “wish he hadn’t said it” list it’s got to be close starting with hating father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters and even life itself and then ending with you can’t be my disciple if you don’t give up all your possessions.

We bemoan the decline in church attendance and membership and financial support but Jesus seems to turn around and look at the crowds and rather than celebrate his success he says, “Wait a minute; if this many people are following me they clearly don’t hear what I’m saying. Let me see if I can get their attention and get rid of some of them.” These days it can seem like the goal is to lower the bar and to make church as user friendly and entertaining as possible, to do whatever it takes to jack up the numbers without asking too much of people, but in today’s gospel verses Jesus seems to be taking an opposite approach.

With that in mind, as much as I might like to think that Jesus would be happier with some of our smaller churches than he would be with the mega-churches that pack ‘em in by the thousands, I’m afraid that would be missing the point. Based on what he says in this text, that you have to hate your family, your life and all of your possessions, based on that, nobody is qualified to be his disciple, nobody.

Included in my possessions that Jesus wants me to get rid or are many books and commentaries and looking through them for help with what Jesus says here I didn’t find much. Even the experts kind of avoid this text or soften it as much as they can. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Jesus didn’t really mean it. He comes up with a list of job qualifications that makes everyone unqualified which really doesn’t make sense. To me, that’s a hint that this is a text that is not meant to be taken literally…but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be taken seriously. It should be taken seriously in terms of calculating the cost of discipleship.

That’s the middle section of this text where Jesus talks about how you don’t start to build a tower without figuring out if you have enough money and material to finish it or how you don’t enter into war without determining if your army is as strong as your enemy’s. A church doesn’t take on renovation projects without calculating the cost and asking the congregation if they’ll come up with the money to cover that cost.

With many decisions in life, there is a cost to be determined and you get the idea that regarding discipleship, Jesus didn’t think the crowds following him had factored that in. They wanted to follow on their terms and many years later, things haven’t changed a whole lot. We’ll be disciples as long as it doesn’t ask too much of us, especially that it doesn’t ask us to change too much; we’ll be disciples as long as it ain’t too severe.

In my Bible, the heading above this text is “The Cost of Discipleship.” Another of the possessions that Jesus wants me to give up is a book titled “The Cost of Discipleship” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. To refresh your memory, Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian at the time of Hitler. While a significant part of the Lutheran Church in Germany went along with the Nazi regime, Bonhoeffer was involved with pastors and churches who didn’t go along. He eventually became part of a failed plot to kill Hitler which led to imprisonment and execution at the age of 39.

In his short life though he wrote quite a lot and in 1937 he wrote “The Cost of Discipleship” so it was over 80 years ago. I read most of it back in seminary but hadn’t looked at it for awhile but faced with this text I took it off the shelf. What I found was that while he wrote 80 years ago, what he said is still remarkably relevant. Even then, there apparently was a tendency toward what I would call “casual Christianity.” Probably the best known concept that comes out of this casual Christianity is Bonhoeffer’s distinction between what he calls cheap grace as opposed to costly grace.

Grace of course is at the center of Lutheran theology: justification by grace through faith. What Bonhoeffer gets at though is grace as both the strength and the weakness of Lutheran theology. What he observed was what he called cheap grace, the idea that since we are justified by God’s grace, we can persist in sin without worrying about it because grace is going to cover it anyway. That, as opposed to costly grace which is a call to discipleship, a call to turn away from sin in response to the gift of grace that has been given. Using pretty graphic imagery, Bonhoeffer says, “We Lutherans have gathered like eagles around the carcass of cheap grace, and there we have drunk the poison which has killed the life of following Christ.”

But then, Jesus sets up this impossibly high standard for discipleship, one that no one can meet. While it’s always risky to say we know for sure what Jesus was up to, I do think that it’s safe to say that this is not a text that Jesus expected anyone to take literally. As I said though, I do think it should be taken seriously. It’s a call to reflect on the nature of our relationship with Jesus. A relationship after all is what we are invited into and for Jesus, it’s not a casual relationship.

We can dance around a text like this one all we want, we can wish Jesus didn’t say this, but there’s no getting around the fact that for Jesus, our list of priorities has to have him at the top. For him, casual, come when you feel like it Christianity is an oxymoron, a non-starter. For him, one hour on Sunday morning and live the rest of your week as if he doesn’t exist, is not OK. For him, care for those in need, the hungry, the poor, the immigrant, those who are different, whoever they are, isn’t a political football to be tossed around, it’s a matter of discipleship, a matter of following him as our highest priority. Again, we can dance around it, we can try and soften it, but that’s what Jesus is saying.

Martin Luther wrote a lot about law and gospel, the law being that which tells us how we are to live as Christians, the gospel being that which rescues us when we fail to keep the law. One school of thought on Lutheran preaching says that every sermon should include both law and gospel.

Today’s gospel text however makes that difficult because it’s pretty much all law. It’s hard to find gospel here without going beyond what the text gives us, but try this: we’re not told of the reaction of the crowds to what Jesus said. One can imagine though that some would have said, “I’m not going to do all that; I’m out of here.” It seems certain that the crowd would have gotten smaller. But I have to think that there would have been others who might not have given up so easily, who might have said to Jesus, “Wait a minute; Lord to whom can we go?” To which I think Jesus would have said, “Follow me.” There’s the gospel that we need, the grace that we need, the invitation that we need and with that, that’s what we do. We follow, imperfectly to be sure, but we follow.

As we follow, taking what Jesus said seriously, we know that we are not where he wants us to be. But we follow anyway, we do what we can; we persist and through word and sacrament and prayer and service and study our priorities change, our relationship with Jesus changes. We get closer to being where he wants us to be and…while we know that we can never do it on our own because the cost is too severe, we also know that the costly grace of Jesus’ cross will carry us the rest of the way.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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