Sunday, September 08, 2019

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 14
25 Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. 27 And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
28 “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? 29 For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, 30 saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’
31 “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. 33 In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.

It was the trial of the century.

The fifth century, that is—the fifth century BC. The accused was Socrates, philosopher and teacher, and the charges were serious: corrupting the minds of Athens’ young people, and impiety— refusing to follow the gods of the state. He was convicted, of course, and infamously forced to drink Hemlock, a mode of execution in Athens at the time.

There is little doubt these were trumped-up charges. If he corrupted the youth, it was only by encouraging them to think for themselves. His impiety was even harder to square. More likely, his trouble was based on a very public experiment he conducted, quizzing the great minds of Athens and finding them wanting.

His experiment began when his friend asked the oracle at Delphi if anyone was wiser than Socrates. The oracle said ‘no.’ Troubled by this, Socrates began quizzing the greats of Athens, in an effort to disprove the oracle. It didn’t quite go as planned: What Socates learned instead was that the great minds were too convinced of their own wisdom. By contrast, Socrates was well-aware of the limits of his wisdom—making him, somewhat ironically, the wisest man in Athens. This conclusion embarrassed many in Athens, mostly participants in this public experiment, and may have led to the philosopher’s death.

I share all this because many have noted the similarity between Socates and Jesus: both were teachers, with disciples, and both wrote nothing, leaving this to others. Both were concerned about the kinds of lives people chose to live, and were intentional about setting an example. And both faced trumped-up charges at trial, dying for what they believed in. Given the opportunity to flee, neither Socrates nor Jesus chose to do it.[1]

And then the similarities seem to end. If you had to describe Socrates’ thinking in a single phrase, it would likely be the question, “what sort of life is worth living?” In other words, what does the good life look like, or what do you need to do to be happy and fulfilled? To draw a contrast with Jesus, we get these words:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. 27 And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

Jesus’ single phrase might be “pick up your cross and follow me,” recognizing all the trouble you might find on the way: strife with family and friends, a world that cannot understand, and a lifelong commitment to the way of Jesus that most often seems the opposite of ‘the good life.’ So I want to further explore some this contrast, but first we should look at the context of Luke 14.

This middle section of Luke can perhaps best be described as the ‘long journey up to Jerusalem.’ It includes healing and teaching, conflict with the religious elites, and an increasing sense that this conflict will lead to peril. In chapter 14, there is direct conflict over healing on the sabbath, and a parable (the Great Banquet) that reminds us that the kind of people we hope to find at the heavenly banquet—friends, family, those who resemble us—may not be there after all.

And it leads to what we might best describe as a ‘hard saying,’ an intentional overstatement that catches our attention and tries to shake us from our dearly held assumptions. I think most of us assume that a good relationship with family is important, we might even class this as a dearly held assumption, but Jesus says ‘no’ — commitment to the way of Jesus is more important that those closest to us, and even life itself.

As I said, a hard saying. And like other hard sayings that would have is lob off a hand or cast out an eye, we need to give the message the gravity it deserves without resorting to self-inflicted mayhem. We need to accept the lesson and allow it to settle on us in a new and profound way, trusting that it’s medicine worth taking.

This passage itself, if it had a name, it might be Counting the Cost. And to that end, Jesus gives a couple of examples, a builder building a tower, and a ruler contemplating war. Taking just the first one, the logic is arrestingly simple: who would embark on a project unless you knew you have the resources to complete it. If you build a foundation but have no money for walls or a roof, you will become a laughingstock.

Likewise the decision to follow Jesus. If you make a commitment to walk in his way— to live with love and mercy, to treat others as you wish to be treated, to forgive generously— but chicken out at the first sign of trouble, then why begin at all? Stated another way, if you accept that we serve a God of forgiveness and love, then why would you avoid healing on the sabbath, or any other example of rules getting in the way of compassion?

Jesus had little time for convention or the rules if they interfered with an overarching need for love and mercy. And this is where we get to say a few kind words about our old friend Socrates, because he would be the first to ask ‘what sort of person should I be?’ Should I be the dogmatic rule follower, leading an unexamined life, or should I live with conviction, even if it means making some powerful enemies? Socrates could have renounced his beliefs, or ran away, but he decided to accept death as part of a life well-lived, something Jesus would do too.

Just now you might be thinking ‘this is all well and good, pastor, but what about a modern example for us?’ Who is living with this kind of conviction, breaking the rules for the sake of others? Who is facing the scorn of others to do the right thing? Surprizing, perhaps, that for many, it’s a sixteen year-old Swede that comes to mind, a climate activist for just a year, and already the most famous young person in the world.

Greta Thunberg began, of course, by breaking the rules: skipping school every Friday with her hand-drawn sign saying “school strike for climate.” Some of her teachers were unimpressed, but her parents didn’t stand in her way. At first, she couldn’t convince others to join her, but she carried out her strike anyway. Then finally her protest was noticed, and within four months she was invited to speak at a climate conference. Soon others took up her protest, and by this past spring over a million students followed her lead to protest inaction on climate change.

Some find her message and her approach unsettling. She has endured personal attacks, mostly from the usual suspects that dismiss the climate crisis. Still she persists, describing the threat we face in the most direct manner, and assessing blame where it properly belongs. She has helped many of her peers to move from helplessness to appropriate anger, and inspired countless older people along the way.

In many ways, she is a blend of both “what sort of life is worth living’ and ‘pick up your cross and follow me.’ Living with convictions is hard, and many of us try and fail on an ongoing basis. Still, we take inspiration from the Greta Thunbergs of this world, and we do our best. Jesus reminds us that living with convictions will put you at odds with others, and even with ourselves, but still we must try.

It would seem that everyone I have mentioned today would encourage us to think for ourselves. Let the youth of Athens make up their own mind on the great matters of the day. Let the activists speak uncomfortable words when the fate of the planet is at stake. And let believers follow in the way of the cross, even when it puts them at odds with kin and clan.

May love and mercy be our way, now and always, Amen.

[1]Boulton et al, From Christ to the World.


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