June 26, 2022
Luke 9: 51–62
When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”***
Jesus would not have made a good pastor.
Early in my years as a pastor, I encountered incidents which were important ingredients in learning the profession. On occasion these incidents involved interpersonal conflict. From time to time, because I was naïve or overly eager on some front, I was set straight by those who were gatekeepers of tradition or were challenged by how I taught or preached. Thankfully, I recall very few of these experiences and they were rare, which says far more about the quality and kindness of the people of the congregation than it does about my learning the subtle and finer attributes of being a pastor.
But I do clearly recall one summer Sunday when I got an earful and today’s reading brings back the memory. That morning an older couple with whom I was familiar entered the building before anyone else arrived and it did not take long to realize they were unhappy with me. Because no one else had yet entered for the first service, I could not grasp what I had done wrong or failed to do that set them off. I was puzzled, but I did not have long to wait to learn the source of their dismay because they both were ready to tell me and they took turns doing so. They had taken offence to my sermon the week before. The biblical basis for the message that day was about the cost of discipleship, similar to today’s text. The passage was Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10:37–39)
This couple thought I was completely off base saying that allegiance to Jesus had to come before father and mother. How awful that a preacher would diminish the priority of relationship to father and mother. Was I not pro-family? Did I not care about promoting the duty of caring for one’s parents?
And before I could respond, they walked away from me and planted themselves in a pew near the rear of the church. This was the day I realized that the cost, not just of discipleship, but preaching, was high. I was simply repeating the words of Jesus. Like I said, Jesus would not have made a good pastor.
So much of the pastor’s job depends on making it pleasant for people to be part of a church and rewarding them for their loyalty and support. Any teacher of preachers will tell you how important it is to create a trusting, caring environment where people believe their concerns will be heard and their needs will be met.
The basic idea is to figure out what people are looking for and give it to them, so that they decide to stay instead of continuing to shop for a church down the street. This effort to please does not stop once people decide to join the church. A good pastor will work hard to know every person by name, to make sure that worship is satisfying, the music is beautiful, the sermons are engaging, Christian education is appealing, the mission and vision inspiring and that plenty of opportunities for fellowship and meaningful service exist. The overarching goal is to develop disciples, people who commit their lives to living out the ways of Jesus in daily life.
It is lovely when congregational life works with all the forementioned components working together in perfect harmony. Beyond having satisfied members, pastors really want people to become disciples. But as I experienced that Sunday morning years ago, helping people grasp the costs of discipleship is often challenging. According to Jesus in Luke, chapter 9, we cannot be his disciples unless we give up our securities, relinquish our familial obligations, and never look back.
This makes me wonder why all preachers and believers alike don’t just turn in their resignations? Because clearly, none of us has what it takes. If Jesus were in charge of an average congregation, I figure there would be about three people who would show up on Sunday morning, and chances are they would be fooling themselves.
Given the weightiness of discipleship, if Jesus were your church’s pastor, he would greet newcomers by saying, “Are you absolutely sure you want to follow this way of life? It will take everything you have. It has to come before everything else that matters to you. Plenty of people have launched out on it without counting the cost, and as you can see, they are not here anymore. Why don’t you go home and think it over? I would hate for you to get in over your head.”
So, what does it cost to be a disciple of Jesus? We do not have to wonder because today Jesus is telling us. Illustrating what discipleship entails, he reports on three people who want to follow him and they offer to become disciples. Seems like the day is start out well for Pastor Jesus.
These days more than ever, pastors are thrilled when new people show up and want to engage, pitch-in, help, support and provide. Well, as the story goes on, Jesus makes known the costs of signing on with him.
The first person is turned away because the cost is too high. It costs your security. Even animals have more security than Jesus and his disciples he reports. There is a radical rootlessness to becoming a disciple. The disciple has no home. This doesn‘t mean there is no roof over your head; it means that in whatever country you find yourself, or in whatever culture you live, there is a rootlessness that will be yours, because your home is the kingdom of God, and not the kingdom of this world. To become a disciple means you will be a wanderer.
The second person is also turned away because the cost was too high. This second would-be disciple wants to maintain his ties to his family and carry out the obligations he has to bury his parents. We do not know if the sign-on delay is to be a week or ten years. But Jesus is direct and to the point. To become a disciple means social and family obligations are set aside in favor of the demands of God‘s reign and rule in the world of the living. This is a harsh one because most pastors I know work very hard to attend to their families and not be one of those preachers who screws up their children even more.
The third person is likewise turned away because the cost of following Jesus was much too high. This would-be disciple asks Jesus to let him go kiss his parents’ good-bye. Now who could be against that? After all, doesn‘t every mother teach her child to tell her where he is going, to call her when she arrives, and to tell her
what time he is coming home? A more than reasonable request wouldn’t you say? But Jesus is not easier on this person than the other two. No! Jesus says there is no looking back. Either you are with me, or not. Once you agree to come along, the course is set and we move on. Jesus says, “Follow me.” And he wants his friends to commit themselves to the tasks of living for the kingdom of God and proclaiming the good news of God‘s reign.
“Don‘t look back,” Satchel Paige the celebrated black professional baseball player used to say, “Something may be gaining on you.” Jesus put it in a similar way. No one who puts hand to the plow and gazes longingly backward is fit to plant this field. Life moves us forward; to look back is to engage again in death. To become a disciple means no backward glances.
Harsh, wouldn’t you agree?
Christian discipleship is not something to be engaged in casually. It is not a summer beach walk; it is not an
alternate lifestyle; it is not even a career choice. It is not about joining some new religious group or doing the popular thing. It is not even about being a good person. Discipleship is about becoming a new person altogether — it is about a new identity. Discipleship, Jesus tells us, is a matter of life and death that costs you everything you are so that you can become everything God intends for you to be.
The disciple is the one who gives it all up in order to gain it all. Is there any wonder that so few followers of Jesus became full-fledged disciples? Is it any wonder that we struggle with our own excuses, and our reasons, and our cautious commitments? Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopalian priest and author writes, “While Jesus may not have ever made a very good parish minister, he was indeed a very good savior and thank goodness, he is not through saving us yet.”1
We who have answered “Yes” to the question of becoming a disciple certainly know that it is not easy to be rootless and a wanderer in a country that values securities. We know it is not easy to hold our faith higher than we hold our family and social customs. Even as we know how hard it is to be a disciple of Christ’s in our world today, we can be assured that Jesus has walked before us and will be with us, always leading us, guiding
us, and encouraging us to life of greater discipleship.
1 Barbara Brown Taylor, in a sermon entitled, “High Priced Discipleship”