September 8, 2019, Unbalancing the Books (Luke 14:25-34) – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000152
The message today is dedicated to everyone who has ever tried to balance a checkbook – which is probably most of us, excluding Loxlin. Even if you’ve never actually balanced your checkbook, we all know the basics. You add up all your expenditures, all the checks you’ve written, all the cash you’ve withdrawn, the automatic withdrawals for your insurance, or your AAA membership, etc., etc. And then you add up your assets, your paycheck, your Social Security check, some birthday money from your best friend, some lottery winnings — whatever came your way during the month. And then you subtract the expenditures from the assets, hoping that you don’t get a negative number for an answer, and secondarily, hoping that your answer agrees with the number the bank sent you.
Teaching a large crowd of people that had gathered on this day, Jesus told them that in order to be his true disciple they had to carry their cross. It was a strange thing for him to say, if you think about it, because they were all still on the wrong side of the cross. Jesus hadn’t yet been arrested; he hadn’t yet been mocked and beaten; he hadn’t yet been forced to literally carry through the streets of Jerusalem the crossbeam to which he would be nailed and left to die. It was an image that would be full of meaning before long. But on this day, as he sat in their midst as their Teacher, they had no real way of knowing what it would mean to them in the days to come.
And so, Jesus told a story – really a couple of litle vignettes – to help them understand. If you were going to build a tower, for instance, he told them, wouldn’t you sit down and add up how much it was going to cost for the stone and the mortar and the salaries of your workmen. And then you’d count up your cash on hand, right? and any materials you had already in stock. And you’d figure in that your cousin owes you a favor and will probably put in a few hours at no cost to you. You’d do the math. And then you’d know whether you could really build that tower.
Or how about if you were a king? Jesus said. Imagine you were about to go to war against an enemy whose army was twice the size of yours – your 10,000 troops against his 20,000? You’d sit down with your generals and draw up battle plans and consider what advantages you might have against this particular enemy, what tricks you’ve got up your sleeve. Because if the whole thing is going to end in the slaughter of your men, you’d better get your best diplomats out there trying to negotiate a peaceful settlement.
Few of us are master builders, and none of us are kings, but if you’re going to do anything of any importance, Jesus was saying, you know you’ve got to do the math, just like we all do when we balance our checkbooks to find out if we’ve got enough money left for groceries this week, or to make the car payment, or sign up for a Disney Cruise. No one there could possibly have known what Jesus really meant by carrying their cross. But one thing he was making clear – it wasn’t going to come cheap. It was going to cost them.
We’ve heard this before. We need to “count the cost” of being a follower of Jesus. And I think most people have an idea what kinds of things that might involve. Do we have the courage to do or say the right thing even when it’s unpopular, when it means looking like a fool, maybe, or standing alone against people you’d rather not offend? Is our faith strong enough to weather the really hard times – times of loss, or illness, or hardship? We might even consider whether we have what it would take to withstand real persecution – though I think very few of us feel like we have enough “assets” for that. But generally, the idea we have about this teaching is that it means making sure we’ve ‘got what it takes’ to follow Jesus. And for most of us, we end up ‘balancing the books’ – hoping that the little we seem to have will stretch to cover the necessary expenses.
And that’s a reasonable interpretation – if we don’t read all the way to the end of Jesus’ teaching. But if we do, well, we find out there’s something else entirely going on. Because there’s a surprise ending to this little double parable. “So therefore,” Jesus concludes. “none of you can become my disciples if you do not give up all your possessions.” If your reaction to that is “What?” that’s a pretty good reaction.
It is as if you were fiddling around with your scratch paper and pencil, carefully and painstakingly doing the sums to balance your checkbook, and suddenly you notice one more bill, for ten times the amount you have in the bank. With that last line, Jesus changed everything. It’s nothing like doing your sums and managing your cash flow. Following me, Jesus says, costs you everything.
People like to say that following Jesus means letting him take the wheel, giving up the driver’s seat to him. But Jesus is saying more than that: following him means you don’t even own the car anymore. I received a little real-life parable this week that brought that home to me. Most of you know that our old car recently passed away. We decided our best option for replacing it was to lease a car, so now we own a brand new car. Of course, technically we don’t own it, TJ Toyota owns it, but it lives in our driveway and we have the keys.
And ever since we brought the car home it seems like I’ve gotten an awful lot of requests for borrowing it, and giving rides, and hauling stuff. Yesterday, I had to go to a meeting in Chestertown to help plan the Women’s Cursillo, and as luck would have it both of the women I was hoping to carpool with had car trouble. I found myself in a position I’ve never been in in my whole life – I was the one with a functional car. And I’ve got to admit (though I am ashamed of myself) I have found myself resisting all these requests a little bit. I have very good excuses. Our lease agreement says we have to keep our mileage within a certain limit. We have to make sure the car doesn’t get scratched or dented or something. But the bottom line is this – that little car isn’t my possession anyway. Not because TJ Toyota holds the papers. But because I follow the God who owns everything.
Following Jesus doesn’t cost us a little embarrassment. It doesn’t cost us ten percent of our worldly goods. It doesn’t cost us a couple of hours on Sunday morning. It costs us everything; it costs us one hundred percent. To follow Jesus means our time is not our own to do whatever we like with. Our home is not our own private space. (I’m sure I find this at least as uncomfortable as you do, but this is the truth.) Our money is not our own. Our car, our clothing, our children, our abilities, our education – none of these things is ours to do with what we like. “None of you can be my disciples,” says Jesus, “if you do not give up all your possessions.”
It’s a hard saying, and it’s not very American, but that’s exactly what it means to say that we are stewards of God’s creation. Churches talk about stewardship once a year (or more, depending on the church) and we mostly get the idea that stewardship means deciding how much of our stuff we’re going to let God have this year. Sometimes we make it more spiritual by saying we are going to let God have it out of thankfulness. Sometimes we in leadership try to be tactful by saying we won’t require people to give any specific amount – we leave that up to personal consciences. But the real meaning of stewardship is that God already owns 100% of everything.
So now our carefully figuring, all our pencil-scratching and our sums and our careful deliberating seem to be a total waste. Because what does it mean to count the cost if we know that our assets eternally and everlastingly amount to zero? But here’s where the real surprise comes in. When we have given up all of our possessions, when we have done all the math, we find that while our assets might be zero, our resources are infinite. Listen to the words of the Psalmist that we read this morning, speaking of the man who follows God: “He is like a tree planted by streams of water, that bears its fruit in season, and whose leaf does not wither. In all that he does he prospers.” And by saying that he prospers, it most certainly does NOT mean the tiresome false teaching that says that God blesses us with money and all kinds of material wealth if we’re faithful. That’s called the ‘prosperity gospel’ and it’s a lie and a trap.
Following Jesus doesn’t mean investing in the heavenly stock market and getting good returns on your dollar; it means giving up absolutely everything and receiving infinitely more in return. What more could we want than Jesus Christ? Psalm 73 says, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” That is our truth. But it’s a truth that we need to learn by steps. It takes time and practice, learning to hold what we have lightly, learning how to lend or to share or to give away what we think of as our own possessions. It’s not an easy thing. Sometimes we are like the rich young man, turning away sadly when Jesus asks us to let go of something we just can’t bring ourselves to let go of yet.
But we can grow. We learn to give up control of ‘our’ time by practicing being patient and loving when someone needs a few minutes. We learn to open the door of ‘our’ home and hand over the keys of ‘our’ car by reminding ourselves that these things are only ours to use or to share by the gracious gift of God. It is a wonderful fact that this is one of the rare but important things that often gets easier as we grow older. And every time we practice this grace of letting go, we find that our real treasure hasn’t gotten any smaller, our real resources haven’t run one bit low, and our life is continually and wonderfully more abundant – not in the things of this world, but in things that truly bring satisfaction: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, goodness, self-control.
The story of Onesimus and Philemon is such a perfect example of that practice of letting go. Onesimus was a runaway slave who was converted by Paul, and the letter we called ‘Philemon’ is the letter Paul wrote to Onesimus’s master, Philemon, as he sent Onesimus back to him. On a worldly level, Philemon has every right to consider Onesimus his personal property. He’s a slave, after all, purchased with Philemon’s hard-earned money. But Paul writes to ask Philemon to let go of his rights and his possession, and in so doing to receive something so much better: a brother in Christ. That’s how the kingdom works.
Jesus gives us a hard teaching: “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.” We know that he never calls us to hate another human being, much less those human beings he has given us to care for, and who care for us. What he’s talking about here is letting go. Letting go of all those things the world says are ours to control. Our goods are not our own. Our houses, our cars, our bank accounts – following Jesus means loosening our grip on all those things we hold so tightly. Our rights, our dignity, our talents, our time – following Jesus means finding out that these are resources for the good of others, not treasures for our personal enrichment. And even our most treasured and intimate possessions: our husband or wife, our children or grandchildren, our sister or brother, our own body – following Jesus means releasing them all into his safekeeping, letting go, knowing that he loves us all so much more than we are even capable of. Following Jesus means learning the truth of the Cross: that “…it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.”