The Cost of Life
A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
on 4 September 2022 [Proper 19; Year C]:
Jeremiah 18:1-11; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33
For those who have been particularly mindful, the last month or so of gospel readings from Luke has been … well, let’s just say that their content has been challenging; and because these lessons are hard, it is easy for us to “mute” them. Yet, I have found it a rule of sorts that when a piece of scripture (for example) causes us to trip up or when that passage refuses to be smoothed out by us, the rule is that it is precisely at such times that we need to find the discipline to listen more carefully and to explore more willingly. This is to say that my experience as a learner and a teacher of scripture has taught me to pay stricter attention to the very things that I find unappealing or unclear because I have found that God and what God has to say through scripture are ironically (albeit, very inconveniently) right at these most disturbing, off-putting points.
I think this morning’s gospel falls into this category, especially in its last line, when Jesus says: “So, therefore none of you can become my disciples if you do not give away all your possessions”? What is Jesus saying here? Is it worth paying attention to? Moreover, if it is, where in this is the “good news”?
I hope you will join me in facing these questions and the challenge they present; but for now I want to name – I want to suggest -- one toehold that I find helps to open up this hard, impractical sounding pronouncement from Jesus. Then, having (I hope) lowered the level of resistance to taking this gospel seriously, I’d like to refocus our attention on the image Jesus uses of building “a tower”. It is in this metaphor that I think Jesus renders both his unvarnished challenge about discipleship and possessions and his “good news”.
The element to recognize with seriousness is that to make a point, we commonly exaggerate our expression. “Oh, these groceries weight a ton!” Or when I lift my grandson and groan how back-breakingly heavy he is, my exaggeration is meant to convey my joy in holding him close. Hyperbole is what such exaggeration is called; and it is the expressed extreme that is meant to call our attention, not to the literalness but to a larger message
More specifically, in Jesus’ Semitic culture and context, rabbis regularly used hyperbole to teach and to state a deeper, life-giving message. We have several occasions in the gospels where Jesus exhibits this tactic. Today’s gospel (both in hating family and eliminating possessions) is a keen example, just as our Lord’s reference in another gospel passage tells us to pluck out eyes or cut off hands rather than allowing these appendages to draw us into hell. It’s not simply a matter of being so sophisticated as to move beyond literalism, but (as I said) the exaggeration is a dramatic way of gaining our attention and pointing to a deeper message – that is, if we don’t “mute” the message right away.
So, in this gospel about following Jesus and having possessions, what is Jesus’ message? To what is he calling our attention; and what does this have to do with God and life with God?
As I said, in my own efforts to answer these questions, I am drawn to Jesus’ first illustration: the image of the “tower”. With plans to build a “tower”, it is imperative to determine the cost and what will it take to finish the job? Who, Jesus implies, doesn’t do this before making the investment to build? In relationship to the overall point of today’s gospel passage: namely, of following Jesus as a disciple and determining the price of this enterprise, I see the deeper issue at hand not about what we can we afford (that’s what mortgages are for); but rather is it worth the price to us? Or do we move forward, following Jesus all the while banking on acquiring “loan forgiveness” in the end?
Hold these questions for a bit, if you will. Where I start in searching for their answers is to ask another question: What is the “tower” we intend to build? What does the “tower” mean or represent?
I tend to think that the answer to this question is that the tower is nothing less than our life. And in this I am reminded of the poem that the late, contemporary, American poet, Mary Oliver famously penned. Entitled, The Summer Day, her poem seeks not only to establish a “tower” -- her life -- but also to know what the tower is for and what it houses.
Oliver begins her poem with a question:
Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean—
The inference here is that nature – in all its majesty, mystery, and presence – is God’s own “tower”: the grand and outward expression of what life with God is like and an invitation for us (who are also part of this sacred expression) to take God’s life in hand. – our hands.
Wondering, then, about the possible connection between the life her tower holds and that of God’s, Mary Oliver continues to probe with reflective questions:
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day.
Finally, as if to respond to the issue and the challenge of today’s gospel lesson, Oliver pens some of her most recognizable lines – once again, in questions:
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
In these last lines, Oliver, having done here best to build her tower, suddenly speaks with God’s voice, asking each of us what we will do with what we have built. What’s our tower for? What difference does it make in the end? And in this I think the poem and today’s gospel meet.
We call it the “great resignation”. Amid the disruption and threat of the pandemic, millions of American workers have chosen to leave their jobs. Ironically on this Labor Day weekend, according to the New York Times, there are presently 11.5 million unfilled jobs in this country. Like abandoned “towers”, the summary report on the significance of this movement identifies a deep dissatisfaction with their lives and specifically with the place their work, their “tower building” plays in their lives.
The again, at the other end of the spectrum, college students are restless with their educational experience. Something is missing; and facing astounding debt, many wonder if the “tower” they have envisioned is worth the cost. In any event, something important in all these life, in all these towers, is missing. And I think that this is the point and the place at which Jesus offers his stringent statement:
So, therefore, none of you can become my disciples if you do not give up all your possessions.
Within Jesus’ perplexing proclamation, I am reminded of the great 19th century migration west and how those Conestoga wagons ventured into the unknown to build a new life. The wagons were filled with the treasures and necessities of the old life, many times including heirlooms from previous generations. Yet, as the wagons moved onward and especially as they began the steady ascent into the mountain’s foothills, a dreadful decision emerged. What they were carrying – their possessions – weighed too much. The oxen that were pulling these heavy loads couldn’t continue to do their work. So it was that a painful trail of heavy wooden, ancestral furniture was jettisoned to sprinkle the westward trail: A heartbreaking and visible sign of the cost of new life.
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
In this sermon I have named the necessity of paying attention to sacred guidance that we don’t like. From this, I have given an example of exploring what might be underneath our resistance to the passage. Now I will close by offering what I think Jesus is saying in this gospel about the tension between following him and having possessions.
Again, I think that the “tower” Jesus uses in his example stands for the life each of us builds, either from a clear plan or from daily discovery. While the fact remains that one way or another each of us has a life to build, I believe the issue at hand for Jesus rests in this question: In your “tower”, in your life, how much room is there for God?
Perhaps the gospel point can be expressed more simply: What does it take for a house to become a home? In mentioning this, I am mindful of something else Jesus says: namely, “In my Father’s house, there are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”
Building our “tower” takes on a different tone, when we realize that we already have a place to call home. Therefore, wherever we are, the possession that is most valuable is making room in our “towers”, our lives, for God and the God-life. From that essential architecture, our plans, our towers, our lives can and do change without us necessarily becoming homeless or lost.
Thanks be to God. Amen.