Sunday, September 26, 2010

“Rich and Poor”

Amos 6:1a, 4-7
Alas for those who are at ease in Zion,
and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria, Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory,
and lounge on their couches,
and eat lambs from the flock,
and calves from the stall;
who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp,
and like David improvise on instruments of music;
who drink wine from bowls,
and anoint themselves with the finest oils,
but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!
Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile,
and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.

1 Timothy 6:6-19
Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; 7for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 0For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will bring about at the right time — he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

Luke 16:19-31
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.' But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.' He said, 'Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father's house — for I have five brothers — that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.' Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.' He said, 'No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'"

A Message from the Pastor
I don’t think there is any doubt about what the subject of the readings are all about. The scripture is talking about the rich and the poor. The question for us is, “Where is God in all this? Furthermore, what is God calling us to do as God’s disciples?

The first reading has Amos admonishing the people of God of the Northern Kingdom. (It was called Israel while the Southern Kingdom was called Judah.) Israel was industrial, powerful, and successful. The nation was powerful and highly influential in the region. The elite of the nation enjoyed the wealth that emanated from its position. However, as history reveals, when nations develop this status, the wealthy, many times, enjoy the benefits on the backs of the poor. God was upset with that and called Amos. Amos was not a “professional” prophet. He was neither a priest nor a Rabbi. Amos was a dresser of sycamore trees. (Now, don’t ask me what that was all about. I have no idea.) Amos was involved with agriculture.

Amos went to the wealthy and powerful and noted about how they lived. Who needs ivory beds to get a good night sleep? That wealth could be put to better use. For most of the people of Israel, calves and lambs could not be slaughtered. That would be unwise since the mature animals provided the necessary by-products for life. Then, who drank wine from bowls? This was an indication of over indulging. Amos also was critical of self-indulgence through entertainment.

Please note that God did not criticize wealth. He was critical of how it was used by the wealthy of Israel.

The writer of the letter to Timothy was reminding Timothy of his priority, namely, to focus on God and the resulting contentment. After all, said the writer, we come into the world with nothing and leave with nothing. The important fact is that we have clothing and food for a life with God. Furthermore we focus on our faith, fighting the good fight. The result is love, godliness, endurance, and goodness. These are what are important.

The problem with money is when someone loves it. With that attitude, and the desire for more, we turn from God and turn to money. Money becomes our God and turns us from God. Again, it is not wealth that is the problem, but the attitude toward it.

We don’t need to reiterate the story of the rich man and Lazarus. It is self-explanatory. What we can think about is the rich man’s attitude towards Lazarus. Obviously, he knew Lazarus. He called him by name. In addition, Lazarus was at his gate, hoping for crumbs from the table. Every time the rich man left or returned to his house, he would see Lazarus. He would see how emaciated he was from hunger and the skin ulcers that were licked by the wild dogs that surrounded Lazarus.

What also tells much about the rich man was his attitude toward Lazarus. Even though he was in Hades and Lazarus was with God, he still considered Lazarus his lackey. He asked Abraham (he didn’t even ask Lazarus directly) for Lazarus to touch his tongue with cool water. When that was not possible, he asked Lazarus to go to his five brothers to warm them.

Notice, again, the parable does not criticize riches. The parable notes the attitude towards assisting the poor.

I think I know most of the worshippers and safely say that there are very few, if any, of us who could be classified as wealthy. So, when we hear the readings for today, we’re more likely to identify with the poor than the rich. However, we need to think about this.

First of all, we live in the wealthiest nation this world has ever known. We benefit from this wealth in a myriad of ways. However, if I have my statistics close to correct, while this nation represents 3% of the world’s population, it uses over 60% of its resources. In addition, the percentage of the population that is classified below the poverty level continues to increase while the number of millionaires continues to grow; however, while the number of those who benefit from this wealthy country continue to lessen. Furthermore, in major league sports, a certain city just built a one billion dollar sports center. At the same time sports personalities and entertainers continue to receive more and more wealth. Yet, it is difficult for us to put our arms around the challenges that this represents because of its nationwide impact. It is difficult for us to hear how we, as Christians, can respond positively to this dilemma.

However, we can look closer to home. While Tennessee is not the richest state in the nation, it is certainly not the poorest. Yet, its educational impact ranks near the bottom. The number of children affected by obesity is the highest in the nation, and those who use prescription drugs ranks near the top, in relationship to other states. All of this is an indication of the poverty issue. Lately, the basketball coach of UT was penalized by the school for acting improperly with the NCAA. He was penalized $1,500,000. (I wonder what his salary is!)

Washington County is the tenth wealthiest county in the state. Yet, it ranks low on the effect the educational system has on the young people. The educational system of the county could not balance the budget in the amount of $1,800,000. However, just a couple of years ago, a new multi-million dollar justice center was erected. Two new elementary schools were constructed without consideration of the cost of maintenance and the need for staffing.

If you are like me, and my garbage collection from the town was unsatisfactory, I would, pardon the pun, raise a stink. If my water bill seemed high, I would complain and be critical of higher water and sewage rates. I would want good roads and other infrastructural needs for my benefit. I would let local officials know if it wasn’t satisfactory. I would want to be taken care of. Yet, do we ask our local leaders about addressing the poverty issues? Do we talk to them about the need for better education? We also know about the issue of increasing property taxes. We wouldn’t like that. Yet, an increase per family with property would represent about one family meal at McDonalds per month.

I hope you don’t consider this to be a personal political message. I am not in a position to impose my values on anyone. I hope I am presenting facts. Then, each of us has to connect with God, as disciples of Jesus, and discern for ourselves what Christ is calling us to do.

We need to remember that Christ calls us out of love. And, in that love, he wishes for us contentment, faith, gentleness, love, and goodness. It comes from focusing our priorities on God.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

“How Dishonest Can We Be?”

Amos 8:4-7
Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
saying, "When will the new moon be over
so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
and practice deceit with false balances,
buying the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
and selling the sweepings of the wheat."
The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
Surely I will never forget any of their deeds

1 Timothy 2:1-7
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For
there is one God;
there is also one mediator between God and humankind,
Christ Jesus, himself human,
who gave himself a ransom for all —
this was attested at the right time. For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.

Luke 16:1-13
Then Jesus said to the disciples, "There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, 'What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.' Then the manager said to himself, 'What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.' So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he asked the first, 'How much do you owe my master?' He answered, 'A hundred jugs of olive oil.' He said to him, 'Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.' Then he asked another, 'And how much do you owe?' He replied, 'A hundred containers of wheat.' He said to him, 'Take your bill and make it eighty.' And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth."

A Message from the Pastor
The parable in today’s gospel reading is challenging and confusing. It is difficult to understand.

The manager has been “found out” by his boss. The manager has been squandering, or reckless with, his master’s property. Obviously, the boss has lost some of his property. People have reported this to the master. He came to the manager, asked for an accounting and terminated him with a grace period.

The manager is devastated. He appears to be at his wits’ end. He is not strong enough to do physical labor. He is too proud to beg. So, he comes up with the scheme of talking to the debtors of his boss and getting them to reduce the amount owed to the master. In one case, it is reduced 50 jugs of olive oil. In another situation, it is 20 containers of wheat. The master does not condemn the manager but commends him for his shrewdness.

Now, in all of Jesus’ parables, the master, lord, ruler, king, or owner of property represents God. The challenge and difficulty, then, is that God is commending a dishonest person. (However, we need to remember that the master is not condemning this latest action, but the fact that he squandered the master’s property.)

To help us understand what Jesus is saying, we need to remember the stories before and after this parable. Last week, if we remember, the influential businessmen and attorneys identified Jesus as “the fellow who welcomes low-life and eats with them.” Jesus responded to this comment by telling them three parables. We heard the first two last week when he talked about repentance and the 100 sheep and the 10 coins, when one of each is lost. The third parable was about the Prodigal Son. We heard that story during Lent.

If you remember, the Prodigal Son was devastated and at his wits' end when he found himself in a pig sty eating the slop of the pigs. The Prodigal Son remembered, then, that his father’s slaves were treated better than he was and he headed for home.

Next week, the scriptures will be about Jesus being reminded that the Pharisees were lovers of money and he told the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man was suffering in Hades and Lazarus was in the bosom of Abraham. The rich man was devastated and at his wits' end. He wanted someone to return to his brothers and let them know how they were to act toward those in poverty.

There are parallels in these three parables. As noted all three principal characters were at their wits’ ends. Nothing was working the way they wanted it. They were struggling for survival. The Prodigal Son returned to his father as a slave. The manager forgave debts of the master’s debtors. The rich man could not experience forgiveness in any form. (That’s something for us to think about in our life as Christians and consider where forgiveness fits in to our responses to life.) Secondly, the main characters responded to life in the world. The Prodigal Son squandered his inheritance with high living in low places. The manager squandered his master’s property. The rich man kept his worldly goods for himself. In addition, they began to think differently because of trying circumstances and experiences. Both the Prodigal Son and the manager acted shrewdly to survive.

In the case of today’s parable, Jesus reflected on this shrewdness and indicated that the people of the world act more shrewdly than people of God. It’s something to think about.

Jesus is also saying that we are not isolated. We don’t come to worship on Sundays and separate that experience from the experience of our daily life in the world . Karl Barth, a renown theologian of the middle Twentieth Century, suggested that followers of Jesus need to carry a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. (Today we would include television, the internet, web sites, and blogs.) So, let’s look at this morning’s paper and consider how we live in the world, yet are not of the world.

The major headline refers to hoarding. It is a mental disorder for some people. The headline draws our attention to the article. Yet, when we read the article, we find it is more about the reality show on A&E and the local person who assisted in its production, and less about the actual mental illness of hoarding. Is that shrewdness on the part of the newspaper that we should model or is it deception. Where is God in all this?

The next article, on the front page, talks about the possibility that the oil spill off the coast is finally over. The leak is “dead.” What do we think about that as children of the light, living as an oil dependent nation and the possible need to protect our earth, along with the people who gain a livelihood from the ocean? Has BP been shrewd or has it focused only on material wealth. Should there be condemnation similar to Amos’ comments to the people of Israel. (History has demonstrated that when nations become wealthy and powerful, they ignore those in need, those marginalized, and those who are outcasts.) Where is God in all this?

In an inside article, we read about the Pope’s visit to England, where protests continue to arise. In addition, we read about the assassination attempt of the Pope. The Pope has entered a protestant/secular nation. He is the first Pope to worship at Westminster Abbey. His message is heard by Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher, John Majors, and Gordon Brown, current and previous prime ministers. While the Pope does not say that the nation should combine church and state, he does suggest that faith is necessary in secular dialogue. He also meets with Muslims and Jews and mentions that we need to be respectful of others’ religious views. Is this a shrewdness that Jesus is talking about? Is this how we are to live in the world while not being of the world? Where is God in all this?

When all is said and done, Jesus reminded his disciples that if we can’t handle the small things, how can we handle the important issues? If we can’t deal shrewdly with dishonest wealth, how can we deal with eternal issues?

And finally, however we respond in the world, we need to remember that we cannot serve worldly wealth, which is what the world is all about, and God. Life in this world is about God, not about us or others.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

“Success/Failure, Lost/Found”

Luke 15:1-10
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."

So he told them this parable: Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.' Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.' Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."

A Message from the Pastor
“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” That’s how Jesus was identified. But let’s put that in contemporary language. “This fellow welcomes the low life and eats with them.” That would not exactly be called an identification that was connected to success. And, let’s use another contextual example. The people who said that were the religious business leaders of the community and the lawyers. That is what the Pharisees and the scribes were.

And since we are disciples – followers of Jesus – is that how we would be identified? Would we like that comment made on our tombstone or the plaque where our ashes reside? I think people would see that comment and say, “He/She certainly was a failure.”

But why does this classification of Jesus surprise us? After all, just read scripture and see how God and Jesus act. Abel’s offering to God pleased God. Yet, when Cain killed Abel, God put a mark on Cain so that he could not be killed as he wandered the earth. I don’t think God would be called successful by the world’s standards. God selected a mama’s boy to be the father of God’s nation. This boy was a twin. He conned his brother out of his birthright and then did the same to his father so that he would get his brother’s blessing. The people of God were named after him. I don’t think God would be called successful by the world’s standards. Then, when God’s people were enslaved, he selected a person to lead them to freedom who had killed an Egyptian. And when God approached him, he argued with him that he was not capable. And who were these people of God? God called them “stiff-necked” and they constantly rebelled against God. I don’t think God would be called successful by the world’s standards. God selected the youngest of seven brothers to be king of his people. He united all of the twelve tribes and brought them together as one nation. They were prosperous and wealthy. What did this king do to say “thank you?” He murdered the husband of the woman with whom he committed adultery. I don’t think God would be called successful by the world’s standards.

And if that isn’t enough, God sent his son to be “low life.” He sent him to be a human. And how did he end up? He was hanged naked from a cross in a garbage dump, shamed and humiliated. The world would certainly call that a failure. And, he had a three year ministry, cleansing, healing and curing. He demonstrated this incredible power. After his resurrection, he visited people to show he was alive. How many people were there? At the most there were two hundred. He sent the twelve out to proclaim the gospel and we only heard from several of them. Again, it’s a worldly failure.

Jesus had Plan B. He found an evangelist to spread the gospel. Who was he? He was a person who had been heretical and violent towards this new faith. He wanted to kill all the Christians. God chalked up another failure.

Let me provide a few examples. I participated in UTO, Urban Training Organization of Atlanta. I toured the under belly of Atlanta during my spring break in 1993. One of the places we visited was a non-profit organization that was developed because of the work of several communities of faith. Their purpose was to bring people back into the mainstream of society. The organization coached them, helped them with resumes, and provided other services. They told us the percentage of success. Someone asked what happened to those who weren’t part of that percentage. We were told by our leader that they fell through the cracks. However, when communities of faith were performing this service, the faith community kept connected with all. However, the world deals in numbers to determine success.

When I was a transition pastor in Hartsville, SC, we went on initial calls one Saturday each month. During a couple of council meetings, the President said that he couldn’t understand why we did it. No one ever responded. The program was a failure. At another meeting, another council member reminded us that, at the same time, the number of first time worshippers increased. She also said that we are supposed to do what God calls us to do. God does what God does. Sometimes the dots don’t connect.

Let’s get closer to home. Since April 16, 2009, Cross of Grace has made close to 2,000 initial calls. The results are that eleven people have become worshippers. Statistically, in the eyes of the world, the program is a failure. Yet, in the eyes of the church, we are joyful and celebrate.

God calls us to be faithful, not successful. God looks at each one of us, one at a time. Each one is special. Each one is unique. Each one has the full attention of God.

I have one other thought. There are the ninety-nine and the one. Who do we identify with? The ninety-nine? Or, the one? Personally, I identify with the ninety-nine. I consider myself to be in the flock, and my concern is for the one who is lost. Well, that’s true. But, when I think about it, I am also the one. I am lost every day. Every time I forget that the world is about God and not about me, I’m lost. Every time I think about what I want, I am lost. Every time I do not pray, I am lost. Every time I do not worship, I am lost. Every time I don’t read scripture, I am lost. Every time I fail to joyously serve out of my love for Christ, I am lost. Every time I do not generously give, I am lost. Every time I do not seek friendships that spiritually strengthen me, I am lost. And, every time I return to Christ, there is joy and celebration in heaven, because Christ has found me. And so it is with each of us.

It’s a little confusing. Last week Jesus told us the challenges we have in order to be his disciple. This week we find out that he accepts us just the way we are as he welcomes and eats with us. Jesus loves us; however, he loves us too much to let us stay the way we are.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

“Choosing Discipleship”

Deuteronomy 30:15–20
See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 7But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

Philemon 1:1–21
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,

To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.

For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love — and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother — especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

Luke 14:25-33
Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 2Whoever 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. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, 'This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.' Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

A Message from the Pastor
To use a metaphor, I wish I were a fly on the wall of people’s brains who hear or read the gospel text for today. I wonder what their thinking could be. Some could be saying, “Well, we believe in Jesus. We’re Christians. John 3:16 says, ’whoever believes in me will have eternal life.’ Or one could say, “Look, I worship, do good, and help others. I’m a Christian.” Yet, others might say, “Jesus said this before the resurrection. After all what he says could be interpreted as “works righteousness” and we believe we are justified by faith through grace.” Then, others might say that these words of Jesus are too difficult and walk away. However, some might say they wish to be disciples of Jesus, what Jesus asks is very difficult, but I am willing to follow him.”

As we think of these words from the gospel, let’s consider the context of what Jesus is saying. Many weeks ago, we heard the author of Luke say that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Jesus knew where he was going, he knew what his ministry was all about, and he knew where God was leading him. Yet, he wouldn’t be deterred. As the author of Luke reported, he left Galilee, walked through Samaria and entered Judea as he travelled toward Jerusalem. He met a lot of folks along the way. Several people said they wanted to follow him; however, when he said what it required, they faded into the background. He healed, cured, and cleansed. He challenged the authorities. He had challenging words for all the people, and for us. He visited a group of righteous Pharisees and permitted a sinful woman to wash his feet with her tears. He told parables. One parable suggested that we are to love our enemies; they are our neighbors. He talked about living in an “even playing field.” He suggested we invite the poor, the cripple, the lame, and the blind to dinner.

In spite of everything he said, and all that he did, the crowds grew and followed him. We don’t know why. It could have been out of curiosity. It could have been because of his miracles. It could have been because he challenged the authority. It could have been that he had charisma. Whatever the reason, Jesus turned to them and told them what it meant to really follow him.

This is what he said, according to The Message, the Bible written in contemporary language by Eugene Peterson.

“One day when large groups of people were walking along with him, Jesus turned and told them, ‘Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters – yes, even one’s own self – can’t be my disciple. Anyone who won’t shoulder his own cross and follow behind me can’t be my disciple.

“‘Is there anyone here who, planning to build a new house, doesn’t first sit down and figure the cost so you’ll know if you can complete it? If you only get the foundation laid and then run out of money you’re going to look pretty foolish. Everyone passing by will poke fun at you: “He started something he couldn’t finish”

“’Or can you imagine a king going into battle against another king without first deciding whether it is possible with his ten thousand troops to face the twenty thousand troops of the other? And if he decides he can’t, won’t he send an emissary and work out a truce?

“’Simply put, if you’re not willing to take what is dearest to you, whether plans or people, and kiss it good-bye, you can’t be my disciple.’”

When we read the Biblical texts for today, there seems to be an overriding theme. The theme is that we have a choice. In Deuteronomy, we find Moses bringing the people to the Promised Land. While Moses will not join them in the new land, he is preparing them, and he identifies the choice they have; life and prosperity or death and adversity, life or death, blessings or curses. He suggests that they choose life, that they love the Lord their God, obey him, and hold fast to him. This text focuses on the choices we have as we relate to God.

The second reading helps us to understand the choices we have as we relate to one another. Paul is writing to Philemon. His slave has run away and some scholars suggest that Onesimus even stole money. Running away, alone, could bring severe consequences. Both could bring an end to his life. If not, his remaining life would not be worth living, according to the culture of the time. Onesimus found his way to Paul. In their relationship with each other, as fellow believers, Paul and Onesimus developed a strong relationship. Paul was his mentor. However, Paul sent Onesimus back to his owner. While Paul did not suggest giving Onesimus freedom, he did ask Philemon to accept Onesimus as a beloved brother. It was Philemon’s choice as to how he related to another person.

Jesus is asking us to choose. And he says that if we want to be his disciple, we need to make Jesus our only priority. We are to detach, or let go, of all other people and things. That is the cost of discipleship. That’s not easy. To detach from other people, places, and things is to make life uncomfortable. In fact, it’s painful.

This is what is called shouldering our own cross. People, friends and relatives, don’t understand; they may be offended. And as you “wear the lens of Christ,” you will discover that your priorities change and don’t fit with the priorities of the world. Again, the world does not understand and life becomes painful.

The most painful is to detach from self. Life has been about you. Everything might be based upon self-centered fear. We are afraid that we will lose what we have and/or not get what we want. We see what we’re all about, our shortcomings and character defects, along with the gifts for ministry. Our use of our gifts and the desire to eliminate our shortcomings and character defects take precedent over feeling comfortable. It is very painful.

We do have choices. We can believe we are Christians because we believe in Jesus. We can be good and worship and consider that doing such is enough. We can recognize that we are justified by faith and grace and that’s enough. We can walk away from Jesus because we decide we can’t be Jesus’ disciple. Or, we can choose to be willing to be a disciple, powered by the Holy Spirit. We are willing to accept the reality that we will “kiss the world good-bye.” However, in doing so, we may begin to recognize that the reign of God, rather than the reign of the world, is drawing near. We find the peace and love that Jesus promised.