Back before I left for vacation in late July, I received an email from the pastor of Whitehall Presbyterian Church, where I preached this sermon. The pastor needed to know the scripture on which I would preach. I was literally walking out the door for an international flight, so I made a snap decision that I would preach on the Gospel text in the lectionary on September 4. Luke 14:25-33. I didn’t look at the passage until last week and realized I picked a terribly difficult text to preach, particularly as a substitute preacher in a congregation I do not know well. It was too late to make a change, the bulletins and liturgy were done, so I took a deep breath and dove in.
Because the Holy Spirit is reliable, I realized around Thursday or Friday that it was a gift to receive this text to ponder and pray over. It gave me the opportunity to think about my friend, Rev. Eugene “Freedom” Blackwell and his faithfulness in answering God’s call despite every trial, tribulation, and risk.
Sometimes, the preacher receives a sermon he or she needs to preach. I needed this one.
Of all the faithful people I’ve known in my life, Freedom is one of the very few who I considered “all in” for Jesus. Well done, good and faithful servant.
Luke 14:25-3325Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them,26“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.27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.28For 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? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31Or 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? 32If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem in this text. He has been teaching. He has been preaching. He has been healing.
And, by all accounts, Jesus has been pretty successful — so successful that large crowds of people are traveling with him. on his journey toward Jerusalem.
But ever since Jesus made the turn toward Jerusalem back in Chapter 9 of Luke, he has been warning his followers and his disciples about the final destination of this journey.
To the cross. To death.
Throughout these chapters in Luke, Jesus does his best to challenge would-be followers about the depth of their commitment.
In fact, by modern church standards in which we fret all the time about how many people decide to become church members and how many people show up on Sunday morning, I think it’s safe to say Jesus is the worst evangelist ever.
Think I am exaggerating? Well, let’s look at Luke.
First, in Luke Chapter 9:
When a couple of potential followers attempt to connect with Jesus, he immediately warns them that being a disciple means having nowhere to lay their head. Homeless.
Jesus also says if they want to become followers, they can’t go back and bury a parent or say goodbye to family. Sorry folks, the time to go is now, not later when it’s more convenient.
Jesus also says that following him means leaving behind everything and everyone in your past and moving into the future with him.
That’s just Chapter 9.
In Luke Chapter 10, Jesus sends some people out ahead of him, telling them to take nothing with them.
No purse, no bag, no sandals.
Jesus sends them out in pairs, but warns them not to expect very much in the way of welcome. In fact, these disciples will be like lambs among wolves, according to Jesus.
In Luke Chapter 12, Jesus says he has not come to bring peace to the earth, but division.
To set father against son, mother against daughter.
Yet, despite these harsh warnings, Jesus has attracted a crowd of people by the time we get to Luke 14.
Perhaps the crowd is motivated to follow Jesus by the promise of healing. Perhaps they’re hoping Jesus will do for them what he has done for others.
Perhaps the crowd heard how Jesus is able to feed thousands and thousands of people with just a few loaves and fishes. Perhaps they figure following Jesus ensures a regular meal.
Perhaps the people are curious.
Perhaps they are lonely.
Perhaps they are bored.
And yes, perhaps a few in the crowd are true believers.
Here in Luke 14, Jesus is challenging the people again, ramping up on the requirements for discipleship.
Jesus says, if we want to follow him, we have to hate our family.
That’s a demand which certainly sounded just as difficult in 1st Century Palestine as in 21st Century America. Maybe more difficult. Family ties were everything in Jesus’ time. To dissolve family ties and leave the protection and structure of family would be almost unthinkable.
Jesus says to the crowd that if they want to follow him, they have to carry a cross. Not the kind of cross we imagine – a shiny piece of jewelry around our necks or the beautiful crosses at the front of our sanctuaries – but a 1st Century instrument of terror, and the purest expression of brutality ever built by the Romans. Jesus might as well ask us carry a guillotine or electric chair.
Finally, Jesus says, give up our possessions.
Compared to the stuff we stuff into our homes now, the average 1st century person didn’t own all that much. What they did own was essential for survival. So this demand is not about giving away your excess stuff.
This is a demand to give up the stuff that keeps you and your family alive. And depend entirely upon Jesus.
Small wonder that Jesus also says that becoming his disciple is not something one does on a whim.
Jesus says becoming a disciple comes only after taking an honest account of ourselves. Becoming a disciple is something to do only after counting the costs. And Jesus says, discipleship may cost us everything.
This is difficult stuff.
This is an unreasonable Jesus.
But if you think about the direction in which Jesus is heading, toward Jerusalem, toward crucifixion. That’s also unreasonable. The Son of God, God in the flesh, moving toward death.
This is the kind of Jesus talk that helps us begin to understand why the Samaritans and the Pharisees and a lot of other people in the scriptures don’t want Jesus around when he shows up in their town or their synagogue or their temple.
And maybe at this point, you’re wishing I’d picked another piece of scripture. Frankly, I do too.
I preached at another church last week on a different text, a much easier text than this. After worship, a few congregation members told me they really liked my sermon and I told them I always know I’ve done well with a text when, by Sunday morning, I’ve fallen so deeply in love with the Scripture, I can’t wait to share it. I always hope a congregation will fall in love with a text so much that they want to go home and read it themselves.
Today’s scripture passage is a hard text to love. This is a hard text to hear. And yes, it is a hard text to preach.
Every time I’ve heard these challenging texts from Luke preached, the pastor tries to smooth out the sharp edges of Jesus’ demands so Jesus doesn’t seem so…well…demanding.
But I think the writer of the gospel includes these sharp edged words from Jesus in the text for a very particular reason. And I think we need to pay attention.
I wonder if we need to take what Jesus says seriously instead of trying to wiggle out of it.
If Jesus really means what he says here, the question is no longer whether or not Jesus means what he says or if we can wiggle out of these heavy costs of discipleship.
The question becomes: is this a Jesus we are willing to follow?
The kind of Jesus who tells us to love our families less than we love him?
The kind of Jesus who tells us we have to give up our comfort and safety?
The kind of Jesus who will lead us headlong into rejection and controversy?
Are we willing to follow this Jesus all the way to Jerusalem? Even all the way to the cross?
All of these nagging questions have led me to the uncomfortable realization that having Jesus Christ as the head of our church means it might be hard to find anyone to stick around for very long. And perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised that so few do.
If we take this passage from Luke seriously, I think we come to the conclusion that Jesus doesn’t fit our image of a successful evangelist or a church growth consultant when it comes to number of people who decide to stick around with him.
In this text, Jesus is demanding. Jesus is bordering on being downright offensive.
But he’s not saying these things to make us feel guilty or that we’re bad Christians.
Remember where Jesus is heading and where this journey will end. Jesus is on a mission for the sake of the world.
The mission to Jerusalem is what matters to Jesus. He is leading his disciples on a mission that will lead, not to glory or comfort, but to the cross.
I think all of us in the church do a fair amount of trying to shape Jesus according to our needs and our wants and our need to look successful.
We create the Jesus we want instead of allowing Jesus to shape us into the people God has created us to be.
In this text, Jesus will have none of it. Because he’s set his face toward Jerusalem. And his journey to Jerusalem is serious business.
His purpose in turning toward Jerusalem is to embrace the pain of the cross for the sake of the world.
His purpose in turning toward Jerusalem is driven by nothing less than love,
God’s profound love for all humanity and all the world.
A pouring out of God’s love that is the very essence of what it means to be “all in.” Jesus is “all in” for God’s purpose of redemption and grace.
Nothing will interfere with Jesus’ single minded purpose of sacrificial love.
Nothing, on heaven or on earth, will stop Jesus.
Not family. Not ridicule. Not rejection.
Not even us.
And thanks be to God for that.
If we are to believe our text today, survival was the last thing on Jesus’ mind. He knew there was a cost in participating in God’s mission of reconciliation and grace.
It may mean giving up one thing or many things or all the things.
It may mean risking relationships with people we care about.
It may mean carrying a burden on a long road for a long time.
And at first, we may be surrounded by many people willing to help carry that burden.
By the end, there may be very few of us left. Just as it was for Jesus.
This week, one of my dearest colleagues in ministry, who was also my mentor, died after a long struggle with a rare form of bone cancer. He was just 43, and left behind an incredible wife, amazing children, and a fledgling ministry which had just begun to gain important spiritual ground in the challenging city neighborhood of Homewood.
Every time I saw my friend Freedom Blackwell during his illness, I never once heard him question the providence and goodness of God. You can ask anyone who knew him, anyone fortunate enough to come into contact with Freedom in these last years. The injustice of it all, the fact that cancer threatened everything he cared about and held dear, none of it was enough to stop him from praising and serving the Lord he loved so dearly.
I don’t know how my friend could hold onto his faith in Jesus so tightly and continue to preach the Gospel even as he suffered great pain and faced the near certainty that the family and the church community he so cherished would soon lose him.
I don’t know how he did it. But he did. Freedom was the epitome of an “all in” disciple.
Another important thing to know about Freedom is he was a visionary, gifted African American Presbyterian minister.
He could have taken a call to a very large church, anywhere in the country. He could have opted for a safe, comfortable, well paying position.
Instead, Pastor Freedom followed the call of Jesus to Homewood, where he started a new church called House of Manna, a church for “everyday people” whom Freedom knew needed to hear a message of Jesus’ love.
It was also a call which offered very little in terms of economic and physical security for Freedom and his family.
But Freedom knew where God wanted him.
In that neighborhood. Right there.
Freedom turned his back on prosperity.
He turned his back on security.
He turned his back on certainty.
He turned his back on comfort.
Freedom was as true a disciple of Jesus Christ as I’ve ever met.
Christ was first in his life in every possible way.
Before family, whom he loved dearly.
Before possessions. Before anything. He loved and followed Jesus Christ.
And he loved God’s people in Homewood. And he knew how to invite all kinds of people from all over Pittsburgh to share his love for Homewood.
Freedom gave up much to follow Jesus. But if you asked him, Freedom would say that by letting go, he and his family were blessed abundantly by God.
But there was a cost. For him to do the ministry to which God had called him. There was a cost.
There is always a cost to doing justice, to loving mercy, to walking humbly…
There is a cost to living into the demands of the gospel.
That cost may look different for you than for me. It will look different for each follower of Jesus Christ. And we are free to follow or not.
But if we are to believe the promises of the Gospel, following Jesus also leads to freedom.
There is a freedom that comes when we are willing to risk no matter the cost.
In the last paragraph of his great book entitled Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis has these important lines: “The principle runs all through life, from top to bottom. Give up yourself and you will find your real self. Lose life and it will be saved. Submit to death – the death of ambitions and secret wishes. Keep nothing back. Nothing in us that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for Christ and you will find him, and with him, everything else thrown in.”
We are resurrection people, brothers and sisters. The hope in our calling is the promise that death does not win and love has the final word.
We are resurrection people. Let us turn our face toward Jesus.
Thanks be to God. Amen.