I have an admission to make: I have a problem—and not in the Frank-Costanza-Festivus-airing-of-grievances sense. My problem isn’t with you people. My problem is me.
The nature of my problem causes me great shame. So, it’s not easy to talk about … especially in public … from the pulpit. I mean, who likes to get up and be vulnerable to a room full of people?
But I’ve beaten the drum of truth and honesty for so long, talked about how this is one of the rare congregations where it feels safe to be the same person you are in public as you are in private—not to have to worry that if people actually saw the real you, they’d judge you.
As I say, that’s an amazingly rare gift in this world where people are so busy hiding their truest selves from the invasively censorious glances of a world feverishly looking for any opportunity to judge you. So, I want to keep faith with this community by practicing what I preach.
So, here goes: I have a problem. My mouth gets me in a lot of trouble.
Now, this might seem to you—who probably never have to worry that your mouth has the potential to make your life miserable—like a pathetic admission.
But me, I’ve got to stay vigilant, lest I talk my way into situations I can’t easily talk myself out of.
Now, you may be thinking: “Of course you have a problem with your mouth. We’ve seen how you pop off on social media, how you write articles that cause people to call you unspeakable names on the Internet, how you stand up in front of the church week after week saying things that would get most ministers fired. You have a problem with your mouth? No kidding.”
Oh … well … yeah, sure. All that stuff is probably true. But that’s not the problem I’m talking about.
The word that gets me into the biggest messes isn’t some rhetorical bomb-throwing I may engage in. The word that so often makes my life miserable is “yes.”
Yes. It’s such a simple word, but saying it can be like pulling the pin on a grenade: if you don’t keep a tight grip, everything will blow up.
Here’s how it happens. I’m sitting in my office, and I check my email and see and something from somebody I know with a subject line that says something like: “Can you help?” or “Urgent request!” or “I need to ask a favor.”
What follows is usually—though not always—something legitimately important. Could you help with rent for a single mother of two toddlers?
Do you think we could use the church building to host our fundraiser, and you would agree to clean up afterwards?
Would you consider chairing the state committee to preserve Hello Kitty socks and Pokemon arm bands in our schools?
And me, either not wanting to let people down or thinking that it would be really cool to be the state Hello Kitty and Pokemon chairman, look at my calendar—certain that 5 more meetings a month shouldn’t be that big a commitment—and say, “Yes. Sure. I’m your man. Just tell me what you need.”
And often, it’s only after a I wake up in the middle of an unmanageable life of sprawling commitments that I think, “You know, maybe I didn’t think this through.”
Saying “yes” can get you into trouble you might otherwise have avoided by coming clean that some commitments that look reasonable, important, or vocationally advantageous just ask more of you than you have to give.
Following Jesus down all the dark alleys he frequents, for instance, falls into this category of a life filled with potentially unintended consequences.
Following Jesus, like buying a 1997 Toyota Corolla from Ray’s Used Car Emporium, means discovering a bunch of costs to which you hadn’t paid any attention until they finally tell you to sign on the dotted line. Look at our Gospel for today. Jesus has been eating with his longtime buddies the Pharisees, where he’s proceeded to lecture his hosts on compassion, humility and hospitality at dinner parties. He tells them that when holding dinner parties they ought not to invite their friends and family, but rather the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. “And you will be blessed,” Jesus says, “because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
One of the dinner guests, Luke tells us, latches onto Jesus’ reference to the end times, and launches into a chorus of When the Roll Is Called up Yonder, prompting Jesus to tell the parable of the Great Feast.
You remember that one. A man threw a big bash and instructed his servant to go out and tell the guests that the champagne was chilled and the prime rib was pink. But when told that everything was ready, everyone who’d been invited started making excuses: “Wish I could, but we just closed on our lake house, and I promised to take the kids down to do a little skiing.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Was that today? I just bought a new can of WD40, and I thought I’d grease all the hinges in the house.”
“I’d love to come, but tonight’s our seven week anniversary, and we’ve already made plans for a romantic dinner at Dairy Queen.”
The master of the house, the thrower of parties gets his knickers in a twist, and tells the servant to go down to the local shelter and invite those folks home for dinner. When the people from the shelter finally show up, the hall’s not full, and so the master tells him to get out a bullhorn and start inviting everybody—except those folks who were too busy to accept the first time. They won’t get so much as a Swedish meatball.
All of which brings us to our Gospel reading for today, where Jesus changes direction from the parable of the Great Feast in inviting everybody who’ll consent to come, and seems to be uninviting folks to his own little party—which we know, winds up being given at the town garbage dump, called the place of the skull, in the midst of its own unsavory dinner party guests … one dark Friday afternoon not too far off in the future. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In our passage today, Jesus seems to be contradicting himself by saying that any who want to come to his party need to make sure they know what they’re getting themselves into before accepting his invitation. Going to this party can have important implications for your family life. In fact, Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sister, yes even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but “hate” is a pretty strong word. In fact, at our house, with our kids, anytime somebody would say “hate,” whether on T.V. or in fits of exasperation, everyone in our family would say, “We don’t say that.” So, how am I supposed to explain this one to Dominic, whom Susan and I have taught not even to use the word?
Is Jesus really throwing over the ethic of love in favor of the ethic of hate? A world of inclusion for a world of exclusion?
No. In this context, to hate something is to make a choice between two things—sometimes even between two really good things.
What Jesus is saying here is that anyone who wants to follow him, who wants to go to the party he’s throwing, will ultimately have to make every loyalty—home, nation, political party, college football team—secondary to commitment to Jesus. If you can’t bring yourself to carry that particular cross, you’d better rethink your decision to follow him; which is to say, you’d better count the cost of discipleship—it’s outrageously high.
And once again, Jesus is just baffling. Notice here that we find Jesus once again throwing up roadblocks to following him. In one breath he says, “If you’re invited to the party, don’t make excuses not to come.” In the next breath he says, “If you’re invited to the party, don’t come if you don’t think you can handle the conga line.”
So which is it? Follow or stay home? It’s kind of difficult to figure out what you’re driving at here, Jesus. Kind of passive/aggressive, don’t you think? Come, don’t come?
But part of the reason Jesus puts out this disclaimer is that too often what people think they want is ease-of-use, friction-free, pre-packaged, no muss—no fuss, no ironing necessary.
But Jesus knows that there are some hardy souls who aren’t in the market for easy; they want interesting. The kind of people Jesus is appealing to are looking for meaning, purpose, adventure.
Simon Sinek tells the story of Ernest Shackleton (Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action). In the early 20th Century, Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, led the first expedition to the South Pole. The only great expedition of discovery left was the crossing of the continent of Antarctica by the southernmost tip of the earth.
English explorer and sea captain, Ernest Shackleton, made good on the challenge. On December 5th, 1914, Shackleton and a crew of 27 men set out toward Antarctica on a 350 ton ship named, The Endurance.
The Endurance never reached Antarctica. A few days out from the southernmost tip of South America, they ran into miles and miles of pack ice. The ship soon became trapped in the ice, as a particularly brutal winter came early.
Ice closed around the ship—“like an almond in a piece of toffee,” one of the crew members later remembered.
The ship was stuck in the ice of the frigid Antarctic, stranded for 10 months, as The Endurance slowly drifted north. The pressure of the ice finally crushed the ship like an aluminum can.
On November 21, 1915, the crew watched in horror as The Endurance sank in the freezing sea. Stranded, the crew boarded their lifeboats and headed out, landing finally on tiny Elephant Island.
Shortly thereafter, Shackleton left the remaining crew and took off in one of the lifeboats to look for help. They traveled over 800 miles in rough seas, before eventually finding help.
What’s so remarkable isn’t so much the expedition, but that throughout the long ordeal, not one of the crew died. There were no stories of starving men eating one another. There was no mutiny.
This wasn’t luck. Shackleton took care to find the right people.
How do we advertise jobs nowadays?
We take out an ad on Craigslist or monster.com. We camp out on Linkdin. We put forward a list of qualifications for the job and then expect that the best candidate will be the one who meets those requirements.
“Wanted: A Social Worker with a minimum of 5 years experience. Must be proficient in case management. Come work for a fantastic company, with competitive pay and benefits.”
It’s all about “what” and not about “why.”
Shackleton's ad for crewmembers was different. His ad didn’t say what he was looking for. His ad didn't say: “Men needed for expedition. Minimum five years experience. Must know how to hoist a mainsail. Come work for a fantastic captain.”
Instead, Shackleton was looking for those with something more. He was looking for a crew that belonged on such an expedition.
His actual ad ran like this: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in the case of success.”
The only people who applied for the job were those who read the ad and thought: “That sounds like my kind of thing.” They loved insurmountable odds. The only people who applied for the job were survivors.
The ability to survive assumed that the difficult journey was an adventure. Everybody was on board. So, when things got tough, when the whole thing seemed to be falling apart, they had assembled a crew who’d already counted the costs and refused to give up.
Following Jesus costs a great deal more than we’re able to afford on our own. There are crosses with our names on them, just waiting for us.
Your cross might be made from the wood of ministering to the homeless. It might be carved from the ancient timber of speaking out against rape culture. It might be from the lonely stand of trees that make up caring for those with physical disabilities or mental illness. It might be from the lumber of #BlackLivesMatter, or feeding the hungry, or advocating for children held in cages, or caring for God’s creation, or demanding an end to gun violence, or welcoming the refugee, or standing up against the injustices that confront LGBTQ people, or providing sanctuary for the immigrant.
But don’t be mistaken, if you follow Jesus there’s a cross for you.
It’s the cost of discipleship, true. But it’s also the cost of fully being the human beings God created us to be.
If that’s the kind of adventure you’re looking for, if that’s the kind of “yes” you’re willing to get in trouble for saying, I know somebody who’s taking applications.