Sermon: Counting the Cost

A painting of a figure carrying a cross with other figures nearby offering comfort. The faces have little detail.

September 8, 2019
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 14:25-33

by Eric Anderson

One of the delights of the social media age is that there are people out there with a great sense of humor that they can express and share very concisely. Another delight is that there are also people out there with deep wisdom. Occasionally, the two come together in a single person, and that’s cause for rejoicing. One of these people has created a Twitter persona called “JesusofNaz316.” If you’re looking for mind-rearranging, heart-plucking, and laughter-provoking commentary on the Bible and the world (and coffee), I recommend following him.

I mean, I always recommend following Jesus, but you get the idea.

Yesterday, JesusofNaz316 had this to say about this text from Luke: “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.

“I’ve never been great at marketing.”

Well, yes.

This is, I think, one of the most deeply earnest and honest statements of Jesus preserved in the Gospels. Jesus was acutely aware of the potential consequences that could befall his followers in the movement. Although he won a lot of popular support, he also encountered significant opposition, and more and more of his opponents had more and more power. It’s one thing to annoy the leader of a village synagogue, as he did last week. It’s quite another to confront people in the seats of national power, with the agents of an imperial government at hand. In this section of Luke, Jesus was on the road to Jerusalem to do just that.

My own opinion is that we should read these words to every person considering membership in the church.

I confess that, being somewhat better at marketing than JesusofNaz316, I don’t do it.

Kathryn M. Schifferdecker writes at Working Preacher, “Jesus isn’t asking for our leftovers. Jesus wants us—our love, our time, our resources, our work, our commitment—in order to live out what we pray: ‘Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ And that kind of discipleship may very well put us in conflict, if not with our family members, than certainly with the expectations of many of those around us.”

Jesus made clear in this statement that he sought, and seeks, the first loyalty of Christian disciples. This loyalty supersedes the best-established loyalties of human culture: the obligations of family, self-interest, even self-protection. Those, said Jesus, have to be secondary to your commitment to God through me.

Let me be honest here: if any other human figure had demanded this of other people, I would have said, “No. Definitely not.” In fact, other human beings have demanded this of other people and they continue to demand it. Fealty has been the demand of nearly every dictatorial leader of the 20th century and of the centuries before it. When I hear some variant of “My way or the highway” from a political leader, “my leader right or wrong,” then I cry out, “This road leads to destruction.”

That includes me, by the way. If you hear me say, “Follow me and no one else,” you’ll do well to look elsewhere for leadership.

I note as well that Christian discipleship is following Jesus, not following the Church. Christian pastors and teachers can be mistaken, even fundamentally wrong – in fact, we’ve delighted in pointing fingers about how wrong the other person is for almost twenty centuries. That influences the structure, program, and cultural assumptions of the institution as well. That’s why reform movements have swept through the Church periodically over the centuries, including Francis of Assisi’s new monastic order, the Protestant Reformation, the abolitionist movement among American churches of the 19th century, the Social Gospel of the early 20th, and religious leadership of the Civil Rights movement of the 60s and 70s. Each of these reforms contested not just the expectations of the broader culture, but also the practices of the Church itself.

Jesus, by contrast, has earned this kind of loyalty. He said in John 15:13, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” – and then he actually did it. More, he returned to demonstrate that beyond the gift of one’s life comes a gift received, a gift of new life, one he would and will freely share. I may be reluctant to give my fundamental loyalty to a person, or a President, or a pastor, or an organization, or a Church, or even to myself – but I am willing to give it to Jesus.

But let us not pretend that this loyalty comes without a cost.

Mitzi J. Smith writes at Working Preacher:

“One must be willing:

  • to champion the cause of the poor and dis-eased;
  • to view one’s calling as more expansive than the confines of the Temple or church;
  • to sometimes buck traditions—and those who view those traditions as infallible;
  • to live a life of relative poverty, unwilling to take bribes and to amass wealth on the backs of the oppressed and unaware;
  • to struggle for the alleviation of poverty and a living wage for all at the expense of one’s own privilege; and
  • to expand one’s conception of ‘family’ to include neighbors far and near.”

That’s a weighty and challenging list.

I’ll add one more: One must be willing to be a sucker.

Late this week, I was listening to an episode of a public radio program called Radiolab. The hosts, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, discussed a British game show called Golden Balls. At the game’s conclusion, two contestants had amassed a common pool of money, and now faced a final choice. Each one would choose a ball that said “Split” or “Steal.” If they both chose “Split,” they’d each receive half the pot. If they both chose “Steal,” they’d get nothing. But if one chose “Split” and one chose “Steal,” the one with “Steal” got it all, and left the one with “Split” with only their self-respect as a reward.

Talking about this game, Jad Abumrad put his finger on something deeply important. Those who selected “Steal,” he said, rarely seemed all that concerned about the difference between half the money and all the money. They weren’t greedy.

They were afraid to trust someone who wasn’t worthy of trust. They were afraid to be taken advantage of. They were afraid not just to look like, but to be, a sucker.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the phrase, “I like to be generous, but I don’t want to be taken advantage of.” I can’t tell you how many times because I keep thinking it and saying it myself. Couldn’t this person I’m giving this to have taken care of it themselves? Perhaps. Sometimes yes. Sometimes no. Most of the time, when we’ve got that opportunity to act generously, we don’t, can’t, and won’t know.

There’s a chance we’ll be suckered, and we don’t even know how likely that is.

I think one of the things Jesus called us to here is the willingness to be taken advantage of. After all, he was. There’s a school of Christian theological thought that says that it’s impossible for human beings to live without sin. I tend to agree. It must also be said, however, that the Scriptures affirm the responsibility of every human being to strive with their utmost to choose righteousness over sin, as if we were fully capable of doing so. Or at least with some minimal apology, repentance, and forgiveness along the way.

Then Jesus came along and said, Here it is: abundant grace and love and forgiveness from God. Here it is: abundant life.

We’ve been taking advantage of that ever since.

Jesus counted the cost. Jesus paid the price. Jesus summons us to count the cost for ourselves, and then to follow him.

Emilie M. Townes writes in Feasting on the Word (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 4 (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press), 2010), “At the heart of discipleship is transformation. The cost of discipleship is not just becoming accumulators of new information about life and living it fully, or changing our behavior in regard to Jesus’ teachings. The cost is engaging in a profoundly radical shift toward the ethics of Jesus with every fiber of our beings. There is no driftwood in discipleship, as we are called to live lives of complete devotion to God.”

Complete devotion, more than family, possessions, life, or even not being a sucker. Complete devotion.

Let us count the cost. Let us prepare to pay it. Let us follow Jesus.


Due to a technical error, there is no audio recording of this week’s sermon.

The image is Agnus Dei 162×130 by the 20th century artist Ruizanglada – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Categories Sermons | Tags: , | Posted on September 8, 2019

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