In this country’s first gilded age during the late 1800s, there was a reporter who asked the financier JP Morgan how much it cost to operate his yacht on a yearly basis. Morgan’s reply was “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.” This saying has almost become a joke or a dig at someone else. Now, JP Morgan certainly didn’t have to worry about the cost of anything. With all of his wealth, the price of something was literally just numbers on a page. Even today, after the shocks of the financial crisis in 2008 the wealthy did not appear to be overly concerned about the cost of something. Indeed, as an article in the NYTimes in the early days of 2009 talked about a concern not of how much money was spent; it was fear of how it would look to their peers if they were seen doing something frivolous or extravangant. Those of us who are not so well off actually do have consider the costs of a new venture or a major purchase or an investment. But for more mundane things easily within our reach, we really don’t pay much attention to its cost. However, someone in public housing on a fixed income probably has very different priorities as to how they allocate their resources.
Jesus, in our Gospel reading this week, deals with costs. He gives a few of what we call his “hard sayings” and tells a couple of parables about considering the cost of what it means to follow him. The parables draw from different lives and scenarios, but the lesson is the same: Do not take on more than what you can handle or can see through to the end. Jesus is warning his little rag-tag band of followers as they head ever closer to Jerusalem that he is not just some spiritual guru spouting some nice pithy sayings but he is inviting them to embark on a very costly operation. He tells them of the person building a tower who would be a laughing stock if he was unable to finish it. He also speaks of a King who was considering going to war and would have to surrender if he didnt have the resources to defeat his opponent. As if to underscore what he is talking about, Jesus goes ahead and says, “If you are not willing to give up everything you cannot be my disciple.”
There are several instances in this passage where Jesus says “whoever does not do x, y or z cannot be my disciple.” It is a refrain he uses to talk about what it can mean to follow him. My former assistant at the Ghost Tour came up to me several weeks ago with great excitement telling me that he was baptized at the Old Stone Church down the street and that he was getting involved in helping the kids of that community during Vacation Bible School. Just like him, many new Christians find great joy once their faith is first awakened, but many do not grow beyond that first moment. In some cases, they get disillusioned when they discover the Church is full of people who are simply not perfect. Or they might even be shocked to discover that following Jesus means doing something more than showing up to a nice building once or twice a week. (As an aside, I am happy to report that this is most likely not going to happen to this young fellow and by all accounts he is continuing to thrive and will do some great work with the youth group over there.) Jesus wants to be perfectly clear that following him is not about going to a fancy dress party or being in a parade in the streets.
To add insult to injury, Jesus also goes into how you have to hate your family, friends and loved ones and even be willing to lose your life as you travel the path of discipleship. Now, a much better translation of the word “hate” in this passage would be akin to the idea of turning away from one set of priorities or having a sense of detachment towards them because his point is that in the Kingdom of God, our priorities are different. Hating one’s life is not a call to self-loathing, but rather an understanding that tensions could come in our lives and with the relationships of the ones we love.
So where is the Good News in all of this talk of costs? When JP Morgan said, “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it,” he was referring to material things. Jesus is talking about something that we can’t live without. He is not only laying out the best offer in town for eternal life, joy, hope and a ride on the Great Gospel Train of Salvation, but he’s also got the only offer that will work. He has got the real deal, but … it’s going to set you back a bundle with no change given back. After all, it cost Jesus everything and it will cost us, too. All of that life, joy and hope he offers is free but it doesn’t come cheaply. It is absolutely terrible, unreasonable and scandalous that in order to gain all of this we have to be willing to lose it all and give up everything we thought we might have ever wanted.
It’s very easy for me or any preacher to stand here in the pulpit and talk about counting the cost and sacrifice, but I can tell you it is a topic where I do have some experience. I know what it’s like to uproot yourself from a comfortable living and leave friends behind, to lose a home, a job, a retirement account, a friend, and I know what it’s like to have a relationship end because I happen to take being here on Sunday morning rather seriously. But I can also tell you that even through all of that, there is absolutely no where else that this very flawed disciple of Jesus would rather be than putting one foot in front of the other and following where he might lead.
When it seems like we have lost it all or have given up so much, then that is the perfect time for the Holy Spirit to step in and open up a way for us. We can remember the words of Jeremiah from today’s Old Testament lesson where God says, “Just like the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you also in my hand.” No matter what we lose or what we give up as disciples, we can rest assured that just God is with us, guiding us to the places and people we need to be connected with. The Good News I have for you today is that the Great Gospel Train of Salvation may not be stopping at Petticoat Junction … but this train is bound for nothing short of glory.