Here is my sermon draft for this Sunday. I'm still not completely happy with it. I'm afraid that I'm trying to do too much and that my message may get lost. I'll continue to polish it over the next few days. As always, comments are welcome.
[Edit: By the time I got around to practicing this sermon today, it had grown to a 17-minute monstrosity. So I trimmed it down quite a bit and tried to streamline the message. I've updated this post to contain the most recent version.]
Grace and peace be with you in the name of the living God. Amen.
The words we hear this morning are harsh ones. In our gospel text, we hear Jesus say: “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.” He tells the crowds that “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” These are harsh words, words that are difficult to hear.
Jesus’ words are especially harsh when we hear them directed at us: “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” By this reckoning, I suspect that there could not be counted a single disciple here today. I can certainly speak for myself — I have not given up all my possessions. Though I'm not living in the lap of luxury by American standards, I do have many possessions sitting back home in my apartment right now. So these words from the gospel of Luke strike my heart, telling me I am not a legitimate follower of Jesus.
This text, and others like it in the gospels that command Jesus’ followers to “sell all they have” strike my heart for another reason. Not only do they confront and condemn me personally; but I have seen the effect they have on other faithful Christians. I want to give you a specific example, a story that the person in question has given me permission to tell.
I have a friend whom I have known since childhood, a fellow member at my home church back in New Mexico. We'll call her Noel for the sake of telling her story. Growing up, Noel was thoughtful and serious beyond her years. From a very young age, just 8 or 9 years old, Noel was profoundly disturbed by these words in the gospels. Noel heard Jesus saying, “Give up all your possessions!” and she took those words personally. However, as a mere child, Noel could not imagine giving up all her possessions and literally did not have the ability to do so. So every time this text, and others like it, were read in church, Noel would become hysterical, crying and sobbing, unable to even sit through the service. I, a few years older than she, talked to her about it on more than one occasion. Noel confided in me that she felt guilt-ridden because she couldn't give up all her possessions. She was convinced that she was not worthy, not good enough. She didn't think God could love her.
I'm here to tell you this morning that God does love my friend Noel. And God loves each one of us here today. As we say in our Lutheran theology, we are saved by the free gift of God's grace. During the time of the Reformation, Martin Luther was very concerned about people like my friend Noel, people who lived in fear that they had not earned God's love. Luther made very clear that no one could buy their way into heaven. Luther wanted people to be confident that God loved them, to have assurance of God's grace.
God's love and favor do not depend on our actions. We don't have to prove ourselves worthy. We can't — and better yet, we don't have to — buy our way into God's loving arms. Rather, we have already received God's grace, and we continue to experience the blessing of God's love. That is the good news that we come here to proclaim and celebrate.
Having preached this good news, I could say “Amen” and sit down right now, and depending on how eager you are to get on with the service, you might like me to do that. But I think we can still learn something from Jesus' words today. So, assured of God’s love and grace, I want to look again at Jesus' message to us.
In our gospel reading, Jesus is concerned with discipleship. He is speaking to the crowds of people who are following him in his travels. Out of these crowds, some may become disciples — dedicated followers of Jesus. But discipleship, Jesus warns, is not an easy road to walk. It requires giving up loyalty to family and even to one's self. In Jesus' time, family relationships were paramount, but Jesus is showing that discipleship demands complete loyalty, at the expense of all other relationships. Discipleship requires the willingness to give up everything else. We might be reminded of the calling of the first disciples, Simon, James, and John, back in chapter 5 of Luke. These fishermen who became the first disciples left everything they had — their families, their business, their livelihood, their fishing boats — and followed Jesus. Jesus wants other would-be followers to know that their loyalty will be expected, as well.
In our reading today, Jesus is being brutally honest: discipleship is not easy. Discipleship requires sacrifice. In fact, becoming a disciple necessitates a transformation. It is simply not possible to become dedicated to following Jesus Christ without outward transformation in action. To say it another way: once we have encountered the true God in Jesus Christ, we are changed by the experience. When we begin to follow, walking that road of discipleship, we are transformed. Old loyalties fall away, things we once thought essential seem unimportant, as we begin to follow Jesus.
This transformation isn’t a one-time event. God is constantly working in and through us, changing us. We are all at different places on this road of discipleship. Some of you have been faithful followers for fifty, sixty, or seventy years. Some of you are only beginning that faith journey. Some of you may be “seekers,” not sure whether you want to follow or not. Wherever we are on the road of discipleship, we can be transformed. We can devote our loyalty to Jesus above all else. We can make the commitments that characterize authentic discipleship.
Not only are we at different places on the road of discipleship, but there are a variety of ways to walk that road. We are given different gifts and different callings as we all strive to follow Jesus. There are different ways of being a disciple. Next week is our Rally Day here at the church – there will be many opportunities this fall to be involved in the ministry of the congregation, whether through leading or learning, sharing fellowship or serving others. Of course, we can – and should! – follow Jesus outside of the walls of the church, too. But the many ministries that are going on here are certainly a good place to start.
Although we are at different places on the road of discipleship, and although there are different ways of walking that road, there are some practices that should characterize all disciples. Jesus gave the expectations to everyone in the crowd: loyalty and sacrifice. When Jesus says those harsh words, “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions,” he is telling us how all disciples should act.
There is a word in the church for what Jesus is describing when he says “give up all your possessions.” The word is “stewardship.” Now, usually when we use the word “stewardship” in the church, we're talking about fundraising for the church. Fundraising is not just about the money; it's about the ministry being done here and in the wider church around the world. I know the stewardship team here at King of Kings is already working hard on that goal.
We also sometimes use the word “stewardship” in a different way, getting back to the root meaning of the word. A steward is someone who cares for the possessions of another. In our theological language, we will talk about being stewards of God's creation: the creation belongs to God, but we are responsible for its care. Likewise, we are stewards of the blessings God has given us, whether in the form of physical comforts or in the form of our gifts, abilities and talents. Ultimately, our very lives are God's, and we are stewards of them. In all of this, we are entrusted with the responsible care of what is fundamentally God's.
In addition to thinking about stewardship as fundraising and as the responsibility of a steward, there's one other sense of “stewardship” that has been on my mind lately. It is a sense which seems very appropriate in the context of our gospel reading. Jesus says that authentic disciples must “give up all their possessions.” As I said before, this is a question of loyalty, of being devoted not to our possessions but to God. It also highlights this other aspect of stewardship: we can do stewardship for our own spiritual growth, for our own journey on that road of discipleship. Even if we cannot give up all that we have, the very act of giving up can remind us where our loyalty should lie – with the God who has blessed us so abundantly in the first place. Giving up reminds us that we are not Christians for our own sake, but for the sake of the gospel and for the sake of others. Giving up reminds us that we are called to take up our own cross, just as Jesus says in our gospel reading. As we walk the road of discipleship, striving to deepen our faith and commitment to God, we may find that our giving — our stewardship — aids our discipleship.
I am a fan of the poetry of Robert Frost, and all this talk of walking on the road of discipleship reminded me of one of Frost’s most famous poems, “The Road Not Taken.” Some of you may have read it. I would like to share part of it with you now. Frost begins his poem by describing a crossroads: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.” He must choose which of the two roads to take, so he stands and looks down each one, considering his choice. Finally, he chooses the second road, which looks less worn.
The poem concludes,
“Oh I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
Without doing injustice to Frost, I would like to read his poem in the context of our gospel this morning. The narrator of the poem faced a choice, two roads; and as Frost eloquently writes, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” The crowds who were following Jesus in our gospel reading faced a choice, two roads as it were: whether to become disciples, devoted to following Jesus, or not. We today face many choices: how to be disciples, to follow Jesus; how to deepen our faith; how to be involved in God’s ministry in the world. We consider the concepts of service and stewardship. We are walking on a road, this road of discipleship that strives to follow where Jesus walked. Our gospel reading warns us that discipleship will not be easy. And yet — confident in God’s love for us, Jesus’ words show us that the road we choose to walk may make all the difference. Amen.