The 13th Sunday after Pentecost – September 8, 2019

The 13th Sunday after Pentecost – September 8, 2019
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings:  Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33

From the Gospel according to Luke, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     This will probably seem strange to many of you this morning, but I laughed this week when reading today’s Gospel lesson. Not because this text from Luke is funny by any stretch of the imagination, but rather, because of the timingof all of today’s lessons. Typically, the Sunday after Labor Day Weekend is the official start of our fall programs. However, and thanks be to God, this year Holy Cross Day celebrations are delayed until nextweek. Imagine if today was Holy Cross Day. Picture me in the midst of our Mission Fair and Parish Breakfast and looking ahead to our fall programs and opportunities for ministry, picture me standing up and saying, “Welcome home everybody, and especially welcome to all our newcomers today … now let’s talk about hating your parents…”! No, we hear today’s readings not at the beginningof our fall season, but rather, at the endof our summer program and for good reason. See, I find the timing of today’s lessons absolutely marvelous.

    Still, these words of Jesus are very hard to hear and understand. Does he really want us to hate our parents? Hate anyone? Of course not and so we need to realize that there is a deeper message in this gospel reading – a message that ties into our other readings – a message so appropriate for us todayas our summer session draws to a close and we look towards the future.

     In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus is telling his followers to think twice before committing their lives to him, to estimate the cost of what will become known asdiscipleship.Jesus says if you were going to build a tower, you’d estimate the cost. If you were going to war, you’d do that, too. We estimate costs all the time asking ourselves is this endeavor worth the money, the time, the risk. We look at the positives and negatives, and then we make a decision. That’s what Jesus is saying. Becausebecoming a Christian is morethan adopting a way of life. It is a commitment to follow a person.  And following that person, following Jesus, means doing and saying everything Jesussaid and did. Everything. There is no part-time discipleship. Committing our lives to Jesus is a one-hundred percent commitment. And that commitment means sacrificing our very selves– stripping ourselves of everything especially, that which tends to control or possess us. To follow Jesus requires a complete change in our priorities, our values, and our pursuits. Like St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:17, in Christ, we don’t just become nice people. We become “a newcreation!” And as a new creation our lives change and are reordered as God’s Holy Spirit works to reshape us into God’s people, reshape us into the very image of Christ.

    The Prophet Jeremiah speaks about that shaping and transforming power of God in today’s Old Testament lesson. He uses the image of a potter who is at work reshaping something that has spoiled. It is misshapen and, therefore, useless in its present form. But the potter reworks this spoiled, useless clay until it becomes right in his eyes. God tells Jeremiah, “This is how Iwork with my people.” Jeremiah says that God desires to shape us into his people, but doesn’tforce us. We have to offer ourselves, humble ourselves, give ourselves, and allow God to do this transforming and creating work in us: A creating work that our Psalm describes as marvelous and wonderful. Jeremiah reminds us that God can redeem anything if we are so willing to allow God to do so.

    While Jeremiah speaks of the potter shaping something useful in his hands, St. Paul, in today’s Epistle reading, speaks of God’s transforming and shaping power in human lives. Onesimus was a slave who ran away from his master, Philemon, and, according to the text, must have absconded with some valuables. Somehow Onesimus met St. Paul and committed to follow Jesus Christ. By the mercy and grace of God, this fugitive became a new creation. He was shaped into someone rather wonderful. Now, as a Roman citizen, Paul was obligated to return Onesimus to Philemon. So he does send him back but urges that Philemon welcome him home not as a slave, but as a brother, a new creation, in Christ. Paul says, “He who was once useless to you has become useful to me.” Such is the transforming power of God, the potter, when we allow God to take our lives just as they are with all our misshapen priorities and commit ourselves to following Christ. If we make that commitment God willmold and shape us into something marvelously useful, wonderful and grace-filled if we are so willing. What a wonderful promise of God.

     But then Jesus says following him requires that we also carry the cross. I find that expression “carrying” or taking up the cross has become overused in the church and society. We speak of someone dealing with chronic illness as “bearing their cross.” This past week in the wake of the incredible destruction of Hurricane Dorian, especially in the Bahamas, it would be all too easy to look at that carnage and say to the survivors, “well, we all have our crosses to bear.”  But that’s not what carrying the cross means. Being a Christian in the Western World today may be challenging at times. (I mean sometimes people have the audacity to wish us “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”.) But, in many places in the world today being a follower of Jesus comes with brutalcosts. The BBC reported in May of this year that incidents of violence against Christians in the Middle East, parts of Africa, India, Pakistan and the Far East have reached epic proportions. Christians are being slaughtered because of their faith. The BBC reported, “In some regions, the level and nature of persecution is arguably coming close to meeting the international definition of genocide...”[1]

     Carrying the cross, beloved, is never about ourlot in life. It is not about taking up ourcross. We are called to carry thecross of Christ. That cross of deliberatesacrifice of our own selves, everything we own, everything we are and have, and in so doing, expose ourselves to ridicule and risk in order to follow Jesus. Carrying the cross requires letting everything go so that God can reshape us into true people of God.  And that brings us back to what it means to commit our lives to Christ, what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

    For some, this commitment requires a complete redirection of time, energy and values. For others it means a change in personal relationships and habits. Still others will change vocation, and for many, it will require a recommitment of financial resources towards that which will feed and nurture those in physical and spiritual need. But, for everyperson, regardless of whom we are or where we are in life, the cost of discipleship means giving our wholeselves and nothingless because truly following Jesus is a life-long commitment of all that we have, all that we are, and all that we will ever be.

     Our scripture lessons this morning – on the last day of our Summer Season and as we look to the coming fall months of programs, fellowship, and activities – urge us, in all humility, to take time this week to examine our lives. To consider where weneed to open our hearts and minds to God’s creative, redeeming, shaping and transforming power and ask God to help us seek a deeper commitment to Christ: a commitment to be true disciples this year, to follow Jesus in every – every- aspect of our lives – and do so nowbefore we venture into a busy fall season. Imagine if every one of us grasped what it means to carry the cross, to be a disciple, to truly follow Jesus – to embody and demonstrate everything Jesus said and did - everymoment of everyday what could be accomplished here in this church, this community, and the whole word.       

     Jesus said, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” May God grant us the grace, the courage, and the humility, so to do. Amen.