Sunday Night Worship – 9/9/07

“Casual Fans Need Not Apply”
Luke 14: 25-33

Have you ever had that experience of loving a musician or a band – particularly if you discovered them in an out of the way venue or small tour – and you follow them for years, loving all their stuff and telling all your friends about them? And generally your friends don’t listen, because it’s just some small band no one except you has ever heard of – but you keep telling them, and forcing other people to listen to them on iTunes, and including them in CD mixes you give to people, and playing them pretty much whenever you can. And they are just the best band because no one has that sound and, before you heard them, you didn’t even quite know that that sound could exist. And, on top of all that, you probably heard them for the very first time with someone really important to you or at a significant time in your life, when their music itself felt like hope and promise. Or maybe it felt like rage and rebellion. Or independence and true love. Do you know what I mean?
If you’ve had an experience like this then you may also have had the experience of uttering the following phrase: “I like their old stuff.” That’s when, after years of faithful listening and purchasing and concert-going and musical evangelism you suddenly realize that you are not the only one plugging this band anymore. And isn’t that them you just heard on the radio? (And not on WNRN, which has, of course, like you, been playing them all along. No, not on WNRN, but on some cheesy commercial schlock of a station owned by Clear Channel. The nerve!) And, if you’ve had this experience, then you probably also recognize that sometime around the time you start hearing them on the radio, friends of yours – friends you’ve nagged for years about this band – are now coming up to you to tell you how great their new song or CD is!
And maybe it is still great then, but at some point not long after the whole world discovers your long-loved band, their sound starts to go. It’s always hard to tell if success really changes the band or just the way you hear the band, but you can’t rouse the same feelings for them anymore and it seems like they might be selling out. In any case, all those things you discovered about the band long ago, those things that made you want the whole world to know them, too, all those things seem to be distorted or missing or caricatures now. The just don’t sound the same. And that’s usually about the time you find yourself saying, with a fair amount of disdain, when asked if you like them: “I like their old stuff.”
One of the many take-aways from this sort of experience is that not everything is better or improved with more. More fans does not necessarily equate to a better band. Bigger is not always better.

This is a hard lesson for us and a hard lesson for the church. When I go to clergy gatherings the first question they always ask me, upon finding out I’m the director of the Wesley Foundation, is, “How many students do you have?” It never fails.
Now I say this with all respect and love, but the people who ask me this are always the same people who have no idea, really, what a Wesley Foundation is. They usually call college students “youth” and think of us as an overgrown youth group. But this is their question and, Lord knows what they think the answer will tell them, but it seems that, like with the rest of America, they think “bigger is better.” They are waiting for a large number, like 100. They are waiting for me to say there are so many I can’t count them. They are waiting for some answer from me that will justify the United Methodist Church spending money on and supporting campus ministries, as if this could be proven by numbers.
By now you may be wondering what any of this has to do with the scripture text from Luke. Here it is in a nutshell: With Jesus, it’s not a numbers game, it’s a commitment thing.

This passage details an interesting point in Jesus’ ministry. It’s a point where he looks back for a moment and doesn’t like what he sees.
For the better part of five chapters he has been traveling around, healing people and telling parables, one after another. Last week we heard a parable from earlier in this chapter about where to sit and who to invite to wedding banquets. Just after that passage and before this one, Jesus tells the parable of the great dinner. That’s the one where the host invites a group of people who all come up with perfectly plausible excuses for turning down the invitation, like “I have to take care of these oxen,” “I just got married,” “I have a paper due tomorrow.” Hearing these excuses, the host then invites “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” (you remember that description from last week), in short, everyone from out in the streets and the surrounding countryside (Luke 14: 18-21).
Then we arrive directly afterwards at this passage, our passage for today, which starts off, “Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them…” (Luke 14: 25). We’ll get to what he said in a minute but let’s stop here. “Now large crowds were traveling with him.” This isn’t an occasion like the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus and his 12 disciples are traveling around together and crowds arrive at the place where he is teaching in order to hear and to ask for healing (Lk. 6: 12 – 49). These are large crowds who have left home, too, and have been following along for a while, with the disciples and Jesus.
And when Jesus turns around and takes in the scene, he doesn’t like what he sees. The large crowds are the whole reason for the admonitions he gives in our passage today.
But what’s not to like? Large crowds following a preacher and his entourage would probably sound good to the kind of folks who ask me how many students we have at the Wesley Foundation. They usually sound good to the evangelism committee and to the finance committee in a church. But Jesus knows that the message he’s delivering is not a crowd pleaser. What is being asked of Jesus’ disciples is not for the casual fan. If the kind of radical discipleship – and the inherent cost of that discipleship – sounds immediately good to that many people, they either haven’t heard the message or they have jumped in without thinking it through. They may, quite possibly, be Clear Channel, Johnny-come-lately-I love-that-new-single kind of fans…rather than disciples.
And what is it that Jesus says, once he’s seen the crowds and turned around? He says that you cannot be his disciple unless you hate your parents, spouse, children, siblings, and life itself. He says you cannot be his disciple unless you carry the cross and follow him. He says you cannot be his disciple unless you give up all of your possessions (Lk. 14: 26-27, 33). This is not crowd pleasing stuff. It isn’t easy. There are a lot of family-idolizing modern day Christians who would say that this is not even Christian. You can start to see now why – if this is the sort of message he was preaching – Jesus was surprised to see that there were so many in the crowds.
There is no way I can soften this passage, but I may be able to open up a little more meaning for you. Let’s take family first. The word “hate” in this context, rather than describing anger or hostility, means that when conflict arises – even between two “good” choices like family and discipleship – the “demands of discipleship must take precedence” (New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary Volume IX, Nashville: Abingdon, 1995, p. 292). There are as many ways to live this out as there are people and families, but one I can imagine is a civil rights advocate in the 1960s who, though she loved her family and had responsibilities to them, heard and responded to her calling to end oppression – even at the risk of her freedom or her life – even at the risk of leaving her family alone without her. That’s the kind of “hate” Jesus is talking about here.
The saying “that’s just my cross to bear” is not what Jesus is getting at with his second warning. When people say this it is always in reference to something completely beyond their control or choosing, like developing cancer or being bad in math or suffering through a thorny relationship. Carrying the cross is just the opposite. It “is what we do voluntarily as a consequence of our discipleship…deliberate sacrifice and exposure to risk and ridicule” (NIB Commentary, p. 293). This sort of cross-carrying happens when we choose to live outside of our comfort zones, extending ourselves in love and hospitality to strangers, the blind, and the lame.
Then there are the possessions. You must give up all of your possessions. This one might be harder for most of us than the other two. We live in a country where “middle class” has come to mean families who have plenty to eat and to wear and to drive, who take elaborate vacations every year, who don’t struggle too much to send their children to college, who see eating out 2 or 3 times a week as normal and necessary, who throw weddings for their children worth tens of thousands of dollars, and who still manage to retire in their 60s. But, just like Jesus with the rich young man, Jesus says that to follow him, you have to give up all that you own (Mark 10: 17-22). This new life isn’t about owning or possessing, it’s about yielding and giving and dying in order to live. It’s about following with nothing in your hands, nothing to hold you back. Nothing that, in the owning, starts to own you. What is required is all that you have (NIB Commentary, p. 292).

If you’re looking for a way out, here’s your opening. Jesus turns, sees the throngs, and says, This way you’re following is not going to be easy or fun or admirable. It won’t win you any civic awards or scholarships or Most Likely to Succeed awards – or, if it does, you should take a look and make sure you’re still on the right path. I know just where this is going and just how hard it will be. Here’s your chance to decide, because I want you to know the full cost before you make the journey with me. If you’re looking for a way out, a harsh God, or a reason not to give up your life in order to keep it, here’s your chance.
So what does it mean if you don’t take the out? If you decide to be a disciple and not just a casual fan? It might mean you have to make some changes in your personal relationships, or in how you spend your time. It might mean you give up the E-school for an environmental science major – or vice versa. It might mean that you begin to look at your choice of major or career as a way to answer God’s call. It might mean correcting your parents’ vision for your life – or yours – and claiming God’s.

What does it mean if you are standing in the crowd, see Jesus turn around, hear the plain truth about this journey and you still don’t take the out? If you stay among the crowd, learn to be a disciple, follow him into the desert and all the way to the cross? What Jesus doesn’t promise is that you’ll do a spectacular job or that you’ll never want to turn around or that you’ll always be the picture perfect disciple. None of that comes with the deal. (Just look at Peter, the one on whom God builds the church, who can’t stop himself denying three times that he even knows Jesus.) Success is not promised or guaranteed.
But we are promised that God, like the builder of the tower or the king planning for war, has measured all the angles, counted the costs, and is prepared to see this whole thing through with us. Like the host who invites in the street people and the poor and outcast from the countryside, our God issues a personal invitation to all people to join this feast. No one is left off the invite list. How are you going to RSVP?

Thanks be to God!

© 2007 Deborah E. Lewis
9 September 2007
Wesley Foundation at UVA