by Ellen Sims
text: Luke 14:25-33
Which of YOU sets out to build a house or wage a war and does not first estimate what it will cost? Who among YOU pursues a career or commits to a life partner without carefully considering the consequences of that course of action? And who in the world joins a church like Open Table the first time they walk in the door?
Nobody. No one with good sense.
I respect the way people, like those who entered into our new member covenant with us this morning, take their time before joining Open Table. It tells me they get that we’re not a generic church or an easy church. It tells me they recognize we are serious about being church to, for, and with one another. It suggests there’s a bit of a learning curve for new folks. And, understandably, new folks put us on a period of probation as they try to determine if we really mean that all are welcome. Because every church says that—right before they condemn gay folks or demean women or marginalize racial minorities or lose patience with people who have physical or mental health challenges.
I appreciate that folks who join Open Table recognize there is a cost. We notice that some of the pieces of the theological puzzle we put together years ago might need to be rearranged if we’re going to find coherence to our belief system. We start noticing that our puzzle’s picture of Jesus looks more complicated than it did—and more demanding. And the part of the puzzle depicting “God” has gotten WAY bigger. Before long we have realized we are never going to put that whole puzzle together, this puzzle we thought we’d finished back in 7th grade. That’s part of the cost of being church with others who are working on their puzzles. But we grow to kind of enjoy the process.
I am glad most people who join Open Table take their time in joining us, slowly coming to love us — because with the possible exception of falling in love at first sight, which I’m not sure I believe in, the big decisions in life require time for us first to count the cost. Jesus warned the throng of people traipsing after him: You don’t have a clue yet what it means to be my disciples. So let me put it in these stark terms: If you do not hate your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, you cannot be my disciple. Because my disciples have to carry a cross to follow me. Oh, and just as horrifying, my disciples must give up all their possessions.
How many churches lead with these words of Jesus? Not the best messaging for attracting new members. I guess if we were serious about growing our church, we’d be preaching the “prosperity gospel” that promises people that if they’ll just pray and give their money to the church, God will bless them financially. But no, we throw away that enticing carrot and replace it with the opposite this morning: a big ol’ stick that Jesus wallops us with: You can’t follow me unless you hate your family and give away all your possessions. My goodness, Jesus. Why don’t you demand that we give you our only child while you’re at it? Oh, right. I guess your father knows something about that.
Was Jesus exaggerating the cost of discipleship?
Not if we recall the fate of some of his very first disciples: some traditions say that many of the original twelve were martyred. Many more Jesus followers over the centuries were killed for their faith, some famously. In just the last century, the Nazis executed Dietrich Bonhoffer for challenging Hitler by, among other things, preaching that “The Church is the Church only when it exists for others” and opposing the cruelty of the Third Reich.
Martin Luther King, Jr. on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis paid the price of martyrdom, knowing that following Jesus might include giving up his life to enunciate a vision of equality for all.
In 1980 another modern day martyr, Archbishop Oscar Romero, was assassinated for ministering to the poor and powerless in El Salvador.
What has your faith life “cost” you? What has your followship of Jesus demanded from you? What has Open Table required of you? After today’s worship service we will be considering a slate of potential members of the future pastor search committee—seven people who have counted the cost of a challenging role in order to serve the needs of Open Table and, through us, the needs of our larger community. We hope their work will not be onerous, but it will demand much from them. What important work does not? And they have counted the cost before allowing their names to be presented to you. Has your commitment to Open Table cost you time and money and possibly someone’s good opinion of you because you contribute to the work we do in the community? Maybe you’ve been ridiculed when certain friends or family found out your church sometimes publicly protests injustices, has a female pastor, founded an LGBTQ support group for teens.
One week ago a UCC church in Columbus, OH, pastored by my closest friend from seminary, Rev. Gini Lohmann Bauman, was picketed by the infamous Westboro Baptist Church. The family of the (now deceased) Rev. Fred Phelps held signs calling my friend Gini “that Jezebel pastor” and other signs that said worse things about gay members of the open and affirming St. John’s UCC.
However, over 130 church folks and supporters peacefully created a counter-protest by singing to the Westboro Baptist group: “Live in charity and steadfast love. God will dwell with you” and by giving out fresh flowers while holding signs in support of their pastor and their LGBTQ members. Sometimes the price we pay for being Jesus followers is that simple.
Sometimes it is harder. Maybe your connection to Open Table has caused you some embarrassment when some friends or family found out you go to a church whose pastor is female or whose members include LGBTQ folks. Or maybe the cost of membership in Open Table is precious time and effort you give—willingly but with great sacrifice.
I’m not aware of any worthy endeavor that does NOT exact effort, commitment, sacrifice even. Can parenthood or marriage be deeply meaningful and tender without anguish and heartache? Can soaring music or piercing poetry be created without soul-wrenching struggle? Can the fulsome love of God be even remotely tasted without a famished spirit? The cost of communion with God and the cost of community among God’s people is high. Not because God—or Open Table—puts up barriers in order to be exclusive. But because love is just plain hard. And softening our hard edges can be painful. And a community where Christ dwells isn’t easy to form and maintain.
But you know that. You patiently put up with my flaws. I love you even after you tell your pastor the thing that you don’t want anyone else to know about you. Which makes us all the more vulnerable in this world, but can make us all the more tender toward one another.
This is not a place that most people seek out if they just want to hang out with some nice people and sing some cool songs and hear a pithy pep talk for the week ahead. No. This is a church that is going to rearrange the furniture in your brain. This is a church where you might sit next to someone whose problems sound weirder than yours. This is a church that may then ask you to go out into the world in the coming week to DO something about the problems and weirdness out there without promising you that God will bless you financially if you “step out on faith” and write the church a big check first.
This is a church that doesn’t rush you into church membership because 1) we want you to count the cost—and there IS a cost. And because 2) we don’t make a big deal out of who is technically a member and who participates like a member but hasn’t yet read the new member covenant. Because we’re always in process. Always strengthening our faith muscles. Always going deeper in the journey with Jesus. Always learning more about love by loving God’s children who gather here on Sundays.
Our approach may seem lax. You are a member of Open Table if you request to be a member—regardless of your personal theology and spiritual practices. I hope your theology is logically consistent and consistently loving. I hope you are developing healthy spiritual practices. But all you have to do to be a member of Open Table—ALL you have to do—is open your heart to others and to the God we serve, and then be willing to be patient with others and with yourself as we continue to read hard words from scripture and live in challenging relationship to one another. And grow in love.
That’s the cost. And I’m so glad some folks today counted that cost and decided we were worth it!
But the Jesus Way is not only about sacrifice. The church of Jesus, which includes us, offers challenge AND joy. There’s cost—as well as God’s grace. Which is not a monetary pay off that televangelists promise. But lessons about and experiences with peace, faith, love, and joy are there for those seeking to commune with that which we call God. Open Table, like all churches, has wounded people (that describes us all) and in our woundedness and weirdness we can injure others. Together we are trying explore and contribute to THE THINGS THAT MATTER. The Things That Matter get enunciated here and shaped into prayers and become our pursuits. And you know what’s not a thing that matters? Money. That’s why Jesus said in the most histrionic way possible: do what matters and accumulating money is not what matters in this life. The way he put it: “You cannot be my disciples unless you give up all your possessions.” Interesting how those who insist that we should read the Bible literally never read verses like that literally. Maybe Jesus meant that literally. Maybe he meant it figuratively. Either way, he meant it seriously.
PRAYER: Sometimes we underestimate the cost of discipleship, O God. Grant us courage to follow Jesus.