A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on September 5, 2004.
Based on Luke 14:25-33 (Proper 18, Year C).
“Know your audience.” It’s basic advice for a public speaker. A politician doesn’t go to Harlem to talk about farm subsidies. A Baptist preacher doesn’t come to an Episcopal church to hear rousing “Amen’s” from the congregation.
The first line of this morning’s gospel passage tells us about Jesus’ audience. It’s not the “in” group. It’s not the ones who immediately dropped their nets and gave up everything to follow Jesus. Luke begins, “Large crowds were traveling with Jesus; and he turned and said to them…” So the audience is clear. These “large crowds” addressed by Jesus were the masses. And it’s curious that Jesus offers these difficult lessons about discipleship to the general public. These were all people who had heard about this great teacher and had gathered to get a glimpse of him and hear his words. The anticipation must have been palpable as Jesus turned to speak. A hush must have come over the crowd as Jesus opened his mouth. Jesus was the “superstar” they had come to hear. And he was about to deliver his message.
This scene sounds familiar to anyone paying attention to the news this summer. This week large crowds of supporters gathered in Madison Square Garden. People soaking in every move and word emanating from their political heroes. Throngs of oddly-attired delegates seeking inspiration from their leaders. There is, of course, a difference between Jesus’ proclamations and the rhetoric of the Republican and Democratic National Convention.
Jesus is not a politician. He’s not telling the people what they want to hear. Unlike a political party, Jesus isn’t trying to attract the largest crowd by watering down the message. He’s not looking for a superficial commitment. He’s not pandering to the crowd for applause and adulation. He’s not trying to win friends and raise money. Instead, Jesus is offering relationship with the divine; he’s seeking to convert souls who will walk with him on this journey of life and faith. His message is discipleship. And it’s not sugar-coated with easy-to-swallow slogans. It’s a tough message; a demanding message.
Jesus tells the large crowd that had gathered what to expect if they seek to follow him.
He wants people to know exactly what they’re getting themselves into when they sign up for this discipleship thing. It’s not a chicken in every pot. He’s not asking anyone to “read his lips.” No political handler would script a message telling people to renounce family, forsake possessions, and bear the cross. That wasn’t a theme we encountered amid the staged dramas in Boston and New York this summer. Let’s face it; Jesus would be unelectable in 2004.
The Church, like any political party, isn’t so good at talking about commitment. We tend to downplay the commitment involved in the Christian life. We don’t want to offend prospective newcomers or demand too much from long-time members. We’re quick to emphasize covered-dish suppers while we ignore the hard wood of the cross. But that soft- peddling approach is not the legacy of the Christian Church. All we need to do is examine the Christian rite of initiation. Our Baptismal liturgy is pretty clear – in amazingly stark language it calls on us to “renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God…to renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God…and to renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God.” There’s no way to put a gentle spin on that. And the affirmations that follow are equally clear: “Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior…do you put your whole trust in his grace and love…do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord.”
There is no hidden agenda here, there are no broken campaign promises. Christ’s platform is out there for all to see. It’s an all encompassing commitment. We can’t do it halfway. You can’t be a part-time disciple or an occasional disciple. Which doesn’t mean that we don’t stumble along the way. Or fail to live up to the demands of discipleship. Or that we can do this all on our own. There’s a reason we respond to the questions of the Baptismal covenant by saying, “I will, with God’s help.” We’re not in this discipleship business alone. But Jesus insists on full disclosure. And so we’re offered a choice.
Moses says to the Israelites in the lesson from Deuteronomy, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.” Jesus too sets before us the choice of discipleship. Moses says, “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.” And Jesus says, in effect, “Choose discipleship by loving God and by loving your neighbor.” It’s pretty clear.
It’s hard to know how the large crowd that gathered that day responded to Jesus’ message. Some were probably disappointed or disillusioned. Others probably dedicated their lives to discipleship, haltingly perhaps, but filled with passion for the good news of the kingdom of God. We do have a choice. And it is set before us each moment of each day. Choose life. Choose discipleship.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2004