September 8, 2019/Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost /Richard E. Holmer
First Lesson: Deuteronomy 30:15-20 /Second Reading: Philemon 1-21 /Gospel: Luke 14:25-33
If my father was still alive, he would have reached his 100th birthday this month. Born in 1919, he was the sixth and youngest child of a Lutheran pastor. He came of age during the lean years of the Great Depression. In those days it was a challenge to provide for a large family on a pastor’s salary – so any money that any of the children made from odd jobs or caddying went toward the family budget. Dad was a bright, hardworking student – and at his high school graduation he was the valedictorian. He went on to Augustana College in Rock Island, where he sang in the choir and joined a fraternity. While in school, he also worked eight hours a night on the late shift at International Harvester (made 24¢ an hour). He sent most of what he earned back home to help support his parents.
After college my dad enrolled at the Augustana Seminary. World War II was going on, and he soon discovered that a number of his classmates were in seminary mainly as a way to avoid being drafted. My father was disgusted by this self-serving strategy – so he left seminary and enlisted in the army. He spent his time in the service as a medical technician at an army hospital in England. After the war he returned to seminary, got married, graduated and was ordained in 1949. My mother recalled how they used orange crates for furniture when they were first married.
My father was well acquainted with hard work and sacrifice. Living through the Depression and the war shaped his values and his outlook. I can hear him saying to us when we were kids: “Hard work never killed anyone.” People are willing to work hard and sacrifice for a purpose or a goal they embrace – most of you know what that’s like.
Getting into college, doing what it takes to graduate, perhaps going on to graduate school, law school or medical school.
Starting out in a career at the bottom of the pecking order – or starting up a business and putting in long hours to keep it going.
Choosing a profession that’s high service and low pay.
Raising a family, paying a mortgage, maintaining a household.
All the hours spent taking kids to practices and games – weekends away following the travel team, paying all the fees and buying all the equipment.
Then getting them into college – and somehow paying for it.
You are acquainted with making sacrifices. And you do it willingly – even gladly – because you believe it’s worthwhile.
We come to realize that anything truly worthwhile takes time and energy and work and resources and investment and commitment – in other words, SACRIFICE. How worthwhile is Christianity? What is the value of a life lived devoted to loving and obeying God, following Jesus Christ? What kind of sacrifices does that life require? What does it cost to be a Christian?
One answer is: Nothing. You and I are Christians by the grace of God. God chose us to be daughters and sons before we knew anything about God. Salvation is a free gift, won for us by Christ’s death and resurrection. There is nothing any of us could ever do to earn God’s love and salvation.
What does it cost to be a Christian? On the other hand: Everything! To be a Christian is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength – and to love all your neighbors every bit as much as you love yourself. Like me, you are probably still working at this. We become Christians not by our own efforts, but by the gracious goodness of God. Then, we live as Christians by choosing to follow, to imitate, to obey the one who gave his life to save ours – which is where the sacrifice comes in.
Having been chosen by Jesus, we then choose how closely we will follow our Lord and Savior. Moses presented a similar choice to the Israelites as they were about to enter the Promised Land. God had already chosen to bless them. God liberated them from slavery in Egypt. In giving them commandments, God declared to them: I will be your God, and you will be my people. Having been blessed and chosen, the people must decide how they will live in the land that God was giving them. Moses says to them:
“Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days…”
The alternative to choosing life is choosing death:
“I have set before you life and prosperity, death and adversity.”
Moses warns: “if your heart turns away and you do not hear (and obey), and are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.”
It seems like such an obvious and easy choice! Life and prosperity vs. death and adversity. Who wouldn’t choose life?? Yet you may recall the history of Israel: the people stopped listening to God. They turned away to other gods. And they were conquered and taken away into exile.
Our choices have consequences: moment to moment, day by day, year after year. It’s not always easy to go God’s way. Humans have a tendency to want to go our own way. Something in us is not inclined to obey. We want what we want. We justify choosing what’s in our own self-interest. Sometimes I care more about my stuff than I care about being faithful.
Which is why Jesus speaks to us about counting the cost of following him. He says it’s foolish to start building a tower before determining if you have the resources to complete it. Likewise, it makes no sense to start a war unless you have the capacity to win it.
Jesus makes no empty promises. There is no bait and switch strategy in his call to discipleship. He says right up front that faithfulness comes with a cost: No love for family or friends – or even for one’s own life can come before love for the Lord. This is hard to hear, right? He speaks of carrying the cross. All our stuff, all our precious possessions, become expendable – for the sake of what’s worth so much more.
Martin Luther once said: “A religion that requires nothing, costs nothing and suffers nothing is worth nothing.” What does it cost to live as a Christian? Come to worship now and then – when you have nothing better to do? Put a few dollars in the offering plate? Try to keep up appearances, don’t let your name show up in the Police Blotter? Is that what it means to choose life – to choose to live the gospel? If you find that living by faith presents no challenge to you, if there is no struggle to obey the Lord, if there are no sacrifices made in order to follow Christ – then you may want to consider the choices you are making.
Choosing life means choosing to love the Lord, choosing to obey the Lord, choosing to hold fast to the Lord. It’s choosing to be faithful so we are not led astray by other attractions, distractions and commitments. Each journey is unique, yet we are all called to the same goal. It’s recognizing that we enjoy the goodness and grace of Jesus by doing what we can to stay close to Jesus – not by drifting to a remote distance.
It comes down to this: God has chosen to love us and to save us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our salvation is God’s gracious gift. We can choose to love God in return by listening, learning, trusting, obeying and holding fast. We can choose to live the gospel. What a beautiful choice!
Thanks be to God.