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You might recognize the name Elizabeth Gilbert as the author of the bestselling novel Eat, Pray, Love.  Along with her fiction writing, Gilbert also writes and speaks about creativity – how it works and how it sometimes doesn’t work.  She tells stories about her own experiences with writer’s block and the fear of failure that can stop creativity dead in its tracks.

Counting Costs

"Counting Costs"
Luke 14:25-33
September 4, 2016
Rev. William C. Bills

Aren’t we supposed to get something out of it? If we get baptized, join a church and believe some of the teachings, we’re supposed to get something, right?

Some people make Christianity seem really easy. They tell you that committing to Jesus will solve your problems, lower your stress, and make your life better in general. Some preachers even say following Jesus will make you rich. If we are only in it to get something, is that really following Jesus?

The message today is pretty simple: Jesus said, “Before you sign on with me, consider carefully not only what you might receive, but also what it might cost you.” Jesus isn’t looking for casual commitment. He is looking for total commitment. Make no mistake about it, he will commit fully to you and he expects you to commit fully to him.

Verse 25 says that, “Great crowds were traveling with him…” These aren’t disciples who follow him. The gospel writers distinguish between “the disciples” and “the crowds.” Jesus attracted crowds. He was novel. He was different. He said things others were afraid to say. He fed people, healed people and did some miraculous stuff. That attracted crowds. But crowds are just onlookers and curiosity seekers. The crowds travel along with him for a while and watch the show. The disciples, though, have committed to him. They are going all the way with him. The disciples are in it for the long haul. They are going all the way to Jerusalem, all the way to the cross. They left behind jobs, homes and families. The crowds are casual onlookers. They are gawkers. The disciples have committed their lives to following Jesus. It is the difference between “being interested in” and “being committed to.”

In verse 26 Jesus is talking about one’s level of commitment. He says we have to hate our families; we even have to hate our own lives, if we want to really follow him. That sounds kind of crazy. But remember, Jesus probably spoke Aramaic. The gospel was written down in Greek. Then it was translated into English. This is something of a translation problem, then.

In ancient Semitic cultures the word “hate” didn’t carry the same emotional weight as it does for us today. It is also hard to convey the notion of loving one thing more than another in ancient Greek. So where we might say you can’t love your family more than Jesus or you can’t even love your own life more than Jesus, the ancients would say you have to hate these things if you want to truly follow Jesus.

Those hearing Jesus say you have to hate your family or hate your own life would hear it in the same way that they heard an admonition to turn away from idol worship or pagan sacrifices. If one is committed to God, one turns away from idols and pagan sacrifices. You simply turn from one thing and toward another. Hating something for the first century Jew meant to turn away from that and turn toward God.

What we get in English isn’t necessarily bad. It sounds shocking; you have to hate your family if you are going to following Jesus; that does sound shocking. Understanding the translation issues can be helpful, but there is still the matter of one’s level of commitment to Jesus. We have to be willing to turn away from our families, if need be, to really follow him. We have to be able to set our personal agendas aside if we are going to really follow him. It is really about one’s level of commitment. Count the cost first because committing to Jesus may cost you something.

Jesus isn’t looking for a casual commitment. He is looking for total commitment. At the most basic level he is saying, “You really can’t follow me and love others more than me. You can’t follow me and love your agenda more than my agenda.” This is the difference between casual commitment and total commitment.

In verses 28 through 30 he spells this out with a couple of examples. These are things that we are actually pretty familiar with even though he cites examples common in antiquity. If you are going to build a tower, you first have to calculate the cost. A wise person does the math to insure that they have enough resources to finish the project. If you went through the last building project here you will understand. The building committee needs to know up front that they can finish what they start.

If you have ever built a new home you will understand. We ask ourselves, “Before we take this on, do we have the resources, do we have the necessary commitment, financial or otherwise, to complete this?” We need to know that before we ever begin that we can finish what we start. We have to count the cost up front before breaking ground.

His second example is not one most of us would contemplate. It is about a king considering going to war. The king has to assess the likelihood of victory. The king has to consider his resources and take into account what it will cost to go to war.

We do this kind of thing all the time. Before we take on a task or a project, we consider whether or not we can successfully complete our undertaking. That is just common sense. It is as simple as considering the purchase price of a new car. Can I make that particular car payment for sixty months? I know I can do it this year, but can I do it for the full five years?

We always have to consider whether we can finish something we start. If we can’t, we may let others down and our reputation may suffer. We may feel that we failed because of our lack of foresight. So we should count the cost before we make the commitment. Nobody wants a half-finished house or a half-built church.

Even though our Vital Church Initiative team has been working for well over a year now, the VCI initiative begins in earnest this month. I have been through this before with my previous church. I have been through this with a dozen other pastors and their churches. I am convinced that, try as we might, none of us can really anticipate the cost of such an endeavor.

Our VCI team has been well trained. They have gathered a great deal of information about our church and our community. They have tried to share their insight and their data with the congregation. In practical terms, it has cost a few thousand dollars and a significant amount of volunteer hours. But nobody will fully know the cost until we receive our 360 Degree Survey results, our Mystery Guest report and our VCI report with the prescriptions. We won’t fully know the cost unless we vote to accept the report and implement the prescriptions.

Planning for the future will carry some costs. If we choose to relate to our community in new ways there will be some associated costs. If we choose to connect with the next generation in new ways there will be associated costs. Sometimes churches have to start doing some new things. Sometimes churches have to stop doing some dearly beloved old things. Being intentional about creating a new future will require that we count some costs up front before we make a commitment for the future.

Participation in the pre-consultation workshop, the consultation weekend, the subsequent town hall meetings and the vote on the prescriptions are intended to help us count the costs before making a decision about the future.

In their book, “When Moses Met Aaron”, Gil Rendel and Susan Beaumont wrote, “In the Christian tradition Jesus is portrayed as the fulfillment of God’s covenant promise, extending the covenant beyond the Jewish tradition to all who believe in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3).

“Communities of faith founded in the Judeo-Christian tradition are built on the core assumption that God seeks relationship with God’s people and that the nature of this relationship is covenantal.  And so we believe that our relationships with one another ought to reflect the fundamental nature of our relationship with God, which is characterized by mutual caring, mutual promise, faithfulness, and unconditional love. The foundational nature of covenant makes the institutional life of congregations unique from every other form of institutional life.

“… Many members of our congregations don’t know what covenantal relationships are and have rarely experienced one.  Consumerism and capitalism have crept so far into the culture of the church that most members have a utilitarian approach to their involvement with the congregation.  They will invest in the life of the congregation on the basis of what they receive in return.  If their membership in the life of the congregations doesn’t provide a surplus of benefit over and above their level of investment, they will end the relationship and go elsewhere.”

Every Christian then has to decide if they are in it for what they can get or if they are in it because they are committed to Christ and committed to their Christian community. In the end, following Jesus is about faithfulness to our covenant relationship with God and our covenant relationship with our brothers and sisters in this congregation. We have to decide if we are committed to the covenant or if we are looking to our own interests.

If we commit to the Vital Church Initiative, can we see it through to the end as a congregation or will some of us withdraw if we don’t get the things we specifically want for ourselves?

In the first century Roman Empire, taking up one’s cross and following Jesus was a big deal. It could cost one their life. So the advice Jesus gave was appropriate. Count the cost before you decide. You don’t want to start something you can’t finish. Nobody follows Jesus a little bit. Half-hearted discipleship isn’t really discipleship. We are either all in or we are not in at all.

Without real commitment, all the time, all the money and even the best of intentions meet with little success.

With sincere and well thought out commitment to Christ, and commitment to one another, we cannot help but be tremendously faithful in serving God and our neighbors through this church in this community for many years to come.