The story is told of a husband and wife who are on the 9th green when suddenly she collapsed from a heart attack. ”Help me dear,” she groaned to her husband. The husband immediately called 911 on his cell phone, talks for a few minutes, and then picks up his putter, and lines up his putt.
His wife raises her head off the green and stares at him. Then she says incredulously, “I’m dying right here and you’re putting. I can’t believe it.” “Don’t worry dear,” says the husband calmly, “they found a doctor on the second hole and he’s coming to help you.” “Oh thank heaven, how long will it take for him to get here?” she asks feebly. “No time at all,” says her husband. “Everybody’s already agreed to let him play through.” Golfers are notorious for their fanaticism about playing golf.
What is really important to you? Golf? Money? Your loved ones family or friends? Your life? What is your life even about; what is the point of you even being alive? Pleasure, things, experiences? This is what our gospel reading is about isn’t it? It is about making a choice of what is most important in our lives; it is about what is the most important. It is said that the mark of a great leader is the demands he makes upon his followers. Further it is said that the mark of a great cause is what sacrifices people are willing make for that cause. The Italian freedom fighter Garibaldi offered his men only hunger and death in their fight to free Italy. Winston Churchill told the English people that he had nothing to offer them but “blood, sweat, toil, and tears” in their fight against the enemies of England. Jesus demanded that those who would follow him must pick up a cross, a sign of death. And indeed his most faithful follows did just that. Peter was crucified upside down, Andrew was crucified and the other Simon was crucified too. James son of Zebedee was beheaded as was the Apostle Paul. James son of Alphaeus was beaten to death with rods. Thomas was run through with a spear; Matthias was stoned and then beheaded. Matthew was killed with the sword, hacked to pieces. Bartholomew was flayed alive; Thaddeus was shot to death with arrows and Philip was hanged. The demands that Jesus makes upon those who would follow him are extreme. Christianity is not simply a Sunday morning religion. It is a hungering after God to the point of death if need be. It shakes our foundations, topples our priorities, and makes us strangers in this world.
The basic message of this gospel reading is fairly clear. Each follower should take up his own cross and follow Jesus. In the day of Jesus the only time one picked up a cross was on his way to die. This is a very sobering gospel reading.
Jesus starts this section with “Whoever comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children and even his own life he cannot be my disciple.” This does not compute with how we understand Jesus does it? And in fact is that it is a difficult section to translate accurately. In the Aramaic language which is the language that Jesus was using, “Hate” is not really a feeling word like it is for us. It is a priority word. It means to abandon or push aside; the way the way a general needs to leave aside distracting things to win his battle. For example, when I am reading material that is difficult to understand, I hate conversations going on in the same room. Now clearly the point here is in this context because my priority is to understand what I am reading, then I do not want, I don’t like, even I hate distractions. It is not that I hate conversations per se. In the same way Jesus is saying “If someone is going to follow me, that person needs to prioritize me above everyone even his own family, even his own life!
One would think that if Jesus really wanted to be really popular he should have softened his call to discipleship. Follow me and you will get eternal life, and health and happiness in this life. It doesn’t matter how you live. Just do the best you can, be a nice person and that is good enough. But that’s not what Jesus said, was it? I read that some years ago a church offered a door prize of $1,000 to all who would visit on a particular Sunday. All the local newspapers reported this. The church was very disappointed when only thirty people showed up; they had been anticipating hundreds. Contrast that with a newspaper ad that appeared in London in the 1800s which said, “Men wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.” Did you know that thousands of men lined up to volunteer because the ad was signed by Sir Ernest Shackleton preparing for his sea voyage seeking the Northwest Passage? The call of Shackleton is similar to the call of Jesus. This is a life changing decision.
How do you approach your Christianity, your commitment to Jesus? Do you think of it as a sort of fire insurance against hell? Something you got in your back pocket that you hope you won’t have use any time soon, but you know you better have something? This is certainly not the approach Jesus had intended. He tells the crowds and us to think about whether or not we really are willing to follow him. Because if we thinking we are going to be his followers, he expects our lives to change. He expects our priorities to changes. Martin Luther once said, “A religion that gives nothing, costs nothing, and suffers nothing, is worth nothing.” He also said, “There are three conversions necessary to be a follower of Jesus: the conversion of the heart, the mind and the purse. Of these three, it may well be that most find the conversion of the purse the most difficult.”
This is why this section on the calling to be a follower of Jesus ends with the topic of our possessions. Jesus says that we must give up all our possessions. Again we need to understand the language Jesus spoke in to grasp what he is saying. He does not require us to sell everything we have and give it away. He did ask that of some people but never all. So what does this mean, because this section does apply to all of us? The word used for give up here can be translated also as ‘set aside’ or to say goodbye to. In other words, just like Jesus is to be the priority in all our relationships, He is to be more important to us than our possessions too. Possessions and money have a way of getting a grip on our lives. Such a grip in fact that it is hard to break free of our dependence and love of them. And Jesus says that if we are going to be his followers, he simply must be more, far more, important than our money or possessions. This is why even in the Old Testament God set up the system of tithing where we give back 10 percent to God, willingly and then live on the 90%. Jesus never talks about 10 percent. He talks about 100 percent. We have to give it all, at least emotionally. So if we cannot pry 10% of our money from our fists to give back to God; Jesus says to us, can you really do it? Can you really be my disciple? Because to be my disciple, you have to give it all up.
So bottom line, Jesus challenges us. What do we really want out of our life? Do we really want to follow Jesus? Do we really want the new life he offers us? If we do, it is a serious thing. We see today Jesus demands all of us and all we have. He calls us to be whole-hearted followers or he says not to bother. Jesus calls us to aim high. He calls us to become new people. Just as He gave up everything even his own life so that we could come to God, He calls us to follow him, give up everything and become children of God. Amen