Thinning the Crowds

Sermon for Sunday, September 4, 2022 || Proper 18C || Luke 14:25-33

Being a follower of Jesus is many things: life-giving, love sharing, mission-oriented, peace and justice focused, God-centered. Being a follower of Jesus is many things, but one thing following Jesus is not is trendy. When I was a teenager growing up in Alabama, W.W.J.D. bracelets were all the rage. Do you remember W.W.J.D.? “What Would Jesus Do?”  Everyone seemed to be wearing one of those bracelets. They came in all sorts of colors. I think mine was red, but I can’t quite recall. Those bracelets were both a fashion statement and a signal that you were part of the club – the huge proportion of students at my high school who were part of a church, mainly southern baptist or pentecostal. This was Alabama, after all.

I wore that W.W.J.D. bracelet for a while like so many of my peers. Then the trend wore off, and the bracelets disappeared like dying flower petals, only to be replaced by rubber LiveStrong bands or some other fad. Still, I wonder: how many of us who wore those bands really took to heart the question those four letters were supposed to make us ponder? And how many of us just wore them because it was the thing to do? I didn’t think much of it at the time, but I’m pretty sure I was in the second group.

Today’s Gospel lesson begins with the signal of a W.W.J.D.-like trend. “Now large crowds were traveling with Jesus…” Luke tells us. Not just a crowd. Not just a large crowd. But plural large crowds. There are a LOT of people following after Jesus. And why? Because he was the hot new spiritual guru on the block. Everyone wanted to be seen with Jesus. He was edgy and unpredictable and charismatic, the perfect combination for crowds hoping to witness a spectacle.

And so What Does Jesus Do? He turns around to all those people and thins them out with this incredibly harsh-sounding statement: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

Whoa. Can you imagine the people in those large crowds reacting to that? “I came here to see him raise someone from the dead! I came to see him make a lot of food out of not a lot of food! I came because I heard he could fly!” Many in those crowds were waiting for that spectacle (I made up the flying one) and instead Jesus tells them that if they want to be his followers, they have to hate their families and hate life itself. Like I said: Whoa.

After that provocative statement, he goes on: “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Wait. The cross, you say, Jesus? Did I hear you right?

For us, the cross is a symbol. The cross points to the transformative love of God that sees love and solidarity triumphing over power and division. But for those people listening to Jesus? The cross was an ever-present reminder of the death penalty visited on the political opponents of the Roman occupation. With that, the crowd thins a little more. Contemplating a life that could lead to the cross turns out not to be so trendy.

But Jesus still isn’t done. He keeps talking, giving two examples of planning and forethought, building a tower and raising an army. With this, he tells the crowds that they should really think about what they’re getting themselves into if they want to be his followers. But they don’t want to think. They want to be entertained. And so the crowd thins even more.

And finally, Jesus delivers the final blow: “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” I bet at this point those large crowds are not crowds anymore, but pockets of people waiting to see if he is joking. Spoiler alert: he’s not.

But for those who remain, who are following not because it’s trendy but because the life Jesus offers is real and true and life-giving, for those people these statements help clarify the path Jesus is leading them…leading us. Those last words are the key. “So therefore…” The last statement about giving up all your possessions circles back to the shocking ‘hate’ language at the beginning of the passage. Jesus is talking not only about physical possessions that weigh us down on the road. He’s also talking about the people in our lives, about not possessing them.

The hate in this passage is not an emotion. Hate in this context is a rejection. And we’re not rejecting our relationships with our family, no. We are rejecting our need to possess our family, our fear of ever losing them, especially the versions of them that we most need them to be in order to fill holes inside ourselves. Jesus knows the fear of losing something makes us cling harder to that thing. And when we cling, we tend to misshape and deform the thing we are clinging to, like squeezing a ball of Play-Doh. But when we let go, when we let the things outside of ourselves be themselves – fully, truly themselves – we find the freedom that Jesus calls us into. Our relationships become more authentic, more grounded in the mutually upbuilding love of God than in any particular need we wish to be fulfilled.

This kind of authentic living is not easy. It takes prayer and practice and good communication and good boundaries and a good understanding of ourselves and our place in the complicated web of all our relationships. That’s why following Jesus is not trendy. Following Jesus is a lifetime endeavor, not a weekend dalliance.

My hope for those people in those large crowds is the same as my hope for us: that after their initial curiosity over what this Jesus fellow is doing, they return again and again because they discover that his words are the words of life. The ability to return again and again is called grace. And this grace of God showers upon us forever, enabling us to embrace the life that Jesus shows us.

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