Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, "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. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, 'This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.' Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand?
If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
Accurate or not, I have some pretty clear pictures in my mind about the way it looked when Jesus walked around in this world – when he was being very literally followed from one place to the next. I imagine Jesus, walking around the hills of Galilee, looking a lot like Tiger Woods – not the Beatles or Michael Jackson, but Tiger Woods – making his way around the fairways of Augusta: with throngs of people following him from tee to tee, trying to get a closer look, hoping for a picture, begging for an autograph, waiting for a high five, or even just a glimpse of a fist pump or something.
I picture crowds pressing in on Jesus from all sides, trying to get as close as they could get – trying to get him to look at them, to smile at them, to say something to them. I picture kids on their parents’ shoulders. I picture the Pharisees and leaders of the synagogue watching – with envy, curiosity and suspicion – from a distance. I picture his disciples, moving along with him – like a motley crew of wannabe, impromptu security guards – trying to keep people at arm’s length.
So I imagine it wasn’t always easy being Jesus. Always being followed like that; always being sought out, always being looked for. And I imagine Jesus, the man, got sick of it sometimes. And I think maybe that’s where we find him in this Gospel – which all begins with the notion that “now, large crowds were traveling with him.” “Now.” Like maybe things were suddenly changing for Jesus. Like maybe his popularity had reached a new level that was surprising, even to him.
And I wonder if Jesus had had it. Like, maybe he’d just had enough of the "groupies" … enough of the "fair weather" friend types … enough of the people who followed him out of curiosity or because they were hoping for some sort of personal gain; those who just wanted to take advantage of some sort of “grace by association,” perhaps. I wonder if Jesus had grown weary of the fame seekers… or those who just wanted to test him… or who just wanted to see if he was for real… or who just wanted to prove that he wasn’t.
So I wonder if Jesus isn’t upping the ante with these words today when he lets them all have it – all of those followers – his disciples and whoever else was listening in that crowd. And I imagine them dropping like flies after each declaration. And I imagine Jesus wasn’t a bit surprised to see them go. After all, remember what he said to them:
"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.” Who would stick around for that? Can’t you imagine those on the fringes just sort of slowing down and drifting away and letting the crowd move along without them?
And then he says, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” The cross!? An instrument of torture and death?! An invitation to die for the good of the cause?! An invitation to the ultimate sacrifice and suffering?! Can’t you envision even more of that crowd falling away, then, remembering they had something else they needed to do that afternoon?
And then he adds, “…none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” And don’t you think this was a deal-breaker for even more of the wannabes in that crowd? That that must have sent them away, if they hadn’t gone already. “All of your possessions” is easy math, even for me. All is all, after all. What about that lamb they were going to buy for the Passover… or that new pair of sandals… or their daughter’s wedding they’d been saving for? All of it, Jesus?
Jesus couldn't make it any more plain to those who were listening and following him on that particular day. He told them he was more important than family… that allegiance to him meant suffering and sacrifice… that becoming his disciple meant getting rid of all the “stuff” and the “things” the world says are were worth something.
And Jesus’ words should get our attention, because that was and is their intention – nothing more and nothing less. Discipleship is about commitment. This life of faith means to impact all of the people and priorities and possessions that make up a life. Discipleship isn’t easy or safe or comfortable every step of the way. It can be risky. It can even be dangerous, when you do it well. And who wants to follow someone toward all of that?
But, think about any meaningful relationship you’ve ever had – a marriage, a friendship, your investment in a child, your connection to a parent or a teacher or a coach. Haven’t those relationships demanded something of you? Haven’t those relationships required some sacrifice? Some struggle, even? Some giving, maybe, more often than you’d like or ever thought you could? But haven’t those relationships been rewarding… fulfilling… life-giving in the end?
I don’t have a cute analogy or a funny story or an illustration for all of this, this time around. I guess what I’m seeing in Jesus this morning, is our God offering this kind of love and generosity and faithfulness to the world, looking for some measure of the same, in return. And not because Jesus or God need it, to do what God, in Jesus, was about to do. Where would the grace be in that.
But Jesus invites us into this relationship because he knows what a gift it is and will be for us, when we get it right; how rewarding… how fulfilling… how life-giving and world-changing this kind of love and generosity and faithfulness can be for those who practice it – and for the world who would see and be blessed by it, in the end.
This passage always shows up in the fall sometime, like today, when we are getting ready to begin another season full of more opportunities for worship, more opportunities for education, more opportunities for fellowship, and more opportunities to help make it all happen – and I happen to think that “following Jesus” means helping to make it all happen. And I think the severity of Jesus’ words are perfectly timed for us in that regard, and I can’t help but think Jesus knew what he was doing – way back then for all of those listening, and even now, for you and me.
I can’t help but wonder if Jesus talked about giving away all of our possessions – because then a tithe – 10% – or even more – would seem like the pittance it is by comparison.
And I can’t help but wonder if Jesus talked about carrying a cross, if he raised up the notion of the ultimate sacrifice – because then we might consider teaching Sunday School or serving in the nursery or signing up for a Bible Study or cleaning the church building from a different, more humble, grateful-hearted, willing sort of perspective.
And I can’t help but wonder if Jesus talked so shockingly about hating your father and mother, your wife and children, your brothers and sisters – because that would make loving your enemies a little bit more palatable and possible for the likes of you and me.
Let’s not forget that there was a time when no one followed Jesus. There was one place Jesus walked – utterly alone and completely uninterrupted. There was a day when Jesus made his way through the streets and out of the city and up a hill and to the cross. On that day, no one followed. No one reached out. No one cared to shake his hand. No one tried to catch his eye.
And let’s remember how blessed we are to be here, now, together following – receiving more than we could ask for, more than we deserve and more than we can ever even think about paying back.
Here we are together following, trying our best to be disciples – offering ourselves, our time, and our possessions – free to give away more than we ever thought we could do without. Free to give away “things” and “stuff” and time and energy and love and grace and mercy and hope and joy – because our lives and the world will be blessed and better for it, when we do.