Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; Philemon 1-21, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 25-33
The Rev. Drew Brislin
Many of you are familiar with the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and his book The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer, who was Lutheran, wrote this book as a reflection on the Sermon on the Mount and what he believed it meant to follow Christ. The original German title was Nachfolge which translates literally to “following” or “the act of following.” It was this theology of costly discipleship and his resistance to Nazi rule or Germany that would lead to his arrest by the Gestapo in April 1943 and eventually to his execution on April 9, 1945, for being implicated in the plot to assassinate Hitler. In his book The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer seeks to make a distinction between “cheap” grace and “costly” grace. One of the arguments Bonhoeffer makes is that cheap grace is grace without cost, without discipleship and without the cross. Contrastingly, costly grace he argues calls us to follow Jesus and compels us to submit to the yoke of Christ. This yoke is itself grace because Jesus says, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Bonhoeffer continues in saying that as Christianity spread, the Church became more secularized in that it became more accommodating to the needs of society rather than focusing on the commands of Jesus. This accommodation was the submittance to cheap grace. We, however, encourage this ethic of earning and of hard work in our children today though when we tell them that being successful requires practice. Whether it is in band, football, baseball, music, dance, soccer or any other extracurricular activity to be good one must practice, and practice requires a cost. When we are successful at whatever our endeavor, that hard work always feels rewarded as well. I personally have experienced this and know how wonderful it feels when you are successful as a team at something. As Jesus is instructing these “new followers”, this large crowd that was traveling with him this morning, he is coaching them up just as we coach our children today.
As we begin our Gospel reading this morning and we hear Jesus tell the crowd, “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.” This seems like rather harsh language at first, however, after reading it a couple of times, I could not help but think about my high school football coach who would often tell me (and telling is a nice way of saying it) “Do what I think, not what I say,” in that he wanted me to have an understanding of his overall gameplan to be more successful. The use of the word ‘hate’ poses some translation issues. I don’t think what the author means by the use of the word hate located in our reading this morning is meant to evoke rejection in anger but rather it should be defined as a disregard. This, however, still poses some questions for us as even this instruction would have been counter cultural to society in Jesus’ day just as it is for us today. A person’s whole existence was wrapped in their family during the first century. Families were the entire support system. There were no social services to help those with little to no means. Being a member of a family often meant the difference between life and death. Jesus though is telling the crowd that has gathered that to follow him one must incur some costs. That one should start to see themselves as part of a larger divine family and that in doing so you might be giving up the safety net that is one’s traditional family. Jesus is also telling us to bear the cross. Yet, in choosing to bear the Cross of Christ we are choosing life. We are going against the empire of our day that offers hurt and suffering. In bearing the cross their may be costs but we are choosing meaning. Not only are we simply given the opportunity to choose but Jesus imparts on us the seriousness of this choice in the stories of the builder and the ruler and the logic regarding whether or not to begin construction or whether or not to engage in a war. Jesus does not want us to enter into discipleship haphazardly. Our decision to follow him should be made deliberately and thoughtfully. Jesus knew the importance of family and would not instruct us to cut off all ties but rather he wants us to learn the difference between love of family and the divine love that they are called to devote to God and the costs that they will incur for following him and giving him that devotion.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew all to well the cost of discipleship as he watched the Nazi party come into power in Germany in the 1930’s. He was given opportunity after opportunity and even encouraged to leave the country. Having studied in the United States he was given opportunities to return as well as an opportunity to study under Gandhi among others. Bonhoeffer chose instead to remain in Germany working to oppose the teaching of the pro-Nazi German Christian church ‘Deutsche Christen’ through his writing and through the operation of an underground seminary. These actions along with his stance against the Nazi party would eventually lead to his imprisonment and subsequent hanging. We remember Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a martyr every year on our church calendar on April 9th the anniversary of his death and celebrate his life and work. The call to bear the cross is a call to work but it is also a call to community for this work that we do as the church is not work that we must do alone. As we continue to move back into the life of the church as it so familiarly looks to us let us reflect on the things we work for, the things that are earned and how so often they mean so much more to us.
Bear Bryant carried a poem with him that is often called the Bear Bryant Prayer, however, it title is A New Day and was written by an accountant from Texas who worked for Chrysler named Heartsill Wilson. Wilson was also a motivational speaker. The poem which is said to have been found in Bryant’s pants pocket the day he died reads “This is the beginning of a new day. God has given me this day to use as I will. I can waste it or use it for good. What I do today is important because I am exchanging a day of my life for it. When tomorrow comes, this day will be gone forever. Leaving something in its place I have traded for it. I want it to be a gain, not a loss; good not evil; success, not failure, in order that I shall not forget the price I paid for it.” In our lesson this morning I think Jesus wants us to think first and foremost about what would he have us do? Secondly, will our decisions, even in the mundane and everyday lives that we sometimes feel we live, glorify Jesus? In seeking to become disciples, are we keeping the main thing the main thing in those daily decisions? What are we willing to trade to follow Christ?
I would like to close with the collect for the Feast of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
Gracious God, the Beyond in the midst of our life, you gave grace to your servant Dietrich Bonhoeffer to know and to teach the truth as it is in Jesus Christ, and to bear the cost of following him: Grant that we, strengthened by his teaching and example, may receive your word and embrace its call with an undivided heart; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, on God, for ever and ever.