Not far from here, in Wapiti, is a place called the Smith Mansion.
The first time I saw it as I drove by on my way to Yellowstone, I thought it was some kind of random Japanese-style pagoda in the middle of the Wyoming wilderness. In fact, as I’m sure many of you here know, it was built by a man named Francis Lee Smith, who was a builder and engineer, and it started out as a pretty ordinary house. But, after he finished the basic home, for some reason he couldn’t stop building. He added on extra floors and balconies, all fitting together at weird angles, from logs that he would pick up at various places in his truck. The information I found online about this house says that Smith’s devotion to this project led to a divorce from his wife, and, eventually, to his death. He fell one day while he was working on one of the balconies because he was not tethered. This is the image that came to my mind this week when I read Jesus’ words, “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.’” Perhaps Jesus would have pointed to Smith’s house when he said this, because it seems as though Smith did not count on the cost to continue with his building project; he was ridiculed by his neighbors, and he never quite finished it before he died.
In today’s Gospel text, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and there are large crowds following him. These crowds have either seen or heard of his healing miracles and his new teaching. They are enthusiastic; they are wondering if Jesus might be the Messiah, the one who will overthrow the Roman occupiers and give them back their country. Picture those enthusiastic crowds shouting out, “I will follow you, Jesus! Let me be one of your disciples! Let’s go onward to victory and to glory!” And Jesus, knowing what’s coming, simply shakes his head and decides that he needs to put a check on their enthusiasm. You don’t know what you’re getting yourselves in to, he says. You need to understand what I’m really all about, and then you need to figure out if you are truly being called to follow me in what I’m doing. So, then, let’s try to unpack what Jesus is telling us about counting the cost of following him.
I’d like to start with a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer from his book, “The Cost of Discipleship”: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” This simple and profound statement seems prophetic when we think about what happened to Bonhoeffer, but he wrote this long before he was imprisoned and killed by the Nazis. Just so, Jesus talks to the crowds about carrying the cross some time before he is actually hung on one. And so, this is a good entry point for us: most of us, I am thinking, will not be executed or assassinated for our faith. Therefore, what does it mean for us to carry a cross? What does it mean for us to come and die, when most of us, God willing, will live long lives?
“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.” First of all, I want to say that the word “hate,” is an unfortunate translation choice. The original Greek word does not carry the emotion that we associate with the word “hate”. Jesus is not calling us to have bad feelings for our family and our life. The original Greek word has the sense more of “separate” than of “hate”. We are still called to show love to our family members—in fact, there are other parts of Scripture where that is explicitly commanded. What Jesus is saying is that, in order to follow him, we will need to separate ourselves from our family, and sometimes separating ourselves from our family may mean following Jesus on a different path than what our family might wish for us.
Jesus’ call on my life, as an example, has taken me on quite a different path than what my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. may have envisioned for me. My adult life has been lived many times at a great physical distance from all of them: Taiwan, Alaska, and here in Wyoming are some of the more exotic locations where Jesus has sent me. And while there have been times where I may have liked to have been closer to my family, in those times God has strengthened me and has surrounded me with friends who have acted as my family in these places. It doesn’t mean that I don’t love my family of origin; on the contrary. It just means that, in order to follow where Jesus is leading me, I have had to separate myself from my family and have had to put Jesus above them. Now, I want to be clear that I am not holding myself up as a model when I tell this story. My discipleship of Jesus is far from perfect, and Jesus’ call to each one of us to follow him comes in very different ways. What I am saying is that, at some point in each of our lives, Jesus calls us to put following him above what our families expect of us. And because the pull of families on our lives is strong, Jesus asks us to count the cost of following him, just as a builder counts the cost before he builds or a king counts the cost before he goes to war against another king. Can we truly put Jesus above our families? Or will we fall away when the going gets tough and our families tell us to stop being crazy and come home?
The next thing that Jesus tells us today is, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” What does the cross mean to you? Our automatic response as Christians is to say words like, “forgiveness, eternal life, salvation”. But let’s think a little more deeply about the cross today. We’ve all seen movies about Jesus where he drags his cross through the streets of Jerusalem up to Calvary to be executed. Whether it was just the cross-beam that he carried or the whole cross, that thing was very heavy. And then think about what made that cross even heavier: the weight of the whole world’s sins and burdens. This is the kind of thing that Jesus is asking us to carry. As Christians, we are called, as Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians, to “bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (6:2).
One way that we carry one another’s burdens is in prayer. Each week in worship we lift up prayers for people of our community who are struggling. Some of those prayers are said aloud and some of them are said in the silence of our hearts. God hears all of those prayers, and by expressing our burdens to God in prayer, God lays the foundation for us to have concern for one another and for people and places throughout the world. Prayer should underlie everything that we do for one another and every way that we carry one another’s burdens.
But often we make the mistake of thinking that prayer is a one-way conversation, where we talk to God but God doesn’t talk to us. On the contrary: God often answers our prayers by calling us to take more concrete action in bearing one another’s burdens. For example, if we are praying for our homebound members, God’s answer might be in the form of the Spirit urging us to take food over to these people and to visit with them for a while. If we are praying for the children in our community, we may hear the Holy Spirit urging us to volunteer to teach Sunday school, or to give money to Backpack Blessings to help feed the poor children in Powell, or to help out with the Boys & Girls Club. If we are praying for people in our state who have been laid off due to the bust cycle in our economy, we may hear the Holy Spirit urging us to find out more about what poverty looks like, to donate to Loaves & Fishes, to find out what homelessness in our community looks like and to work to alleviate that, and a whole host of other possibilities. Because God works through our hands, and calls us who follow Jesus to carry the cross as he did.
This might seem like an impossible task. And, if we look only to our own strength to carry the cross, it will be an impossible task. But, thankfully, we are not alone, and it is not by our own strength that we carry the cross. Martin Luther wrote, in his explanation to the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” It is by the power of the Holy Spirit that we are enabled to carry the cross and to bear one another’s burdens, especially when doing so means separating ourselves from our families and their desires for us. Any good thing that we do comes not from us, but from the Holy Spirit working through us. And when we stumble and fall, Jesus is there beside us, offering forgiveness for our sins.
The things that Jesus calls us to do are not easy. But where did we ever get the idea that being a Christian was easy? Perhaps this is why we get this Gospel text every so often in our lectionary. When life is going well, we tend to think that this Christianity thing is a piece of cake. We know that God loves us because things seem easy. But then, when life gets hard, we start wondering where God is. So, perhaps we should be remembering Jesus’ words about carrying the cross even when times are easy for us, because we don’t have to look very far to find someone who is going through a rough time. We are called to carry one another’s burdens and in so doing, we follow Jesus by carrying the cross. We are reminded to stop periodically and to count the cost of following Jesus through both the good times and the bad. And, finally, we are reminded that we are not alone in doing this, but that Jesus is with us in both good times and bad, taking all of the burdens of the world on his shoulders. Amen.