A Provocation: Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 18 (23): September 8, 2019: Luke 14:25-35

25     Walking together with him
              were many crowds.
          He turned,
          he said to them:
26           If some guy comes to me
                    and does not hate their own father
                         and mother
                         and wife
                         and children
                         and brothers
                         and sisters
                              indeed their own life,
                    that one is not able to be my disciple.
27           Who does not carry their own cross
               and come behind me
                    is not able to be my disciple.
28                For who among you,
                    who wants to build a tower,
                         does not first sit
                              to calculate the cost,
                              to see if they have what it takes to finish the job?
29                     Otherwise,
                              when they lay the foundation
                                   and are not strong enough to complete the tower,
                                   everyone who sees what happened will begin to mock them.
                                   Everyone will say:
                                        This person began to build
                                        and was not strong to complete.
31                Or which king travels to another dominion
                    to throw together into war
                         and does not sit
                         They plan to see if they are able with ten thousand
                          to meet the one with twenty thousand
                               who comes against them.
32                           If they are not able,
                                    while they are still far away,
                                    an embassy they send 
                                         to ask the terms leading to peace.
33          Thus therefore
              Anyone among you
                   who does not get rid of all their possessions
                        is not able to be my disciple.
34                         Beautiful therefore is salt
                                  if ever even salt should become tasteless
                                 by what means will it be seasoned?
35                                  Neither into earth
                                      nor into manure
                                      is it well placed.
                                           They throw it out.
       The one having ears to hear:

I explored some aspects of this scene the last time this passage came around in the lectionary. You can read my Provocation at: https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2016/08/28/a-provocation-sixteenth-sunday-after-pentecost-september-4-2016-luke-1425-33/

The Provocation from the previous spin through the lectionary is worth re-considering. I spent time looking at crucifixion and white privilege. It’s oddly timely.

This time around, what caught my eye is Jesus’ willingness to talk about “cost.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not the first theologian or preacher to reflect on the “cost of discipleship.” Even with Bonhoeffer I get nervous. Any time someone raises the issue of “cost” I remember that costs are easier to bear for some than for others. I have said it before, but excuse the repetition: I am tired of the fuss that is made over the large gifts given by wealthy people who, it turns out, are still wealthy after they have given their gift, and gotten the credit. Privilege makes such gifts possible. Privilege guarantees a net gain (in praise and public honor) even after remarkably large gifts are given.

Don’t get me wrong: wonderful things have been done by rich people who have committed themselves to “dying broke.” But It is worth saying that they live rich until then. I know people (NOT “people of means”) who have given larger proportions of what they have. You do, too. No one knows about them unless you tell their story, and in my experience, they would find that embarrassing.

So Jesus talks about discipleship and talks about “counting the cost.” He uses strong images to make his point: half-built towers, unwise war-like adventures.

But then he lays out the cost of following him: “Anyone among you who does not get rid of all their possessions is not able to be my disciple.” That is the cost of discipleship.

We can (and do) dodge this in any number of ways. We can remind our selves that Jesus frequently engages in hyperbolic imagery, like in the parables, and (fortunately) no one is supposed to take a parable at face value. Whew. Things looked a little dicey for a moment there. But that’s not a great way to get the point of a parable, and this isn’t even a parable, for Pete’s sake. Jesus just said, “If you don’t get rid of all your possessions, don’t bother following me.”

Or (and Lutherans of a certain sort are especially good at this dodge), we can breathe a theological sigh of relief when we discover that we are incapable of getting rid of all our possessions because we have trained ourselves to understand that God ALWAYS makes impossible demands. Some (particularly unhelpful) Lutherans even say that God does this because “God wants to kill us so that God can make us alive.” I was raised in a warm, embracing Lutheran faith, for which I am deeply grateful. I understand the theological argument such people are making; I have read all the same books as they have, and just as carefully. But such a notion dodges the force of Jesus’ words by making it part of God’s murder pact. If they actually mean what they say, I find it appalling. And if they actually DO NOT mean what they say, and it’s only a theological set-up, a straight line that leads to the punchline, I’m done with manipulative theology. Let me know when you’re done, too, and we can go back to thinking together.

What I need is a way to take Jesus’ words seriously without ending up in a cult.

I see two possible ways of reading this.

First: I have Lakota friends who have told me about the practice of “give-away” at the time of a death in the family. Everything goes. Or so close to everything that there is, practically, nothing left. The practice takes my breath away. But my friends have taught me to see something that I had not expected: “give-away” is only the first step. Next comes the community response. Once everything is given away, there is nothing for supper. There isn’t even a table to eat it on, or pots to cook it in. So the neighbors have to feed the family that has lost someone. And they do. And because “give-away” is practiced throughout the community, the table that was given away was a table that the family received in an earlier “give-away.” The community shares the property because it is the community that owns the property.

My Lakota friends have told me that Jesus makes perfect sense once you have been part of such a community.

Second: I am struck by this impossible action. If you have read my Provoking commentaries, you know that I spent time listening to stories told by my father’s buddies from the 508th PIR, paratroopers from WWII. Every time those guys got to telling stories, someone (sometimes me) had to ask: With all the flak and artillery fire and the enemy waiting on the ground, how could anyone ever jump out of the airplane?

One time, one of those guys who had jumped on D-Day and Market Garden, said to me, “You have to remember, we figured we were already dead anyhow. If you’re already dead, you might as well jump.”

I have been thinking about that for a long time. I’m not done yet. It catches my ear this week because I have been reading Lenny Duncan’s book, Dear Church: A Love Letter From A Black Preacher To The Whitest Denomination In The U.S. Read that book, and not only because Nadia Bolz-Weber dared you to. Read that book because Duncan notes that leaders, preachers, and all sorts of church people are worrying that the church is dying. (And not just the ELCA.) Duncan says: “Dear Church, you aren’t dying. … I know it feels like you are dying. … Dear Church, you aren’t dying; you are being refined.” (Dear Church, pp. 146f)

So this week, this year, I hear Jesus’ words in that context. Whatever else the words mean, I hear this: Get rid of all your possessions. Get rid of the privilege that allows you the illusion of safety. Recognize that Jesus’ words stand against privilege, white supremacy, and all forms of patriarchy. The possessions and position that the church thinks of as its existence is actually the addiction that prevents us from following Jesus. Getting rid of privilege won’t kill us (though it will feel as if it does), it will refine us.

One last story. Our daughter is visiting us this Labor Day. She has a friend whose daughter is a Girl Scout. This young girl, perhaps 12 years old, belongs to the most remarkable troop. Every troop meeting begins, not with games or snacks, or even the Girl Scout Promise. Every meeting starts with going around the circle so that every girl can talk about what she has done this week to smash the patriarchy. They have even devised a merit badge for patriarchy smashing.

Imagine the refining and resurrection that would occur if we began our liturgies (all of them) with “Smash the Patriarchy!” It would actually fit very agreeably in confession and forgiveness, come to think of it. And it would make sense of Jesus’ words.

One thought on “A Provocation: Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 18 (23): September 8, 2019: Luke 14:25-35

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