September 8

Counting the Cost

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Jeremiah 18: 1-11

Luke 14: 25-33

Click here to hear the sermon only

‘One small step for (a)man, one giant leap for mankind.’

            Our steps fifty summers ago were up and down the red rock mountains of Cimarron NM, and Philmont Scout Ranch, including July 20, 1969.   We ascended that day the sheer rock cliff known as the ‘Tooth of Time’, fourteen fourteen year olds and a beleaguered kindly insurance man scoutmaster.  ‘They should be on the moon by now’, he said.   But the detail we would only learn coming out of the wilderness some days later.

 ‘We choose to go to the moon not because it is easy, but because it is hard.’  Hard.

            That was said in a New England voice, with a New England accent, by a young, imperfect but brilliant New England President, who could celebrate Washington DC and its combination of northern charm and southern efficiency, and could compliment a room full of eminent dinner guests by saying they were the most intelligent dinner gathering ever convened in the White House, with the exception of those evenings when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.  He was a war hero, but an accidental one, as he said that he became such in a simple way: ‘they sank my boat’.    His wife could speak French, charm Royalty, set fashion directions, comment on musical selections, and light up a room, and the globe, with a smile.  He said, in introduction, ‘You will recognize me as the man who accompanied Jackie Kennedy to Paris’.   Grace.  Charm.  Elegance.  A fit for the office and for the house and for the role.  Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.

            Decision, self-sacrifice, service above self.  The greater good.

            And look at us now. Look at our national ethos, culture, rhetoric and leadership now.

            SMH.  ‘Shakin’ my head’.

            We know better.  Or at least you do, New England.   You know better.

            Out on the Tooth of Time we looked at the stars on that night, July 20, 1969.  The world of possibilities in the world around us flickered and sparkled and blazed.   It asked of us a certain height.

            The Gospel, Luke 14, interpreted here bears up under the weight of shame, of bitter conflict, of family feud.   The Gospel gives you the grace to endure, to withstand, to withstand when you cannot understand.  And its means to such a saving end?  Arithmetic.  Counting.  Counting the cost.  Hear the Gospel of Luke 14, the saving power of arithmetic.


            Count the cost.  Ahead of time, count the cost.  By way of illustration:  in business, and in war.  In war that is big business and in business that is warfare.  And in everything in between.  Count the cost.

            Do the arithmetic, study the detail, count.

            You, careful listener, you recognize that Luke 14: 25-33 is not Jesus talking, but Luke writing.  You realize that Jesus left no written record, like Socrates in that.  You recognize that he spoke Aramaic, not Greek, and whether or not he was literate.  You recall the arithmetic of his life, death and destiny, the years 4bce to 33ce, and the distance of those from our reading, Luke 14, in 85ce, to the earliest (some would date Luke much later).  What we hear this morning is, in the first instance, not the voice of Jesus but the composition of Luke.   Of course, and granted, there will be traces of Jesus’ voice, along the way, Luke 9-19, especially, and especially therein the parables, his own mode of teaching, without which nothing.  In all, though, and on the bigger whole, this is not Jesus’ voice but Luke’s writing.  This makes all the arithmetical difference in the world, these 50 years and 2 opposed forms of rhetoric.

            Now, it may be, gazing again at the bulletin, or ruminating on the remembered reading of the Gospel, the high-water mark of our worship each Sunday, you begin to wonder, to ponder, to question.   Here are your questions, or some of them.

            Why this discussion of hatred, when the Gospel in other clothing is about love?  Why this denigration of family, when the family is one of the protected entities in the Decalogue:  protection of truth, of communication, of speech, of worship, of family, of life, of property, of marriage, of law, and of commerce?  Therein, whence the rejection of life itself, when otherwise the Gospel acclaims life, having life, and having life in abundance?   There seems to be some counting and accounting needed.

            More so:  What is the mention here of the cross?  Jesus in this narrative is preaching, teaching, healing, going about in Galilee and Judea a free itinerant prophet.  All of a sudden, here comes a word from much later, ‘cross’.  Was Jesus making a prediction that only he could see and understand?  Or is this a clue to the fountain and origin of this passage?  Cross?  Cross?  I thought we were sharing parables and blessing children and rounding up disciples.  Moreso, the cross is ‘one’s own cross’.  The writer seems to assume that all will get the reference, including you, and me, to the cross.  How all this talk about the cross when Jesus just now in Luke is teaching in parables and healing the sick, a long way from Jerusalem and ‘the cross’?

            Even more so:  How is it that all of a sudden, everyone around Jesus is expected to be a monk?  Ridding oneself of all, all, not most, not much, but all possessions?  All.  That’s at a lot, even in an era of tunics, ephods, camels, donkeys, sandals, fishing, shepherding and travel by foot.  All?  What is transpiring here?

            Nor does this seem metaphorical, in a way that our current preaching would likely choose.   Hatred—well, you know, not exactly hatred but mature self-differentiation.  Life—well, you know, not exactly life in the sense of breath and nourishment, but in the sense of deep meaning.  Cross—well, you know, not exactly crucifixion in the bloody and excruciating physical sense, but self-discipline, more in the sense of yoga.  Possessions—well, you know, not in exactly the form of car, home, bank account and pension, but in the sense of a general materiality, of not letting your possessions possess you.  No, actually Luke 14 does not seem or sound metaphorical at all, regarding hatred, life, cross, or possessions.  It sounds literal enough.

            Forgive what is only an interpretative guess, even less than that, yet after many decades of hearing these harsh words, even in Luke–the Gospel of peace, the Gospel of love, the Gospel of church, the Gospel of freedom—these are phrases that sound like the esoteric, ascetic, anti-worldliness of the emerging gnostic movement.  It is as if here, in Luke and Matthew, by way of Q, some measure of the enthusiastic pessimism, the bodily asceticism, the turning away from the world which we know in full in full Gnosticism, has grown up alongside the gospel, wheat and tares together sown.    There are strong parallels, almost identical, in the Gospel of Thomas, a gnosticizing document of about the same time as Luke. And there are strong parallels in Poimandres, a fully gnostic document of about the same time as Luke (Fitzmeier, Anchor, 1064).

            Uncompromising demands regarding self, regarding family, and regarding possessions may well be part of the life of faith, warns Luke out of the gnostic shadows of his sources.  Like all serious engagements, this spiritual one is not be entered into lightly, but reverently, discreetly and in the fear of God.  ‘Jesus counsels his followers not to decide on discipleship without advance, mature self-probing’.   It is as if Jesus is saying, ‘come along, I want to make this for you the hardest decision of your life’.

            So.  This may mean that the struggles under this passage of Holy Scripture, our sufficient rule of faith and practice, are from 85ad, not 30ad.  That there is in the emerging church a set of conflicts that require some arithmetic, some counting and accounting.  How much home, how much away?  How much kindness, how much honesty?  How much self-affirmation and how much self-abnegation?  How much materiality and how much spirituality?  Before you set out, to go to college or to take a job or to move in together or to get married or to sell the farm or to go to war or to build a tower, well, you might want to…do the math.


            A few years ago, both at Marsh Chapel and in other pulpits, and not to worry if you remember it not, we will not be offended (much), we offered a sermon on the theme ‘Exit or Voice?’.  The heart of that sermon engaged a dilemma familiar to many, perhaps to you:  do I stay and lift my voice in a situation I find intolerable, or do I leave an intolerable situation and lose my voice to effect its change?   An economic study from MIT in the 1970’s, on a similar though commercially related thesis had partly inspired the sermon.  The question in the Gospels generally, about freedom and determinism, human will and divine will, gave the theological background to the sermon.

            The difficulty—exit or voice?—is in some ways a daily one for people of faith, in matters tiny and gigantic.   It requires arithmetic, and a counting of cost, an accounting.  Do I leave my church because of its current discrimination against gays, or do I stay to lift my voice in opposition to that discrimination?  Do I leave my party, perhaps the party of my upbringing, now become party of ethnic hatred and rhetorical ugliness, or do I stay and live to fight another day?  Do I leave regular relationship with my extended family out of real painful hurt occasioned in conversation, or do I stay and take my lumps and hope for sunshine at the next holiday gathering?  The determining impact and influence of conditions and situations, well beyond my control, is undeniable.  But so is the freedom, or sense of freedom, I feel to make a choice, make a decision, and make some difference, one way or another.  You will not be surprised to know that the theme still enervates, reverberates, and agitates, near and far.  Call it a daily cruciform arithmetic.

            Here is an example and application of our gospel lesson. Three years ago, summer 2016, David Brooks took time to consider a meaningful, cultural and personal issue, perhaps a newly nuanced though unintended approach to ‘exit, voice’, ‘at the edge of inside’.   He starts, though with different language, at the juncture of exit and voice.  Then, adds:  there’s also a third position in any organization:  those who are at the edge of the inside.  These people are within the organization, but they’re not subsumed by group think.  They work at the boundaries, bridges, and entranceways…I borrow this concept from Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest who lives in Albuquerque.  His point is that people who live at the edge of the inside have crucial roles to play…You are free from (a group’s) central seductions, but also free to hear its core message in very new and creative ways…A doorkeeper must love both the inside and the outside of his or her group, and know how to move between these two loves.  A person at the edge of inside can be the strongest reformer (think of Martin Luther King)…A person on the edge of the inside knows how to take advantage of the standards and practices of the organization but not be imprisoned by them…Now more than ever we need people who have the courage to live on the edge of inside, who love their parties and organizations so much that they can critique them as a brother, operate on them from the inside as a friend and dauntlessly insist that they live up to their truest selves.  (NYT, June 2016)

            One could hear, here, encouragement for University congregations and pulpits, at once on the edge of the academic inside, and on the edge of the ecclesiastical inside too.  One could hear, here, a question for you to take home, about your social location in gospel ministry.  Again, with Luke, a reminder of the need for some basic arithmetic.


            It is a matter of arithmetic, of counting and accounting.  Try to fit that for which you hope into the waist and shirt size of the clothing you have to put on.  Calculate.  (Such an interesting word, referring to counting pebbles!) Sometimes that counting and accounting is found inside and sometimes outside.  Sometimes this is about what you can hold in your hand.   We begin 21 minutes ago in New England, where also we shall conclude. Not all great poets and poems come from New England.  But…But you are now in New England.  So, to conclude, Robert Frost,  ‘And what I would not part with I have kept’.   Be able to count what you can count on your own experience.  And leave the rest.

I could give all to Time except – except
What I myself have held. But why declare
The things forbidden that while the Customs slept
I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There,
And what I would not part with I have kept.

 -The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean

Leave a Reply