The Upside

“Simply put, if you’re not willing to take what is dearest to you, whether plans or people, and kiss it good-bye, you can’t be my disciple.”

Luke 14:25-33

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“Simply put, if you’re not willing to take what is dearest to you, whether plans or people, and kiss it good-bye, you can’t be my disciple.”

That’s a tough one.  As I was praying about how to talk about this challenging scripture, thinking about what would make me drop everything at a moment’s notice, I got a call from my granddaughter Raegan.  Without hesitation, I answered it. I had my answer. I will drop everything to talk to Raegan.

It’s not a hard choice, though. Sometimes I have to apologize to the people I’m meeting with, and take the chance that they’ll be annoyed, but it’s not a big risk, and it’s one I’m willing to take.  Not always, but most of the time. Because I love her.

In our text for today, Jesus is talking about making tough choices. The crowd following him is growing.  For the moment he’s the popular choice, the new fad. But for those who continue to follow, the way will become more challenging.  We see how much public sentiment turns on the evening when Jesus is arrested and Peter, arguably the strongest disciple, denies even knowing Jesus.

So Jesus is giving the crowd a heads up. Yes, things are good now. Jesus has done some amazing things – casting out demons, healing the blind and the lame. The crowds are filled with awe and joy and anticipation.[1] But the way ahead will be risky. So he urges them to count the cost to continue. “You will have to let go of anything that holds you back.”  But doing so builds our faith.

Maybe we have a hard time understanding this level of risk, since we live where Christianity is generally acceptable. Or maybe we just aren’t going near enough to the edge to see the risk.

[2]

Two olives are playing on a table, rolling around faster and faster, each seeing how close they dare to get to the edge.  Suddenly one of the olives rolls off the table and falls to the floor. The other rushes to the edge of the table and yells “Are you O.K??  The olive on the floor responds. “Olive.”

Many thanks to Dave Ford for sending me that joke on my birthday.[3]

All puniness aside, the olives are competing to see which one is willing to take the most risk.  They’re counting the cost, and one miscalculated. On the other hand, he definitely put olive himself into the game….

In today’s words from Jesus, he’s not talking about risk for the sake of risk. He’s talking about having more faith in God than in our fears.[4]  That faith calls us to ask ourselves, “What response does God want from me in this moment?”[5]

In any given moment, we might know all the variables involved in a choice, but sometimes we can’t. In the first century, when Jesus is speaking to this crowd, they can’t really know all that following Jesus will mean. Even though Jesus tries to help them know, he hadn’t yet actually carried a cross or died on one. Maybe the most they can understand at this point is that this is more than a popularity contest. Or maybe seeing the ways that Jesus shows great love for them, they are drawn to that love, as we are.

The extreme statements Jesus makes remind me of the Barmen Confession, one of the confessions in our PCUSA book of confessions that’s part of our church constitution. The Barmen Confession was the response of some Reformed and Lutheran churches in Germany in 1933 to the issue of loyalty to Jesus.

8.11 Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.

8.12 We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.

In Germany, at that time, the government, led by Adolph Hitler, was requiring commitments from the churches in ways that contradicted their allegiance to Jesus Christ as the only head of the church. 

Like anything we read, it is best understood in the context of its time.  The Barmen Declaration alludes to events and situations, but doesn’t describe them for us.  We have to read other sources to find out more about those situations.  One of those sources is a first-hand account by an American Lutheran pastor who was called to Germany just before the war began. He was amazed to find people singing songs in praise of the Fuhrer instead of hymns and saying prayers of thanks to Hitler instead of to God.

When the Barmen Declaration was written, they didn’t yet know how far Hitler would go. Even so, it’s not surprising that looking back, Martin Niemoller, one of the pastors who led the organization of churches who stood against Hitler, said that the Barmen Declaration didn’t go far enough.

Confessions are one way the church takes a stand about the issues of a particular time and place that threaten the witness of Jesus Christ in the church and in the world.  The churches in South Africa took a stand against apartheid and racism in the early 1980s when they issued the Belhar Confession that was added to our book of confessions a few years ago.

10.3 We believe Ephesians 2:13–20 • that Christ’s work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one another;

Ephesians 4:11–16, Psalm 133 • that unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God’s Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain;

John 17:20–23 • that this unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted;

“…that this unity must become visible…” This happens when we worship together and sit at table together, something apartheid kept people from doing.

In 2017, a group of church leaders felt called to take a stand for the church in the United States, so they created the Sarasota Statement. Their efforts were made possible because of the support of NeXT Church and the Presbyterian Foundation.[6] At the heart of all confessions is the earliest confession of the New Testament church, “Jesus is Lord.”[7]  The Sarasota Statement does this as well. It says:

“We are people of hope who confess Jesus Christ is Lord over a Kingdom in which no one is hungry, violence is no more, and all suffering is gone. All sit together around a shared table, wolves and lambs enjoy each other’s company, and every tear is wiped away from every eye.

“Our hope is not simply that we will experience this Kingdom, which is truly kin-dom, in the future, but that, as Christ’s prayer demands, this Kingdom comes “to earth as it is in heaven.” So strong is this hope that we lament any and all instances of its absence. When we witness hunger, injustice, discrimination, violence, or suffering, we grieve deeply and repent of our sins that have enabled such brokenness to persist – knowing that these things should not be.”

Like the writers of the Barmen Declaration, the writers of the Sarasota statement looked back a few years later and felt that their statement didn’t go far enough, so they met again in 2020 and added a new prologue that spoke more specifically to the issues they felt they needed to address. They renewed their commitment to…[8]

“…take up the cross of discipleship in this particular and turbulent time. We must ask ourselves:

  • How do we challenge religious, cultural, and political ideologies and usher in God’s beloved community by building an antiracist church?
  • How do we work to disrupt our own complicity in unjust systems?
  • How do we disavow a false faith that mirrors the divisions of our hearts, society, and nation?

Will we look back on our own lives and feel like we didn’t go far enough?

I don’t think we’d look at today’s text and say that it doesn’t go far enough.  Instead we might say that it goes too far.  It can be jarring to hear Jesus say that we have to “let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters—yes, even one’s own self.“ Aren’t we supposed to honor our father and mother, and love our spouse like Christ loves the church?  Yes, but …

This sounds extreme because Jesus is using hyperbole.  If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a million times…. Put God first. This is a call to radical love, the same self-sacrificing love that Jesus showed us in his willingness to die for us. In the two parables, one about building a house and the other about going to war, that’s the cost Jesus is talking about. Love is costly.

“In the incarnation of Jesus Christ, God chooses a costly path, a holy risk. If Christ himself was willing to risk the worst that the world could do to him, then we who would follow him must be willing to take risks as well.”[9]

Are we willing to take risks?

This is what Jesus is calling us to do when he says we must carry our own cross and follow him.

Thea Racelis, [a pastor and writing coach] …has written about her experience [with taking risks] as a foster parent. “The worst advice I heard,” she writes, “was the warning to be cautious with our love.” Well-meaning friends said things like, “You know this is risky. Be careful.” They didn’t want Thea and her spouse to grow attached to a child who could be taken away and returned to her birth mother.

Racelis responded like this: “When faced with life’s many uncertainties, the answer is never going to be ‘love less.’ If that’s the answer you come up with, you are asking the wrong questions. . . . Love is risky.” …

Racelis writes, “I wouldn’t be a Chris­tian if I wanted to stay safe. I will love as much and as hard as I can, for as long as I can.” In the end that’s all that any of us who try to be Christians can do. We can love God enough to risk loving the world…”[10]

Loving God so much that we love the world God created and everyone in it.

That’s the good news in all of this.  That’s the upside.

Just for kicks, I asked Google the question that is the title of this message and discovered that there’s a movie called The Upside (2017). So of course I had to watch it. It was pretty good.  It stars Kevin Hart, Bryan Cranston, and Nicole Kidman. Hart plays Dell, a man fresh out of jail who needs a job.  Cranston plays Phillip, a wealthy paraplegic who needs to hire an aide. Kidman plays Yvonne, is Cranston’s business manager.  The story is based on a true story. Phillip took a risk that resulted in his becoming a paraplegic. As a result, he’s basically given up on life.  In essence, so have Dell and Yvonne.  Over the course of the movie they encourage each other to take some risks and learn how to live again.

Life is full of risks. The greatest risk is love, especially the kind of costly, sacrificial, unconditional love Jesus demonstrated for us.  The upside of the risk Jesus took was that he conquered sin and death, and God raised him from the dead. Our hope is based on that resurrection and the grace it brings to us all, and in the great love God has for us all. 

We will not always get things right, but we are called to keep trying, to keep living, to keep loving.


[1] Carolyn Sharp https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-23-3/commentary-on-luke-1425-33-5

[2] Photo by Alana Harris on Unsplash

[3] https://www.facebook.com/melissa.krabbe.1/posts/10159255476417872

[4] Adapted from Emily Heath “Learning Costly Resistance from Bonhoeffer” in Christian Century June 7, 2018

[5] Ibid.

[6] https://facing-racism.pcusa.org/item/42526/

[7] The Confessional Nature of the Church Report, Book of Confessions, PC(USA) 2016, pg. vii.

[8] https://nextchurch.net/the-sarasota-statement/sarasota-statement-text/

[9] Emily Heath, Christian Century.

[10] Ibid

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