Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Are We Truly Ready for Discipleship? A Reflection on the Gospel Lesson for Labor Sunday

          I’ve learned from some clergy friends who are very diligent in their sermon preparation that it’s never too early to start thinking about a sermon. So, I want to offer my reflections on the lectionary’s gospel text for Labor Day Sunday this year in case they may be helpful to you. For links to other Labor Day weekend worship resources for a variety of faith traditions, visit WIN’s website.

In Luke 14:25-33, Jesus asks the throngs of people surrounding him to consider whether they are really ready to become his disciples. Can they give up the things that may be required? Jesus’ questions about whether they can hate their parents, siblings, or children must have rung harshly in their ears, as they do in ours today. Why would Jesus ask this? And what does this have to do with his final words that “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions”?

In Luke, Jesus’ message of justice for the poor and marginalized is often aimed at the wealthy and powerful. Perhaps in this passage, Jesus is warning some of those powerful people who believe they are ready to follow him, wanting them to know that they could lose much in becoming his disciple. The crowd may think they are ready to spread Jesus’ message that “blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” and “woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:20-26). But this could easily result in being disowned, or worse, by family members a person was deeply dependent on for wealth and for identity.

So Jesus urges those who think they are ready to follow to really consider the costs of discipleship. Are they really ready to obey God rather than their families if the two conflict? Is the gift of God’s kingdom more precious than the gift of earthly possessions and power they hold now? It is not that Jesus doesn’t want disciples. He is simply looking for those whose enthusiasm won’t be destroyed by rejection from loved ones, or by the stripping away of wealth.

Jesus’ advice to count the cost of discipleship reminds me of something in social justice movements called “inoculation.” Union organizers know that workers who speak up for a union can gain better wages, fair treatment, and decent benefits. But they also risk a lot. (In thirty percent of union organizing drives, at least one worker is illegally fired because of their support for the union.) So the organizer “inoculates” the worker by warning her of what she could face: being fired, harassed, demotions or harder work assignments, being forced to sit through hours of anti-union videos on work time, or being asked to inform on her friends and co-workers. Some workers will walk away after this, knowing they’re just not ready to take the risks involved. But those who remain know what they are risking for the cause of justice, and they become stronger with that knowledge.

Being a disciple of Jesus today still puts us at risk of condemnation, especially if we follow his path of seeking justice. Consider people of faith in Arizona who give rides to church to undocumented immigrants. They are indeed welcoming the immigrant as Christ himself (Matthew 25:35), but they are also now breaking the law in their state. I also think about members of WIN who believe their faith calls them to stand in solidarity with workers who haven’t been paid. Occasionally they have found that the result is trash being thrown at them or threats being made to their safety. Or what about Jesus’ warning about family? At one time or another, many of us have been tempted to keep the family peace by holding our tongues when a relative says something offensive about poor people or people of color. And of course, there are workers every day who risk – and lose – their livelihoods because they are no longer willing to tolerate the injustice and even abuse that they experience at work.

            For those of who have some privilege in this nation because of our skin color, our gender, our citizenship status, our wealth, or our professional standing, it’s hard not be frightened a bit by Jesus warnings about what we can lose as disciples.

            We have to remember his words in light of the gospel – the good news – that what we gain in return for this sacrifice is the kingdom of God. We get to welcome God’s reign, where the hungry are fed, where the lowly are lifted up and the powerful brought down, where we live in shalom as one family, where mourning and crying and pain are no more. Despite my fears and doubts at times, I know I want to be one of the disciples who follows Jesus to this place, even if the road there will be a rocky one. 

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