“Cost of Living”

April 13, 2014


Zechariah 9:9-12

Matthew 21:1-17


On these Sundays during Lent I led the adult education sessions as we looked at the small and disturbing letter of James. If you missed these sessions, maybe that’s just as well. Each week we encountered words that troubled us, upset the usual way we thought about our faith and our lives, and moved us to talk with more honesty about ourselves than we might have expected.

I’m grateful to those intrepid souls who gathered in Rockwood Hall and talked about their misgivings as well as their commitments.

When we began this series I had no idea that our conversations on these Sundays would lead us to the question posed by Palm Sunday and the week ahead: What is the cost? What will it cost me to live by my values?

That’s the question for us, isn’t it? How can we hold on to our principles and succeed?

Is it possible for us to gain the world and keep our souls?

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, someone says, “I hear you lost all your money in the stock crash.”

“Yes,” replies Gatsby. “Lost every penny in the crash . . . but I lost all that was important to me in the boom.”

Or as one corporate success with a six-figure income put it: “Once I reached the top of the ladder and looked around, I realized that all the struggle, all the costs to my family and friendships, all the sacrifices I had made to reach the pinnacle were not worth what I found there and the lack of meaning I felt there.”[1]

These are words of caution to us all. In our striving, in our gaining, we face the risk of losing everything important. And then, what can we give to gain back our souls?

Is there any good news for those who are successful—or on their way to success? That is to say, is there any good news for this congregation? Is there a way of life that brings achievement without robbing us of the real life that we seek?

I once saw a sign in a store announcing: “We make Easter easy.”

“Oh, that would be nice,” I thought. We have been claimed by the Resurrected One, however, and we know that Easter makes its demands. Following the risen Christ has its consequences. The mid-twentieth century pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote of the “cost of discipleship.” He famously said that, “When Christ calls us, he bids us to come and die.” Maybe we are a little more open to hearing those words and discovering their meaning for our lives as Lent comes to an end.

Look at Jesus as he heads into the city. What we see is one human being pursuing his course with resolute determination.

Of course, it could have been different. Jesus could have stayed in relative obscurity and complete safety.

Instead he made the difficult decision to act in accordance with his call. He chose to live out his vocation—to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; to proclaim the year of God’s favor. He could have quit—at any time. Instead, as it has been said, he did not flinch at the critical moment.

We follow along this morning as Jesus comes into Jerusalem to the praise of the multitude. Within a week he is carried out of the city by a throng of people shouting crucify him. This is enough like our own lives that it seems not only real, but familiar.

You pour yourself into a project, doing your best work, only to meet with criticism.

The office is restructured. You think your job is secure only to find that it is gone two weeks later.

New people at the top simply aren’t interested in the gifts you bring.

The worst can happen on the most beautiful of days.

Life does not come with a very extensive guarantee. We make our commitments—as we do everything, really—with a faith that dares to step out with no iron‑clad assurances.

In a large part, “following Jesus” is a matter of giving over more of life to God. We give over our fear. We set aside our reluctance and move ahead. We trust in the goodness of God that we have seen in Jesus even if that goodness is not readily apparent in our own lives.

In Jesus we will discover the God who suffers as we suffer—who knows what it is like to be wounded and hurt deeply;

in Jesus we see the God who knows what it means to be rejected, to be stretched to the limits of life;

in Jesus we see the God who finds the courage for life even in the face of death.

In Jesus taking up his cross we see him as he really is: the revelation of God's complete self-giving love, a love that means forgiveness and life.

And taking up our own cross?

For those who originally heard it, the demand to take up your cross could literally have meant their death. In the ensuing centuries many have learned this painful truth.

The call to discipleship in the United States of the 21st century rarely brings a death sentence with it, however. We live lives that are vastly different from the lives of the early followers of Jesus. Still the cross shapes our lives today.

A cross offers a choice: you can take it up or leave it. A cross is not the result of genetics or aging or the mistakes we all keep making or even the tragedies that fill every life. It is not what people usually mean when they speak of a “cross to bear.”

Seen in the light of Christ, a cross is not something that destroys. It is that which makes us who we are—most fully ourselves. In Jesus taking up his cross we see him as he really is: the revelation of God's complete self-giving love, shown in suffering, a love that means forgiveness and life. Understood in this way, the cross is about courage in following the crucified and risen Christ. It is about courage in living the demanding faith that is Christianity.

Our crosses will show us to be people freely forgiven by the love of God and—by God's grace—able to show that same love in the often challenging and difficult situations in which we find ourselves. Taking up the cross is about accepting those challenges and both the threat and the potential they contain.

At the end of the day, the question for us as we seek success is “In all of our effort, have we become the people we swore we never wanted to be?” Taking up our cross means being faithful to all that God created us to be, faithful to all we want to be.

This is a week in which we look at the death of Jesus. But first we must enlarge our own concept of death. Death is more than the last moment of life. We die all our lives. Life begins to be limited from the moment we are born, and continues acquiring limitations until we come to the last, final limit.

When we look at the death of Jesus then, we are really looking at the life of Jesus—how he took up the conflicts of life, how he embraced the journey of life. Jesus embraced death just as he embraced whatever life brought him—his joys and his sorrows, his conflicts and his confrontations for the sake of his message and his life, his way of living.

The Christian story knows the gladness of Palm Sunday—and celebrates God’s power and love.

But the Christian story also knows the horrible defeat of Good Friday—and still celebrates God’s power and love.

Ultimately we know a love that is stronger than death. Even on Palm Sunday and Good Friday we turn our eyes toward the empty tomb.

That love urges us forward when we would stay where we are and be at ease.

That love urges us forward when we would stay where we are, paralyzed in fear.

The liberating truth is that we don’t have to be Christians. We make the choice to follow Jesus—or not.

You can, if you choose, walk out the door this morning and go your own way. Or you can walk out that door and do the difficult work of treating people with kindness and decency, standing up for human dignity. The choice is given to each one of us—at all times.

I believe that if we make the choice to follow Christ, God’s Spirit will give us unimagined power to live the life we choose. I believe that when a congregation makes the choice to follow Christ, the resources for living out those choices will become readily available.

A word of warning, of course.

It’s so easy to be lulled by the picture of Jesus humbly arriving in Jerusalem to the acclaim of the people that we would ignore the rest of the story.

This week we remember that when the religious and governmental authorities ran into conflict with this human Jesus, they were deadly serious. The week seemed to start out so well. By Friday, however, everyone found out just how human Jesus was: human enough to bleed; human enough to die.

Jesus died. He died still being faithful to the Source of Life that he knew as a loving parent. Even his cry of despair: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—a cry that chills our very souls—was not a shout into the meaningless darkness that was swallowing him up. Jesus brought all of his human fear and anxiety to the God he trusted and put it there once and for all.

Something happened to change everything. Something happened to change the course of history, the shape of life even as we know it today.

Jesus gave up his life—he died and was buried. And somehow we have found new life because of that. We weren’t able to create this new life on our own.

Now we are set free to trust God—even in our own suffering—knowing that God was faithful to Jesus even in his suffering.

We are set free to trust God—even when life goes well—knowing that the whole point of Jesus’ life and death was that we might be fully alive.

We are free to trust God—even in our dying—because this human being Jesus was faithful even to death and has thereby opened up life eternal for all.

[1] Homiletics, Sept. 1997, pg. 62.