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September 5, 2004 (Pentecost 14)—“Giving Ourselves to Something Greater Than Ourselves”

Pastor David Barber

Luke 14:25-33; Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Sisters and brothers, grace be unto you and peace from God our loving Creator and from our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Some of you spent a little bit of time in front of your television lately watching the Olympics from Athens, Greece. A few more of us, like myself, followed the stories and the results in the daily papers.

Like every Olympics, there were some major disappointments as well as some contests that brought out the heart, soul, and mind of those who participated. Among the upsets was the men's basketball team--beaten by both Puerto Rico and Argentina. The USA probably had more sophisticated players, but these other countries knew how to play better as a team.

In contrast to the men, we have the women's soccer team, winning a stunning victory in overtime against Brazil. The Americans were slower, less creative, and lost the chase to most of the loose balls against the young Brazilians. Brazil was probably the better team, but what they lacked was the passion and the determination to win.

Of course, living in Hawaii, I also have to mention the stellar performance of Bryan Clay. Winning a silver medal in the decathlon, he was the first individual Olympic medalist since 1988.

It doesn't make a difference which country we're talking about. The dedication, the intensity and the focus, the discipline, and the time commitment of every athlete in these games is extreme. You and I know that this journey to the Olympic games usually begins at a very young age, and continues with tremendous sacrifice for many years.

As an example of such sacrifice, last Sunday on 60 Minutes the program featured Michelle Wee, the 14-year old golf marvel and Punahou student. In many ways, the program mentioned that she's just like all the other students except that she spends three hours every weekday and eight hours every weekend on the discipline of golf. Whether it's art, or music, or athletics, in order to excel, such dedication and commitment is necessary.

After hearing the Gospel reading for today, you're probably not surprised by where I'm going with this introduction. If you want to be a disciple of Jesus, then what is demanded is at least as much effort and devotion as an Olympic athlete or even more.

In a trilogy of renunciation, Jesus holds out before us the price of being his disciples:

Whoever does not hate his own family members...cannot be my disciple.
Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me...cannot be my disciple.
Whoever does not give up all their possessions...cannot be my disciple.

Once again the teachings of Jesus about the reign of God resound with the radical requirements of a holy war. And because of the charged and fearful time in which we live, these requirements grate on our ears because they sound like words that might come from the lips of a religious fanatic or fundamentalist.

I'm really not all that anxious to preach on our Gospel for today, and if I had any foresight at all, I would have suggested to Katy that she might want to make her debut on this Sunday. And with any luck at all, she might have said "yes" without looking at the text. However, that would have been a dirty trick, and I do want to create a good first-impression.

On at least two other occasions in the past two months Jesus has said radical things in regard to one's family and the things that we consider to be valuable and hold dear.

You may remember that when Jesus began his journey to Jerusalem back in the 9th chapter, there were potential disciples who came to Jesus, but one had to go back home to bury his father, and another wanted to say farewell to those at his home.

Jesus tells them "Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God." And then he also added, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the reign of God."

Three weeks ago, Jesus told us that he came not to bring peace on earth but rather division. From now on he said, "Five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three--father against son and son against father, daughter against mother and mother against daughter."

So just after we recover from this last attack, Jesus delivers yet another strike. He informs us, "Whoever does not hate father and mother and even life itself, cannot be my disciple." So where do we find the grace in any of these sayings?

We could turn the decibel level down on the word "hate" by saying that it really means detachment or leave behind. Or we could turn to Matthew, who makes all of this a little more palatable by wording it, "Whoever loves father or mother--or family--or life--or possessions more than me is not fit to be my disciple."

Even so, if we put a different or more positive spin on these words, attachment to family or personal safety or financial security are all at risk if one wants to be a follower of Jesus. No one ought to sign up for the duration without first understanding the cost and the sacrifice involved.

Once again, perhaps the first verse sets the context for these challenging words. We're told that large crowds were traveling with Jesus so maybe Jesus wanted to give them a realistic dose of what it meant to continue on the journey with him.

This was not a victory lap around the stadium, but Jesus was headed toward Jerusalem and the cross. Were they prepared then to walk into this dark valley along with Jesus and move with him toward suffering and death?

In a recent article in the daily paper, it mentioned how the local gymnastic groups and swim clubs were benefiting because of renewed interest due to the Olympics. This intrigue, however, will be short-lived as youngsters and parents begin to experience the cost and the discipline involved.

Our baptism tells us something about the cost of being a follower of Jesus. In this event we were thrown into the water and held under until we died. In that event we discovered that our very lives are owned by God.

You may have come singing "Just As I Am," but here is a God who loves you so completely and deeply that he will not leave you as you are.

Sometimes--often times--we look at a Gospel like this and we say, "This isn't good news. This is really bad news. This meat is just too tough for me to chew and to swallow.

But in another respect, this is tremendous news. "What I'm calling you to do," says Jesus, "is worth the price. It's worth living for and dying for. It's worth the totality of your being and your heart and your soul. It's so valuable that you will refuse to be parted from it under any circumstances."

It's a way of life that's so filled with love and purpose and meaning that you will never forsake it no matter what you might encounter in life. It's a way of life that fulfills that need within us to give ourselves to something much greater than ourselves.

A campus pastor at Duke University tells about the time they had a recruiter from the "Teach America Program" on campus. This was an organization that recruited the nation's best college and university students to teach in the most impossible teaching situations in our country.

She began by saying, "I really don't know why I'm here tonight. This is one of the best universities in America. You are all successful. That is why you're here to become an even greater success on Madison Avenue, or Wall Street, or in law school.

And here I stand trying to recruit some people for the most difficult job you will ever have in your life. I'm looking for people who want to go into a burned-out classroom in Watts and teach biology. I'm looking for someone to go into a little one-room schoolhouse in West Virginia and teach kids from 6 years to 13 years how to read.

We had three teachers killed last year in their classrooms. And I can tell just by looking at you, that none of you want to throw away your lives on anything like that.

But, on the other hand, if by chance there is somebody here who may be interested, I have these brochures, and I'll be glad to speak to anyone who is interested."

With that all the students jumped up, rushed into the aisles, walked down to the front, and made sure that they obtained a brochure.

Most of us maybe a little older, a little slower, and far less willing to head into the face of danger, but regardless of our age, we are hungry to give our lives to something greater and more important than ourselves.

What is this life that is greater and more important than ourselves? Is it not a life of kindness, generosity, forgiveness, and mercy for all people and for our own lives, too? Is it not a life dedicated to peace, justice, and nonviolence?

Is it not a life given over to care for the earth and compassion for the poor, the lowly, and the broken? Is it not a passion and a dedication as great as any Olympic athlete for the ways and the workings of Jesus to bring light and love and hope to our worn and weary world?

We won't win any gold medals for following Jesus and most of us won't get any public recognition at all, much less a thank you. We may even be physically or emotionally abused for the values we lift up and for what we do on behalf of others. But we can make a difference.

I think of the vast multitude of people--men and women and boys and girls--dedicating their lives to the ways of Jesus in their daily work or at school as well as influencing legislation for the sake of those who are poor, hungry, and longing for justice.

Together with great dedication and discipline we give ourselves to the ways and the teachings of Jesus. As we give ourselves with great devotion to Jesus and to all that he loved and died for, we find life in his name, and we are blessed.

That, indeed is the good news for today!


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