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Sermon for September 5, 2010

The Complications of Long Division

A large crowd was following Jesus. He turned around and said to them, “If you want to be my disciple, you must hate everyone else by comparison—your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even your own life. Otherwise, you cannot be my disciple. And if you do not carry your own cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciple. But don’t begin until you count the cost. For who would begin construction of a building without first calculating the cost to see if there is enough money to finish it? Otherwise, you might complete only the foundation before running out of money, and then everyone would laugh at you. They would say, ‘There’s the person who started that building and couldn’t afford to finish it!’ Or what king would go to war against another king without first sitting down with his counselors to discuss whether his army of 10,000 could defeat the 20,000 soldiers marching against him? And if he can’t, he will send a delegation to discuss terms of peace while the enemy is still far away. So you cannot become my disciple without giving up everything you own. Luke 14:25-33

There are a few things I really hate. Maybe hate is too a strong word. But let’s just go with it. You know what I hate? Buffet Anarchy. The food buffet is a lawless frontier. Anything goes. I was at a buffet the other day and serving myself was like being a contestant on a Japanese game show. I’m accidentally splattering myself with food, dropping string beans on the floor and dripping my chicken marsala sauce into the tray of roasted potatoes. Meanwhile, packs of pre-teen boys cut the line, shoveling doughy fistfulls of rolls into their orthodontically altered mouths and swiping all the deserts the end of the table. There is no peace for me at a buffet table.

You know what else I hate? I hate it when I used to go to the gym and I had to use a piece of equipment after someone else. I mean, obviously I can bench press, you know, a whole ton of weight. And as for reps, don't even talk to me about reps. I can do anywhere between 3-5. I thought I could certainly lift more than the gangly high school sophomores or the rugged old grannies in their velour workout suits. I would saunter over to the bench press machine after they were done, and they always had the weight set quite high. Higher than I could lift. So, I had to go through the elaborate charade of pretending to raise the weight while actually taking it down to around the 3 pound level. I’d push out my 3-5 reps and then put the weight back really high for the next person to see. Pretending was more exhausting than the actual workout. So, I stopped going to the gym. It’s working well for me, isn’t it?

You know what else I hate? I hate my mother’s recipe for Beet Loaf. Yeah, you heard me right. BEET loaf. She cooks it in a crock pot for 8 hours and serves it up with a swell of pride. Delicious? I think not.

Like I said, hate is a strong word. These are all trifles, really. Annoyances. I mean, it’s not something serious like saying I hate my parents. It’s not something really bad, like if I confessed to detest my wife and children. But it seems as if that’s what Jesus wants me to do. He says: If you want to be my disciple, you must hate everyone else by comparison — your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters — yes, even your own life. Otherwise, you cannot be my disciple. I can’t go that far. In fact, I hate that Jesus would ask me to hate my loved ones and even my own life.

Have you ever met a family that fractured over of a spiritual teaching? I knew a lady who joined a very strict, fundamentalist Christian sect. She tried to get her husband to join the group and he wanted nothing to do with it. The spiritual leader of the group convinced the wife that her husband was going to hell, that she should get away from him and his evil doubts, and she should get the kids away from their unbelieving father. Of course, she gave this group a pile of money. Her family was devastated. The husband still wonders how and why this all happened. These groups work through division -- malicious mathematics that promises a better life if only you believe, disconnect yourself from family ties, and write a big check.

Hate my parents? Give up all my possessions? Isn’t this the demented preaching of Jim Jones and David Koresh? Hate my wife and kids to follow Jesus? If anyone comes to me and demands that I choose between him or my wife, the choice is simple. I choose my wife. I choose my kids. I choose my family. I choose my beloved friends. I choose the connections that help me find support, survival, courage and love to get us through this complicated life.

But wait, it gets worse. I hate the examples Jesus uses to illustrate “discipleship.” Jesus talks about a builder thinking about money and a king preparing for war. Jesus implies that these two have it right and that his followers are to be more like them. Here’s the problem. In our day, building developers and war planners are not moral standard bearers. Think about some developers who cut corners that make money while imperiling others. During this Atlantic Hurricane Season, many remember Hurricane Katrina, a disaster that left a blotch on the psyche of America. Among the revelations in the aftermath of Katrina, the flooding uncovered the negative impact of floating gambling casinos on the Mississippi River. The huge casino barges became battering rams in the storm surge, washing ashore and destroying many homes and cheap developments that sprang up to support the gambling industry. The destruction became symbolic of how greed had destroyed lives along the Gulf Coast. All to say, I have a hard time accepting real estate speculation as a symbol for faith. In the same way, I have no empathy for the struggle of a king who wants to go to war and needs to make sure that he has enough soldiers to overcome the enemy.

I know that I’m supposed to ask myself how I can love God a lot, and what I am willing to give up to show it — at least that’s how this Gospel story has been explained to me dozens of times. However dividing the family, managing real estate for outrageous profit, and acting like a warmonger are qualities I need to leave behind in order to follow Jesus. I’m a peace-lover. I don’t want to divide.

You know what I really, really hate? Mathematics. Math gives me the hives. They’re not called math problems for nothing. I have a special moral crisis with division. Especially long division. I like addition. I LOVE multiplication. These operations are about increase. We tend to think that if something is good, than more must be better. So I’ll stick with arithmetic that supports growth and abundance. Division is different. When I was young, I’d tell my 9th grade algebra teacher, Mrs. Bach, that division was evil. It was subtraction on steroids. We should have serious problems with doing math that creates separation and scarcity. Mrs. Bach didn’t buy it. Division is just so . . . negative. It comes from two Latin roots that mean to separate apart. Many of our English words beginning with the letters d-i are from a mean-spirited little Latin preposition known as dis. The English language has a lot of ways to talk about how to exclude and separate. And many of the words begin with those two or three little letters: divide, disrespect, divest, dispose, disable, discord, discard, destruction, disadvantage, discipline, discomfort, disenchant, disagree, disappear, disappoint, disarray, disaster, disconnect, discredit, disgrace, distort, discrepancy, discriminate, disengage, dishonest, defeat, dysfunction. Here we go again with the malicious mathematics. You just heard a list of the worst kind of complicated long division there is.

Malicious mathematics is quite simple to perform. Once we divide and discard others, we don’t have to deal with them anymore. Once we discredit and disgrace those with whom we disagree, we allow ourselves to believe that we’ve done our divine duty. Division seems to be a desirable decision when it comes to dealing with people who are different. My heart tells me that this is not what Jesus had in mind for his people.

You know what I really wanted for this sermon? I wanted some alternative interpretation of the text. I wanted a trustworthy biblical scholar to tell me how I misunderstood the story. After a better understanding of the life and times of Jesus, I would learn that he really wants us to embrace our parents, hug our lovers and our children, bear some modest burdens, and follow Jesus the best we can. Do you know what scholars say? Out of all the sayings of Jesus, this is probably among the most genuine lessons from the lips of the Lord. I’m not going to try to domesticate Jesus. He says something that I just don’t like. In his passion to uphold the simplicity and sacredness of his ministry, Jesus wants something I just can’t give.

Jesus says, "If you want to be my disciple, you must hate everyone else by comparison." Seriously, Jesus? Yes, seriously, because anything else is idolatry.

Jesus says, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple." Seriously, Jesus? Yes, seriously. Because following Jesus is serious business.

I like a challenge as much as anyone (as long as it doesn’t involve a quadratic equation). But I'm not ready to answer this challenge with an unqualified yes. What about a definitive maybe? How about a sincere I'll think about it? What if following Jesus is less of a denial of all I love and more like a work in progress? What if following Jesus is more like deciding each and every day how we can be disciples?

Following Jesus is not about what you can’t do or won’t do. It’s not as if those with strong faith give up everything, and everyone else is a coward. Discipleship is more about how we define ourselves. Are we solely defined by our relatives? Are we solely defined by our belongings? Are we solely defined by our shortcomings? Are we defined by our willingness to go with Jesus into some difficult places? How often do we stress ourselves out for the wrong person’s approval? How frequently do we sweat for the wrong kingdom’s treasure? How often are we willing to give something up to make life better for another? If we are going to die – and we are – will we die for a worthy cause? If we are going to invest our lives in something – and we will – will it be something that matters?

In the end, it’s not about the complications of long division. Jesus proposes a new equation:

Recognition + Consideration = New Life

Recognize or identify that which holds you back from living a full and vibrant life.
Add the cost of holding on and the cost of letting go.
Find your balance as a new future emerges.

In the end, we consider how far each of us can go to keep company with Christ. Do the math. Count the cost. Listen to the Spirit. Follow. Live.

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