Gracious God, thank you for all the ways in which you communicate your love for us, including cigar smoke, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Let me begin by asking you two questions. Here’s the first one. Have you ever smoked a cigar? Please raise your hand if you have ever smoked a cigar. Okay, the people who just raised their hands are a little closer to understanding the good news of Jesus Christ than the rest of us. And if you’ll just hang on until the end of the sermon, you’ll see why.
Here’s the second question. What does it take to motivate you to do something? That’s the question that today’s gospel (Luke 14:25-33) asks you and me. As this summer is just about over, and as an exciting fall season is approaching with all sorts of plans and programs and challenges and visions, what motivates you to move ahead into this fall with enthusiasm and excitement?
There is one way in which a person is motivated that you and I know well. It’s the way of criticism and threat. So a UMass professor says to a student, “If you don’t get that paper done, you’re going to flunk.” Or a friend says to you, “If you don’t change your ways, your marriage is going down the tubes.” Or as Rev. Charlotte says to me over at St. Andrew’s, “Munroe, if you don’t pledge more to St. Andrew’s this fall, we’ll have to cut your salary.”
That’s why a fast reading of this morning’s gospel makes me cringe. Because it sounds at first as though Jesus is motivating people by using threats.
Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. He’s getting a lot of converts. And some of these new followers think they’re on their way to establish an earthly empire. So in today’s gospel, Jesus says to the crowds, “Hold it! Before you sign on to follow me, you had better count the cost.”
It’s this phase, “count the cost”, that makes me cringe. It’s a phrase I’ve heard over and over, my entire adult Christian life – and it has always sounded like a threat. I visualize a kind of Arnold Schwarzenegger Jesus staring me grimly in the eye and saying,
You want to follow me, Jim? Then you’ve got to hate your father and mother and sisters and brothers and even your own life. You want to follow me, Jim? Then you’ve got to bear your own cross. You want to follow me, Jim? Then you’ve got to renounce all that you own. Think you can count that cost?
The truth is, Jesus is saying nothing of the kind. The truth is, I’m the one who conjures up this image of a Schwarzenegger Jesus. The truth is, I’m the one who interprets the phrase, “count the cost," as meaning that I need to get my act together in order to deserve God’s love.
But the truth is that in today’s gospel, Jesus is setting no conditions for being a disciple. The costs that are listed in this passage are simply descriptions, descriptions of how things sometimes are, when you’re in a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Here’s an illustration of what I mean. There is a wilderness program called “Outward Bound,” and some of you may know of it. There are dozens of Outward Bound schools all over the world. One of them is in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, and years ago I attended a course there.
In the weeks before that course began, Outward Bound asked me to count the cost – not as a threat, and not as a condition of acceptance, but simply as a description of how things were going to be on the course.
For instance, one of the costs to be counted was twenty-three days of hiking up and down mountains with heavy packs. So I was encouraged to get in shape beforehand.
Another cost to be counted was the simple food we were to eat, plus a three-day “solo” in which we didn’t eat at all. So I was encouraged to start eating a little less.
One big cost to be counted was our feet. I was encouraged to buy a sturdy pair of hiking boots and to wear them regularly for a month before the course began, to break them in.
These were real costs. But they are not threats. And they were not conditions for acceptance. In fact, the Outward Bound policy was to accept anyone who applied. The costs to be counted were simply descriptions of how things are on a course.
The truth of the matter is that none of us on that course fully counted the cost. None of us were in good enough shape. All of us got blisters on our feet, and especially the fellow who bought his boots the day before the course began and had twelve blisters on one foot after the first day.
And in just the same way, not one of us here this morning can fully count the cost of being a follower of Jesus. Not one of us can renounce all that he or she has. Not one of us can fully bear his or her own cross. Every single one of us is going to get all kinds of spiritual blisters.
Therefore – and this entire sermon has been leading up to this – you and I are not to know ourselves as super-Schwarzenegger saints. If St. David’s was filled with folk like that, I’d walk out the door and never come back. I couldn’t handle it.
Instead, we’re to know ourselves as prodigal sons and daughters, with the blisters of having blown our inheritances, and as being welcomed home with unmerited love and a big party.
We’re know ourselves as St. Peter, with the huge blisters of having denied our Lord three times and more, and as walking on the beach after the resurrection and hearing Jesus say to us, “I love you.”
We’re to know ourselves as the woman at the well, with the blisters of having blown four marriages and more, and as hearing Jesus say to us, “I offer you living water.”
So yes, real costs to be counted are going to come along, as you and I stumble along toward the Kingdom – costs of money, costs of time, costs of saying “I’m sorry,” costs of making a stand for what is right.
But when the costs come along, you and I are going to discover, as millions of Christians have before us, that all is well. In fact, we’re going to discover some cigar smoke - and let me end with that.
Red Auerbach was one of the greatest basketball coaches of all time. When he coached the Boston Celtics, he won nine National Basketball Association championships in ten seasons. He was also vital in breaking down color barriers in the NBA. All in all, he won sixteen NBA championships in his twenty-nine years with the Celtics.
Auerbach also famously loved cigars. And whenever a win was absolutely assured during a game, he would light up a cigar on the sidelines and smoke it for the rest of the game. Restaurants in Boston would often post a sign reading, “No cigar or pipe smoking, except for Red Auerbach.”
There’s no evidence that God smokes cigars. But St. Paul declares, “God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.” Paul declares that our victory - the victory of our being forgiven, the victory of our being loved unconditionally, the victory of our being made new, the victory of Christ’s love for us being the last word - has been assured since, “before the foundation of the world.”
I’m picturing Jesus sitting on the sidelines during the game of my life, watching me play. Jesus is watching me dribble down the court and trip over my own feet. Jesus is watching me occasionally pass the ball while mostly hogging it. Jesus is watching me throw some illegal elbows under the basket. Jesus is watching me make one or two baskets while mostly missing the backboard completely. Jesus is watching me limp around the basketball court with so many blisters on my feet.
And all the while, he’s smoking a cigar.
God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.
You and I cannot fully count the cost of a basketball game or anything else. The only thing we can count on is that we are forgiven - and we are loved. And it is enough. As you enter this exciting fall at St. David’s together, may you simply lean back and entrust yourselves to the Love that will not let you go.
I can almost smell the cigar smoke.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan