Eight years ago almost to the day, when I was a new interim theology professor at SSW, I stood in this pulpit and preached my very first sermon in Christ Chapel. It was 2 days after we sent George W Bush back to the White House for 4 more years, and 3 or 4 days after the Lambeth Commission released the Windsor Report, giving a theological and ecclesiastical response to the controversies in the Episcopal Church surrounding human sexuality.
I suggested at the time that pushing the new interim theology professor into the pulpit on such a day must be the seminary equivalent of hazing.
SSW was a different place in those days. There were fractures and fissures running throughout our community—between board members and faculty and administration, among the faculty, and among the student body. It was during that semester that Nancy Springer-Baldwin and I worked with a group of students to compose the first draft of our conversation covenant. It was also during that semester that I began my first experiments with theological disputations, banking on the counter-intuitive idea that in a climate of silent resentment and antipathy, nothing opens the windows on grace like a good old-fashioned argument. After the first disputation I asked the senior MDiv students for feedback on the exercise, and one of them responded that it was the most deeply unchristian thing he’d been asked to do while at seminary. I’m not sure I ever convinced him otherwise. How could I? Not by arguing, right?
Although the timing of my first preaching was a challenge, the text was a big, fat, 16-inch softball lobbed across the plate. Zacchaeus: the funny little man who showed us how to search for Jesus amidst the crowd, the noise, and the chaos. I asked the community, so deeply divided politically and theologically, what our deepest desires were: A Democratic president? A Republican president? Our own convictions turned into state or church polity? Or a savior? And if it was the latter, were we willing to climb up a tree like an 8 year-old child in order to find one?
Southwest is a different place now. We’re not without challenges, and sometimes our vices and egos get the best of us, but those old fissures have for the most part healed. We’re learning the art of charitable dialogue, we search for ways to give voice to different points of view, and some of you even seem to enjoy a good theological argument now and then. (There was a good bit of laughter, at least, during this morning’s disputation on the filioque.)
This is SSW’s Elizabethan Settlement, the days of calm after the years of storm and strife. The Travis-ian Settlement.
And there is also a risk in such times, as there was in that era of Anglican history. A risk, in short, that now that the crowd and chaos have dispersed, we’ll forget that our calling remains that of Zacchaeus—to find and follow the Savior.
Today’s gospel has always puzzled me. It sounds as if Jesus is telling us to count the cost before taking up our cross, so that we know what we’re getting into. But it comes as a kind of non-sequitur. “Whoever does not take up his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost?” What does that 2d sentence have to do with the first? In order to make it work, we usually supply an implied line—- “Whoever does not take up his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. [And the reason that I’m telling you this now is so you’ll know what you’re in for.] For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost?”
But I’d like to suggest a different reading, without that added line in the middle. This is the Jesus of the “you have heard it said, but I tell you” sayings. The Jesus who offers a bit of folk wisdom, and then shows how the logic of the kingdom of heaven surpasses such wisdom so excessively as to appear foolish to the eyes of the world.
We all know, Jesus is saying, that if you’re going to build a tower, you need count the cost. Do a risk-benefit analysis. Make sure you’ve planned the spending so there’s enough left to see the project through. When a king marches into battle, he’d better have laid out strategies and tactics for accomplishing his goal, or else the realm is in trouble.
When a people participate in the civic liturgy known as election day, they’d better have done some research and reflecting on the issues and the candidates. It’d be foolish not to. You have to reckon the cost of tax hikes against the cost of spending cuts. Of new road construction vs. commuter alternatives and regulations.
That’s how you follow a king into battle. That’s how you follow a builder of things. You count the cost. That’s how you follow a leader.
But that’s not how you follow a Savior. There’s no point in counting that cost, because we already know what discipleship will cost us. Everything.
You have heard it said that no one builds a tower without keeping some rainy day funds in the bank. But I tell you, you cannot be my disciple unless you give up all that you have, and wind up looking foolish like a busted construction company, a king with no exit strategy, a crucified rabbi.
What does this gospel demand of you? Many of you have given up careers, homes, wealth. Some have lost friends and brothers and sisters. Students have come through this campus from homes where they were daily at risk of giving up their lives. Do you count that cost? Do you measure the weight of the cross on your shoulder against a projected future without it? That’s how you follow a king, a President, a leader. But it’s not how you follow a Savior.
What does this gospel demand of you? What more does it demand of you?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote nearly 80 years ago that the world was at risk of forgetting that discipleship is a costly thing. In this season of goodwill and charity at SSW, when election year vitriol hasn’t managed to split us into factions, let’s offer thanks for good friendship, for trust, and for good arguments. And then let’s recall together what it is to follow a savior, to offer our selves, our souls and our bodies, to Christ. Not to count the cost or to strategize, but to throw ourselves together into his service, assuming that this vocation will be the end of us. Let’s contemplate together the conclusion that Bonhoeffer drew, in what remain 11 of the most poignant and disturbing words written in the last 100 years: “When Jesus calls to us, he bids us come and die.”
That’s how you follow a savior.