|Pomme de Terre United Methodist Church|
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A well-known question to United Methodists is that question put to us when joining a congregation: "Will you faithfully participate in its ministries by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, and your service?" It is both an easy question to answer, and a hard one.
Nobody monitors our prayers, and, indeed, only God knows the depths of our prayer life.
There are no prescribed number of times that one should attend worship services, and no penalties for not doing so. Sometimes churches keep names on the membership lists for YEARS after folks cease attending.
Although the connectional church has expectations that as a congregation we contribute our fair share to the district, the conference, and the church in the world, no one puts any specific requirements on any individual members.
And finally, no one requires any SPECIFIC kind of service of any member of the congregation.
Once when my parents came to visit me when I was living in Kansas City, my father looked over the automobiles parked outside the church of which I was a member and jokingly asked, "Do you need to fill out a financial statement to join this church?"
But the fact of the matter is that this is an easy club to join. There aren't even any enforced dues!
So, because we are not held strictly accountable by our fellow humanity, the membership question is an easy one. But if we take this venture seriously, and if we understand that we ARE accountable to God, that question is an incredibly HARD one.
For if we do truly pray for our church, and for our fellow members, we cannot help but enter into the trials and tribulations that we all share. Indeed, if we cannot, to some extent, experience the grief of others in our community, we are not truly part of that community.
And what does it mean to participate in the ministries of the church by our presence? How can THAT be a difficult question to answer? I've heard folks argue, "I can worship God as well in my bedroom, or on the lake, or in a duck-blind, as I can at church."
And I don't doubt that at all. We CAN worship God anywhere. But that doesn't answer the question. The question is not one of worshiping God, but of PARTICIPATING in the MINISTRIES of the CHURCH of God. And THAT involves our presence with others. And that doesn't mean just to be SEEN by others, but to be present FOR others, to STRENGTHEN others by your presence.
And whenever we are present FOR others, we involve ourselves in THEIR lives; but we also risk involving ourselves in their DESPAIR. Being present for others is not easy. In fact, if we truly are involved FOR them, it requires some spiritual WORK.
And what of our gifts and our service? It would be easy enough to show up for an hour on Sunday morning and let it go at that.
But if we take these vows seriously, we have to ask the question, what can I DO for my church? And the difficulty arises when we begin to ask, "How MUCH should I do for my church?" It would be nice if we could come to an easy answer for that question, but we can't. And if we are taking those vows seriously, whenever we think of our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service, we should be continually NAGGED by that question.
And NOT to please the pastor, NOT to please the denomination, but for the purpose of serving God.
Jesus had a response to this question in the fourteenth chapter of the gospel according to Luke:
"Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple. “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple."
Now, "hate" is a pretty strong word. And I can't believe that the Jesus who called upon us to love one another also called upon us to hate our families. I also have some trouble with thinking that he called upon us to hate "life." So what was he driving at?
Well, I believe that the verse that follows clears up the matter a bit when he talks about carrying the cross. Because in that, we're hearing a call to sacrifice; and I think that he's telling us that NO sacrifice must be too great to be a disciple.
There must be absolutely NOTHING that would get in the way of that goal. So what would appear to be an attack on the family really isn't; but what he IS telling us is that WHAT we hold dearest, we must be prepared to let go of. There is a calling that is higher.
And in a more mundane sense, there are frequently times when we make decisions that, much as we love our parents, our spouses, our siblings, we know the decision is going to upset them. Daily, people are making decisions to move, to change jobs, to change occupations; and their families may feel that those decisions are a rejection, a hatred of them.
So why should it seem so unusual that Jesus’ call to discipleship involves that same sort of thing?
But Jesus goes on to explain himself.
"For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?"
Well, we don't build a lot of towers these days, but we do build houses and businesses. Or, if we aren't building, we are making major purchases. We buy houses and cars. And if we're wise, we figure out, in great detail, what all the initial costs will be, and what all the ongoing costs will be.
Isn't it interesting that we go to all this trouble to calculate the long-term costs of buying and maintaining a house or a business, but seldom give such consideration to joining a church? What if we were to truly count the costs of being a church member?
First of all, we would need to estimate the spiritual energy that it would take through the years to maintain our prayer life. Then, we would calculate all the time that our presence in the church, on a regular basis, would require.
We would ask the question, What ARE my gifts and talents, and how MUCH of that do I wish to give to the church for the REST of my LIFE? And finally, how will I SERVE the church, as a teacher, as a leader, as an active pariticpant, and how much time and energy will I give to all that?
Now, this may sound like overkill. But is our spiritual life any less important than a house that we buy? But let's back off for a minute. I'm not suggesting what any person's commitment to the church at any given MOMENT should be.
My concern is for our LONG-TERM commitment. Indeed, I have known families who became so deeply involved in their church work over a SHORT period of time that they simply burned out, and ceased doing much of anything at all, or even left the church.
But God KNOWS our spiritual energies ebb and flow; and God does not ask that we become such a SLAVE to our church work that we come to resent it. But all the more reason for us to count the cost of our involvement.
Jesus tells us of what happens when we do NOT count the cost:
"Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, "This fellow began to build, and was not able to finish."
The move "The Candidate" is all about a campaign for a senate seat. Robert Redford played the part of a political activist who was running for the office. He had never held political office before, and had never run for office before.
So, professionals were guiding him through all the steps of the campaign. At the close of the movie, he wins the election. And as the press is mobbing outside his hotel room door, and he asks his campaign manager, "What do we do now?"
That situation reminds me much of some approaches to evangelism. Some clergy believe that the primary task--or even the ONLY task--of the church is evangelism.
But after a soul is "won" or "saved" or after someone has "made a decision for Christ" or “accepted Christ,” "What do we do now?" And I can't help but think of that line, "This person began to build, and was not able to finish."
What becomes of the thousands who are "saved" at revival meetings? Is the evangelist "able to finish"? And are those who are "saved" in revivals "able to finish"? Have they really counted the cost of what it means to be a disciple of Christ?
Three years in seminary seemed like a long time. But I discovered that that length of time carried a hidden value: It gave us seminarians ample time to count the cost of what we were getting into. And for many the cost was too high. It's EASY to get a preaching license. That takes less than two weeks.
But the three years of seminary gives lots of opportunity to decide, "Maybe I’m not really called to do this."
But Jesus has another story for his listeners:
"What king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand?"
And the question here is not so much "can I finish what I've started?" as it is, "can I cope with adversity? Can I overcome overwhelming odds?" But questions like these are too easily shrugged off, ignored. I am reminded of marriage vows, when a man and a woman take one another "to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse." And how often do we hear that word "worse"?
If everyone really HEARD that word, really BELIEVED it, really UNDERSTOOD that things can get WORSE and HOW worse they can get, folks might be more cautious about getting married, might exercise more wisdom in their decisions.
But we don't see those twenty thousand troops over the hill; and even when somebody tells us there are twenty thousand troops over there, we don't pay attention. Adversity and overwhelming odds are not on our mind.
But the king in Jesus story DOES consider this. And if he decides that his TEN thousand are not able to meet the TWENTY thousand, "while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace."
And note those words "still far away." This is not crisis planning, this is long-term planning. And that is what Jesus is asking of discipleship.
He doesn't want his disciples to suddenly find out that they cannot handle it; he wants them to plan ahead, to see what is in store for them.
And he speaks to us now: Of course, it's easy to say "I will" at the front of the sanctuary in response to church membership or marriage vows, but have we planned ahead for what may come? Have we counted the cost?
And the king, if he feels unable to meet the twenty thousand, would send a delegation to ask for the terms of peace. But I think it would be a mistake to view this as simple surrender, as giving up. For in our own lives, when we look ahead to adversity, we need not give up. We can seek God's help as our emissary, and seek terms of peace for coping with adversity and even overwhelming odds.
And Jesus concludes this passage saying,
"So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions."
But possession can work two ways, and in the context of this passage, I would invite you to consider another reading. Jesus is calling upon us to renounce all those things that possess US, those things which CONTROL us, which BIND us to the MOMENT.
For only in freeing ourselves from the MOMENT, in looking to the future, in counting the cost of what Christ expects from us, can we truly become one of his disciples.
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