notes from a small curate
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK
Count the cost - put God first
Good Shepherd 5/9/2004 (Communion Service)
Jeremiah 18.1-11, Luke 14.25-33
Last weekend I was at Greenbelt ....
In one marquee I watched people of all shapes and sizes, make clay models of people - of all shapes and sizes - and when they'd finished their model rather than take them away, they placed them on the ground alongside the others that had been made. On the Friday there were tens of them, then dozens; by Sunday there were hundreds, so many that they had to open the front of the tent so the clay models could start moving out onto the grass outside. And that was the point really: they called the whole thing The Exodus. It was an amazing sight.
In the Old Testament reading we just had, God is the potter and we are the clay. And as I watched those people at Greenbelt forming people out of their hands, I saw something of God.
The difference between the clay at Greenbelt and the clay God uses, is that the clay at Greenbelt comes in plastic bags about this size, it's an inanimate lump of brown stuff. Whereas the clay God uses is flesh and blood - we are the clay God uses; and we are not inanimate lumps of stuff. We can choose to be moulded and shaped by God - or not.
All God can do is persuade us that putting ourselves into his hands is the best we can do. All God can say to persuade to put ourselves into his hands is what he said through Jeremiah: "Turn now, all of you from your evil ways, and amend your ways and your doings."
And Jeremiah saw that "the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter's hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him."
It is tempting for us to believe that we are just lumps of inanimate clay in God's mighty hand, that there's nothing we can do to change our lives, we just have to be moulded God's way.
But that is not what the scriptures say. We are the clay God has breathed life into. We are flesh, blood, soul and spirit and we can choose to turn, and amend, we can choose to place ourselves in God's hand or not, we can choose to let that potter take our spoiled clay in his hand and rework it, or not.
Choices. That's what Jesus was talking about too. The choices we have about how to be a disciple; the choices we have about how to best follow him.
In the passage from Luke Jesus had just told the story about the great banquet where the guests who had been invited, all chose not to come, for various reasons to do with work or health or family commitments, so the host invited the poor and the homeless instead, who didn't have any excuses and who were grateful for a good meal and a bit of care and attention for a change. It was a parable about choices.
And then Jesus goes on to say three of his hardest sayings to those who were following him around.
He said: "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple."
He said: "Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple."
He said: "None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions."
Now all of these are about choices: choices which put God first.
When you make a choice between one thing and another you decide which one by counting the cost of each. You do it in the shops - which brand offers the best value; and you do it in the big decisions in life. What will cost you more - taking this job or holding out for possibly a better one? What will the cost be if you decide to say yes to a relationship and settle down with someone - or if you don't?
These are decisions which we all make - consciously. Not like lumps of inanimate clay feeling helpless to change our lives, but like creatures of flesh, blood, soul and spirit with God-given choices.
Jesus wants his followers to count the cost of being his disciple. He wants it so bad that he uses bold and exaggerated language to get his point across.
When he says, you cannot be my disciple unless you hate your family, he means that following him involves putting God before them.
The truest translation of hate, here, doesn't mean you despise people but that you have a lesser kind of love for them than for God.
He didn't hate his family - even on the cross he showed he cared about his mother Mary, by asking John to look after her - but he did put God before them.
When he says, you cannot be my disciple unless you carry the cross, he means that following him involves putting to death all that gets in the way of serving and following God.
He didn't mean you have to die to follow him - otherwise there would be no followers left. He meant that you do have to put some things about yourself to death. Having a cross to bear doesn't mean having to put up with your arthritis or difficult child or cantankerous old aunt; it means you choosing to change things about yourself so you can serve God better.
And when Jesus says, you cannot be my disciple unless you give up all your possessions, he means that following him involves putting aside your desire for things which clutter up your life and your house and your head, so you can see him more clearly.
He didn't mean that to follow him you should have nothing - if that was the case he himself would have starved, because he relied on disciples with houses and spare beds and full food cupboards to keep him going. But he does want us to simplify our lives so we can concentrate on him without too many other distractions.
The cost of following Jesus is very high. It means changing our priorities, stopping some of the things we do, making different and difficult choices. But when we're counting the cost we must keep in mind the benefits too.
Those who lose their lives for the gospel have their lives returned to them in abundance; those who hate their families in order to love Jesus end up loving their families in a deeper, more sacrificial way. Those who give up possessions to see God more clearly end up possessing things far richer, far deeper, far more satisfying. My favourite prayer-writer Michael Leunig says:
That which is Christ-like within us shall be crucified.
It shall suffer and be broken.
And that which is Christ-like within us shall rise up.
It shall love and create.
Now, I don't know about you, but even when I've counted the cost and see that it's worth following Jesus, I know I couldn't live up to these three hard sayings without the help of God's Spirit. And I couldn't live up to these three hard sayings alone.
The good news is - God's Spirit is always available to us to help us make those choices. And the good news is - God never intended us to make these choices alone.
The words he spoke through Jeremiah were not addressed to individuals - they were for the whole nation - the clay in the potters hand was all the people together. And the words he spoke through Jesus were not addressed to individuals - they were for the large crowds of people who were following him around. He wanted them - and he wants us - to count the cost of following him together; he wanted them - and he wants us - to make our choices together.
How might this work? I'll give you an example and it comes from Greenbelt again.
On Sunday night I squeezed into a small, packed, tent which was usually used for selling music for a meeting which had only been advertised at the last minute. The advert said:
Ever think we might be doing more to make our world better? Uncomfortable with the way we treat the planet, the values of our society, the agenda of the prevailing powers? Wonder if it's just youŠ or if others think the same? Think we talk about this stuff a lotŠ but get on with it a bit less?
Many of us quietly feel that history has gone askew, that the gap between rich and poor should not be a fact of history, that there is more to life than how much stuff we can pile up, that it's daft to pretend there's a spare planet in the cupboard when we've used up the resources of this one...
Maybe the best things in life are not things.
Many people are already trying to dance to a different tune. But acting alone, sometimes we can't feel the difference we make. Perhaps, if we act together, as an intentional community, we might start to notice how powerful a force for good we can be.
In the meeting some people talked about small changes they had made to their lives which they felt had made a difference - walking the children to school instead of driving, using the little local shop instead of the supermarket, paying their energy bills through Equigas which is as cheap for people with meters as people who pay by direct debit, going part-time to be able to do more voluntary work.
And then in twos and threes we came up with ideas of things which we might try doing - recycling more, joining a credit union, switching to an ethical bank, using the car less, improving what we give to charity, growing our own veg, becoming a volunteer, switching to fair trade, standing for the local council, deciding to repair instead of replaceŠ all sorts of ideas.
At the end of the meeting people were invited to join a pilot scheme. It is simple. Everyone who signs up commits themselves to trying to do one or two of these small acts each month - and throughout the year, by email or letter or phone or newsletter everyone involved keeps sharing with each other what they've done or what they're planning to do, so they are helping and encouraging each other to do these things which they might not dare to do on their own.
They called this project A Year of Living Generously. It sounded like a good idea to me so I've signed up. But in a way it is only Greenbelt's contribution to what all Christian groups should be doing - encouraging each other to make choices which help us all to live more faithfully to God.
That's what Jesus' hard sayings encourage us to do. As time goes on we might learn to talk to each other more about how we are choosing to live out his words, and about the struggles and the joys we find in the day-to-day details of following him.
God is the potter. And we are the clay. Will we choose to be remoulded by him, like those little characters on the grass at Greenbelt, placed alongside each other to stand together like a nation in exodus, emerging from the gloom into the bright and joyful sunlight of God's new day?
1. Leunig quote from A Common Prayer
2. The Exodus is my September 2004 Pic of the Month