“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, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the 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, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 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.’
Or 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? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” (Luke 14:28-33)
I want to begin today by sharing with you something that happened to me yesterday that made quite an impact on me.
I was sitting at home, trying to make a start on this sermon actually, when Imogen came in through the back door and told me that there was a young girl wandering around the street near the front of our house and that she seemed to be having an episode of some kind. I ran out on to the street and couldn’t see her. Imogen indicated that she had been with a woman who was trying to help her and that they had both been moving towards the bottom of the street.
As I made my way down the street a car pulled up near me and someone cried out, “are you looking for the little girl?” and I said “yes”. I was then directed down Charlecot Street, which leads into the High School, where I found the girl with two rather distressed women who were doing their best to help.
The girl was a bit younger than my Fran – probably around 8 or 9 years old – and she was clearly struggling. Whether she was having ‘an episode’ or not was hard to say. She wasn’t speaking, and her eyes were not engaging with anything in particular, so far as I could tell. She was though pushing the woman who was standing with her in a very particular direction, with both arms outstretched, as if she had somewhere that she needed to go urgently.
I had thought I might recognise the girl and know the parents, but I didn’t. She had a middle Eastern complexion but bore no obvious resemblance to anyone I knew. I tried to engage her by asking her name and whether she went to school but she didn’t seem to be able to communicate. She just kept pushing.
We had rung the police and they were apparently coming. One of the helpful women had somehow also managed to contact the parents, who were apparently also coming. We made it out to Marrickville road where we were joined by a distressed man who said that he’d been trying to reach me by knocking on the old rectory door. I took that as a great compliment – that someone thought I was the person to help – but thought it equally obvious that I didn’t really have a clue what to do.
At that point a swarthy-skinned young man came running down the street and cried “Mariam! There you are!”
This man was obviously not her father, but then, in an instant, all the pieces fell into place in my little brain. This girl was a client of the disability-services group who use our hall on a Saturday. She had been in their care, and the young man did indeed turn out to be one of her carers. He was soon joined by another carer (a young woman) and together they took Mariam back to the hall.
The four of us who were left as Mariam departed shared an awkward moment together. We sort of waved each other off, not knowing exactly what to say. I then joined the three returning to the hall and discussed with the workers the problem they have of not being able to lock the doors from the inside (due to the fire-safety regulations), meaning that clients can walk out at any time they please if they are not being constantly monitored. “We only took our eyes off her for a couple of seconds” they said.
By the time we got back to the hall, Mariam’s parents were waiting for us. They seemed very young, and they were both quite emotional. I didn’t hang around too long after that. I returned home to continue on with this sermon, but I found it very difficult to focus on anything beyond the image of that poor young girl, desperately trying to get somewhere, but quite probably not having a clue as to where she was actually going.
It struck me forcefully at the time that so many of us are like that so much of the time. We put enormous focus, drive and effort into projects that are likely to take us somewhere, we know not where, and when we get there, we are left wondering why it was that we wanted so much to go there in the first place.
The poor girl impacted me, as did the hapless carers (of which I was one). All of us – both volunteers and professionals – seemed out of our depth with young Mariam. At the same time, there was a lot of love and concern shown there, and together we did achieve something positive, and that was truly encouraging.
The ones who impacted me the most though were the young girl’s parents. I’m sure this was not the first time they’d had to deal with a problem like this and it would likely not be the last time. Moreover, I suspect that the stress of this particular incident would have paled in comparison with any number of other struggles they have had to deal with as parents of a disabled child.
I have no idea how they do it – God bless them. I have struggled hard enough, trying to be a decent parent to blessedly healthy and fully abled children.
‘Count the cost’, says Jesus. ‘Know what you’re getting yourself into before you take it on!’
“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? …
Or 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? (Luke 14:28, 31)
And which parent among you, before you decide to have children, doesn’t first sit down and soberly talk things through with their partner – working out whether you are going to have the financial and emotional resources to do a decent job as parents?
Of course, Jesus doesn’t really use the example of parenthood, perhaps because He never parented anyone Himself, though I don’t think you actually need to be a parent to know how hard parenting is. If you’re not a parent, you have likely had parents, and we know what we put our parents through.
For me, in all honesty, it’s been the most difficult challenge of my life – trying to be a good father to my children. I feel like I finally started to get the hang of it the fourth time round, but I still would not class myself as a great parent.
I struggle. I’m often too possessive, too protective, too disengaged, or otherwise, too overly-engaged. I don’t spend enough time with my children or I don’t give them enough freedom to develop independently. I’m sometimes overly aggressive or pathetically weak. There’s a balance in there somewhere but I struggle to find it, and I know I’m not the only one who struggles.
Parenting is hard, and it costs us, though Jesus warns us that there is at least one vocation in life that costs us even more than parenting, and that’s following Him.
“None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (Luke 14:33),
It’s not just money in the bank that Jesus is talking about. When you read through the full itinerary that Jesus gives us in Luke chapter 14, the trade-off for a life of discipleship is that it’s going to take from us in all the three areas that are most important to us – our families, our possessions, and our health.
“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. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26-27)
‘Following me is going to cost you everything’, Jesus warns us. You will pay for it with your family, your wealth and your health, and that’s why we must sit down soberly and think things through first, before we get in too far, because we need to be honest and ask ourselves whether this is really the sort of life we want.
In truth, none of us do that because none of us really sees at the outset where following Jesus is going to take us!
Parenthood works exactly the same way, of course. We might say, ‘yes, I understand that being a mum or dad brings heartache and sleepless nights, etc., etc.’, but none of us really has any idea what we are getting ourselves into until it is way too late!
Thanks be to God, I have never lost any of my children (which means that I have been more fortunate that some dear friends of mine). Even so, I have come close, and nothing has so stressed me, and the nightmares still sometimes torment me.
And then there’s the times when my children haven’t been talking to me – for good reason or for bad. Alienation and pain and communication breakdown and misunderstanding are all a part of the package, and I won’t go into details about the personal lives of my children, but I will say that I had no idea at the outset what I was getting myself into.
Following Jesus has been, in that respect, an almost identical experience. I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into.
How could I have known, when I made my initial commitment to Jesus, some forty years ago, that it would cost me all that it has.
When I think of all the people Jesus brought into my life who robbed me, betrayed me, manipulated me, and put my family at risk.
When I think of all the places Jesus has led me – into drug houses and war zones and multiple boxing rings full of people tyring to punch my head in.
When I think of all the times I’ve almost been killed – by mobs or by drowning or by bombs or bullets – or the times I’ve felt that it would be better to die and be at peace, rather than have to continue struggling …
How can you know what you are getting yourself into? How can you possibly know any of this when you’re a teenager? How can you possibly look ahead at the rest of your life and see all the poverty and pain and the scars and bruises?
Well … I guess we have no excuse because Jesus warns us. He warns us quite explicitly that following Him is going to cost us everything. It’s going to hit us where we hurt – in our bodies, in our families, and in our hip-pocket.
As you will remember from my long opening illustration, I had started writing this sermon before the encounter with young Mariam yesterday afternoon, and up to that point I had planned to begin my sermon, not by talking about a little lost girl, but by referring to a figure from my childhood that had come to mind when reading this passage – namely, Super Chicken.
I don’t know whether anybody else listening to this remembers Super Chicken, but he was an animated super-hero parody of sorts from my childhood. Having checked in Wikipedia, there were seventeen episodes in all, first released in the US in 1967 and replayed for my benefit during the formative years of my youth.
Super Chicken, like all super-heroes, had a sidekick – Fred – who was a lion. The climax of every episode was always the showdown between the chicken and the super-villain featured in that episode. Super Chicken would, of course, always prove victorious, but Fred, his sidekick, always seemed to end up as collateral damage – being struck by lightening or having an anvil dropped on his head etc., and whenever this happened Super Chicken would say, “you knew the job was dangerous when you took it, Fred”.
As I say, Super Chicken came to mind for me this week when reading Luke 14, or rather that catch-phrase came to mind, and I wondered if Jesus will ever say that to me – “you knew the job was dangerous when you took it, Dave”.
In truth, we do know what we are getting ourselves into. Jesus warns us that the job is dangerous and He urges us to count the cost before we get in too far. The problem, as I say, is that, like parenthood, you have a concept, of what it will be like, but dealing with the concept is always easier than dealing with the reality.
I do hope that no one today has heard me say that I am not eternally grateful for the experience of being a parent. Despite all the struggle and the pain, being a dad has been the greatest privilege of my life. And similarly, even if I could have known all the beatings and robberies and drownings and betrayals that lay ahead when I first gave my life to Jesus, would I still have made that commitment? Oh yeah! You betcha! Following Jesus has been the great adventure of my life. The cost is real, but the joy eternal.
First preached by Father Dave, at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on Sunday the 8th of September, 2019