Sermon 9/9/07: “Redefining Success”

September 10, 2007 at 6:23 am

Large crowds were traveling with him.

That’s how our Gospel lesson begins,

with a story of success.

Jesus’ message had reached many,

his miracles had astounded them,

he had confounded the Pharisees who despised the common folk.

And so large crowds were traveling with him.

A success story.

 

We love success stories.

Like, he started with only the shirt on his back and a dime in his pocket,

but now he is a multimillionaire

with thousands of employees.

The variations on that story are sold far and wide.

We love success stories in the Church, too.

Successful congregations attract large crowds;

There’s a lot of excitement!

Things are happening, things are growing.

A success story.

There’s something to be said for large numbers of people.

Often it’s a sign that you are doing something that people want to be part of.

But numbers never tell the whole story.

We often forget this in the Church.

We associate our success with numbers,

forgetting that Jesus did not.

After attracting many followers,

what is Jesus to do next?

Another miracle, perhaps?

Perhaps more witty verbal demolitions of the Pharisees

and their hypocritical ways?

Perhaps he can already sense the crowd becoming restive and anxious,

wondering what Jesus will do next.

And what is he to do?

He does not hate the people following him,

he loves them,

so much that he will not shrink from telling them the truth.

The truth will truly enable them to follow him,

but will also mean that many will not follow him.

 

Large crowds were traveling with him.

A success story.

But Jesus is not interested in success, at least the way it is usually defined.

He is on his way to Jerusalem.

At Jerusalem waits a cross.

If the people are to follow him,

they need to know what they are getting into.

Otherwise, it’s all built on a sham.

 

“Hate your family and your life.”

“Pick up your cross.”

“Give up your possessions.”

Jesus’ words to the large crowd should shock us,

should unsettle us, should give us pause.

We have become used to them and comfortable with them.

After all, we are successful,

and you can’t argue with success.

 

But Jesus is redefining success.

Success is not what we can count, build, accomplish, or achieve.

Success is being free to follow him,

even when that means

going against our inclination for self-satisfaction,

self-preservation, or self-determination.

Success is not found in the number of people in the crowd,

but in their level of commitment, no matter how large the number.

That’s a different kind of success story.

 

The idea of being free to follow Jesus

is the key to understanding his seemingly paradoxical words about family.

We are taught not to hate anyone, least of all our own kin.

But family can indeed keep us from following our Lord.

It is a live concern in societies where believing in Jesus

and living as a Christian

can bring shame and dishonor to one’s family

and separate you from the home of your birth.

It is a live concern when Christians need to choose

between loyalty to their nation and following Christ.

It is a live concern when families become insulated and inward-focused,

lavishing attention and resources on each other

while ignoring those outside who have no blood-ties.

While Jesus does not call us to feel anger or rage towards each other,

he does say this:

When it comes to a choice between discipleship

and family loyalty, national pride, possessions, or even self-preservation,

discipleship trumps them all.

Every time.

 

The stories Jesus tells illustrate

the need for such radical commitment.

Every half-commitment is a recipe for disaster.

Just ask the guy who started to build a tower without planning first

and was stuck with a useless incomplete building.

Just ask the king who thought he was just fine with ten thousand men

and then looked out and realized that the other king had twice as many.

Just so, following Jesus must involve an accounting of the costs of discipleship.

Those who do not do so, should not follow.

 

Perhaps this would be easier to understand

were we actually in the situation of the crowd in the Gospels.

For he was on his way to Jerusalem.

If the large crowd really did wish to follow him,

it would literally mean leaving behind everything –

family, possessions, the concern for one’s life –

everything,

in order to be with Jesus.

But are Jesus’ words meant for that crowd only?

And does it make a difference?

If he showed up here today and asked you to follow him,

would you go with him?

Would the questions not spring quickly to your lips, as they would to mine,

What about my family, what about my property, what about my life?

 

When the world defines success as stability and permanence,

and Jesus defines success as freedom to follow,

then we are caught between two irreconcilable opposites.

We are part of that large crowd who wish to be with Christ

but who wish to be secure as well.

If we are to follow Christ in our place,

we must become very aware of our subconscious need to set down roots.

If we are rooted, then we must become rooted in Christ.

We must become aware

that though Jesus does not prescribe a vagabond existence,

he does ask us to follow, and in order to follow,

we must travel light.

If he does not show up and demand that we pick up and move

(and he may)

where may we seek him?

In the needy of body and spirit,

Encoded in Word,

Present in bread and wine,

he stands in our presence.

He may even call us to journey into our own town, our own family,

our own congregation.

But even to do that,

a lightening of our load

and a loosening of our roots

is in order.

Even to make space for him in our present life

demands a reordering of priorities.

He stands before you and asks, are you willing

to give up possessing your Sunday morning for yourself?

Are you willing to give up your evening time,

the first part of your income,

your effort for the sake of others who may or may not be thankful?

And we stammer, Lord, what about my property, my life?

 

And why should we do so, anyhow?

In thanksgiving only, for the one who did not value success in numbers,

but when the large crowd had disappeared

and the number of his followers was down to zero

still chose life – not a life free from sacrifice

but the life of worshiping his Father.

He offers this life to us – an eternal, abiding life

rather than this transient life we so vainly seek to hold on to

His family, his possession, his life

in exchange for those of our own

This is why we follow –

this is what we seek.

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