This weekend, I wrote the first of two sermons for my class on preaching the parables. Since I have little spare time to post "fresh" things outside of what I do for school, I thought I'd post the sermon here. I write my sermons assuming that the text has been read already in the liturgy and you'll notice that I've broken the sermon into three movements. Let me know what you think and if you have any flashes of brilliance about possible titles.
A Parable of a Tower-Builder and a King Contemplating War: Luke 14:28-33
Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate their own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even life itself—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their own cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay a foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began and wasn’t able to finish.’
“Or suppose a king sets out to go against another king in battle. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is strong enough with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? For if he is not strong enough, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will negotiate a truce.
“In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples. - Luke 14:25-33
On August 1, 1914 Perce Blackborow, a twenty year-old Welshman with black hair and dark eyes, was huddled inside a metal locker in the storage hold of a large English ship. He was waiting for assurance from his friends that the Endurance had successfully sailed from the London dock and was too far at sea to turn back. Although Blackborow knew that what he was doing was illegal, he was determined to join the crew of Sir Ernest Shackleton and his famed Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.
When Blackborow first responded to Shackleton’s recruitment advertisement, he was rejected, but the sailor would not be deterred. The twenty-seven crewmembers planned to sail to Antarctica and traverse the entire continent: 1,800 miles across ice and snow. They would do so using only dog sleds and determination. Blackborow’s stowaway plan worked. When he was discovered, Shackleton reluctantly made him the twenty-eighth member of the crew, a part of “the last great Antarctic adventure.”
Twenty-two months later, however, Perce Blackborow was huddled within his threadbare fur coat, sucking on what remained of a sugar cube—the last of the six he was given from the crew’s meager rations. Sadly, Blackborow and the crew of the Endurance never made it to the Antarctic mainland. Before the ship could reach the target destination, the hull became locked in a vice grip of floating ice and the gargantuan sheets crushed the boat like a bundle of twigs.
As Blackborow savored his breakfast, their leader, Ernest Shackleton had been gone for almost four months. After days of trudging through blizzards and ice storms, Shackleton took a huge risk in order to get all twenty-seven men off the ice alive. Leaving the majority of his crew alone, he departed with a small team, in a 23 foot-long lifeboat to seek help from whalers on the nearest island, located 800 miles away. Miraculously, Shackleton’s tiny crew made it to South Georgia Island and four months after the risky mission began everyone was rescued. Aside from losing a few toes to frostbite, Blackborow escaped with no other physical signs of his ordeal.
I am inclined to pity Perce Blackborow and his impetuous decision to stowaway in the Endurance. Surely if he had known what awaited him in Antarctica, he never would have defied Shackleton’s wishes. Surely Shackleton must have used some kind of flashy and misleading recruitment campaign to dupe these men into joining him. But, the truth is that Blackborow and every other member of Shackleton’s ill-fated crew were prepared for their dangerous endeavor. Of course, they didn’t know the details, but Shackleton had made certain that every person on his team understood the dangers awaiting them in the frozen unknown. His London newspaper ad, to which the twenty-seven crewmembers responded, was straightforward and brutally honest:
FOR HAZARDOUS JOURNEY.
SMALL WAGES, BITTER COLD,
LONG MONTHS OF COMPLETE DARKNESS.
SAFE RETURN DOUBTFUL.
HONOUR AND RECOGNITION IN CASE OF SUCCESS.
- SIR ERNEST SHACKLETON
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus resolutely pursues his own perilous journey. In chapter 14, as is often the case, Jesus finds himself followed by “large crowds” determined to travel with him, many of whom fancy themselves new members of Jesus’ entourage. Although they conclude correctly that he is headed for his triumphant coronation in Jerusalem, they do not understand that Jesus’ enthronement will take place on a Roman cross, hanging between two thieves. In light of their ignorant enthusiasm for becoming his followers, Jesus gives them a startlingly honest appraisal of the journey of discipleship.
Jesus declares that no part of your life is left untouched when you travel as his disciple. Everything—family, reputation, possessions, and even life itself—is secondary to the demands of the Kingdom of God. To communicate this point as strongly as possible, Jesus tells two parables about a man building a tower and a king contemplating war. The combined message of both short stories is this: You must travel the journey of discipleship on the path of total surrender.
When ground broke on China’s World Financial Centre in 1997, the skyscraper was supposed to be the planet’s tallest building: 101 stories, or 1,614 feet tall. It was envisioned as the jewel of the Pudong financial district in Shanghai. But, the 910 million dollar project came screeching to a halt during an unexpected Asian financial crisis that year. Construction was frozen for six years, as the Chinese government waited for the funds to complete the project. The gigantic gaping hole in the ground served as a daily symbol to passersby of their government’s inability to finish what they started.
Although first-century Palestine seems to be light-years away from 21st century Shanghai, Jesus’ first short story of a man who wants to build a tower makes a universally applicable point about discipleship: You must calculate the cost.
Most likely, the “tower” Jesus has in mind is a type of large farm building, like a watchtower in a vineyard. For a farmer or vineyard owner in first-century Palestine, building a tower was an expensive undertaking, requiring plenty of materials and manpower to complete. Over time, such a project would prove to be a cost-effective investment, however, possibly even helpful to expand the productiveness of the family business. Jesus understands that this kind of project demands a tremendous amount of foresight and careful planning. The reputation of the landowner is at stake, for the construction of a new tower would have been a source of great honor and a sign of success to his neighbors.
In our context, of course, you wouldn’t dream of building an addition to your business without consultation with all of the appropriate professionals: architects, contractors, builders, and city representatives, as well as your bank or other source of financing. Such advisors would help you make appropriate plans and ensure that you don’t make serious mistakes. But, in the case of Jesus’ hypothetical builder, without calculation of costs and evaluation of available resources, the project never makes it past the foundation. What a tragic waste to have poured an enormous concrete slab, only to realize you have insufficient funds to finish! Clearly, if your business goes bankrupt at the earliest stage of the expansion project, someone has made grievous errors in cost calculation…and its probably you.
If the journey of discipleship is like building a tower, then it is vital that we understand the estimated costs involved. Immediately preceding the parables, Jesus outlined the price to be paid in order to become one of his followers. Your love for your family must look like hatred compared to your love for Jesus. Your commitment to your life, plans, hopes, and dreams, must be subordinate to those of Jesus. Even your own possessions are not yours, for they must be constantly given up as well.
Some of these demands seem exceedingly steep. But, Jesus insists that we survey what we consider to be our resources and calculate the expenditures involved in leaving what we have to follow him. What will be the highest cost for you? What aspect of discipleship scares you the most? Truly, the edges of the “narrow way” are lined with dead-end detours and ever-winding tributaries from the vast numbers of people who have begun the journey but determined the cost too high to finish. Jesus does not want you to be among them.
Although Jesus’ second short story expands upon the first, he also advances his point a step further. Not only must you calculate the cost of discipleship, but also you must evaluate your ability. Members of Jesus’ audience did not have to be soldiers to appreciate the battle scenario he describes. There is no doubt that a king who prepares to go to war against another king first will “sit down and consider whether he is able.” The numbers Jesus’ uses in this story presuppose that the king is outnumbered two to one: ten thousand against twenty thousand. Even with the fiercest of troops, these are not good odds. When and if the king realizes that he is not able, rather than submit to a humiliating defeat, resulting in untold carnage and death, he will send a delegation and submit to terms of surrender.
When the infamous Carthaginian warrior, Hannibal, invaded the Roman Republic in 218 BC, the Senate sent consul Tiberius Sempronius to reinforce Roman troops stranded in a snowy Italian winter. But, the ambitious Sempronius was not content to take a supportive role. Although his senior consul warned him not to pursue a battle with Hannibal, Sempronius disregarded the admonition and sought a reason to pick a fight.
Knowing of Sempronius’ arrogance and reputation for impetuosity, Hannibal laid an ingenious trap. Under the cover of night, he sent a detachment of troops to wait along the streambeds of the Trebia River. At daybreak, Hannibal’s cavalry went beyond the Trebia to harass the Roman camp and then retreat. As soon as Sempronius caught sight of Hannibal’s soldiers, he dispatched a portion of his own cavalry to drive them off. Then, in what can only be explained as a spell of hubris-induced madness, immediately following the cavalry, Sempronius sent his entire army of 43,000 into the open battlefield.
Seeing Sempronius’ folly, the ambush was sprung and Hannibal’s army fell upon the rear of the hard-pressed Romans. With their morale already sapped by cold, hunger, and fatigue, the Romans broke under the surprise onslaught and collapsed. What had once been a line of determined fighting soldiers became a mob of helpless, flailing men. Thousands were cut down on the spot and many more drowned attempting to cross the river to safety. Sempronius’ recklessness cost the lives of more than a third of his forces and won for Hannibal his first great victory over the Roman Republic.
It seems that Jesus’ emphasis on the value of realistic evaluation is not inappropriate. While the tower-builder’s failure in the first story results only in his humiliation, the king’s failure in the second affects the lives of his soldiers and their families. Although both characters in Jesus’ stories face defeat, the king is wise to evaluate his strength properly and then choose to have a say in the terms of his surrender. Even in the humiliation of surrender, there is satisfaction in knowing that the tragedy of bloody defeat has been avoided.
But, how does war-making and troop calculation relate to joining Jesus on the journey of discipleship? Jesus assumes that no one should build a tower without calculating the cost, but he suggests that the wise evaluation of the war-making king is to be emulated. Look within yourself and appraise everything that you possess: family heritage, social networks, mental acumen, natural talents, and learned skills. But, don’t just look to your perceived strengths, evaluate your weaknesses as well: moral deficiencies, chronic problems, and serious blind spots. Do you have what it takes to complete the journey? Do you have what it takes to be a disciple of Jesus?
Jesus knows that if you are honest with yourself, you will discover that you do not have the resources necessary to complete the journey of discipleship. As talented and skilled as some of you are, as eager and enthusiastic as you may be, when you aspire to follow the path of a Savior who embraces coronation through crucifixion, you are like the king with 10,000 troops hoping to defeat another with 20,000. It can’t be done.
Jesus’ conclusion to the two parables reveals how well he understands this: “In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.” This is the surprising center point of Jesus’ teaching on discipleship. Counting the cost and evaluating your ability eventually serves only one purpose: to realize you don’t have what it takes. With the cost so high and your resources completely insufficient, only one option remains: total surrender.
Perhaps no one understands this truth better than the Apostle Paul. As you know, in his Jewish ethnicity, Paul had an impeccable pedigree: circumcised on the eighth day; from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin; a Hebrew of Hebrews; a Pharisee; zealous and passionate; blameless in law keeping; and even educated by the famed rabbi Gamaliel the Elder.
But, more than just a devoted Jew, Paul was a citizen of Tarsus, which was the prosperous capital city of Cilicia. This placed Paul within the Diaspora, those Jewish settlements established outside of Palestine following Pompeii’s occupation of Judea. As a Jew in a culturally Greek and Roman-ruled city, Paul possessed a triple identity: Greek by place of birth, Roman by citizenship, and Jewish by ethnicity.
His Greek identity was obvious in his Hellenistic rhetorical skills, excellent use of the Greek language, and knowledge of the Hebrew scripture preserved in Greek. All of these proficiencies were acquired through the well-known schools of Tarsus. Also, Paul possessed great knowledge of Greco-Roman religious practices, moral and ethical teachings, and their ordinary way of life. Finally, Acts reveals that Paul was a Roman citizen from birth, something rare and highly valued. It is possible that Paul was a descendent of one or more freed slaves from whom he inherited citizenship.
If anyone was qualified to be a disciple of Jesus, if anyone could claim to have what it takes to complete the journey of discipleship, it was the Apostle Paul. And yet, what did he have to say about it? “Everything that was an advantage to me, I have considered to be a deficit because of Christ. More than that, I also consider everything to be a deficit in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. Because of him, I have suffered the loss of all things and consider them filthy garbage so that I may gain Christ and be found in him.”
This is the essence of what Jesus meant when he told those enthusiastic crowds, “Those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.” What do you have that you are unwilling to surrender? What are the things that you consider to be your best resources? Yes, even your high quality education, even your many years of experience, even your loads of culturally relevant street smarts are of no value to you in the arduous journey of discipleship. Jesus is not an unfeeling killjoy, seeking to drain from you all the things that make you who you are. But, the journey of discipleship is a journey to Golgatha. And, Jesus is intimately aware that when the splintered crossbeam is loaded onto your deeply bowed shoulders, you are incapable of holding on to anything else.
As we conclude, I think it is important for us to understand that Jesus does not call us to something he did not undertake for himself. You know that when Jesus entered adulthood at the age of twelve, he knew already that the priorities of the Father overshadowed those of family and social network. After his sermon in Nazareth, not only was he rejected by the members of his hometown, but also endured his kinsmen’s failed attempt to murder him. Later, Jesus explained to would-be disciples that he lived without even the minimum material comforts of life. And, it is evident throughout his ministry that he lived with the confident expectation of a murderous, torturous death. Jesus calls you, the members of the crowd, to abandon the many resources to which you cling and commit yourself to the mission that Jesus himself models. As the parables make clear, to neglect the call is to ensure failure and humiliation. Like the wise king, you must recognize the insufficiency of your resources and submit to complete surrender.
The image is among the most iconic in civil-rights history: a dignified young black woman in a crisp white dress marches through a hostile mob of jeering white students. She grasps her books tightly in the crook of her left arm as she looks fixedly through darkened glasses. While the composure in her face and the firmness in her stride communicate serenity in the face of trials, the downward gaze of her eyes betrays a hint of the truth: the young woman is terrified. A closer look would reveal that her knuckles are a fleshly vice-grip against the edge of her books, while the ligaments in her neck are rigid with anxiety.
The young woman in the picture is Elizabeth Eckford, one of the so-called Little Rock Nine: teenagers who were charged with integrating the city’s finest high school in 1957. When President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne to escort black children to Central High School, Governor Orval Faubus ordered the National Guard to prevent them from entering. The black students made a plan to enter as a group, but young Elizabeth never got the message. Her poor family had no telephone. She came petrified and alone, only to be sent away by Faubus’ soldiers and left to the whims of an angry mob.
In the weeks following the integration, the Nine endured unrelenting abuse. They never believed the task would be easy, but they had no idea how hellish it would become. Decades later, Elizabeth Eckford realized she suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder for many years following the ordeal and was unable to work for a long time. In an interview done by Newsweek to mark 50 years since the incident in Little Rock, Eckford had only this to say about her iconic journey to Central High: “I wouldn’t do it again.”
Amazing, isn’t it? One of the key players in one of the crucial moments of civil-rights history and Eckford says if she had to do it over again, she wouldn’t. The reason is clear: the cost was too high. Once you understand the demands of discipleship, you probably find yourself sympathizing with Eckford’s perspective. When you calculate the cost of the journey, and evaluate your ability to complete it, you discover that you do not have what it takes to pursue Jesus. Instead, you must travel the journey of discipleship on the path of total surrender. In the scene of Luke 14, you may find yourself not amongst the inner circle of disciples, but standing amid the large crowds, perplexed and conflicted regarding the proper course of action. Yes, to follow Jesus entails daily sacrifice and total surrender. But, to stay behind means missing out on the Kingdom of God, a prospect that is far worse.