Imagine that you’ve just heard of this guy. Let’s call him Yeshua (which is Hebrew for Jesus, and I am talking about Jesus, but let’s pretend for a moment that you’ve never heard anything about him before!) So anyway, you’re just starting to hear about this guy named Yeshua. You heard a radio spot about him. You saw an article in the paper, something about Yeshua speaking in New York, and Boston, and LA. A friend mentioned him the other day, too: “Have you ever heard of this guy, Yeshua? He’s kind of…interesting.” And then, you were just on Facebook and saw that a friend invited you to an event: “Yeshua in Chicago”. This guy, Yeshua, it turns out, will be in Lincoln Square, starting at Giddings Plaza and then heading down to Welles Park.
You mark on the Facebook event: “Interested”. You just might go.
Saturday, the day of the event, comes. Now, you could be going to the gym or to the beach (it’s a gorgeous day just like today) or having brunch or just hanging out at home, but you have this nagging curiosity about this guy, Yeshua. So you head over to Giddings Plaza, along with your family, and your coffee squarely in hand. You see a crowd in the plaza near the fountain. And just at about the time you get there, the crowd starts to move. They’re heading south on Lincoln toward Wilson, following this guy Yeshua.
As you’re getting close to Wilson you see Starbucks and you’re like, “Ah! Good, I’ll grab a second cup”, when the crowd stops, because the man has stopped, and turns around to face the crowd, saying:
“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. 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 president, going out to wage war against another country, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able to oppose the one who comes against him? 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 14:25-33, adapted)
And then he turns and keeps walking ahead.
So what do you do?
Do you get out of there, taking your family with you? (Admittedly, you see many others making this decision.) Like “Heyyy, this is not what I was expecting.”
Or do you drop your coffee cup and your bag and walk away from your family to follow him? He said, “Give up your possessions!”
Or, do you linger behind Yeshua—your family, too, if they want—to hear a little more. You’re compelled, quite beyond yourself. You cannot put your finger on why, but something in his startling words sounded true.
At the beginning of the 2010 film The Way, sixty-something California opthalmologist Thomas Avery is driving his forty-year-old son Daniel to the airport. Both men are grieving and readjusting after the death of Thomas’ wife, Daniel’s mother. Daniel has decided that he is going to travel the world. And so this day, he’s traveling to Europe on a one-way ticket, to see what he can see. To find himself.
In the car, Daniel says, “You should come, too, Dad! A father-son trip.”
At this point in the film, we have seen Thomas working in his ophthalmology office and playing charity golf with colleagues. He doesn’t look happy but he looks comfortable.
Thomas, played by Martin Sheen, replies to his son, “I don’t want to go. My life here might not seem like much, but it is the life I choose.”
Daniel responds, “You don’t choose a life, Dad. You live one.”
Later, when Thomas receives the devastating call that his son has been killed, he rushes from California to France to identify the body. Daniel has lost his life in an accident at his outset on the Camino de Santiago, an 800-kilometer trek from southern France westward through northern Spain to the city of Santiago de Compostela, the cathedral of which is reputed to hold the remains of St. James—Sant-Iago—the apostle of Jesus.
At first, Thomas plans simply to bring his son’s body home to California. But then, when he learns what the Camino is, learns that for over a thousand years, pilgrims have made the trek from various starting points within Europe to the northwest coast of Spain, and that his son was doing it, too—he decides to have his son’s remains cremated, packs them in his son’s backpack, and with all of his son’s gear, sets out on the path.
The French police captain who has helped Thomas there says, “Mr. Avery, you are not prepared to make the trek. You have not trained. And with no disrespect, you are more than sixty years old.”
Thomas says simply, “I’m walking.”
Why is he, why was Daniel, why are the other pilgrims compelled to do this? What do they seek? One of Thomas’ fellow walkers, “Jack from Ireland”, is curious about this, too, and asks every other pilgrim he meets why they’re walking the Camino. And at the end of the Camino, if a pilgrim wants a compostela or certificate of completion, he or she must state their reasons for walking.
Was it for a religious reason? A personal reason, an emotional reason, a health reason? Invariably, they have trouble articulating why exactly they do it. But I notice that what they have in common is that they feel compelled from deep within them, a place deeper than words.
I think this compulsion—this curiosity, this call—characterizes for many of us what it feels like to follow Jesus. Which is why today’s Gospel passage about calculating the cost of discipleship ahead of time sounds, to me, so strange.
You know, in some ways, this Gospel passage is like the Congregational Assessment Tool, a survey that many of us took several months ago about our experiences and values here at All Saints’—at least that infamous Spiritual Vitality Index! Imagine survey questions like: Do you give up your family? Do you give up your stuff? Did you calculate ahead of time or do you at least realize now what you’re getting into, following Jesus?
Then you’re not a disciple!
These sound to me like the kinds of survey questions we did have: Do you think about God all the time? Do make all of your daily decisions based on your awareness of God in your life? Do you pray every day at least once?
No? Maybe? Kind of? Not sure? These aren’t quite the words you would have chosen?
Then you don’t have “spiritual vitality”! Or at least you have less spiritual vitality than 98% of people in other churches.
I am facetious not because I think there is any lack of spiritual vitality in this place—quite the opposite!—but because the wording of the survey’s questions, like the words Jesus chooses today, sound off-putting, almost foreign in its assumptions. It can be hard to find ourselves in today’s Gospel.
The truth is that there is a cost to following Jesus, though most of us do not or cannot calculate it in advance, nor do many of us choose to follow Jesus because of the cost it exacts.
Another truth is that Jesus does not ask of the crowd or of us any more than is asked of himself. Think about it: As this crowd follows him, he knows—but they don’t—that he is heading all the way to Jerusalem, where he knows (and again, they don’t) that it is there he will make the ultimate sacrifice. Is he giving up his possessions? Is he giving up his family? Is he giving up his very self, his own life? Will he even carry a cross (a reference that we get now, but the crowd at the time could not have)? Most literally, yes.
But he knows that as painful as these costs may be, it is they that help open the way to new, unimagined life. Like a pilgrim on the Camino trekking miles and miles and miles with only a backpack, we should consider what we might give up. Perhaps the costs are more subtle: “our need to acquire,” as theologian Emilie Townes suggests, or “our yearning for success, our petty jealousies, our denigrating stereotypes of others, our prejudices and hatreds”, and God knows what else (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, p. 46). Moreover, what I think is not immediately obvious from today’s Gospel passage is that the process of following Jesus is just that: a process. A journey.
Echoing Daniel Avery, we may not choose our life or have it figured out ahead of time, but we live it. We live into encounters with God: the mystery of Communion, the mystery of serving food to friends and strangers (who, as human beings, are beautiful mysteries themselves), the various claims God has put on our lives, the calls that God has placed in our hearts that we cannot explain—but we are compelled. Each of these encounters and mysteries gives us the grace and the strength to take one step, and then another.