Listen to the sermon here:
Scripture – Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 1; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33
Choose life by loving and obeying the Lord or choose death by following other gods. Name your gods. What is at the top of your priority list on a daily basis or a life goal? Some people would have a clean house and a nice-looking house at the top of their list. Some people would have a wonderful-looking lawn and landscaping on the top. Then there are season tickets to a favorite sport team, eating at exclusive restaurants, spending time in exotic places.
What is at the top of your priority list? A really high-reputation university for your children? A large bank account for retirement? Being accepted in exclusive clubs? Being on the board of a large non-profit organization or a high-profit corporation or one of the universities to which you enroll your children and grand-children?
Have I stepped on your toes yet? What is the top goal on your priority list? Instead of the goals I already mentioned, could these be your top goals? Being at home for your young children, surrounding their days with firm love, clothing your children and yourself with second-hand clothing that looks really good? Sacrificing things for yourself so that your children can have music lessons or drama lessons or science or math workshops? Providing a home for a child who does not have a good home? Finding time to be a reading tutor for people who don’t learn easily?
What is on the top of your priority list? Have you wondered what is at the top of your friends’ lists? Ask someone what they dream of doing someday or even what they hope for each day. This would be very revealing. You may be very surprised at the variation of goals your close friends are holding on the top of their list.
Now let’s hold our own priority lists beside our understanding of God and the rules he has laid before us. Is God happy about our lists? We don’t need to tell God. God knows what is in our hearts and minds. God does not even need a translator. Is God happy about our spending trail? Is God happy about our choices with our time? Are we spending enough time with our children and are our children existing in a cloud of love? Really, we cannot re-raise our children. What our children observe and feel in us as humans and their captors when they are infant to pre-school, sets the tone for their personality and behavior patterns. Think how good or how not good were their pre-school years. Guilt! A little bit or a mountain!
How can we align our behavior and our priority lists with God’s style and hope for us, his children? Well, we should read Luke 14:25-33. Just listen! This does not match my mini-speech about filling our families with love. Here it is! “Jesus said to the crowd, ‘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.’ ”
My, oh, my! This is not good! I guess we can shred our priority lists and shed our skin of selfishness. There is one and only one thing that shall be our goal. To become a disciple of Jesus, we need to carry our lives as a cross straight up the hill to surrender. We can’t hope to win a battle against God, our creator, our caregiver, our healer while we have only our small resources of faith and discipline. We need to face God and ask for the terms of peace. Part of those terms is to carry our cross – all of our human weaknesses, all of our own goals – and hang them on that cross so that we may be transformed and seek the discipleship that God is holding as a cloak before us.
My, oh, my! It does not seem that we can keep even our good earthly goals. But, let us not be hasty in making a cross and flying out the door to the nearest hill. In other passages of scripture, Jesus is encouraging us to help our sisters and brothers, including our own children. Jesus is saying that marriage is good (Matthew 19:5; Mark 10:7) and that love is the most important commodity in the world (1 Corinthians 13). We are supposed to be the light on a hill. We are supposed to let that light shine for all to see. Do you suppose Jesus meant us to do that by carrying a cross on one shoulder while protecting our lit candle from the breeze with our other free hand? Oh, I know. We shall have the glow within us – a glowing body carrying a cross. Is that possible? Can we be happy while shouldering our responsibilities – a happiness which will not be extinguished when a troublesome breeze blows?
Let’s look at the lesson from Deuteronomy 30. Here Moses is also passionately caring about these people for whom he was leader and shepherd and nurse for 40 years. It seems that Moses was carrying his cross during those years. His people were complainers. But he is firm with his people when it is almost time to claim their promised land. He says, “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” So Moses was laying a choice before his people: choose life by loving and obeying the Lord or choose death by following other gods.
I think we are back to our priority lists. Take a good look. Does your list look like you are following other gods or does your list look like you are choosing the truly good life, the life that leads to a future where bank accounts do not count, the place where love and joy abound. At first glance your list could seem to be selfless. But, then I notice that my list is stuffed with selfishness – buying enough clothes when enough becomes way too many, buying meals in restaurants that I could make more inexpensively, feeding my car a diet of endless gasoline, having soap for myself, different soap for my own washer in my own basement, soap to wash the grease from the pots and pans and dishes, having enough protein in my diet. So you see, even though I thought my list was probably better than your list, I know people who need my list of goals and it needs to become a reality for them. Unless we are focused on our sisters and brothers and on God, we are following other gods.
Simon had worked hard all of his life to move from being penniless in his early twenties to having a gorgeous home and faultless landscaping and knowing the best airlines and how to get the best luxury accommodations. Just knowing this much does not reveal the real secrets of Simon’s life. We can’t tell the expansive and generous scholarship funds for people in poverty with good minds and no money. We can’t tell by driving past his lovely home in the best section of town that he is a volunteer with the homeless ministry. Neither can we tell what was and is the moving force behind the free clinic for general health, for dental work, for eyes and ears; all the while Simon appearing there often to spread some genuine love to the people who walk through those doors and who leave feeling good about the attention and the caring. They feel loved because for that bit of time they were.
We never know the whole circumference of another person’s personality. In fact, we never really see and know the whole circumference of our own personalities. Only God gets that whole picture. Are we giving our whole selves or are we two-faced? Is one face striving toward being more God-like and the other face clutching the parts of earthly living that are really taking us nowhere.
I never think of the Apostle Paul as being loving. Yet we hear from Paul today in a book of the Bible called Philemon simply because he was writing a letter to a person named Philemon about a person named Onesimus. Paul says that he has received much love and joy from Philemon but there is one favor that Paul is asking. Philemon is the owner of Onesimus. Yes, the owner. You know what that means. Slavery. Onesimus had run from Philemon to Paul while Paul was in prison. Onesimus helped Paul and was a comfort and became a friend to him. Paul knew, however, that Onesimus should return to Philemon. Paul is pleading with his friend, Philemon, to accept Onesimus as a brother, not as a slave. Paul is facing God in this decision and gesture. Paul could have kept Onesimus where Onesimus was a great help to Paul and where Onesimus could be free as a regular human. But, Paul was doing the right thing.
Are we doing the right thing? Remember that God does things backward and upside down. Well the funny thing is that when we are doing the right thing – when we are carrying our cross – we amazingly find ourselves filled with joy. Yes, backward, don’t you think? Mostly, when we are fulfilling our selfish priority list, we don’t feel that joy. Instead we yearn for more, more, more.
Let us enjoy some verses from Psalm 1. “Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, or lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scornful! Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and they meditate on God’s teaching day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; everything they do shall prosper.” For a moment, let us think of ourselves as these trees by the water. Are we bearing fruit? Is our delight in our relationship with God’s plan for each of us?
Now, think of ourselves as we are driving a car. How long does it take you to turn around when you have chosen the wrong turn or missed the right turn when you are driving? Let us not be so stubborn with our lives and our relationship with God as we tend to be in our driving habits. God is there – on that certain path. If we made a wrong turn in our lives, if we are still on that wrong path or if we just slipped into a ditch or if we have been in a huge gully for months or years, it is time to turn our car around to get on the right path – the path of joy, the path of happiness, the path of the cross. How do we get our car out of the gully when the tires have become flat? Pray. Sing praises. Do you have a cell phone? Call for help.
Oh, I forgot, God does not need a cell phone. Watch for the person God sends to help you get out of that gully and fix those tires and get you headed in the right direction. Accept that help! We simply need help. Our goals will likely not come to our aid. Our pride will not be the strong chain and hook of the towing truck. God sent Jesus to be our genuine Savior.
Lord, have mercy. Thank you for your extreme love! Thank you for saving us again and again. Amen