There’s a calling that transcends the pain

LUKE 14:25-35

In 2013, a long-distance swimmer named Diana Nyad, waded up the beach at Key West. 53 hours earlier, she had launched herself into the water in Havana – 110 miles away. Diana Nyad was 64 years old at the time, which gives us all hope, and she became the first person ever to swim from Cuba to the US without a shark cage. Her motive for performing this superhuman feat was not fame and a place in the Guinness Book of Records. She already had those thanks to some earlier endurance swims. No, Nyad’s motivation came from wanting to become a better person. She said afterwards, “I wanted this swim, not to just be an athletic record, I wanted it to be a lesson for my life that says: be fully engaged.” One of her support staff, summed it up when she said, “There was a higher calling about this. That desire allowed her to transcend the pain.” And there was a lot of pain. At one point she started swallowing seawater, which led her to vomit repeatedly for thirteen hours. She said, “When that happens, and you can’t replace that food, the protein, the electrolytes, you’re in a bad place. You’re not strong. You’re cold. And that night was hell on earth.” But a higher calling transcends the pain.

‘A higher calling that transcends the pain’ could have been a phrase of Jesus. It’s a phrase that would fit very well in today’s Gospel lesson. “I’m going to build a tower”, a man says to himself one day. “I will recruit the best architect, hire the most skillful stonecutters, and I will create a tower so magnificent that all who pass will be inspired and moved.” So, he begins his grand project, and within three months he has laid the foundations, within six he has built the base, but within twelve he’s run out of money. In all his excited ambition to make the world a better place he failed to count the cost, and his grand designs have resulted in a four-foot wall which mocks him and turns him into laughingstock. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver.

“I’m going to fight for truth and goodness”, says the noble king. I will mobilize my army, I will instruct my generals to devise a winning strategy, and I will lead my men into battle to execute justice and install a righteous peace.” And so he sends a rallying cry throughout the kingdom, come and fight, come and be God’s weapons for righteousness. And 10,000 men respond to the king’s call. And out they go with hearts stirred and minds inspired to face the 20,000 men in the opposing army. And the king sent a generation of young adults to the slaughter all because he didn’t count the cost. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver.

Two tiny but tragic stories told by Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson. They begin with high hopes and shining dreams; they end in disgrace and tragedy. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver. Before you build a tower count the cost; before you go to war count the count the cost. Before you make a promise count the cost. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver.

No doubt there were people in the crowd that day who had decided that Jesus was the real thing. They’d heard his words, they’d seen his miracles, and they had decided ‘yes, he is the One; we must follow him.’ Their decision did not follow days of prayerful thought; they hadn’t carefully considered all the pluses and minuses, all the pros and cons of following Christ. They heard, they saw, and they got it. Let’s go. And to them, Jesus speaks words – not of congratulations, but of warning. Before you make a promise count the cost. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver.

And what a cost. “Whoever comes to me and does not hate their family, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Seriously? For those impulsive, would-be disciples this is shocking. “Can this really be the Jesus who healed those people, who preached such beautiful things about God, who showed such love to people who were marginalized, and who stood up for the regular folk when the religious leaders condemned them? Maybe we need to re-think this Jesus … Hating your family? Carrying your cross? Giving up all your possessions? I prefer the Jesus who took little children in his arms and blessed them. who wept over the pain of his people, and who was moved with compassion for the suffering.” But maybe there’s a higher calling transcends the pain.

Yes, this passage is full of challenge; but it is also full of hyperbole. Rabbis used it to drive home their point. They intentionally overstated their argument. Everyone knew it, it wasn’t considered dishonest, they all knew not to take it literally. So, when Rabbi Jesus says you must hate your family and give up all your possessions if you are to be his follower, he is trying to shock you into getting your priorities right, that’s the point; he’s not giving you a set of literal instructions. Obviously, he is not being literal, because hating your family is clearly at odds with everything he teaches about our duty to love. So, his goal is to shock, and I think you’ll agree he succeeds.

And then there’s the cross. Again, this is not literal. It’s a metaphor, a powerful image of what God calls us to as Christians. For the apostles it was kinda literal. Tradition has it they were all killed for their loyalty to Christ:
Simon was crucified;
As was Peter but upside down;
So too, Andrew (although his cross was diagonal);
Bartholomew was flayed;
One James was beheaded;
The other was beaten to death;
Thomas was run through with a lance;
Matthew killed with a sword;
Thaddeus shot with arrows;
Philip hanged;
Matthias was stoned and then beheaded;
And John apparently died in old age, although in captivity.
Maybe there’s a higher calling transcends the pain.

But, although we won’t be literally crucified, we are still called to surrender our lives to God. That is the heart of being his disciple. There’s a higher calling that transcends the pain. And that’s why Christ tells those little parables about the king going to war and the builder constructing a tower. Both involve great cost – a financial cost for the builder, and a human cost for the king. Both have grand ambitions, both have strong motives, both are excited by their task. But the cost is so high. But, and here’s the other piece of comfort for us, it’s worth it. The demands that Jesus makes upon his followers are extreme. Christianity is not a Sunday morning religion. It shakes our foundations, overturns our priorities, even pits us against friend and family. But we know, don’t we, that following Christ is the best of all possible lives. Because as we give, we receive; as we die, we live; as we give up ourselves for God, he gives us back more than we can imagine. Because “There is a higher calling that allows us to transcend the pain.”

On my final morning at St Paul’s, I have many things on my heart. Gratitude is one – for you and to you. Sadness is another. It’s hard to leave this community. But I also have desire. I want St Paul’s to thrive, and you can. All of you – including those listening at home or on the golf course – have begun a wonderful and noble task of building this parish in a new and scary time. St Paul’s needs you. If you haven’t yet returned to worship since the pandemic, then it’s time. If you have returned but have not taken on a role of serving the church, it is time. If you have not been praying for St Paul’s, praying for our growth and health, praying for our impact on Union County and beyond, it is time. There’s a higher calling that transcends the pain of getting involved and of getting stuck in.

Three masons were hard at work chipping chunks of granite from large blocks. The first was unhappy at his job, constantly looking at his watch and muttering to himself. A passer-by asked what he was doing. “I’m hammering this stupid rock, can’t you see?”

As the passer-by walked on, she saw the second mason, who was hammering with diligence and care. She asked him what he was doing. “Well, I’m moulding this block of granite so that it can be used in a wall. It’s not a bad job, but I’ll be glad when it’s done.”

And so, she came to the third mason who was completely absorbed in his chiselling. Occasionally he would step back and admire what he’d done. He chipped and chipped – even tiny pieces that no one would even notice because he wanted to do the best he could. When the passer-by asked him what he was doing, he stopped, gazed into the sky and uttered, “I am building a cathedral!”

Friends, and I mean friends – in a few hours I stop being your priest and pastor and become simply your friend, you can do this. I know you can – I’ve seen you do it. You can partner with God in building something even better than now, even better that how we were before the pandemic, even better than we were 60 years ago when we had a thousand people on the average Sunday and four priests. It will different, sure, probably on a smaller scale, but no less magnificent, because you and God will build a cathedral.

If you are ever in Barcelona, you must visit the Church of the Sagrada Familia. It defies description for its beauty, and the creative genius of it designer. Antoni Gaudí started constructing it in 1884. He was killed on the construction site in 1926. He literally gave his life for this project. It’s going to be finished in 2028. It’s taken a long time, but it’s going to be worth it. The reason it has taken so long is that Gaudi had the vision of building it without taking money from government. It has been financed entirely by the giving of regular people who have visited from around the world. It stands as a monument to the costly commitment of the people and the sacrificing love of its designer. And today is serves as the final metaphor I want to leave you with. Be the people – be the people of God – giving in a costly way, following Christ wholeheartedly, and through the sacrificial death of our founder and his risen life pumping through your veins, build.

About Theresa Wright