There is a story that some of you may have heard before, but it bears repeating every now and then, about a chicken and a pig who visit a small town. The chicken remarks how in every restaurant window there hangs a sign that reads ‘Ham and Eggs’. The chicken remarks on how awesome it is that their two species have had such an outstanding influence on the world of men and tells the pig that they should double . . . even triple . . . their efforts in helping to feed the human race. The pig, after some reflection about the idea, responds to the chicken that “it is easy for you hens to double your efforts, because for you it is only a contribution . . . but for us pigs, it requires a total commitment”.
Today’s gospel today is particularly relevant to me as a general contractor who has over the years estimated the cost of hundreds, perhaps thousands of projects, both great and small. There is no doubt that (the carpenter) Jesus knew exactly from whence he came in speaking about the possible pitfalls in the estimation, financing and building of a tower.
A few years back my company completed the building of the Niagara Falls International Airport Terminal, a thirty million dollar structure that took two years to build. The building of this project required the expertise of hundreds of others who worked tirelessly to accomplish this highly complex building design. Nearly all of the subcontractor firms and project managers were hand selected by me because I was aware from past experience exactly who would be capable of keeping us on track and had the resources and wherewithal to solve problems on the fly. They were those who, like me, were willing to totally commit themselves to a project that, at the very outset was, fraught with problems.
Then there were also with us others who contributed to the project. These were people who I did not know and who I did not choose and who had no real vested interest in the project; but yet because they held the purse strings . . . the gold . . . they were the one’s who made the project possible since it was their idea. They were in fact the ‘hens’ of the project who always wanted us to double our efforts through no sweat of their own. These two groups, those who contribute, and those who commit are an integral part of every project and there isn’t a construction project out there that would be completed without both the drive and the means. But how much better things would be if both groups shared a common commitment and a common vision to arrive at the final goal?
Although Jesus today speaks about a construction project in the gospel lesson, he is not specifically speaking about actually estimating and building a tower project or of a king being defeated because he did not plan well enough. He is speaking about another thing . . . he is speaking about the project of our life’s work and how it is helped and shaped by God and / or influenced by others (perhaps some who may not be so pure) and how it may or may not be completed in the end without total commitment on the part of ourselves.
He tells us something hard to take in all at once . . . “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.” And we wonder what does he mean by this? What is he really saying? For most all of us, the people closest to us are the most important things in our lives. I, like you would do anything to keep our families safe from harm because we love and cherish them more than life itself. How many stories have you heard where a father or a mother risked their own lives to save the life of a child. And yet Jesus is telling us we must be willing to give them all up and take up our cross in order to follow him.
In order to understand this saying we need to come to the realization that one saved soul in the eyes of God is a priceless thing gained at the greatest of cost. The gospels infer that its worth is known only to God and we will never really be able to comprehend its value. You and I came into the world quite alone (with nothing) and in the end we will leave this place in basically the same way. It is God who has given us a life and a purpose . . . and it is God who will one day take it away.
LORD, you have searched me out and known me; *
you know my sitting down and my rising up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You trace my journeys and my resting-places *
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Indeed, there is not a word on my lips, *
but you, O LORD, know it altogether
From the Psalm this morning you can see that this relationship God desires is a highly personal one that transcends our thoughts and our dreams and perhaps everything else we know to be familiar . . . even the family that we hold most dear. The words from the Psalm to me suggest a melding of our spirits into one perhaps like a lover’s dream but with even greater intimacy and familiarity. It is this fusing of the spirits that Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and countless sages wrote about regarding their relationship with God in their lives. And it is our life’s work to strengthen this relationship by striving to be at one with God even as we walk a path separate from Him in this world. Today Jesus meant that this means putting aside mother and father and sister and brother and all the things the world offers as our heart’s desire in our lives . . . and instead striving to put God and our relationship with Him first in everything we do. Only in this way can we truly be called as his disciples.
But you may ask how do we do it? How do we continually strengthen or renew a relationship of spirit with someone who is so incomprehensible? Think of your own life and its relationships with others. Those that are strongest are those where honest communication is a hallmark. The ones that are weakest are the ones where there is ambivalence. Wise families strive to fight ambivalence and find strength in eating and playing and talking together. Groups find strength in working together. Lovers find strength in living and sleeping together. Communities find strength in building together . . . and so it is with us and God.
Each week as we come together as a church, we are endeavoring to build on the relationship we have as community of believers and as individuals in communion with God. Each day as we set about our work, we offer prayer and praise to God as a way of keeping the lines of communication open, in order to perceive his will for us in our daily lives. In this way, when the time comes for us to go, we will be welcomed into a familiar presence as a grateful friend and not as a stranger. This is a Christian’s life’s work. This is what Christianity is all about, a relationship with Christ.
This life’s work that Jesus is speaking about is not something we can retire from. It is not only the work we have done (or will do) over our lifetime . . . to keep bread on the table and a roof over our head. It may include these things but it is not these things. The work Jesus refers to is the project of your life, the one He bought back for you at Calvary and the one you may either merely contribute toward the maintenance of in a physical sense . . . or . . . commit yourself totally to its continual growth in the spiritual sense. In short, the life he speaks of is not what you do in this life but who you will be in the next.
There is a famous book (still in print), written in 1678 by John Bunyan entitled The Pilgrim’s Progress. It is among my favorites (I’ve read it at least 5 or 6 times) and I recommend it to any of you. It is an allegory of what Jesus was trying to explain in today’s lesson. John Bunyan wrote Pilgrim’s Progress while sitting in an English prison. His crime was that he held a church service that was not sanctioned by the Church of England, the Anglican Church . . . our church, if the truth be known.
Pilgrim’s Progress catalogs the journey of Christian, a man who is seeking his salvation on a pilgrimage to Heaven. Along the way, Christian encounters many obstacles that test his faith as well as many characters that are useful in showing him the difference between right and wrong, from the perspective of Christian religious faith. After Christian attains his heavenly reward, his family completes a pilgrimage to join him. The story is told as a dream, this seventeenth century religious classic uses Bible verses mixed with allegorical characters to preach a very unusual evangelist message.
Christian sets out on a journey to save his soul. He leaves behind his friends and family in the City of Destruction and follows the advice of his spiritual guide, a man named Evangelist, in order to reach the Celestial City. His first obstacle is the Slough of Despair, which he manages to overcome with the help of a kind stranger but with the loss of all his possessions. Christian is admitted into the Wicket Gate, the official starting point of his journey to the Celestial City. Only those who are invited through this gate are eligible for entrance into the Celestial City. This book is a powerful representation of our Life’s Work that Jesus describes for us.
Like the character Christian, each of us is on a journey. God helps us along by sending friends and family members and strangers to help us overcome the world and its trials. Through constant perseverance and personal responsibility and with the help of our faith we strive to overcome addictions and dependencies as we fight our way through life. However, winning can only happen if we are truly committed to keeping our eye on the prize which is the Kingdom of God.
However, as Christian learns firsthand, there are stumbling blocks that some will face along the way. They sometimes come in the form of people who claim to be our friends . . . but who really are not. They come as temptations to veer us off the correct, but stony, path onto a smooth and well traveled road that leads to utter destruction and despair. And then of course there are those who ‘help’ us by contributing to the complexity of our life by loading upon us more and more responsibility until we cannot bear to stand any longer. But worse by far, are those who stand by ridiculing our moves as wrong even while they are suffering in their own afflictions.
The choice God gives us is clear, though almost no one understands it. Our goal is to work out the project of our life as best and expedient for us as individuals all the while helping all those around us attain success in their life’s work as well. Through living a pious life of thanksgiving and loving without reservation, and having empathy and good-will towards our neighbor we will fulfill the law which has been written in our hearts, thus making us true and worthy disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ. Because in the end of life, it is not what we have gathered together or have built that will count in our favor . . . but only what we have given freely away.