Prime Minister Herbert Asquith once spent a weekend at the Waddesdon estate of the Rothschild family. One day, as Asquith was being waited on at teatime by the butler, the following conversation ensued:
“Tea, coffee, or a peach from off the wall, sir?”
“Tea, please,” answered Asquith.
“China, India, or Ceylon, sir?” asked the butler.
“Lemon, milk, or cream, sir?”
“Milk, please,” replied Asquith.
“Jersey, Hereford, or Shorthorn, sir?” asked the butler.
Choices come at us at every level, from every direction.
During World War II, Winston Churchill was forced to make a painful choice. The British secret service had broken the Nazi code, and informed Churchill that the Germans were going to bomb Coventry. He had two alternatives: (1) evacuate the citizens, and save hundreds of lives at the expense of indicating to the Germans that the code was broken; or (2) take no action, which would kill hundreds, but keep the information flowing and possibly save many more lives. Churchill had to choose and followed the second course.
Our readings today all confront us with hard choices.
Deuteronomy pictures Moses speaking his last to the people as they gaze down upon the Promised Land; a land he knows he will see but will never enter. On this amazing stage, Moses recounts for them the story of their covenant with God, and then, looking one way towards the newness of the new land, and looking over their shoulders to the emptiness of slavery in distant Egypt, Moses confronts the people with troubling choices: life and prosperity, or death and destruction; blessings or curses. Who wouldn’t choose life, prosperity and blessing? But why this threat of their opposites? What sort of a covenant is this? What sort of deal are they getting themselves into?
The Psalmist continues this sense of opposing possibilities and dangerous choices. There is blessing in meditating upon God’s law and prosperity to be found in faithfulness as long as the words of the wicked are ignored. And, for those who mock and plot evil, there is utter destruction.
Paul’s letter to Philemon tells the story of Onesimus, a slave who has run away from his master. Paul writes to the master and sends Onesimus back with the letter. However, what Paul has chosen is not just to send him back, but sending him with a carefully worded letter to the master to look inwards, into his heart, and consider how a Christian master needs to behave towards his slave. In fact, the letter is so carefully worded, a cynical reader might call it emotional blackmail. What a risky choice Paul has chosen.
And Luke. Today’s reading from Luke is so stark: following me, says Jesus, means hating father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters and yourself; following me, says Jesus, means carrying your very own cross. What a choice!
Choices, choices! What sort of a world are these readings conjuring for us? What reality do they want us to know?
We’re shown our choices and warned that some decisions we make have staggering consequences. It’s no little thing to come into the presence of God. It’s an awe inspiring thing to fall into the hands of the living God. There’s no bit of our lives that God will not touch and transform, and no end to the temptation we face to avoid that reality. Very often, we want to try to preserve a bit of distance, and mark out some protected bit of life which we hope that God might not notice.
Forget it, our readings say! God’s commands, and demands, and attention, are total and all-embracing. God knows us through and through, which is surely enough to make us stop and think, and wonder at the cost of discipleship. Can we really do this? Can we give our lives to the God who is this demandingly passionate, and so completely involved with us? The Bible is so honest here. We are so used to being offered all sorts of amazing things, from miraculous bank accounts to magical machines, which in the end turn out to be not quite as good as we first thought they might be. We get promised so much and yet, at times, get given so much less. Not so with God. The scale of what God demands, is clear; everything. God doesn’t want to be given a little corner of our lives, but freedom to transform them every bit.
So, says Moses, choose. Choose life with God, with all its demands that you daily give yourself over to God, or choose death, the death that engulfs us when we make our own way in the world. So, says the Psalmist, choose. Choose to follow the way of living that scripture reveals, or choose disaster, the disaster that overwhelms us when we love what is wrong. So, says Jesus, choose. Jesus reminds us that God’s welcome can be turned down. God’s grace and love can be taken for granted. Which surely is why we need to hear these troubling texts today. We might be the ones most at risk of assuming all is well, when we’re actually running away from God. So it is that Jesus turns to the large crowd following him and gives his stark warning; don’t take being my disciple for granted. Faith, like any living thing, needs to be treasured and nurtured and cared for. Plant the seed and ignore it, and before long the weeds will choke it or the dry ground will wither it.
So Jesus puts it to them, and to us, that following him means more than just one more lifestyle choice; it means opening ourselves up to this God who is risky and passionate. Which is why Jesus has come. He brings us the good news that is also great challenge. In him the fullness of God is dwelling amongst us, sharing our space, in order to show us what a life truly open to God looks and feels like. It’s a life without hidden corners where God can’t go. It’s a life without secret evils that we hope to keep hidden. It’s what we’re made for. It’s who we’re meant to be. But our wrong choices and the temptations of selfishness get in the way of who we’re meant to be. And Jesus will go to the cross to offer himself for the sins of humanity. He’ll carry a cross and give everything to save us. And, in response, we get to carry a cross with him.
He doesn’t spell out what carrying that cross will mean, but we can fill in the gaps as we think about how discipleship unfolds for us. Maybe we have to deal with difficult people we would rather ignore, or hurl abuse at, and find a voice deep inside us calling us to care for them? Perhaps we face ridicule or attack for expressing our faith, and find the courage to remain steady and true to the God who loves us so deeply? Or it might be that life’s storms seem to be battering down upon us as we cope with illness or loss, uncertainty or disappointment, and need to find a strength to carry on believing? These might be some of the cross-shaped realities we shoulder. Life can be full of trouble. Following Jesus doesn’t magically take the trouble away. And Jesus wants to be honest with us so that we know what we’re getting into. But, alongside the warning about our cross, comes the promise of God. For this is Jesus who is speaking. This is the Son of God, who comes to reveal just how cherished we are. This is the one who comes to show us that God will always love us and that nothing in all creation, not even death itself, can separate us from that love.
And then there’s Paul, sending a slave home with a letter. Paul reminds Philemon that he’s a disciple, and so he’s loved by God and called to love others. And then he leaves an open question: if you’re a follower of Jesus, if you know the truth that God loves you, then how do you think you should treat this returning slave? Will you be harsh, or kind? We don’t have returning slaves to cope with, but we do live in a world full of hurting people, and damaged lives, and shattering experiences. And within us there’s the temptation to grow lazy in discipleship, to take, perhaps, just a bit more for granted. Yet Jesus says, follow me. Carry your cross. And follow me. It’s not a cheap offer, but nothing we will ever do matters more than saying yes.