23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) – September 4, 2022
St. Paul – Lyons, KS
Wisdom 9: 13-18b; Psalm 90:3-6, 12-14, 17; Philemon 9-10, 12-17; Luke 14:25-30
The Crowd Followers
We all know what a “bandwagon fan” is, right? A.k.a., the most despicable kind of fan? Bandwagoners are those people that begin to follow a team when that teams starts to get really good. No one knew who the Golden State Warriors were until a few years ago. No one cared about the Cubs for one hundred years, not until 2016. No one was worried about a missing a Chiefs’ game until Patrick Mahomes showed up. Bandwagoners: they always show up when things are fun and exciting and you’re winning and everything it going well! But if you’re a die-hard fan, bandwagons are the lowest of the low. Because if things take a dive, all of a sudden those people are nowhere to be found.
Or think of our attention span: it’s about as short as a news cycle. Because the news or our Facebook feed tell us something is important, we focus all of our attention on it. We lose every bit of peace in our life. We get so angry or frustrated or anxious or hopeful. But once it drops out of the news, once it isn’t popping up on our newsfeed…it (conveniently) isn’t really on our mind anymore—almost like nothing ever happened. While it’s in the news, people gather in huge numbers—watching the news, watching videos, reading articles—but as soon as this huge interest is generated, it also fades.
Many churches—I think of the church right next to my home parish in Wichita—many churches have incredibly high attendance, huge numbers of people attending. But the hidden data behind their attendance is their incredibly high turnover rate. People show up for a few weeks, a few months—but then they’re gone. It’s just a stream of people.
I even think of us here in Lyons: we’ve had more people coming to Mass, which has been great! I wish the church was overflowing! I wish that seating was such an issue we had to start talking about building a bigger church. And for many of us, the increased number of people is the goal! “We just need more people here.” I’ve fallen into that mentality at times, “Just get as many people here as possible.”
The funny thing, though, is what Jesus himself does when he sees crowds. Because his goal isn’t to draw a crowd. He ministers to the crowds, he preaches to them, to be sure. But whenever a crowd shows up—go study the life of Jesus and you’ll see—Jesus doesn’t get excited and enthusiastic. He gets skeptical. And he goes, “Wait a second, this can’t be right. You guys must be misunderstanding me, what it means to follow me. Because if you really understood you wouldn’t be so excited.”
And he kinda dwindles down the crowd, he weeds out those who are not serious. I mean, that’s what we have in Luke 14. Jesus just had this dinner with the scribes and pharisees, and now as he’s on the move there are these great crowds following him. But it’s interesting, because what Jesus does with the huge crowds—he doesn’t go, “Man, look at all of these people! This is great!” No, he looks at the whole crowd and says, “Are you sure you’re following the right guy? Are you sure this is what you want to do?”
It said in our Gospel, “Great crowds were traveling with Jesus, and he turned and addressed them, ‘If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother [and that word hate doesn’t mean disdain or despise or resent; it means “to love less,” not placing even your mom above following Jesus], wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.…Anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.”
What is Jesus doing? Jesus is calling out people’s very limited attention span: they get caught in the exciting stuff, the miracles and healings and such. Jesus is calling out the bandwagon fans: people who are around because he’s doing so good at the moment. Jesus is calling them out! Calling us out! And he’s challenging them, he’s challenging us to make a move: from fan to disciple, to the next level, to a total and intentional and concrete discipleship of our entire life. Jesus begins to bring up the one thing we try to avoid in this whole Christianity equation: commitment, intentionality, purposefully following him, turning over every part of our life to him.
Cheap Grace vs. Costly Grace
Jesus’ words are hard. But we can’t avoid them! We can’t sidestep them! So often, we want to put a nice “spin” on what Jesus says. We want to say, “Well, Jesus really just means you need to be a good person.” Or, “Jesus is just speaking hyperbolically. Really he just wants you to go to Mass on Sunday, if it’s not too much trouble anyway. He doesn’t mean everything in your life should revolve around him. Just go to Mass when you can, be a good person, and that should be good.” And I talked about that a few weeks ago: the study that showed the majority of Catholics and Christians just think this is about believing that a God exists, and He wants you to do what makes you happy, and as long as you’re a good person deep in your heart you get to go to heaven when you’re dead.
But that’s simply not the case. Jesus makes it very clear that following him is going to cost us. That’s the little parable he tells in the middle: “Which of you wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if there is enough for its completion?” There is a cost. It will cost you something. Have you ever thought about that? You are going to have to put some skin in the game.
A Christian martyred during World War II by the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about this in The Cost of Discipleship. He talked about a difference between what he calls “Cheap Grace” and “Costly Grace.” “Cheap grace,” he says, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline [like being part of the parish, going to Mass, tithing, following her teachings], Communion without confession [how many of us continue to go to communion when we have committed serious sins but haven’t gone to confession?], absolution without personal confession [we think God will just forgive us and we don’t need to go to confession]. Cheap grace [Bonhoeffer concludes] is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” What is he getting at? He’s saying that we can easily think this is all just a cheap game. We just go through the motions, when we feel like it. Bandwagon fans. Pay attention when it’s fun to pay attention—at Christmas or Easter, or when mom comes to visit. But Bonhoeffer’s point is that this is completely unbiblical, completely unhistorical. This isn’t what this is.
“Costly grace,” on the other hand, “Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.… It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life… It is costly because it cost God the life of his Son…it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but handed him over [to death] for us.” There is a cost to all of this. And it’s grace! It is freely offered! But paradoxically, there is a cost.
What the early Christians, the Persecuted, and the Martyrs show us
This is what the early Christians and the persecuted Christians and the Christian martyrs show us. The very early Christians were turned into human torches (burned alive as lamp posts along the Roman streets); they were skinned alive; beaten and tortured to death; fed to lions.
I’ve shared before the story of an Austrian farmer during World War II named Franz Jägerstätter. Franz, like many Austrian people of the time, was drafted into the German army, conscripted to serve as a Nazi soldier. And he refused—he refused to swear an oath to Hitler. His faith would not allow him to go along with this. And he knew it would cost him. He discussed the matter with his wife, and he was determined to not betray Christ, not to go along with the demonic plans of Hitler. And sure enough, he was convicted of treason and sentenced to death.
And this isn’t just long ago, or during World Wars. The persecution of Christians rages in Africa and the Middle East and southeast Asia. Just this year in Uganda, a man hanged his wife and two children because the mother and oldest child converted to Christianity. In Kenya, six Christian villagers were killed, and another Christian man was murdered nearby less than a day later. In the first attack, at least one victim was shot, another hacked to death with a machete, and others burned alive. And that’s just two out of thousands of examples.
These people all knew the cost of following Christ—they counted the cost.
Following the Crowd vs. Following Christ
Do we? Now, to be sure, here in Kansas, here in the United States, it is pretty unlikely that we would ever face that kind of horrific persecution. But what we will face is verbal assaults—either in person or online. We will face innuendo about being bigoted, intolerant, unloving. (I mean, just this week I was explaining to the middle schoolers why I wear black as a priest. And one of the girls, 7th grade, says under her breath, “Well, it’s because you can’t wear rainbow colors in a church.” In her innuendo, I was labeled a bigot.) People will also gossip about us, say things about us to destroy our reputation.
It will cost you time—not just following Jesus when it is convenient, but placing him above all else (even your mom and dad, wife and children, brothers and sisters). It will cost you friends. It will cost you comfort. It will cost you job opportunities. It will cost you free time. It will cost you money. It will cost your life. Jesus isn’t looking for some bandwagon fans. He doesn’t need a crowd to make him feel special and important. He wants you, your heart, your life.
A Decisive Decision: Counting the Cost
There is a lie out there that many churches will give you. And it is the lie that grace is cheap, that following Jesus requires nothing from us, that you can just do whatever you want to do. And yes, God loves you no matter what, God’s heart burns with an infinite love for you no matter what! (And we’ll get into that next week with the Gospel)—but God will also respect your freedom, and he will let you choose to reject Him, to walk away.
Personally, I’m done with my own bandwagon and fanboy following of Jesus. I used to tell myself, “Well, I’m a priest! What else do you want from me??” But there is so much more. And it is so exciting! I want to go all in! I do not want to be a part of the “crowd”! I want to be 100% HIS!
And I know I am weak, I know how easy it is to wake up in the morning and feel like I’m back at square one. I know how I have this burning to run after him and never stop, but also how easy it is to feel defeated, insufficient, imperfect.
Which is why I need Christ. I need his body, his sacraments, his life. I need his body the Church, you. It is in our communion, made possible in this Holy Communion which literally binds us together as one—it is the communion that can sustain this desire and hope within my heart. You are not alone. I am not alone. WE can begin this journey, because it is Christ that leads us. WE can be the people that follow him without reservation, knowing the cost, and following anyway.
Pope Benedict would say, “The world offers you comfort. But you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.” This greatness comes from following Christ. From giving everything to follow him. So let’s not be discouraged. Let’s be bold. Let’s be courageous. Let’s follow him with everything we’ve got.