JESUS COULDN’T SELL SOAP
The story of Jesus is intriguing to me on so many levels. But one of the things I find MOST interesting is how he did and said absolutely everything NOT to be famous, NOT to start a religion, NOT to be one of the central figures of humankind.
Ask the movers and shakers of political parties in countries around the world. Ask any major film studio executive in the business of selling movies and up-and-coming actors and actresses. Ask the most important marketing experts in global industry. ALL of them would look at what Jesus said and did and go, “Wait! Stop! You can’t sell anything THAT way…!”
Classic Marketing 101 strategy says, concentrate on your positives:
“This soap will get the spots out!”
“This soap smells good!”
“This soap has attractive little blue speckles for that ‘Blue Boost’ of cleaning power!”
Whatever you do, don’t mention that the soap rusts the pipes and kills the fish and the “Blue Boost” is actually non-biodegradable decorative pellets that do nothing at all. Talk only about what’s good; don’t mention the other…
But Jesus wasn’t selling soap. He never took Marketing 101 – or Politics 101 — or Hollywood 101. He was laying out a totally new way of life, a radical and shocking change in direction. Like a knife cutting through chain, it sets the teeth on edge. It makes you cringe.
It wouldn’t sell soap.
The passage we read this morning is traditionally called, “The Cost of Discipleship.” It starts out innocuously enough by telling us that there are “large crowds traveling with him.” By this point, Jesus’ ministry is catching fire, and the word has gone out. Like any new movement, flush in its infancy and energized by its rock-star, charismatic leader and the freshness of his ideas, the people come from everywhere to hear what he has to say. Many of them travel right along with him!
Let’s imagine the scene from the point of view of one of the original disciples. Let’s be James, one of the fishermen Jesus called away from the nets and the boats by the Sea of Galilee. As part of the “inner circle,” you, James, help to keep the masses of people moving along and organized. As you move through the crowd, you find yourself being offered favors for a spot closer to the front. They want what you have: access to The Man of the Hour. As you’re being feted and cajoled with attention and special treatment, you can’t help but remember the beginning days when you had to explain to your angry family what you were doing, when you had to scrounge for food for yourself and the others, when you camped out on the open ground huddled by a fire, when the people in towns ignored you — or threw rocks at you.
Looking behind you over the mass of people walking along, it must feel like a vindication; like the beginning of something groundbreaking, epochal, revolutionary. You take your place near the front, close to Jesus, with the rest of “the chosen few.” A warm feeling infuses your being as you comprehend that you’re on the inside track of an extraordinary dream that no mere fisherman could ever imagine.
“If the folks back home could see me now…”
Suddenly Jesus stops, and everybody else does, too. You’re surprised, but you lean in to eagerly hear what he has to say, your master and teacher, the center of all this attention, literally your meal ticket and the star to which you have hitched your future. But instead of a beatitude or one of his crowd-pleasing parables, he shouts, “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.” Followed immediately by “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
Ack! Cringe… Like a cable news producer watching a popular anchorman crash and burn in an unscripted diatribe, our poor James must have wished at that moment that everybody had stopped for a snack half a mile back.
To be fair, the actual words Jesus said were an Aramaic idiom, an expression in the culture that included the word “hate.” Matthew’s translation of this passage is probably closer to Jesus’ actual meaning, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” In other words, “Follow me and whatever used to be The Most Important Thing – including your family — must be left behind.” Devastating words for people steeped in tribal and familial tradition.
And then the mention of the cross, that most hated of all symbols of Roman occupation – cringe, again!
And finally, after a break of a couple of comments on counting the cost and preparing for discipleship, Jesus hits his audience with A Really Tough One. And there is no idiom here. He says it plain, a repeat of what he says in several other places in the scriptures. The Jesus Seminar puts this statement in red in its Bible for words that are believed to be completely authentic to Jesus: “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
Unlike those who stand before great crowds and give them exactly what they want to hear – the aging rock band singing all the old favorites, the politician looking for votes, the cable TV star on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial guilding his reputation – Jesus wasn’t interested in numbers. (“CBS 4 is reporting 200,000 people on the mall!”) He wasn’t interested in fair-weather followers looking for warm fuzzies.
This message — this Luke 14:25-33 — was for the real disciples, those who were hungry for meaning, those who were dying in mediocrity, those who had made themselves sick living only for themselves, in survival mode, slogging through their days, knowing in their heart of hearts that there could be so much more. With these words, Jesus throws the groupies under the bus and heads straight into the heart of the few who were looking for The Big Change in their lives.
And what a change it is. In one fell swoop he rips away from poor James in the front – and the rest of us scattered behind him in history – every last shred of worldly security that we have. If you’re with me, says Jesus, then away with your family, your past, your beloved, cloying traditions. He denies us our homes, our possessions, our very lives. And in its place, he hands us a cross and tells us to carry it.
Imagine the whispers and murmurs in the crowd. “Is he serious? What is he saying here??? Surely he doesn’t mean it?” And the disciples kind of hunch down a little and avoid eye contact.
Yeah, he probably means it.
Last Sunday, six adults and two youths got up in front of this congregation and pledged to stand with us as members. Right now, as I’m looking out at our mostly-empty church and those bright, enthusiastic new members filling a few pews, I empathize with James’ sense of, “Really? Did we have to get into this right now?” Couldn’t we kind of draw the new people in a little bit – give ‘em a little soap, a little smile – and maybe we could hit ‘em with the heavy stuff later? Bit by bit…?
But no. Jesus speaks to us as urgently this morning as he did to James and the crowd all those centuries ago: NOW is the time. It is, indeed, later than we think.
Robin Meyers in his extraordinary book, “Saving Jesus from the Church,” writes about how the typical Christian church woos visitors, the perfect soft-soap-sell from Marketing 101:
“Perhaps this is the church you’ve been looking for. Here are the services we provide (in an attractive physical package); and if you will tell us something about your needs, then maybe we can arrive at a mutual decision as to compatibility.”
Meyers says it reminds him of that familiar airline script: “We know that when it comes to church attendance, you have a choice, and we appreciate your choosing (insert church name) flight. It’s been a pleasure serving you today; and when your future plans call for collective worship, we hope to see you again on another (insert church name) flight.”
And he goes on – I love this:
Just once I wish the script could be real. What if we warned people against joining a church because turbulence in the pews is not “occasional and unexpected,” but routine? What if more sermons could move beyond what pilots call “light chop” and more preachers would fly people right into the storm, instead of around it in search of “smooth air”? What if those oxygen masks dropped down almost every Sunday and people had to grab them gasping, instead of hearing the standard rhetorical charade that advises otherwise terrified people to “continue breathing normally.
(to Linda Jacobs) Linda, he says we should leave our hats at home, that we should be wearing crash helmets to church. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares at the doors; they should lash us to our pews.
“Does anyone,” he asks, “have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?”
Jesus knew. And Jesus knew that to touch that power, we absolutely must strip away everything that gets in the way. Everything we own, everything we are must be tested by fire and love, sanctified, and made a whole part of our journey with God. If it’s not helping, it goes. All of it. No exceptions.
Clarence Payne got up at John Claude’s baptism two weeks ago and talked about the difference between holy water and tap water. Holy water has purpose; it is poured out, it is treated with reverence and care. It is water that has been radically changed by holy words with holy intent.
Like us. We are holy. Our very bodies invoke God’s holy power.
And all that we may take with us on this wild flight is our radical faith in God – and each other. Note that while Jesus decimates what for most of us constitutes a full life of family relationships and homes and possessions, he doesn’t mention his friends. Look at the list: “You must hate your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters…possessions, life itself…” Nowhere – in any scripture ever, actually – does he say, “You must hate your friends” or “Go alone and take no one with you.” In fact, to the contrary; he considered friendships and colleagues to be an essential part of the journey. In John 15:13, he elevates friendship to an even higher plane: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
So if even Jesus wouldn’t go it alone, we won’t either. He has set before us an all-but-impossible task, a truly hard and glorious thing. To do it, we must stick together. We need each other — for comfort, for correction, for care, for love, and because Jesus never imagined that the Kingdom of God would be all sacrifice and deprivation. There must be joy in it, too – the best kind of joy that we find in and with each other.
This IS the transformative Good News, the “He can’t really mean it” message that flies in the face of every physical and emotional craving we ever tried to satisfy with the perfect soap, the perfect car, the perfect spouse, the perfect children, the perfect church. The perfect is only possible when we sweep away the rest. “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
So welcome to the Balboa Union Church. Fasten your seatbelts.
14:25 Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them,
14:26 “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.
14:27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
14:28 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?
14:29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him,
14:30 saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’
14:31 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?
14:32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace.
14:33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions