The Cost of Discipleship

river birch

When I think of the homes I’ve lived in, I remember the trees. In my mind’s eye, I can walk through the yards, and see the trees, and even remember what some of them felt like when I climbed into their branches. Currently, when I’m working through morning devotionals and drinking coffee, I look out on a single river birch tree. The river birch and I have a complicated relationship. Through the fourteen years we’ve lived with one another, river birch has been trimmed three times. Twice, we’ve taken out portions of the tree that seemed poised to fall in a storm. Last fall, it was trimmed back heavily, but already is filling out again. I’m a steward of the life of river birch. But I don’t feel like I own it, rather, sometimes, it feels like it owns me. Before each mowing, I pick up half a trash can of dropped branches and sticks. Whoever thought up the idea of placing a river birch in the middle of a lawn should have to mow around one for a while.

When I try to imagine why river birch was chosen, I come up with three reasons. My front yard isn’t that large, and another species would take more room. A big tree would have been more expensive. Most importantly, the river birch looks pretty good from the time it’s planted, and makes a quick impact.

In contrast, an oak doesn’t grow all that quickly. For the original owner, it might not have seemed like a good payout of shade or beauty for a ten-year stay. Planting an oak tree is an investment in the future. For some people, an investment without a quick payoff is too high a price to pay.

Of course, landscaping is not the only activity reflecting the truth that beauty comes at a price. Consider the athletes who recently competed in the Olympic Games. Consider the sports teams and bands that are beginning their fall schedules. People who spend months or years preparing for these things show us that anything worthwhile is going to cost something.

In the Gospel of Luke chapter 14, Jesus urges a crowd of admirers to consider the price of following him. He is on his way to Jerusalem, and the journey has taken on the flavor of a protest march or political convention. The crowds understand his preaching to pit Galilee against Jerusalem, Jews against Romans, peasants against power. Only Jesus seems to be seriously considering the possibility of a bad outcome; the crowds seem oblivious to the notion that they will be personally affected. Jesus tells them to think very carefully about the consequences of joining his cause, and decide whether they are willing to walk with him all the way to end.

This week, I thought about Jesus’ words in the context of the nonprofit leadership course I’m taking at UMSL. On Tuesday night, we had spirited discussion about a key concept called the “double bottom line.” A nonprofit organization – like our church – measures its success in two major ways: first, by its ability to fulfill its mission; and, second, by its ability to succeed financially and survive.

Some of my classmates argued for the priority of the financial bottom line, saying that sometimes it’s better to trim back programs, conserve resources, and live to pursue mission another day. Others argued that the mission bottom line always comes first, and that mission priority is a fundamental difference between the non-profit organization and the for-profit business.

Judy Vredenburgh, a former executive of Big Brothers Big Sisters and the March of Dimes, describes the difference in this way: “Every time we in nonprofits satisfy customers, we drain resources, and every time for-profits satisfy a customer, they get resources.”[1] In the church, the double bottom line means that sometimes we make choices to be Christ for the world today, not because it is the profitable thing to do, but because it is the right thing to do. God’s grace is freely given, of course. But the path of discipleship Christ calls us to travel usually is associated with a cost to be paid.

The cost of discipleship – the title of today’s sermon – is taken from a book of the same name by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer is the German “Confessing Church” pastor and theologian who was martyred by the Nazis in 1945 for participating in a plot to overthrow Hitler. The Confessing Church’s “Barmen Declaration” is officially part of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Bonhoeffer’s witness is powerful in the Presbyterian tradition. As I’ve mentioned in the past, we are indebted to him for helping to shape our understanding of two key concepts: “cheap grace” and “costly grace.”

Bonhoeffer wrote: “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves . . . the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship . . . . Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock . . . . It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”[2]

I direct your attention to the last phrase, because in it I detect good news. Why would anyone want to follow Jesus after his stern warning? Why would anyone plant oak trees? Why would an athlete train for the Olympics? Why would anyone listen to the call to pursue a profession that does not provide maximum comfort or income? Why would Bonhoeffer return from America to Germany to face the Nazis? Why would church members embrace a mission to be Christ for the world today in worship, education, and outreach, then support it with their time, talents, and financial treasures? It costs a man his life! It costs a woman her life! “Because,” says Bonhoeffer, “it gives a man the only true life.”

Spiritual sensitivity involves recognizing, at a deep level, that we are created and placed on this earth for purposes greater than personal profit. Only by following the call of Christ is our purpose truly fulfilled. You and I were made to do it. Jesus’ warning to count the cost can be intimidating. But anything worthwhile is going to cost something. And if you look deep inside yourself, I think you may discover a deep spiritual truth: you want to pay the price.

[1] Michael J. Worth, Nonprofit Management: Principles and Practices.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship.

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~ by JohnH1962 on September 4, 2016.