Monday, August 29, 2016

Count Before You Commit

During my senior year of college, I explored the possibility of becoming a priest. I met weekly with a priest and mentor, and we shared a one-on-one bible study of Romans as a way of determining whether I had what it takes to be a successful clergyman. Being an old-school Anglican, my mentor figured that if I could explain what St. Paul was saying to the twenty-first-century church, I would figure the rest out on the job. Once we finished the first twelve chapters of Romans, we turned to the diocesan policy and accompanying application form, and, in one hour-long session, we checked off all of the topics we were supposed to discuss. "Do the nominee's spouse and children accept this call?" Not applicable. "Does the nominee understand that he/she is not likely to return to the same parish?" He looked at me for a half of a second and wrote down, "Yes." "Does the nominee understand the financial limitations of ordained life?" He paused for a moment. "Do you have a job?" he asked. "No," I replied. "Well, it won't be any worse than that." And, just like that, I was ready to meet with the bishop.

I spent a year after college working at my local church and as a paralegal at a law firm in town. During that first summer, I remember seeing the law school clerks come in and get wined and dined as the firm tried to woo new associates. While they played golf in the afternoons, I sat in a cubical and stuck Bates labels on documents. Fifteen months later, I began seminary at the same time that a close friend began law school. We progressed in parallel tracks, and, after three years of graduate study, the reality of our separate financial circumstances was made abundantly clear. He was hired by the same firm where I had worked as a paralegal with a starting salary above $80,000 plus a signing bonus. I began ministry at the diocesan minimum of $40,000, and the closest thing I got to a signing bonus was a reimbursement for the Ryder truck I rented to load our thrift-store-bought furniture for the move back to Alabama.

I'm not resentful. I love my job, and, now that I'm ten years into ordained life, I am paid more than a minister of the gospel has any right to expect. But, over the years, I have seen a considerable number of seminary graduates have a hard time finding a job in a place where their families want to live. They grouse about moving to rural Alabama, and lament the quality of education their children will receive. They struggle to find a job that pays enough for their family to maintain even a modest lifestyle. They bounce from church to church, never spending enough time in one place to build up considerable equity in a house. In many cases, clergy are trapped in relative poverty, and they seem surprised and disappointed at the reality they face. Even though my mentor sped through the discussion items, he made sure I understood what I was signing up for.

Maybe Luke 14:25-33  should be a required bible study for all prospective seminarians. In what is presumed to be hyperbolic language, Jesus said, "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." We're familiar with this "cost of discipleship" mentality that Jesus espouses. Its radical, family-abandoning, life-hating approach shocks us into accepting the reality of a life dedicated to following Jesus. We make sense of it by ameliorating it and convincing ourselves that, as long as we prioritize kingdom above all else, we're going to be fine.

The two parabolic analogies that follow are equally insightful and nonthreatening. "Don't you count the cost of building a tower before you build it? Otherwise everyone will laugh at you. Doesn't a king figure out whether he will win the battle before he wages war? Otherwise he will ask for terms of peace." Everything seems to be ok. Count the cost before you sign up. Being a disciple will be challenging. Yes, Jesus, we're ready. And then he gets to the last line of the passage, and all of our calculating falls apart.

Jesus said, "So, therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions." (Cue sound of needle scratching across record.) Say what? You weren't kidding? All of my possessions? The "therefore" is damning. We've made our way through the exaggerated, point-proving language of hating family and life and counting the cost to get to the real application of the text, and Jesus' conclusion is "none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions?" How many of us saw that coming? He's not messing around, is he?

The challenge for the preacher this week is to take Jesus seriously and figure out a way to help the congregation do the same. Clearly, for two thousand years, the church has found a way to ignore this bit of Jesus' teaching. We haven't insisted on communal life for all believers since the days when the Acts of the Apostles was taking place. So what does Jesus mean? I don't think he was exaggerating. I believe that Jesus really expected all who follow him to give up everything. Was he wrong? Or are we? You certainly don't have to be ordained in order to follow Jesus, but you are asked to give up as much--just in a different way. Similarly, you don't have to be poor in order to be a Christian, but Jesus might ask you to give it all up. Could you? Would you? How would you know?

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