How Much Does This Piece Cost?
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli with Foundry UMC, September 4, 2022, the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost. “Mosaic: Piecing It Together” series.
Text: Luke 14:25-33
There is a United Methodist Church in New York City that doesn’t look like it’s a United Methodist Church. I served on the staff part-time for a year when Anthony and I lived in the city and I was consistently amazed at the oddity and beauty of the structure. Christ Church at Park Avenue and 60th Street has a Byzantine edifice and is filled with marble of various hues. The sanctuary glitters with stunning mosaic in the apse and lining the arches and ceiling of both the nave and the side chapel. It’s an awe-inspiring space and worth a side trip next time you’re in New York. To be clear, Methodists didn’t take over an Orthodox building; it was envisioned and built as a Methodist congregation with a particular mission. The pastor at the time, Dr. Ralph W. Sockman, was driven by the ecumenical spirit of the early 20th century and by the many non-Methodists who were part of his congregation already. He had a vision to make the congregation’s “constituency steadily broader and more inclusive.” He wished the new building to be reflective of the larger Christian tradition.
When I think of mosaics, I also think of the “The Golden Rule” mosaic in the United Nations building in New York City. The Mosaic is based on a painting by well-known American artist Norman Rockwell and depicts people of every race, creed, and color, with dignity and respect and touches on the theme of human rights. Inscribed on the surface of the mosaic is the Golden Rule: Do Unto Others as You Would Have Them Do Unto You. I encountered this amazing piece of art as a teenager on a United Methodist sponsored trip focused on Christian faith and social issues. It’s the one thing I remember from the UN.
There is something about mosaic art that is so powerful. Mosaics are created by piecing together small tiles or tesserae to create a whole image. The different materials used and the ways the pieces are put together can create texture, shadow, shimmering light, and a very particular kind of beauty. I can only imagine how many tiny tiles were required to cover all those arches and domes in Christ Church or just one face in the piece at the UN. I would begin to know what it cost to create those inspiring images. Without each individual tile, the vision would not be complete. And what a loss that would be.
This is a fitting metaphor for Christian community. We only have a community if there are persons to make up the community. The beautiful diversities of our lives, of who we are and where we come from, our cultures, experiences, and gifts—all of these things together create a particular image, a unique expression of the Body of Christ, the church. It’s one reason that every congregation has its own ethos, it’s own “vibe,” its own character—even when it shares much in common with other congregations. The persons, living and dead, whose lives make up a congregation contribute to its image and character, for better or worse.
But some might begin to wonder how being part of a church matters? It only makes a difference, it only matters, if we truly enter in and receive both what is offered by God and what is available through life together in community. As with anything in life, the more you give—in relationship, commitment, time, and resources—the more you receive. And, collectively, our witness (who and how we are and what we believe), our service and advocacy for justice, makes a difference in proportion to what all of us offer to that shared work.
Inclusive, loving, and just community has been God’s dream for the world from the beginning. God’s prophets throughout the ages—from Jeremiah to Jesus to those crying out in the wildernesses of our current moment—are sent by God to try to guide us, to inspire us, to get us to turn toward God’s dream and share in its bounty. And from age to age, prophets are largely blown off.
A story of getting blown off is what sets the context and helps us make sense of our rather tricky Gospel passage for today. Just before our text, Jesus had been at a banquet where a dinner guest said, ‘Blessed is the one who will eat bread in the kingdom of God,’ Jesus responded with the parable of the great dinner. In the parable, those who were invited came up with all kinds of excuses for blowing off the invitation. They weren’t willing to change anything in their lives to make the feast a priority. Jesus was trying to help those at the banquet recognize that entering the Kin-dom of God requires life adjustments, may cost them a great deal, and that even the best excuses—family, life, vocation, human love—will not be sufficient. That’s where we pick up in Luke 14 today. To be clear—because this is often a stumbling block—Jesus isn’t teaching us to hate our families (as if Jesus would ever teach hate). “‘To hate’ is a Semitic expression meaning to turn away from, to detach oneself from. There is nothing of the emotion we experience in the expression ‘I hate you.’” So when Jesus speaks of “hating” family and one’s own life, he refers to a turning away from or a letting go; the point is about priorities, about cost. It’s still a difficult teaching—because detachment, a willingness to let something or someone go for the sake of following God’s call, is not an easy thing.
Priorities and the cost of our choices is the central point of the other examples Jesus offers to the crowd. The business of tower building (done most likely for protection of fields and homes from invasion) and war making had serious implications not only for the person doing the work, but for the entire community. No one would enter into these things without carefully thinking it through. And no thoughtful person would undertake these endeavors without counting the cost, recognizing that they will have to make significant sacrifices in other areas to ensure a successful outcome.
Jesus makes it plain when he says, “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” (Luke 14.33) Those who follow Jesus have to take seriously that a cost, adjustments, changes will be required. But remember—the story he just told was of a banquet feast lavishly spread with every good thing freely given. Refusing the call, the invitation, making any excuse, means that you have blown off the promise, the feast, the open door, the entry into a fullness that even the other good gifts of life can never rival. It is an illusion to think that anything other than God’s way of love, humility, mercy, and justice will satisfy our deepest hunger and thirst. We are called to enter in for our sake; not just to avoid devastating consequences, but because our own growth, sense of purpose, and experience of community that might even be called beloved—these will all be discovered as we walk the Way with Jesus and one another.
When the District Superintendent brought me in to meet with the Foundry Board back in 2014 as the newly appointed Senior Pastor, I remember a particular engagement with one of the saints of Foundry, Larry Slagle. I shared that many churches were “lowering the requirement bar” for joining their congregation, perhaps out of fear or a desire to increase their membership rolls. But I believed that signals that we don’t think our covenant commitment to God and one another is important. These days people have choices and want to be part of something that matters. The more we treat something as unimportant, the less important others will believe it is. I shared my sense that thriving churches ask more of people, are clear about the investment of time, energy, and resources required for a growing, vital, impactful life of faith. Larry, who was seated directly across from me at the Board table pressed, “Is that something you plan to do at Foundry?” My response was something like, “Well, that depends upon Foundry. It’s something that we can only do together.” Larry seemed satisfied.
[Jesus wasn’t trying to get names on rolls or to pretend that there was no cost, no sacrifice required to enter into life in the Kin-dom. He was showing us a vision for how life can be when we don’t hold back the beautiful gifts of ourselves, but rather offer them to God’s work of love and mending in the world.]
My vision for Foundry is not to make things easy, but rather make things meaningful, purposeful, impactful, and life-giving for us, for others, and ultimately for this city, nation, and world. It only happens when we give ourselves to the vision, are willing to invest in the work, take our place in the mosaic that is this unique embodiment of the Body of Christ called Foundry, and enter the feast set for us by God. The feast is freely given, but we may have to rearrange our plans, reallocate resources, and let some things go if we want to truly be filled.