Friday, September 6, 2013

Job Vacancy: Disciple

Twenty Third Ordinary Sunday Year C

One of the biggest challenges of pastoring a large parish is identifying, training and managing a substantial number of volunteers that assist the parish priest in his duties. Now, this sounds exactly like a voluntary organisation, and I guess the culture of volunteerism does seem to have become the foundation of Church ministry and mission. The frequent cry you often hear in most churches is this, ‘We need more volunteers!’ Volunteering has become the primary way in which Christians are invited to participate in the work and mission of the Church. Over the years, I find that sustaining morale among Church volunteers has become a real challenge, sometimes it seems even impossible. We see our volunteers suffering from disillusionment and a constant need for tender-loving-care. The usual complaints we hear is that many feel unappreciated, ill-equipped for the job, a lack of support from others, and have become tired of the numerous criticisms heaped against them.

But perhaps the greatest problem lies in area of quality control. This is particularly true in the case of the Catholic Church. Well, you know what they say, ‘when you are only willing to pay peanuts, expect nothing less than monkeys!’ The most troubling issue when dealing with volunteers is that of commitment. There is no doubt that volunteer work is often a thankless and demanding endeavour, requiring great generosity, time and effort. We’ve eventually come to accept that if we demand too much of these volunteers, they would break and quit. We treat volunteers like royalty – tip toe around their mistakes and find it hard to hold them accountable. Too often we settle for less rather than for more.  In order to keep and please our volunteers, we end up lowering standards, compromising values and ultimately crippling the radical demands of discipleship in the name of survival.

It’s important and liberating to remember that volunteerism is not discipleship. While volunteerism has great value, even in the Church, it is not the central model for Christian life and service. We don’t need to recruit church volunteers—Jesus’ command to us was to go and make disciples. When it comes right down to it, there is a huge difference between volunteering from time to time, being a fair weather follower, and belonging totally to Jesus Christ. The individualism and consumerism that shapes how we participate in volunteering are incompatible with the selfless, all-demanding devotion that Christ calls for in participating in His mission. One of the benefits of being a volunteer is that there is always the option to take a break, to ‘sit this project out’, or even to quit. Volunteers set the agenda-when, how much, where, and what it is they will volunteer for. They are not tied down to anything or anyone. Discipleship, on the other hand, is not periodic volunteer work, on one’s own terms or at one’s convenience. As it is clear in the strong statements we find in today’s gospel, discipleship is total, unconditional, limitless commitment to Christ, requiring the greatest sacrifice, even that enduring suffering and death.

Structurally, today’s gospel selection is comprised of a catena of sayings on discipleship, followed by two parables. The sayings demonstrate a literary device in Semitic literature, the hyperbole; a figure of speech in which exaggeration is used for emphasis or effect, as in ‘I could sleep for a year’ or ‘This book weighs a ton.’ We all know that these expressions do not really mean that we are going to sleep for year or suggest Herculean strength is needed to lift the book. The hyperboles or exaggerations help us to appreciate and imagine the gravity of what is being expressed. Thus, the forcefulness of the first saying in today’s gospel to turn one’s back on, or literally to ‘hate’, father, mother, etc, is shocking. The call to hate one’s family is certainly a polarising idea. The word ‘hate’ is the opposite of ‘love.’ Naturally, this is not an actual call to hate your family – hate is incongruent with the Christian life. To hate one’s family does not imply animosity or hostility but rather absolute detachment in the strongest possible terms. Part of the cost of discipleship is the willingness to forgo the joys of security of family ties so as to be bound completely to Christ.  Allegiance to Christ is total! ‘Hating’ parents simply meant loving Jesus first and foremost, above family and even above self. From that love would flow the willingness to follow Jesus by taking up the cross.

Therefore, the gospel sets out the difference between mere volunteerism and hard edged discipleship. It boils down to the answer you give to these set of questions – What are you prepared to loose? What are you prepared to give up? What is the cost you are willing to pay?  Disciples are willing to pay the price of giving up everything for the sake of the kingdom. Volunteers just settle for cheap grace. Dietrich Bonheoffer, the Lutheran theologian executed by the Nazis at the end of World War II, describes cheap grace as the ‘enemy of the Church.’ I guess one could say that volunteerism is the product of cheap grace. According to him, “cheap grace is grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

What true disciples are fighting for is not cheap grace but costly grace. Bonheoffer tells us that “costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man’ will gladly go and sell all that he has... it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him. Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. 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 condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.”

Today, we are called to do an accounting of the sacrifices we need to make and the cost we are required to pay for the price of authentic discipleship. In the two short parables you just heard, Jesus communicates the necessity of entering into the process of discipleship with a clear head and the intention of persevering, holding fast till the end. The man who wants to build a tower must count the cost to make sure he has enough to finish the job. The king who is going to war must first count his troops and resources to make sure he can win the battle. In both parables the message is clear: Those who begin a major endeavor need to be prepared to see it through to the finish. Throughout our lives we will be tempted to quit when suffering threatens us, when we face criticism, when the cost seems too heavy, when we receive little reward or encouragement. The importance of counting the cost of discipleship is apparent when we see the point of our endeavour is to finish the race, not just merely to start it. Some say the hardest part is getting started. If this is true though, why do we hear stories of people who give up on their diet, stop writing a novel or quit a difficult task at work. Maybe it’s not the start but the finish that’s so difficult. The goal should always be to finish, not start. And in order to finish, we must be prepared to pay the cost and make sacrifices.

Today, what the Church needs is not more volunteers. We have enough of that and we could do with less of that! What the Church needs, what Christ wants, what salvation demands is this –men and women who have counted the cost and who are committed to Jesus regardless of the cost, and who will not stop in the middle of the stream and go back. Discipleship is not for the faint of heart. Discipleship is not for the lukewarm. Discipleship is not for the fence-straddlers. Discipleship is for the committed, for the consecrated and dedicated. Discipleship is for those willing to put their hand to the plow and not look back. Discipleship is not for a day, or for a week, or a year. Discipleship is for the rest of our lives. Discipleship is for those who are willing to follow Him regardless of what they have to let go of and leave behind. These are the clear job descriptions that disciples must know and be prepared for: No reserves – sacrifice everything, no retreats – press on, no regrets – finish the race.

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