Sunday, March 3, 1996

Location - Bridgewater
Bible Verses - Exodus 36:1-7
Luke 36:25-35

For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, to see whether you have enough to finish it? - Luke 14:28

In its setting in Luke’s gospel, this verse clearly refers to the cost of discipleship. Jesus sees crowds of people following him, apparently fascinated by his teaching, and especially by his verbal sparring matches with some of the Pharisees. He knows all too well, though, that few of them will find the commitment to keep following him when things become difficult. It brings to mind the parable of the Sower, with the image of the seed that fell on shallow ground. It sprung up quickly, but because it had no depth of root, it withered in the heat of the sun.

A long-term commitment is a serious matter. Can we really “count the cost” when we do not know the future? Every day, couples at the altar pledge lifelong loyalty to each other with no way of knowing what circumstances they will have to face together, how they as individuals will change as the years pass. If they could see pictures of themselves forty years in the future, if they could talk to that coming senior citizen, would they still take the step? Would they take it with the same confidence?

Of course, these are unrealistic “ifs.” That future person is not predetermined. There is no law of the aging process that says we have to become more understanding and generous or less so. We shape our character by our own choices. The cost of commitment is the cost of shaping our character for the sake, in this instance, of the marriage, choosing to deny inclinations that threaten the relationship.

If we could see our own nature with perfect clarity, we would have a clear general idea of the cost of the commitment. We would be able to see that our various tendencies toward self-indulgence and self-justification would have to be given up. We still would not be able to see, so to speak, what the payment plan would be, when the installments would be demanded and how big they would be.

To shift to a different area of life, in these days of downsizing many people are finding that what they had expected would be lifetime jobs have vanished, have been taken from them. They had assumed the pattern of meeting their responsibilities, becoming more and more capable, and moving up the employment ladder. It can be a major blow to do one’s part and have the world refuse to respond. There is a feeling of futility, of helplessness, that can readily degenerate into cynicism. Why should I commit my best efforts to a company that clearly has no loyalty to its employees? If I had known what was going to happen, I would have done everything I could to make sure it happened to someone else.

On a material level, these are not easy questions to answer. How realistic is it to make a commitment when the future is so cloudy? The world is changing faster than ever. In our government and its military, there are thousands of jobs whose justification vanished when the Soviet Union collapsed. Computers are fulfilling one of their unspoken promises—redefining what human beings are actually needed for.

This last fact leads back toward our text. The Lord was not talking about commitment to a particular job. He was talking about commitment to a set of values. He was actually talking about commitment to being fully human. This means making ourselves fully receptive to the love and light that flows constantly from the Divine, getting rid of whatever blocks it. To use an image suggested by our Old Testament reading, for the “tower” read “the tabernacle.” Think of building a place for the Lord to dwell in our hearts. What will that take? How much will it cost?

The story of the building of the tabernacle is one of the few where the people seem to fulfill their obligations without complaint, and in fact to go beyond what is necessary.

And they spoke to Moses, saying, “The people are bringing much more than enough for carrying out the work which the Lord commanded us to do. . . . For the material they had was sufficient for all the work of building, and too much (Exodus 36:5,7).

We can understand this to mean that the Lord will see to it that we have more than we really need for what the Lord wants us to do. That does not mean that we will have everything we need to do what we want to do, or even what we think the Lord wants us to do. If the people had wanted to build a temple in the wilderness rather than the tabernacle the Lord had prescribed, their supplies would have been hopelessly inadequate. One cannot build stone walls out of goatskins.

If we are to count the cost of discipleship, then, step one is to be as clear as we can about the goal. There are caricatures of altruism, for example, which say that we must have absolutely no concern for ourselves. Yet both experience and doctrine tell us that if we do not care for ourselves, we will run out of strength to be of use to others. Burnout is a very real risk in “the helping professions,” the professions that appeal to our desires to be of real service to each other. Ministers have to be taught self-care. Some need help in developing a discipline of non-self-sacrifice.

There are also images of discipleship which focus on denominational loyalty, on defending one’s own faith by attacking the faith of others. Swedenborg is abundantly clear that the Lord provides everyone with enough truth to point the way to heaven, but even so, one can find in our church literature de-scriptions of “the Old Church” that make it sound like an exception to this principle.

For us, I would suggest that Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell represents a kind of outline of the goal of discipleship. In other words, the goal is best described as a way of living together, a way of caring and being cared for, of understanding and being understood. When we look at the stages we pass through in the World of Spirits after death, we find that heaven’s essential entrance requirement is the abandonment of pretense. Perhaps we could even say that the primary cost of discipleship is the giving up of illusions.

At first glance, this may seem like a rather intellectual criterion, but it is not intended coldly. Some of our illusions are quite dear to us. When we challenge them, it is not just an intellectual exercise, because at the core of all our illusions is our own self-image. Our theology sometimes describes this as the “old self” that has to die if the new one is to be born (cf. Arcana Coelestia 84032). In one of my favorite passages, Heaven and Hell 302, we are urged to give up any claim to either virtue or guilt, of credit or blame—in a sense, to leave our salvation in the Lord’s hands and stop worrying about it. That lets us get on with the business of actually living a worthwhile life.

Perhaps, though, we can come at the subject from the other side. There is another story in Scripture about building a tower, the story of the tower of Babel. This quite clearly is an image of self-exaltation, of what we might now call ego-building. These builders did not sit down first and count the cost, or if they did, they did not use the right figures. The cost wound up being their own unity, their ability to understand each other. The price they paid for their attempt to scale heaven by their own strength was that their speech was confused and that they were scattered abroad.

When we set out to justify ourselves, do we first sit down and count the cost of that tower? Do we recognize how we have to distort our perceptions? Do we recognize how we have to disregard or discount the feelings and responses of the people nearest to us? Do we realize, that is, that we are starting to build an imaginary world, and that the only way it can be maintained is by our constant investment of our energies into it?

There is no course of life that is without cost. If we think there is, we are no more realistic than the economists who think we can go on indefinitely taking more out of the system than we put in. There is no course of life that is without cost, but what we give up for heaven is worthless and what we give up for hell is priceless. For heaven, we give up illusions of superiority, illusions of righteousness. For hell, we give up all hope of peace of mind.

In a way, then, heaven is not only free, it is a gift, pure profit. What we give up is more than worthless, it is of negative value. Perhaps this is what is intended by the description in Exodus of the gifts for the building of the tabernacle. Bezaleel and Aholiab, Swedenborg tells us, picture those who are in heavenly love and those who are “in the good and truth of faith” (Arcana Coelestia 103294). In a heavenly state, when we are fully engaged in the affectionate and understanding relationships that our faith offers us, we do find that we have more than we can use. We may not have more time or money or physical strength, but there is more in our hearts than we can express, and there is a depth of meaning in our minds that is to big to fit into words.

Jesus looked at the crowds that were following him and knew what they would have to give up if they were to follow him all the way. In other parables, Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to a treasure hidden in a field or a pearl of great price, each so dear that the finder would sell everything he had in order to gain it. In that sense, the cost of building the tower seems immense, for we have to give up nothing less than our values themselves—our whole investment in ourselves.


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