“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish...’
“In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.
-Luke 14:28-30, 33
My favorite baseball team, the Atlanta Braves, had a spot in the playoffs all but sewn up. As September began, they were 8 ½ games ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals. All they needed to do was to avoid losing, oh, I don’t know, 20 out of their last 30 games, and they would be playing in the postseason. Barring a total, epic collapse, it was a sure thing.
Hello, total, epic collapse.
The Braves lost 20 of their last 30. Thirteen of their last eighteen. They lost five straight games to close out the season - five straight games, any one of which would have put them in. And even so, in their last game on Tuesday night, they had a lead in the ninth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies. Needing a win to play the Cardinals Thursday in a one-game playoff, they handed the ball and a one-run lead to rookie closer Craig Kimbrel. Turns out he couldn’t take care of either one. He only gave up one hit, but he also walked three. The Phillies tied the score in the ninth, and then won the game 4-3 in the thirteenth.
And watching baseball is supposed to be fun.
When an athlete or a team doesn’t finish well, it’s usually reflected in the score and the standings. It isn’t always so easy to put a score on a person’s finish. But it’s still easy enough to see when a person doesn’t finish well. A marriage hits a snag, a rough patch, and people who pledged - and meant it - “for better or worse” and “‘til death do us part” start looking for the exits. Someone starts a new job with joy and excitement and dedication, but three years later is complaining, bitter, just doing enough to get by. A politician takes office with promises to end “politics as usual,” but a couple of years later finds himself enmeshed in the same partisan bickering he swore to end.
I’m thinking of someone, a friend who a few months ago asked me to pray with him about his drinking and the toll it had exacted from his marriage, his job, his friendships. He entered into recovery with optimism and determination. But somewhere along the line he turned his back on the people who cared about him and helped him through six months of sobriety: his church, his AA group, his friends. Last time I spoke with him, he was drunk and ashamed.
I’m thinking of several people I know who started following Jesus with love and faith and gratitude in their hearts. They were baptized surrounded by tears and songs and prayers, urged on by parents and friends. A few years later, the faith which at one time had meant so much to them has become an obstacle to the life they think they want.
Lest I come across as too proud, I’m thinking of myself, too: the times I assured myself, others, God, that I would be a better husband, father, minister. If I’m being honest, I have to admit to times that my discipline has faltered, my dedication has waned, my love has grown cold.
Probably because there was no baseball in Jesus’ time, he pictured a man building a tower as an illustration of someone who is ready to start following him, but not quite ready to pay what it costs to finish. No wonder, really, because the price is high: family, even life itself.
Sometimes, when I read that text where Jesus suggests that before we follow him we should “estimate the cost,” I wonder how any of us could possibly do that. How do we know anything more than the broad outlines of what following him might demand of us? More to the point, how do we know, until it comes right down to it, if we’ll pay the cost or not? Peter, after all, said “I don’t know him” just a few hours after insisting “I’ll die with you.” Why should I be surprised that my friend went back to drinking, or that some let go of the faith that once meant so much to them? Why should anyone be surprised when my own fervor sometimes flickers out?
Of course, I think all Jesus meant to do was to point out that there is a cost. Following him, the parable reminds us, is more akin to building a tower than, say, setting up a tent. It will demand something of us, and even if we aren’t always sure at the beginning what it is, we shouldn’t be surprised when the bill comes due.
I’m praying right now for Youcef Nadarkhani. You should, too. He’s an Iranian brother in Christ who knows about paying the cost of following Jesus. He was scheduled to be executed, in fact, this past Wednesday for refusing to deny his faith and affirm Islam. As of today, there is no word. But by all reports, he is willing to die if that’s what is required of him. When the judges in his trial instructed him to repent, Youcef reportedly said, “Repent means to return. What should I return to? To the blasphemy that I had before my faith in Christ? ...I cannot.”
Paul was concerned with finishing well when he said, according to Luke, “I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.” He didn’t know much except the broad outlines either, but he planned on paying whatever following Jesus might cost him and finishing strong. When, a few years later, he assured his young friend Timothy that he had, indeed, “finished the race,” his joy was palpable. The anticipation of his reward had replaced any trepidation about the cost of finishing the race he had started.
So here’s the thing to remember: none of us are done. Not yet. Not my friend who drinks too much. Not the people we have all known who seem to have given up on following Jesus. Not even me, with all my failings and frailties. And not you either. We’re still in the race, still in the game, still building something. The Lord we follow will wait for us, and give us strength when we ask for it. We walk together so we can lean on one another. So the question isn’t, “How are you doing right now?” The question is, “Will you get up, will you brush off your failures, will you pay the cost of following the One who gave everything for you?”
However you started. Whatever condition you’re in right now. Will you finish strong?