Saturday, September 4, 2010

Counting the Cost

Proper 18C

“Which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?” In Sunday’s Gospel lesson from Luke, Jesus says that people who want to be his disciples need to consider the cost of discipleship and make sure they are ready to pay it. What if someone begins a building project without first determining the cost and making sure there is enough money to finish the project? Jesus says people will ridicule such a person.  

Consideration of cost is closely related to consideration of consequences. What are the consequences of beginning to build something without calculating the cost and checking the bank account? It’s exciting to start a new building project, but down the road the consequences of failing to calculate the cost can take away the initial pleasure.

Contemporary Analogies
If Jesus were speaking today, he might use other examples of the wisdom of counting the cost of something before we act. We could think about weighing the costs and benefits of using single-use plastics – shopping bags  cups, and eating utensils – or of using chemicals to produce lush lawns, or of the cost of our ways of producing and using energy.  Energy from coal and oil is a luxury to which we have become accustomed, but the effects of carbon emissions on the global climate  show the long-term costs to be unbearably high. 

Suppose that in today’s world, Jesus might use – or we disciples might use – the cost-of-energy analogy. We might talk about the wisdom of figuring out the long-term cost of our energy policies and making sure we have policies in place that make it possible to sustain climate stability and the basic necessities of life. We could talk about the cost of making environmentally-sustainable changes and compare it to the higher cost of refusing to make any significant changes in the way we live, especially in the ways we produce and use energy.  And then we might say that following Christ is like that, that it requires us to look at our lives and consider the cost of following Jesus versus the cost of not following Jesus. Discipleship is costly, and some people decide that the cost is too high. Those who follow Jesus, though, know that the rewards far exceed the cost. 

Flipping the Analogy
Here’s something else to consider: we can flip the analogy. Instead of using the cost-of-energy analogy to help explain the nature of Christian discipleship, we can use a discipleship analogy to give us some insight into energy and climate issues.  Christians – those who intentionally follow Christ – know that there is a cost in terms of our time, our money, and our freedom (in the narrow sense of that word), but we also know that the joy of following Christ far surpasses the cost.  Christians should be able to understand the long-term benefits of making some sacrifices now that would allow us to shift to a sustainable green economy, because we know that what looks like a huge sacrifice to others in our culture is a very light burden to those who know the love of Christ.

Given that the analogy works both ways, it suggests that Christian discipleship and environmental stewardship are not necessarily completely different enterprises. An essential piece of following Christ today, in fact, is caring about people who stand to suffer the most as the world’s climate changes. Christian discipleship requires our being willing to sacrifice our own conveniences and luxuries when doing so will help us shift toward a more sustainable world for everyone.

The Cost of Sustainability
In the second half of his book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, Bill McKibben talks about what sustainable ways of living might look like on this essentially new planet that he says we have brought about through climate change and other effects of our current way of life on the environment. It would look different, and there would be a cost of sorts, a loss of some things we take for granted, some luxuries we perhaps now mistake for necessities. But the cost of making these changes – and making them soon – is negligible compared to the cost of doing nothing.

Politicians and others argue that we can’t do anything significant about climate change because the cost in terms of the economic categories we have traditionally used is too great. But in the long-run, of course, as seas rise, as some now inhabitable parts of our own country become uninhabitable deserts, as large number of people throughout the world become climate refugees, and as agriculture here and other places is disrupted by changes in the length of growing seasons, rainfall patterns, and insect populations, the cost of making some changes now will look small indeed to people who look back twenty, fifty, one hundred years from now and wonder why we weren’t willing to inconvenience ourselves a bit. We know the science, we have the technological know-how, but we lack the political will. If we choose to continue building this selfish tower of indifference, we might first calculate the cost and see if the work can be sustained. Otherwise, when the work can no longer be sustained (and science tells us that time will come), the ridicule of those who suffer the consequences will be the least of our worries.