You can't always get what you want

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

In the name of God, who is our need, our gift, and the spaces in between.  Amen.

As I was thinking and praying throughout this week about what I might say today – how we might approach this decidedly troublesome excerpt from Luke’s gospel – this one song lyric kept invading my thinking.  It became a kind of mantra as I tried to wade through these words.  It said: “You can’t always get what you want.  You can’t always get what you want.  You can’t always get what you want.  But if you try sometimes, well, you just might find, you get what you need.”

That song from the Rolling Stones begins with the sound of The London Bach Choir – with its treble voices singing in the style of an English cathedral.  It gives these words the air of religious significance – like it’s a gospel, in itself.  And this morning, it sort of feels that way.

The words of Jesus today are tough, which only goes to show: you can’t always get what you want.

As he was teaching – sharing the good news of God with the people of God – the crowds began to grow around him.  Perhaps he was sensing that they were getting the wrong idea – just coming along because of all the promises of the good stuff, without understanding the real implications of his teachings.

That leads us to these words that we read today that theologians have come to talk about as “the cost of discipleship”.  When we think of this faith and the relationship with God that it offers, we usually think of the many benefits.  But all benefits come with a cost.

Jesus shares what is, perhaps, one of his most uncomfortable teachings.  He says, “‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.  Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”  And then, finally, after a discussion of the various ways that leaders consider costs, he says, “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

There’s a subset of teaching in the evangelical Christian movement called the “Prosperity Gospel” that promises that the way we can be assured of God’s love and favor is through the acquisition of materials gained in this life, on earth – that prosperity is, itself a sign of God’s love.  On its surface, I think most of us can see pretty easily that that doesn’t line up with what we know of Jesus.  But if there was ever any doubt, this bit of the Gospel that we read this morning would cast it aside.  Faithful discipleship isn’t defined by the acquisition of possessions nearly as much as it is defined by the disposition of possessions.

One of the real challenges of that “prosperity gospel” teaching is not even so much what it says, but what it implies.  I suppose it’s all well and good to be grateful to God for prosperity, but what does that say about times of want?  If God shows favor by lavishing good things, would that mean that hard times represent the absence of God’s favor?

I don’t think so.

The fact is, Jesus never promised us easy times.  All the more, over and over again, Jesus warned us that a life in Christ could sometimes be hard.  Like the song lyric repeats, again and again, “You can’t always get what you want,” so, too does Jesus warn us of the same.

As challenging as this gospel reading is, I don’t think the specifics that we tend to get hung up on are really the point.  It’s not so much about hating father and mother, and sister and brother, and even life itself as it is about recognizing that discipleship is more complex than the sales pitch we sometimes hear in favor of it.  Following Christ doesn’t mean that our every problem will be solved.  The deeper promise of following Christ isn’t that we’ll never suffer, but that we’ll never be alone in our suffering.

You can’t always get what you want.
You can’t always get what you want.
You can’t always get what you want.
But if you try sometimes, well, you just might find, you get what you need.

A faithful life isn’t hedonism.  A faithful life doesn’t come with an assurance of comfort or luxury.  A faithful life can’t turn every morning into Christmas morning.  But if you try sometimes, well, you just might find, you get what you need.

It may not be glamorous, but really, it’s better than glamorous.  It’s enough.  It’s relationships with each other and relationships with God that sustain us through all those times that don’t line up so neatly with the shallow sales pitch we might long to believe.

There will always be suffering in the world.  There will always be needs.  Those aren’t the absence of God, but places where we are being called to bring God into focus.

I’ll admit, I didn’t particularly want this gospel today.  But you can’t always get what you want.  But, if you try sometimes, well, you just might find, you get what you need.  And God is in the need, every bit as much as God is in the prosperity.  That’s the promise.  That’s the blessing.  Not that we’ll always have it easy, but that we’re never in it alone.  Amen.