NRSV LUKE 9:51-62
51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53 but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54 When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55 But he turned and rebuked them. 56 Then they went on to another village.
57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60 But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Gee, I hope this sermon is somewhat coherent. I wrote it the day after driving in the car for seven hours, not the most I’ve ever done in one stretch, but the most I’ve done recently. The pay back was time with the grandkids, and it was well worth it.
But that long a drive can be mind-numbing, especially for someone like me who does not have much of a mind to numb. My mind can do a ‘walk about’, as the great tennis player Evonne Goolagong Cawley used to say about herself. So I need a call back, something that returns me to reality. Hopefully not when I am right on top of someone’s rear bumper. But something that will center me, bring me back to the now, to be in the moment that I preach all the time to other people but still need quite a few lessons on myself.
A grove of trees; cows in a field; the beauty of a cloudless day, or the beauty of storms up ahead which are a pain to drive through but so impressive to look at from a distance. For me it is usually seeing trees blowing in the wind, as long as I don’t look at them so long I am not paying attention to the traffic in front of me. These are icons, symbols of God’s presence in a way, which I really believe is anything that takes us out of our dream worlds and back into the reality in which we live, a reality in which God’s grace exists. Which, when you come down to it, is the only place where God’s grace does exist. It is that grace which centers me, and I believe centers us all, and we don’t get there by being in our own worlds.
We all need something to center us, sometimes to jolt us, to recognize the world as it is and either accept it with thanksgiving or recommit ourselves to changing it; to make it a better world for ourselves, our children and grandchildren, or other people’s kids. After all, we are all in this journey of life together. That’s reality.
About the time I was enjoying myself playing with grandkids on the beach there was another kind of image coming over the media. The TV didn’t work at the place where we were staying, but I saw it on Facebook, and it shook me to my core: a man’s body lying on the side of the river, with the arm of his little girl – 23-months old – wrapped around him in death. On the one hand it called to mind the Biblical line, “A love stronger than death.” On the other it chilled me at the senselessness of it all. People trying to escape the violence in their native land of El Salvador, growing tired of the long wait to process their asylum claim to come to this country. So they tried to swim across the Rio Grande. First the father, I guess to try it out; then the little girl who went in after him, thinking her Daddy was in trouble.
Yes, I’m one of those bleeding hearts, but I am also a bleeding heart Christian who remembers John Donne’s line about the death of one person affecting us all; the loss of one life affecting the whole human race. Yes, it can be said they were illegal immigrants, they were trying to come into our country illegally. And speaking about such things can be problematic – I could just blow it off and tell Jesus, well, you know, I have people who are staunch Republicans among those you called on me to love, and they watch FoxNews and all that and they will get angry if I mention this kind of thing.
But then I remember those texts from the Bible: Inasmuch as you ministered to one of the humblest, you ministered to me. Inasmuch as you did not minister to one of the humblest, you did not minister to me. You should be kind to the sojourner – read refugee, or immigrant – for yourselves were once sojourners in Egypt.
And I think of this text, of all texts. The hinge of Luke’s Gospel, the centerpiece of the whole thing. Everything that came before it is a prelude. Everything that comes after it will lead to the giving of the life of Jesus for the world, to show us all what God’s love is like. Jesus set his face to Jerusalem.
Or, as Debi Thomas puts it, “…if we want a way of life that’s soft and cuddly, Jesus’ way isn’t it. If we want a God who will respect our priorities, honor our social, cultural, and economic boundaries, and keep our lives neat and orderly, Jesus is not that God. If we want a spirituality that’s comfortable rather than costly, and stable rather than transformative, we should walk away now. Because Jesus’ face is set like stone for Jerusalem. For sacrifice. For the cross. Yes, he bids us to follow. Of course he does. But he bids us, in Dietrich Bonhoefer’s chilling words, ‘to come and die.’”
When I read that I couldn’t help remember another part of that text from Bonhoefer’s The Cost of Discipleship, words that still haunt me when I want to chicken out and play it safe and not get anyone upset. Words that direct me and give me that reality check I need once in a while to be in the moment, to really see the world as it is and not the way I wish it was or the way we all wish it was. Words that call on all of us to make a stand for all God’s children and the way of love in a world that often worships hate and greed: “That which cost God much cannot be cheap for us.”
This is the week of the Fourth of July, our great national holiday. It’s a time we play or listen to patriotic music and remember those great Founding Fathers who penned and signed the Declaration of Independence, ending with the affirmation that they would hold to these words at the risk of their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. Words that would be lived for all of them and tragically died for some of them. Those of us who are history nuts will also take these days to remember the events around a little town in southern Pennsylvania called Gettysburg in 1863 when armies from two parts of this nation would fight it out in the turning point of the bloodiest war in our nation’s history. It will call us to remember all those who have fought and died in other wars to preserve our freedoms, to keep us safe, to protect our values and to affirm those beliefs which we most cherish, which continue to guide us: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men – and women – are created equal…”
We remember them as we hear these words about Jesus, setting his face like flint toward the city of power, the city of authority, the city of political and religious uprightness, the city that will kill him. Certainly he had to know that. And yet he went anyway. Not only did he go, but he went firmly, resolutely. He set his face to Jerusalem, to opposition, to death.
We remember other people who have been resolute in their march toward where they most need to be, who did not look back but plunged forward, even into the face of death, and we think of them with the highest of respect. I have to admit that I often do not know what it is like to march toward somewhere or something resolutely. My training has been in listening to people, help them explore options (“well, you know, you could do this or that, you could take on this or you could take on that.”). There is also the spiritual thing – we need to listen to the Spirit of God, to take time to feel where God is in whatever activity we are in. If you are a little too resolute, a little too set on doing it your way, you can miss the one who is The Way. Being too resolute might cause you to get ahead of people too much, to make decisions for them, and to give the image that you have all the answers when more often than not you don’t have a clue.
Meanwhile, Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem. And he bids any who would take on his name, adhere to his teachings and be his disciples to do the same. To take on the journey to the place where you will be abused, where you will be taunted, where you will find opposition. But you will also find there a connection with God you would never have found anywhere else.
But to do that, you have to let go. And one of the things we have to let go of are all those “But first…,” that we offer to Jesus when the call comes. It was the same way with those early would-be disciples. Three of them come to him, and they either receive an invitation from Jesus (the first one), or they express how much they want to follow Jesus. But every one of them lifts up a “But first…”
What are the “But firsts” that we lift up to Jesus when our call comes? What are the things that get in the way; what are the things that we put first in front of following Jesus where he leads? To again listen to Debi Thomas: “Can I even count how many times I’ve offered Jesus a version of this last excuse? ‘Sure, Lord, I’ll follow you! I’ll give you everything I’ve got. I promise. But, um, not right now. Later. After I …’
“After I what? After I finish these last few super important projects. After I find a spouse. And I lose twenty pounds. And get over my dysfunctional past. And finish raising my kids (or helping raise my grandkids or great-grandkids). And spend a few years cozying up to my boss. And get a raise. And buy a house. And pay off my grad school loans. And retire. And turn forty, fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty ….
“The list is endless, and that’s precisely Jesus’ point. If our to-do list ends with Jesus instead of beginning with Jesus, we’ll never get Jesus at all. If we keep glancing over our shoulders in nostalgia instead of fixing our eyes on what lies ahead, we’ll never step onto the road that leads to Jerusalem. Spiritual fitness requires a sense of urgency and passion. A sense of the sacred, irreplaceable value of right now.”
A friend of mine went to see a movie about the church in Charleston that was desecrated when a crazed young white man went into a Bible study and murdered nine African American people. The movie showed that some of their family members talked about how they had forgiven him. Some said they could not forgive him right now, but were working on it. They were all praying for him. In each of those lives you could see the movement of God’s Spirit as people struggled with what it means to follow Jesus resolutely into Jerusalem.
She said as they came out of the movie theater, a rainbow shown in the sky. The people who had watched that movie with all of its emotional intensity felt a presence – the Presence of the One who gave the rainbow as a sign that water would not cover the earth again. A sign that reminds us all that God cares how we live our lives, and that God’s grace will be with us even on our way to Jerusalem. Amen.