A sermon for June 30, 2019 (The Third Sunday after Pentecost). The scripture readings are 1 Kings 19:15-16,19-21, Psalm 16, Galatians 5:1,13-25, Luke 9:51-62.
Listen to the sermon HERE.
Our Gospel today begins with a great phrase: “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” “He set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Of course, Luke partly means that Jesus was determined to get to the physical city of Jerusalem for the celebration of the Passover and for whatever God had in mind for him, which was only unfolding minute by minute. But Jerusalem has always been more than a physical city—then, just as now. Jerusalem (for Jews, Christians, and Muslims) is fought and fussed over because it represents the New Jerusalem, the place where God is “all in all.” It’s that Heavenly City to which all faithful people should aim their lives, their intentions, and their actions—larger, holier, more amazing than any earthly city could ever offer.
And so, when Jesus “sets his face to go to Jerusalem,” a lot is being said. It means there’s no time for looking back. It means there’s no time for resting on relative gains along the way. It means that nothing is going to stop him. And it’s exactly this direction, this intention, this energy of Christ that points forward and will not be stopped.
When Jesus and his disciples visit a village of Samaritans, the Samaritans are unimpressed. They’ve got their own traditional beliefs and they can’t be bothered by Jesus. The disciples are confused by this, and can’t quite figure out how to respond. In their confusion, they get angry and so they want to show those Samaritans just who they are dealing with. They suggest to Jesus that they bring down the wrath of God. James and John ask, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”
I relate to James and John. When I read the news, when I notice the bullies and “bad guys” of our world, I am rarely filled with Christian thoughts. I’m with James and John, “Lord, can’t you call down fire from heaven on them– our enemies, our opponents, the liars and bullies, and especially on the so-called religious who twist your words into words of hatred and violence?” But Jesus looks at me with the forgiving, understand love of his eyes and says no. No time for that. Move forward. There’s a lot to be done. We’re going to Jerusalem and there’s no time to look back. There’s no time to settle old scores. There’s no time for vengeance or gloating.
I heard a talk by the speaker and writer Byron Katie, this week and she made a comment that has stayed with me. She pointed out that if someone slaps me in the face, I can anticipate it (with fear) and I can remember it long after (with anger, resentment, plotting, hatred), but the slap itself lasts maybe a second. What I feel and think and believe about that slap is all in ME.
This is the way of Jesus. So what, if that particular bunch of Samaritans doesn’t get him—ok, move on. Don’t let them slow you down. Jesus moves us an inch or two closer into the Kingdom of God, the New Jerusalem, and there’s just no room for extra baggage like grudges or resentments.
In his Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul pushes this point further. [Now if you’re hung up on the warnings about sins of the flesh and such that Paul mentions, I encourage you to notice which words stand out for you. Notice that Paul gives other words equal weight in terms of their challenge to us: quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, idolatry, strife, anger….] Freedom is not to be confused with license… the freedom to prosper is not a freedom to be greedy, and a freedom to love is not the same thing as casual sex. ] If victory, justice, and fairness bring some privileges, he argues, they also bring opportunities that should be carefully navigated.
For freedom Christ has set us free…. Don’t use freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become servants (slaves, even) to one another…. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.” And so, live by the Spirit, whose gifts are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:1, 13-25, passim)
Jesus shows us how to live in that kind of freedom. As the Gospel from Luke describes it, Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem and the trouble with the Samaritans is only the beginning. The joy and love of Christ is infectious, so as people hear him and meet him, they want more, and they want to follow, but some want to follow on their own terms, or to follow at some future day, just not today.
One volunteers, “I’ll follow you wherever you go.” But Jesus warns him, “It’s not going to be easy. It’s not a life of palaces and fine dining. It will be more often a way of homelessness and heartbreak.”
Jesus invites another to follow, and the man seems willing but offers what sounds like a reasonable excuse for delay. “First, let me go and bury my father.” Here, Jesus sounds heartless as he says, “Let the dead bury the dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” But Jesus is calling that man to move forward.
During Jesus’s life, there was a strong sense that the end of the world was upon them in some way. This is a part of the urgency to Jesus’s preaching and living and the moving toward Jerusalem.
But, as the disciples and the early Church began to understand later, even when the end of the world is delayed, the urgency still stands because God’s kingdom is already breaking in on us—on those who will be a part of it. That’s what Jesus is trying to convey—don’t miss the kingdom for the checklist you’re trying to complete. Don’t wait until you’ve got this done or that done, or you’ve gotten beyond this hurdle or that one—the kingdom of God calls us to move forward, toward Jerusalem—the place and way of justice, peace, mercy, forgiveness, and love—the place where we do our best to live out those values Paul just talked about in Galatians.
Finally, a third person wants to follow Jesus but first needs to go home to say goodbye. Again, Jesus sounds harsh, saying, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
No one who looks back is fit for the kingdom of God. This is not to say we ignore history or ignore the past. [Our first lesson shows us that there are times when we put the movement forward on “pause” to take care of business, but then we move into where God is calling us.] But we don’t let it hold us captive, either. Some of us grew up with racial stereotypes. We are slow to move out of prejudice with regard to color, or class, or size, or age. We may have a long way to go before we arrive at the Jerusalem of God’s dream, but with faith, we make our way forward, one day at a time.
The month of June has become a special time in which Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer people march, and speak, and love with pride. While amazing advances have been made, too many people are still left out, and so there’s work to do. We’re called to follow Christ forward—in body, mind, and soul. Follow Christ forward, resisting the prejudice of the past, the misplaced shame of the past, perhaps the misunderstanding or rejection of ourselves or others in the past. Follow Christ forward, and once there has been forgiveness, embrace the full calling of Jesus Christ and don’t look back.
This week, there was some very good news from England. The Rev. Rose Hudson-Wilkin, currently serving as chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons in Parliament, will be consecrated Bishop of Dover. Mother Rose will be the first black female bishop in the Church of England, and combines theological insight with prophetic urgency in a way that will be a breath of fresh air for the church. Thanks be to God for her election.
If you asked Mother Rose if she ever wanted to be a chaplain to the Queen, or a chaplain to Parliament, or (God help her) a bishop—she would have laughed out loud. She has just been trying to be faithful. Not everyone applauds. In the Brexit climate of the UK, someone recently shouted at her on the street, “Go back to Africa.” But she’s moving towards Jerusalem.
In our own country, parts of the Trump movement are clear backlash. Gone are the days when race and gender automatically assured one of power and privilege, though in many circles they still carry their weight. But we should not be slowed down by this. As the Apostle Paul says, notice the fruit of the Spirit. Where people are red in the face with anger, consumed by fear, and desperate for a made-up version of history— that’s not God’s movement forward. Where people are finding themselves changed and changing, increasingly open to the strange and the stranger, and following Christ into an uncertain but faithful future—with our faces set to go to Jerusalem.
The Jesuit theologian Teilhard de Chardin wrote,
Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge. (“Omega Point”)
Whether we feel Christ’s hand pushing us slightly from the back, or gently leading us from in front, may the Spirit give us what we need to follow in faith.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.