Sermon for June 30, 2019
We have all made trips that have left a big impression. In 1998 I went on a Lutheran World Relief study trip to Israel. Part of the itinerary included the Holy Land sights: Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Nazareth, Capernaum—all towns and cities we read about in the Bible. But what made the biggest impression were visits to Palestinian refugee camps. I recall a school and the smiling children. I remember a young girl proudly reciting the English alphabet for us. In 2001 I joined a tour to East Africa. We went to a school in a Nairobi, Kenya slum. The building, if you could call it that, was a no more than a flimsy shack with a dirt floor. But it was a school with desks. The children were waiting for us. They welcomed us with song. The song was religious in nature, and I saw a poster in the school that listed points for good behavior, and point number one was faith in Almighty God. I recall a girl turning to the group and pleading, “Can you please help us?” In 2005 I traveled to Washington, D.C. and attended an event sponsored by Bread for the World, a national advocacy group. One of the days was called “Lobby Day”. It was my first experience at the Capitol building. Bread for the World was lobbying for passage of a bill that would provide Federal funding for states to help deal with homelessness. A trip official told me I was the only person from the Upper Peninsula. I was serving a parish in Michigan at the time. So I was told to please go to the office of your representative and make the case. I trembled all over—here I was in the seat of government, the seat of power, and I was terribly nervous. I did not actually meet my representative, but his aide came and carefully listened to my bumbling presentation. I later heard the representative became a co-sponsor of the bill. Trips mean more than being a tourist, but an opportunity to learn empathy and compassion.
The gospel lesson today begins a portion of Luke that has been called the travel narrative, as we heard, “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” It was time for Jesus to be ‘lifted up’, a reference to his cross, as “lifted up on a cross.”. Jesus set his face, a determined pace, for Jerusalem. Jesus’ route guidance system was grace, to accomplish for us the healing of forgiveness of sins. This journey was not only a pilgrimage for Jesus’ disciples, a trip to the holy city of Jerusalem. It was a time for their teaching and development as Jesus disciples. And they needed a lot of instruction.
Just before our text the disciples got into a row about which one of them was the greatest. Can you imagine the boasting and belligerence of twelve disciples claiming greatness? The text said something interesting in that Jesus was aware of their inner thoughts. Now Jesus could have yelled at them for their silly argument, but instead Jesus saw a teaching moment. As a man of compassion and empathy, Jesus knew the cause of such behavior. Jesus took a little child and put him or her by his side. Jesus was teaching the inner motivation for being his follower:L “Whoever welcomes this =child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.” Being a disciple is not about currying favor or seeking status, but welcoming Jesus in the lives of the very least.
As Jesus and his band of followers were heading to Jerusalem, they would pass through Samaria. They approached a village of the Samaritans who refused to welcome Jesus. Jews and Samaritans did not get along. Jesus was headed for Jerusalem, but Samaritans did not recognize the Temple in Jerusalem as the place to worship. They had their own worship place. In the days of travel by foot, a village that would refuse refreshment could rouse some aggressive thoughts. Brothers James and John, two of the closest disciples had a remedy for the recalcitrant Samaritans: “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven to consume them?” There was even biblical precedent: in days of old Elijah called forth fire from heaven to toast the soldiers sent to arrest him. But Jesus was having none of that. There is nothing so terrible as using religious justification for violence and killing. No wonder Jesus rebuked them. Jesus treated their violent solution as demonic and put a stop to it. Who did James and John think they were anyway, as if they could command punitive flames on people? Jesus was not violent. Jesus smashed common stereotypes of Samaritans by making a Samaritan the hero of his well-known parable with the title The Good Samaritan, the one who was not blinded by ethnic hatreds and would stop and help a wounded man.
As Jesus was on the road someone came to him and offered to follow Jesus wherever he went. Jesus responded “Foxes have holes, birds have their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” This means more than telling the person ‘do not expect lodgings in 5-star motels. Jesus came to this world to preach good news to the poor, so then he would be among the poor. Discipleship, learning from Jesus, is following Jesus into ministry among the hungry, imprisoned, sick, and bereaved. Jesus calls us from comfort zones so we can touch people with mercy. As Synod Assembly we kept hearing a prayer: “O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
On the way Jesus did call others to follow him, they were interested but asked for a delay. One wanted to buy his father. Jesus said “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” We do not like what Jesus said. In biblical times, proper burial of parents was considered a sacred and loving deed. Some have tried to explain by saying the man’s father had not yet died, but would probably die soon. He wanted to wait upon his father’s death and then take care of the burial. It also sounded unfair when Jesus did not want a potential disciple to say farewell to his family. Jesus told him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Jesus was speaking of the priority of proclaiming the kingdom of God. We find Jesus’ words difficult because Jesus is honest about the cost of discipleship. Jesus told his disciples earlier that if anyone wished to follow him here is what to expect: “Let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”
Followers of Jesus must bear the cross: this does not mean an acceptance of personal suffering, but it means the call to serve with Jesus as our teacher and example. Soon the July 4th holiday will be here and there will be a lot of talk about freedom. Freedom can be misunderstood. It can misunderstood as insisting on my rights, what I want, even if that means ignoring respect and dignity of others. The apostle Paul in the reading from Galatians spoke of freedom: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Paul was speaking about the freedom of the impossible demands of the Law of God, as a measurement of whether you are right with God or not. No, salvation, forgiveness of sins, is by grace, revealed through Jesus, who loved us and died for us, who loves us and never forsakes us. This is the gracious and glorious freedom from the fear of never measuring up, for the mercy of God, from Jesus, lifts us up and proclaims us beloved.
For the apostle Paul freedom for the Christians means “through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up as “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Christian freedom is to live out daily the good news and calling of our baptisms. Baptism proclaims the good news of the Kingdom of God: we are wanted, we are cherished, we are the beloved children of God. Jesus has freed us from the fear of condemnation. His forgiveness does not run out. In baptism we are given the Holy Spirit, and that means, as Paul wrote, live by the Spirit. By the Spirit, put to death the ways of sinfulness that draw you away from God, and turn you against your neighbor instead of being for your neighbor. Instead, as God’s beloved, seek to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit, which is love, love known as joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Jesus invites us to follow, to journey with him. This can be a fearful and sad world to be sure, but he encourages us not to flee from him. His hand of love is ever upon us. As we prayed together with the Psalm, “I have set the Lord always before me; because God is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken. My heart therefore is glad, and my spirit rejoices, and my body shall rest in hope. You will show me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy, and in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.