Sermon; 3 Pentecost/Proper 8C; Luke 9:51-62
“When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”
So begins the gospel lesson for today. Here we are on the third Sunday after Pentecost and already we have Luke preparing us for Jesus' entry into Jerusalem and his crucifixion. We hear these words – the days drew near – and we think we are approaching the end. We hear that Jesus has “set his face to go to Jerusalem” and we think that he is singularly focused and determined. But we still have ten chapters to go until we actually get to Jerusalem, and on the way Jesus will be in Samaria, Bethany, Galilee, Jericho, and points between. He will visit friends, be a guest in various homes, and share meals.
One commentary says that this section of Luke isn't so much a march to Jerusalem as much as it is a travelogue. Luke is asking us to see this journey with Jesus as a pilgrimage that deepens our relationship with Christ as we journey to both the Passion and the kingdom of God. And as I said last week, this is the point of Ordinary Time – to deepen our discipleship. This is when we move from learning broadly about the events of Jesus' life to deepening our roots of discipleship.
Today we have two stories of discipleship that can help us to deepen those roots.
First we have a visit to Samaria. This is not the first visit outside of Jewish territory for Jesus (remember last week Jesus visited the country of the Gerasenes), but it is the first visit after he sets his face to go to Jerusalem. Jesus knows that he must go to Jerusalem. He knows he will suffer and die there. He knows that his life and ministry are to draw all people to God. And through the acts of his Passion, he will save the world. So the first thing he does is travel to Samaria, the land of outsiders and half-breed heretics.
But Samaria did not receive him and would not follow him. In retaliation, James and John want to eradicate them with fire from heaven. Before we condemn these two for their rash behavior, we need to think back to last week's demoniac and remember that he is us. We are the demoniac, and we are James and John.
How many times has the Church, or any number of self-professed Christians, been more than happy to call down fire from heaven in an attempt to eradicate those who don't accept their message or claim to follow a different path? Everything from the Inquisition to the 30-years War to missionaries in both North and South America, Christians have been happy to persecute those with whom they disagree. And you don't even need to go back that far when we have preachers claiming LGBT people are the reason God is punishing America, women are second-class citizens, whites are God's chosen people, and anyone who disagrees with any of this is going to hell. So James and John calling down fire from heaven is simply par for the course.
If you go back to the beginning of Chapter 9, which textually falls between last week and today, you will read the story of Jesus sending out the twelve apostles on their first missionary trip. They are to proclaim the kingdom of God and are given these instructions: Wherever they do not welcome you, shake the dust from your feet and move on. In other words, offer the Good News of the kingdom of God to people and let them decide what to do with it. James and John seem to have forgotten this. They, like too many Christians, would rather show the power of God through damnation rather than love.
This long journey with Jesus that we have embarked on to deepen our faith isn't accomplished by broad strokes of condemnation or looking to mow down those with whom we disagree. Instead, we need to dig deep and cultivate the way of love through Christ so that the Holy Spirit can do the work of transforming lives. That goes for people out there as well as those of us in here. Because like James and John, there are times we would rather call down fire from heaven on those who annoy us than do the hard work of building relationships.
The second discipleship story comes when Jesus has encounters with three people about following him.
In the first encounter Jesus says, “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but he Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” This reminds us that Jesus is reliant on the hospitality of others. Jesus doesn't force his way into peoples lives. Like the incident above with James and John, all we can do is invite; it's up to others to let us and Jesus in.
This points to an aspect of discipleship we don't often talk about, and that is the acceptance of hospitality. We are all good at stepping up to care for others. We are all good at being doers. But sometimes we need to be Marys. Sometimes we need to let our feet be washed. Sometimes we need to say, “Yes, I need help.” Discipleship isn't always about doing, it's also about learning. And sometimes we need to learn to be cared for.
In the second encounter Jesus asks someone to follow him. The answer is, “Sure, but first let me bury my father.” And the third encounter has a similar response – “I will follow, but let me first say goodbye.”
Both of these people are rebuked by Jesus. We may see it as harsh, especially for those of us who have close family members or who have had the difficult experience of burying a family member. The issue, though, may not be literal as much as it is telling us about priorities.
Discipleship is hard. Being a committed disciples takes time and effort. In our discipleship, we are asked to give our best. Like our pledges shouldn't come from what is left over but from what we receive first, our discipleship shouldn't come from the leftovers of our life and time. We are asked to make discipleship a priority.
This isn't a priority over the worst of our lives. As one commentator put it, “Jesus doesn't ask us to choose him over the devil but over our family.” Again, this sounds harsh. But before we throw the baby out with the bathwater, let's start with small steps.
Here's one: How many of us leave out of town family/friends at home when they are visiting to attend church on Sunday morning? How many of us attend church when we're on vacation? Is worshiping God on the Lord's day a priority in your life?
This second section of today's gospel is asking us to prioritize our discipleship. We are asked to give God the best we have, not simply our extra leftovers.
Discipleship isn't easy; it takes time and dedication. We commit our time and energies to all sorts of things we find important. Where is God in all of that? As our journey with Jesus begins, let us work on prioritizing our lives. Will we work to build up in love rather than tear down? Will we spend time learning? Will we take steps to make God a priority in our lives, and not just an afterthought?
Discipleship is hard work and takes time; but then, so does anything we deem worthwhile.