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Buts and Excuses

This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, 6/30 at St. Timothy Lutheran Church. The text was Luke 9:51-62.

We have come to a turning point in Luke’s gospel. Jesus is on his last trip to Jerusalem, where he will be “taken up” (v. 51). This refers not only to his crucifixion, but also to the entire event of being arrested, crucified, risen and ascended. Jesus was determined to follow the way of obedience to his Father. He “set his face,” (v. 51), meaning he kept his eye on the prize and nothing would dissuade him from following that path to Jerusalem and all that would happen because of that.

I don’t know how many of you were ever in sales. I have been. But…I have to say, Jesus is anything but a good salesman. He doesn’t wrap his product in slick packaging. He doesn’t minimize costs to attract more customers. He doesn’t hide the hard stuff in fine print. He never rushes his pitch to close a deal. Jesus does the opposite. He takes pains to push potential buyers away.

“I’ll follow you!” gushes an eager customer. “No you won’t,” Jesus groans in response. “You have no clue what you’re talking about…” What Jesus is selling is rejection and forbearance, inconvenience and hardship, disruption and disorientation, along with intensity and urgency.

Now to the excuses. In our first case of buts and excuses, Jesus sends some disciples ahead to see if they can stay in Samaria. But there was a long history of bad blood between Jews and Samaritans. Jesus took the risk anyway because his love for all. The Samaritans, however, would not allow Jesus and his followers in because Jesus was determined to head to Jerusalem. Samaritans believed worship should take place on Mt. Gerizim, where Samaritans had maintained their own temple for 400 years, while the Jewish people believed the temple in Jerusalem was the special place of God’s presence. Their but and excuse was Jesus would be worshipping in the wrong place.

Here we really see the love of Christ coming into play. James and John wanted to call down fire on the Samaritans and destroy them. Jesus would have none of it, rather reminding them to move on. Previously he had taught his disciples to shake the dust off their feet and go to another place if they were not received.

Jesus calls his followers to bring life, not death—even to those who reject and insult us. We are called to practice forgiveness and forbearance, never retribution and revenge. The call is to face others gently and with patience, because even those who make our blood boil are greatly loved by God (Thomas).

A second would-be follower tells Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go” vv. 57-58. This one seems to think that Jesus is going to some destination where he will stay at or is on his way to some place where he will live. But following Jesus means being on the road with no permanent home, the road to the cross.

Is Jesus saying part of his call to us is homelessness? I don’t know, but it’s definitely a call to inconvenience. After all, Jesus does not guarantee that the Christian life will be a comfortable one. A fat bank account, a posh career, fancy zip code or three-car garage—Jesus never promised that, but does promise a reordering of our professional, financial and geographic priorities that will feel risky and destabilizing. Jesus offers an identity that isn’t defined by what we own, what we wear, the degrees we’ve earned, our neighborhood, our friends or any other sign of status.

To the next potential follower, Jesus says, “Follow me” vv 59-60. Here is seemingly mean Jesus who won’t even let this person bury his father. But, the man may be referring to a distant time when his father will die as an old man. And it’s a drawn out process once the father does die. There is a primary burial when the corpse is placed in a sealed tomb, followed by a secondary burial after a year-long period of decomposition. Then the bones were collected and reburied in a special “bone box.” The time between the two burials gave family and friends adequate time to mourn. Who knows how long the time would be before this person would consider himself free to follow Jesus?

The final would-be follower told Jesus, “I will follow you Lord, but…” first let me tell everyone at home good-bye (vv. 61-62). How harsh it seems that Jesus won’t even let this person go and say good-bye to his family! Why not? Not if it causes hesitation (remember Jesus had an appointment to keep in Jerusalem), not if it takes away our sense of urgency for the gospel and the world God loves.

The Greek verb for saying “farewell” or “take leave of” implies getting family permission. In typical Middle Eastern fashion, the one leaving the extended family needs to ask permission to leave. What if the family forbids this one to join Jesus and his traveling band of followers? The one who wants to see his family has his heart tied to them, where the father’s authority reigns. “I will follow you, Lord, but my father’s authority is higher than yours. I need his permission.”

While my family and I lived in the Holy Land, my mother was still living in Rochester, NY. One time she became so sick with pneumonia, that doctors were unsure whether she would live or not. I flew home to be with her. It was very hard to leave my husband and children behind, but I had to go be with my mom. After some weeks she recovered and I returned to Bethlehem. About five years later, she was ill, in the hospital and did die. I felt horrible that I couldn’t be with her then. She passed away three weeks before our planned return to the U. S. Before this illness, we spoke often of being together again.

What made this bearable for me was that a dear family friend visited my mother frequently. On at least one of those visits, my mother told our friend that she knew we were right where we were supposed to be and she did not resent our absence. My mother’s faith in Christ was strong.

Bob Samuelson, I have a question for you, what happens if while you’re out plowing, you’re looking all around? Doesn’t this task need your undivided attention so that you don’t have all kinds of crazy, zig-zag rows in your field and someone might think you have crop circles?

Jesus also talks of being “fit” for the kingdom. None of us is worthy, so it’s not a matter of worthiness. It means suitable, appropriate and capable. Jesus requires focus on the goal ahead, just as Bob needs to focus when he’s plowing.

What is Jesus saying to us? There’s nothing easy about the faith life. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyr, pastor and teacher said regarding the call of Jesus, “nothing on earth, however sacred, must be allowed to come between Jesus and the [one] he has called…Discipleship can tolerate no conditions which might come between Jesus and our obedience to him” (Cost of Discipleship).

What is standing between each of us and our ability to follow Jesus completely? What is preventing us, as a congregation, from being the best we can be? We have responsibilities in our day-to-day lives. However, we need to continually ask ourselves as we check our bank accounts, drive children to school, pick up grandchildren, help our older parents and act as responsible members of society, “Are we looking beyond our own self-or-family interest? Do we see God’s way of life in ours? We need to be willing to adjust our course to be faithful in our time and place to God’s ways.

Jesus calls us to a holistic spirituality in which all of our various “calls” and “vocations” are balanced with one another, with willingness to care for loved ones and yet look beyond family and nation, kin and allegiance, to our ultimate allegiance, God’s vision for our lives. We will need to make decisions and sacrifices too, but this is all for the good of creation and to embody our love for others as well as ourselves (Epperly.)

How many times have I had this kind of conversation with Jesus, “ Sure, Lord, I’ll follow you! My life is yours! I’ll give you everything I have, I promise. But, um, not right now. Later, after I…make a bunch of phone calls, after I finish these last few super important projects, after I get this weight off, after I’ve raised my kids, get a raise, pay off my student loans, retire…you get the picture.

We put God off in so many ways and by doing so we just shoot ourselves in the foot. Lately, I’ve been working on spending just a few minutes in quiet, meditative time, focusing on God alone, pushing aside the thoughts of all I have to do that keep rushing in. It doesn’t consist of long prayers, but just simple, “Lord open my ears. Lord, open my eyes. Jesus, Savior.” It’s hard, but I find that I’m in much better shape to tackle the pile of things that need to be done. If I do all the things on my to-do list first, then there isn’t any time or energy left for a quiet time with my Lord. Somehow, if I spend the time first (and you can even do that at a stop light while driving), everything comes out better.

What is so radical about Jesus’ words is his claim to priority over the best, not the worst of our lives. Jesus said to choose him, not over the devil, but over the family. Those who have done so, have been freed from possession and worship of family and have found the necessary distance to really love them (Fred B. Craddock, Luke, Interpretation Commentaries).

Be open to the love and flow of God. As challenging as all of today’s readings are, they present a vision of alignment with God’s vision, thereby unleashing divine power and the ability to be faithful to God in ways beyond our imagination. The challenge is to think larger in terms of ethics, social responsibility and personal empowerment. As we take up this challenge instead of coming up with excuses, we can experience a multiplied portion of grace, wisdom and power (Epperly).

Our lives of faith are like the drainage ditches many of us have in front of our houses and maybe along the edge of our properties. When it gets full of weeds or garbage or dirt and is left untended, the water cannot flow through it. To have a good flow of water, the ditch needs to be looked after. The same is true of our spiritual lives if we want God’s power and love to flow through us, we need to pay attention to them.

Jesus, the rotten salesman, knows the cure for our malaise, our boredom, our hunger, our angst. He knows our restless souls, how we ache for purpose and meaning in our lives, for a life we can pour out in love. The life of the Holy Spirit in us is a life no ad can capture. Our hearts cry out for transformation, renewal and resurrection. Nothing else will do. Nothing the world tries to sell us can compare. So, Jesus bids us come and die so that we can really live.

Amen.

References

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship
Bruce Epperly, pathos.com
David Ewart, holytextures.com
Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke
Gail Ramshaw, sundaysandseasons.com
Brian Stoffregen, crossmarks.com
Debie Thomas, journeywithjesus.net
Harry Wendt, crossways.org

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