Sunday, June 26, 2016

Distractions: a sermon Proper 8 2016

“Distractions” 6th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 8
June 26, 2016
St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Richmond, VA

Some weeks you know what you will preach the moment you read the text. Other weeks, you read the text, looking for Jesus to speak, for the Good News to jump out. And some weeks, thankfully very rarely, you read and reread and re-reread and go to commentaries and still nothing comes. It is hard for God to speak when we are distracted, which is why I think Jesus so often went off to a lonely place to get free of distractions and tune in on God.

Another aspect of trying to get up here and give something worth hearing is wrangling with a text. The lectionary is wonderful that way, making Susan, Frank and I preach sometimes from texts that are not our friends. I will confess I would be more likely to kiss a moose than to pick today’s Gospel as the foundational Scripture for a sermon. I could have gone the easy route, and jumped into Galatians and done the fruit of the Flesh vs. the fruit of the Spirit. But after heading off to a lonely place, I felt the need to listen some more, to wrestle some more and see what God might be willing to teach me here.

So, like Elisha chasing after Elijah to see if the mantle might fall on him, let us chase after Jesus and see what good news might be hiding in Luke 9 for us.

In reading it, there is the commonality of Jesus being headed to Jerusalem, followed by 5 ways in missing the point. So maybe today’s lesson is a cautionary tale. DO NOT DO THIS. Let’s see.

When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.

I find it fascinating that Luke describes the motivating factor in Jesus going to Jerusalem as his ascension, the ending of Luke and also the beginning of Luke’s book of the Acts of the Apostles. The Ascension is the pivotal factor here, and to do that Jesus has to go through Jerusalem, both the place and all the horrific events that took place there for Jesus. He is focusing on Jesus being glorified, not crucified, and I think that makes a profound difference.

“He set his face,” he was bound and determined. I remember when the girls were young and whatever it was was VERY important to them, them would take my face in both their hands and made sure I was listening. They set my face. Well, Jesus did the same for himself. He was bound and determined to get to and go through Jerusalem. This is the key point that underlies all that we are about to look at. Without that, some of these just do not make sense. So as we go through these next 5 DON’T DO THESE, remember, Jesus is a man of singular focus as of now.

And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.

Now, admission clear here, some of these stories will require some filling in the gaps or interpretation. By this point, Jesus and his throng were becoming sizable. He needed advance staff going ahead of him. It is the equivalent of a bus driver calling ahead to a restaurant to say, “We have a bus full of hungry teenagers stopping in 3 hours. Get cooking.” Jesus’ party is no different. His messengers let the Samaritan village know that they were on route, but also, that they would not be staying. “They did not receive him, because his face was set for Jerusalem.” I read this to mean that they wanted the Teacher to come and stay with them. They wanted time with Jesus, something more than a lunch break. If that is all you want Jesus, do not bother stopping, they seem to be saying.

What was the Samaritan village’s distraction this day? Not getting what they wanted. How many times do we do the same thing? How often do we get derailed by things not being what we expected. We can be as petulant as they were, it seems. When we get into this situation, when we get focused on what we want instead of what is offered it can break our relationship to God. There is a huge element of trust, God is God and I am not, and maybe God knows better what is needed, or at least the bigger picture. My petty wants cannot even be taken into the consideration of things. I think this is the boat that village was in. We want a long visit, or nothing at all. But James and John’s response was just as bad.

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?" But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.
James and John, the sons of Thunder, were calling for fire from heaven to smite this belligerent village. They wanted Jesus honored, and here he is rejected. They had no idea what was coming. Yet, when these Elijah wanna-bes asked Jesus if they should smite them with heavenly fire, Jesus rebuked them. Thank you, Jesus.

Now think about it. What is the distraction here? Jesus is single-minded. The village being petulant is no worse than his disciples seeking revenge. NEITHER one was something he wanted to do nor had time to deal with in that moment. The distraction of seeking revenge, or if we need to clean it up “putting people in their place” is just as bad. In our spiritual life, thinking ourselves superior, or being the judge and jury are both not what we are to be about. Jesus wants us focused on following, not smiting. Not our job, but we all know the church is too often seen as doing that. What next?

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, "I will follow you wherever you go." 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."

So this would be follower, approaches Jesus very enthusiastic. “I will follow you wherever you go,” Then Jesus goes and gets all Jesus-y. Why do you bring up foxes’ dens? Why mention birds’ nests? Why say you have neither? For me, it all comes down to Jesus’ motivation and this follower’s motivation. What are a fox’s den and a bird’s nest? Security. They are home, that place where we can let down our guard and be ourselves. Home can be a distraction, too. This follower was seeking security. This follower wanted to be safe. Jesus let the person know, you cannot be safe following me. I have no security. Jesus had turned his face to Jerusalem. He knew the outcome, and it definitely was not secure. When we follow where Christ will lead we cannot see over the brow of the hill. Where he leads we have no clue. I love that our two seminarians are both back today, serving at the altar. There is much uncertainty in what will come next for them. None of us, if we are truly following Jesus are secure in the way the world wants us to be secure.

Caveat here, we are secure in Christ. That is different. I think Jesus is saying to this would be follower, you are not going to get what you are seeking here, my friend. This will not happen. It was actually very loving of Jesus to nip it in the bud. The myth of control that we all seek gets in the way. Jesus calls us to follow, not steer. Our drive to security is a distraction when Jesus has set his face to Jerusalem.

To another he said, "Follow me." But he said, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." But Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God."

This one is a hard one to hear, because Jesus sounds so mean. When we read it, we assume that this man’s dad just died. If so, Jesus was not hearing the obligation a Jewish son would have had to take care of his father, especially his funeral. Remember how Jesus worried about his mother even from the cross, looking at Mary and the disciple he loved?  And even Jesus had the disciple step in and take care of his obligation?

Now, because we would mention a funeral only when it was time for one does not mean that they would. It could, be sure you hear me say that, it could not does mean that. But what I hear in the man’s excuse is, “Let me take care of my familial obligations, and then I will do what the Kingdom needs.” He is saying, “I want to follow you, Jesus, but…” The distraction here is obligations. What do we choose to entangle our lives with? Jesus loved his friends and family. He was not heartless. I hear a deeper story, when one’s understood obligations get in the way of our following of Christ. Jesus is singularly focused and asks that of those following him.

Another said, "I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home." Jesus said to him, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."

Another hard statement here, another excuse. “Let me go say goodbye.” I think Jesus knew, if you go back home you are not going to follow. Sometimes those strings of attachment keep us from following Christ. We are shackled by what we embrace. The idea of looking back, like Lot’s wife, might be the death of us, or of our faith. Our focused Jesus says, “No one who puts hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Hard words. Jesus wants us focused as he is focused. Also, using his metaphor to the full, if you look back while you are plowing, you are going to be crooked. We need to look ahead.

One night, Stephanie and I were on a sailing trip in the Florida keys with friends, and we were trying to come into a harbor late. The reefs made it tricky. We had to line them up just right to make it in. If they were aligned you could make a straight shot between the reefs. I could not look around, or be distracted by the sunset. My focus had to be the lights and they would guide us safely home. Jesus’ advice to the follower was the same. Stay focused. Even our loved ones can be a distraction from committing ourselves to the Kingdom.

So, in all of these excuses and distractions Jesus gives us a model to follow, himself. We need to let go of our wants, our need to be on top, the myth of control, our obligations, and our clinging entanglements, and focus on one thing. That one thing, as Jesus put it, is the Kingdom of God. None of these things were necessarily bad, except maybe smiting villages with fire from heaven, but they were all distractions. And the distractions we can let go of.

As Paul closed the reading for today from Galatians, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.” We are not in this alone, we are still following someone, and he loves us even when we get in our own way with all these distractions. Maybe my wandering this week, without that needed focus, is exactly the same problem all these early followers had, if so,  Lord, please forgive. Thank you, Jesus, set our face, and may it always be focused on you. Amen.


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Blessings, Rock