The Blessing of Giving Up


Luke 9:51-62

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

 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.”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.” 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.”

Today, Jesus is on the road with his disciples and they have made the turn toward Jerusalem.

This text marks the beginning of the second half of Luke’s account of Jesus’ ministry. The meandering journey of Jesus’ preaching and teaching through Galilee is over and the disciples’ journey with Jesus takes on new urgency.

Jesus warned his disciples this turn was coming.

But as usual, the disciples are entirely clueless about what the turn toward Jerusalem means. They have no idea what will happen next.Only Jesus knows what lies ahead in Jerusalem.

And Jesus is resolute.  Unwavering.  Determined. Jesus is a man with a mission and he moves forward.

He and the disciples come to a Samaritan village, where they immediately meet resistance.  We don’t know exactly why, but Luke tells us Jesus and his followers are rejected by the Samaritans.

Could it be that the people in the village don’t much like where Jesus is going or the people who live there? Maybe. There is a history of conflict between the Samaritans and the Jews, so it could be the case that any Jew would be unwelcome in Samaria.

Or maybe Jesus chose this village in order to prepare the disciples for the rejections to come,or perhaps it was just the most direct route to Jerusalem.

What we do know for sure is the way in which James and John react.  They want to call down fire from heaven and wipe the Samaritans out, just like Elijah called down fire on the prophets of Ba’al.

James and John are not “shake the dust from your feet” kind of guys.James and John are all about wiping the whole village out.

But not Jesus.

Jesus does not meet the Samaritan’s rejection with violence.Jesus doesn’t engage in an argument with the Samaritans over their lack of hospitality.

Jesus tells James and John to get over it. There’s no time to argue. There will be no vengeance today. It is as if Jesus knows that compared to the rejection ahead of them in Jerusalem, this scuffle with the Samaritans is a Sunday school picnic

Soon, Jesus and the disciples are on their way again and potential new members for the Jesus team sidle up next to them.

The first man says, “Hey, Jesus, sign me up! I will follow you wherever you go.”

Wonderful, right? A new member of the team!

But, Jesus totally messes up this evangelism opportunity.

Instead of encouraging the new recruit, Jesus says to him, “Are you sure you want to follow me?  Are you sure you want this kind of life? Foxes have holes and birds have nests. But if you follow me, you will never have a clue about what you’ll be doing or where you’ll going or where you will be sleeping.  Are you sure you’re ready for that?”

Potential follower number one decides a comfortable bed and a regular schedule is highly preferable to the life of a nomad.  Thanks but no thanks, Jesus.

Not long after, Jesus sees a second person on the road and Jesus issues an invitation to him. “Follow me,” Jesus says.

To which the man responds, “That’s a fantastic idea, Jesus.  But here’s the thing… I’ve got to go bury my father.  Give me a day or two and I’m all yours.”

And Jesus messes the whole thing up again by saying:

“Let the dead bury the dead. Forget about the past.  I’m inviting you to proclaim the kingdom of God.  That’s what matters now.  The kingdom of God can’t wait for a funeral.”

Not only is Jesus telling the man to break a pretty significant Jewish law, but he’s also being kind of a jerk about it.

So recruit number two scurries away instead of joining this heretical rabbi.

Finally, a third man comes along and says he’s very excited about this mission opportunity, but he’d like a couple hours to say goodbye to his family back in the village.

And again, Jesus completely shuts down a potential recruit.

Jesus says circling back is not an option for those who wish to follow him.If you are serious about following Jesus, you have to let go of everything that weighs you down and seriously reconsider your priorities. Your religious laws. Your attachments. Your need for comfort and security.

This passage from Luke is not exactly a problem text, but I think we can safely say we have a problematic Jesus on our hands this morning.

This is a Jesus who has no patience with stalling tactics or excuses, even really legitimate, reasonable excuses.

This is the kind of Jesus talk that helps us begin to understand why the Samaritans and a lot of other people in the scriptures don’t want Jesus around when he shows up in their town or their synagogue or their temple.Following Jesus

Every time I’ve heard this text preached, the pastor tries to smooth out the sharp edges of Jesus’ demands so Jesus doesn’t seem so…well…demanding.

But I think the writer of the gospel includes these sharp edged words from Jesus in the text for a very particular reason.

I wonder if we need to take what Jesus says seriously instead of trying to wiggle out of it. If Jesus really means what he says here, the question becomes: is this a Jesus we are willing to follow?

The kind of Jesus who tells us we can’t depend on comfort and predictability?

The kind of Jesus who says following him is more important than religious rules and tradition?

The kind of Jesus who will lead us headlong into rejection and controversy?

Are we willing to follow this Jesus all the way to Jerusalem? Even all the way to the cross?

All of these nagging questions have led me to the uncomfortable realization that having Jesus Christ as the head of our church means it might be hard to find anyone to stick around for very long.  And perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised that so few do.

In fact, if Jesus were running a Billy Graham kind of crusade, he wouldn’t be the kind of evangelist who begs people to come forward after the service and dedicate their lives to him.

I think Jesus would say to those who answer the alter call, “Are you sure?  Have you really thought this through? Because you are really in for a rude awakening if you imagine your life will be any easier if you follow me. In fact, your life as my disciple will probably get harder.”

At the end of a Jesus crusade, I think the number of new followers Jesus would pick up would probably be around the number he attracts in this passage today.

Which, in case you haven’t noticed, is exactly 0.

If we take this passage from Luke seriously, I think we come to the conclusion that Jesus doesn’t fit our notions of a successful evangelist or a church growth consultant when it comes to number of people who decide to stick around with him.

In this text, Jesus is demanding.  Jesus is bordering on being downright offensive. The mission to Jerusalem is what matters. A mission that will lead, not to glory or comfort, but to the cross.

One of the problems we have as Presbyterians is that we want to be entirely non-offensive.  3417817301_501ff5ce4f_bWe do not often demand too much of ourselves or each other.  I have met very few pastors who don’t have a hidden or not-so-hidden need to be liked.  I have met very few church people who would respond positively to the kind of challenge Jesus throws down in this text.

I think all of us in the church do a fair amount of trying to shape Jesus according to our needs and our wants and our need to look successful.

We create the Jesus we want instead of allowing Jesus to shape us into the people God has created us to be.

In this text, Jesus will have none of it. Because he’s set his face toward Jerusalem. And it’s serious business.

His purpose in turning toward Jerusalem is to embrace the pain of the cross for the sake of the world.

Nothing will stop Jesus.

His purpose in turning toward Jerusalem is driven by nothing less than love, God’s profound love for all humanity and all the world.

Nothing will stop Jesus.

Nothing will interfere with Jesus’ single minded purpose of sacrificial and deeply radical love.

Nothing, on heaven or on earth, will stop Jesus. Not even a bunch of people pleasing, non-offensive Presbyterians like us.  And thanks be to God for that.

The would-be followers in this text are reluctant to follow Jesus because they know it means losing something dear to them. The kind of compassion Jesus calls us to demonstrate to the world is costly.

What stops us from making the turn with Jesus? What is holding us back?

Over the past four years, I have been working with colleagues in Pittsburgh Presbytery on a project we call, “The Unglued Church.” In fact, next Sunday, your guest preacher will be the Rev. Sarah Robbins who is my partner in crime in our Unglued Church effort.

When Sarah and I met, we soon discovered that we had something in common.Both of us served congregations that were holding on so tightly to survival at any cost that they had lost sight of the mission of Jesus Christ.

In working with churches over the past four years, Sarah and I and my other Unglued colleagues have observed that “survival at all costs” is a pervasive attitude in many congregations.

Given the continuing decline in membership and money, it’s not hard to understand the anxiety in our congregations.

My colleagues and I have spent the better part of the last 4 years helping churches stop clutching at those things they think they need to survive, and instead open up their hands and focus on following Jesus.

Such conversations are hard, much harder than we ever imagined when we began the Unglued work. The conversations are difficult because they are conversations about letting go and breaking open in ways that feel like death.  And Jesus might tell us that’s exactly how it is supposed to feel when we turn our face to Jerusalem.

My colleagues and I believe these faithful conversations are the first steps on the road to new life for tired and stuck congregations. These conversations lead us away from “survival at all costs” and back to the holy logic of death and resurrection.

The conversations at General Assembly in Portland this past week also were hard. Leslie Kaplan will, no doubt, brief you all on what she heard and experienced as she served as a ruling elder commissioner on behalf of Sixth Church and Pittsburgh Presbytery.

Presbyterians made many good steps forward at GA last week, not the least of which is the fact that the top leadership of our denomination now includes an African American man, an African American woman, a white woman and a gay, married Latino man. We also added the Belhar Confession to our constitution, the first confession to emerge from the global south, out of the experience of apartheid in South Africa.

(l to r) Tony De La Rosa, Interim Executive Director/Presbyterian Mission Agency, Rev. Denise Anderson and Rev. Jan Edmiston, Co-Moderators of 222nd General Assembly, Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, Stated Clerk of the PCUSA

But I watched a good bit of the live feed from Portland this week. And what I often heard in the debates and reports from committees was fear and anxiety rooted in a scarcity mindset.

A fear that if we open up our hands to fully commit to racial justice or divestment from fossil fuels, or generous parental leave for our mission agency employees or genuine reconciliation with our GLBTQ brothers and sisters, we’ll continue to bleed money and members.

It’s too costly, the commissioners seemed to think. If we open our hands, there may not be enough. If we give up our resources and our comfort and follow Jesus on the road to Jerusalem, the PCUSA might not survive.

But the General Assembly was challenged on Friday morning by our new Stated Clerk, The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, who said this in his opening remarks that,

Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, Stated Clerk PCUSA

“To focus on the survival of the church is to set our aim too low…it’s time to take our eyes off the church and place them on the Kingdom of God.”

If we are to believe our text today, survival at any cost was the last thing on Jesus’ mind as he makes the turn toward Jerusalem. He knew there was a cost in following God’s mission of reconciliation and grace.

There is a cost to doing justice, to loving mercy, to walking humbly…

There is a cost to living into the demands of the gospel.

But if we are to believe the promises of the Gospel, there is also freedom.

There is a freedom that comes when we are willing to risk no matter the cost.

There is a freedom that comes when we are willing to speak truth to power.

Before the disciples and Jesus began their journey toward Jerusalem, Jesus said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” (Lk.9.24)

We are resurrection people, brothers and sisters. The hope in our calling is the promise that death does not win and love has the final word.

We are resurrection people.  Let us turn our face toward Jesus.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.