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Set your face toward Jerusalem
A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Gale Davis on June 30, 2013

Proper 8 C - June 30, 2013

1 Kings 19:15-16,19-21; Psalm 16; Galatians 5:1,13-25; Luke 9:51-62

A close friend of mine lost his mother this past week. I never met her, but I have certainly seen the man she raised and know him to be a wonderful person, faithful, kind, caring, sense of humor, generous. And if the saying is true, the apple does not fall far from the tree, she must have been a wonderful person too. He is truly mourning her death. I mourn with him.

And so when I hear this familiar passage, and Jesus says “no” to the man who wants to bury his father before following, I am a little confused. What happened to the pastoral, kind, loving Jesus? Why would he not have empathy for a man who has just lost a parent? 

Or the one who wanted to say farewell to his family before following and Jesus tells him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” 

Or why the reply to another “foxes have holes, and birds have their nests; but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head?”

Do these replies seem out of character? Almost -- dare I say -- “unchristian”?

I believe we are beholden to dig a little deeper and add some context to the story to try to make sense of what it meant then and how it applies to us today.  You will note that the first line of this particular gospel excerpt says “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem”. To me this line is the context that helps us to make sense of the otherwise seemingly insensitive things that Jesus said to the potential followers.

Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, to be lifted up, first on the cross and then into the heavens. His work and ministry on earth were coming to a close. There was a sense of urgency and necessity for getting this done, to make sure that the disciples were chosen, called, trained and ready to carry on without him. He needed folks around him who understood that urgency, who comprehended the scope of his ministry. People who were willing to take the same path that he was about to lead them toward. His ministry was to train, teach, and empower others to pass the Word along, to bring the next generation and the next and the next into the household of God. And he knew time was of the essence.

So in his mind’s eye there was no time for any other activity -- ”the timing was off”, so to speak. Did it mean that these folks were unredeemed? Likely not. It simply meant they were not the ones who could carry out the immediate mission that Jesus was so focused in preparing for.  Have you ever had a sense of mission like that? A sense of calling and clear understanding of where you need to go and how you need to get people to do the work you are doing because you are moving on?

I am certain that many of you have. I know I have, especially as an Interim rector -- that feeling of wanting to “get things done that have been left undone” before the new rector comes, so that new person doesn't have to do them and can concentrate on being among you, knowing you, loving you.

But the kind of focus that Jesus had in heading toward Jerusalem was far beyond that vocational sense of “preparing the way” of the future that we humans experience. Jesus was inwardly driven by his knowledge and love of God. His focus didn't reflect on wanting a job well done, but a deep desire to bring salvation to the whole world, to everyone. His focus was not self centered in any way. It was completely “other” focused. It may have been his calling, but the work, the ministry, was about what was good for others.  He wanted all humanity to know God and love God as he did--his passion for heading toward Jerusalem was not tempered by just wanting to do a good job and the care of a single village or people, but for the whole world. Imagine that focus--imagine that intensity? 

He wanted to make sure that the whole world did not fall back into the patterns of behavior that had gotten them into a place of such deep separation from God. He wanted followers who would go forward with him teaching, living, proclaiming God’s love, forgiveness and hope. No more old habits. No more misuse of power. No more living the letter of the law without the intent of the law -- LOVE. No more or legalism -- just more love.

Did Jesus succeed in doing what he wanted? One wonders. Is the world better today than it was 2000 years ago? Depends on what you are looking at, doesn’t it? Are we still misusing the law, and are some -- maybe not any of us -- but are some misusing power? Are some failing to invite strangers and the outcast to their proper place in the world? 

Indeed if what the reading in Galatians says is true (and I do not have any reason to doubt that it is), then the fruit of what the followers of Jesus were charged with producing is clear. And we, as the ones who stand in a direct lineage to those disciples are also accountable and charged with producing such fruit. If they, and we by extension, are successful, then the only “fruits” of their labor or ours that we should see in the world are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. The works of the “flesh”, or mortality, that Paul speaks so vehemently against, fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing and the like, would be no more.  

I think there is still work to do, don’t you? The work is clearly not to label the behavior of others under one or more of these negative categories. Rather the work of discipleship, of being a follower -- or being one who loves God as God loves us -- one who knows and understands why Jesus set his face so directly and clearly toward Jerusalem, our work is to define our own souls, actions and lives with the activities and characteristics of the true fruit of those who have chosen to follow Jesus. Pointing fingers is out -- looking inward and prayerfully knowing our own limitations and the temptations we give in to is what we should do instead.

It also seems to me that this combination of readings says something else that is really important to remember. You can’t go back -- you have to be looking forward. You cannot change any mistake you have made in the past, but you can decide not to make that same mistake again in the future. You cannot undo the past, but you can reframe the future. Being focused on Jerusalem is intense -- it gets easily sidetracked -- we have 2000 years of evidence that that is true!

But when we are sidetracked, we don’t have to redo the past. We only have to change the pattern and direction of our current path to refocus on being a follower -- of refocusing on following, refocusing on using the fruits of love in our lives.  

As I continue my work among you of preparing for your new rector, I am aware that I am focused on making everything in the almost invisible underpinnings, like by-laws, and systems, and reporting and budgets and organizational structures, and communications, and procedures and job, all clear and understandable to you. But most importantly for the new rector when she or he arrives, so that they can be focused clearly on knowing and loving you, serving as a spiritual leader, and providing leadership for this community. I am also aware that such work may not sound too much like the fruit that Paul so eloquently outlines in Galatians. I won’t try to tell you that it is. But I will say that is the work God has given me to do among you -- and sometimes we must be the one who stays behind to bury the dead, say goodbye, or worry about the nest. There is no sin in that. For in such work the fruit may be produced by those who come after.

“Those who come after....” -- we are they and they are us. We are ones who come after the disciples who were ready, who could leave everything else behind, who could sit at Jesus’ feet and walk the final miles beside him toward Jerusalem. Strap on your sandals, pick up the fruit you own and that lives in your soul and follow when and where you are called.  Set your face toward Jerusalem knowing what Jesus knew...God loves you, God calls you, God needs you.  And you alone can do what God is asking of you.  Amen.

Last Published: July 30, 2013 12:55 PM