Luke 9:51-62 (online here)
When Luke jotted down this episode in this week’s Gospel reading, he was trying to make it come alive for people in his generation. So it wouldn’t hurt to try retelling it today in more contemporary terms. Try hearing it this way:
“As the time approached when nothing would ever be the same, Jesus stubbornly pressed on toward his execution. He and his followers hoped some churches would put them up along the way, but when they tried to stop off at one of those conservative evangelical megachurches they were turned away, because the church thought they weren’t ‘biblical’ enough. James and John were incensed at this brush-off, and they said, ‘Let’s make a big stink about this and show everybody how backward these Bible-thumpers are,’ but Jesus asked, ‘How can we do that without becoming as mean-spirited as they are?’ So they kept going. Then somebody came up and said, ‘I’ll follow you anywhere.’ But Jesus said, ‘I’m not going anywhere in particular. If you start on this journey there’s no return to life as usual.’ Jesus ran into more people along the way. Some he invited to join up, and others didn’t need inviting, but he kept running into the same problem. They all said, ‘Sure, I’d love to be a part of this, but you won’t believe how busy I am. Maybe we could do lunch next Thursday.’ And Jesus said, ‘You know, I didn’t go through all this just so we could do lunch every once in a while. This isn’t about adding an extra activity to the calendar. Either it’s a total makeover, where nothing’s quite the same ever again, or it might as well not happen at all.’”
This is a story about how Jesus’ followers, or would-be followers, just don’t get it. They didn’t get it when Jesus was heading toward Jerusalem, they didn’t get it when Luke wrote his Gospel, and we don’t get it today. Maybe that’s bad news, or maybe, in and odd way, it’s good news. It sort of depends on how honest we can be.
Maybe, like James and John, we think the followers of Jesus ought to be in control of the world. James and John seem to think Jesus came to give us power over people. They’ve got the final truth now. If others don’t see it that way, they’ll put them in their place, and they can count on God to help them.
That’s not following Jesus. It’s following James and John. But have you noticed how many followers James and John seem to have in the Church? It’s a great place for people who want to feel important—says the guy who’s often got his special outfit on while he stands above everybody else and tells them how things are. When I’m in that position, it’s easy for me to think that maybe I know a bit more about God than you do, and when I’m sitting in a pew listening to somebody else, it’s easy for me to think that maybe they’re the ones with more knowledge. There’s a part of all of us that wants somebody to be in control, to have all the answers, and we’ll either look to somebody else to play that role, or we’ll try to play it ourselves.
A few hundred years after James and John were dead and buried, a Roman emperor finally decided that Christians should be in control of everybody’s spiritual life. And, wouldn’t you know it, most Christians thought that was a great idea. They were tired of being looked down upon by people with power and prestige, and now they had the opportunity to turn the tables. They didn’t waste any time! They became the ones who said who was in and who was out. They thought the reign of God had finally arrived.
Now I’ll bet we think otherwise, but we’ve got the benefit of hindsight. Do you see how easy it is to fall into that trap? In Christ we find God coming to us on our mixed-up terms, so we jump to the conclusion that God wants us to impose our mixed-up terms on everybody else. Maybe we don’t want to be too brutal about it. Maybe we just want to think our terms are better than everybody else’s. There are conservative versions of that and liberal versions too. That’s why I mentioned the conservative evangelical megachurches, with James and John as Episcopalian disciples ready to call down fire from heaven. It’s a natural tendency. We all fall prey to it, but it has nothing to do with the outrageous grace of God.
Jesus rebuked James and John for jumping to that conclusion. There are some early manuscripts of this Gospel that have him add these words: “You do not know what spirit you are of, for the Son of Man has not come to destroy the lives of people but to save them.” Maybe he said that right then and there, or maybe not. It doesn’t matter. He said it countless other times, and he lived it. He came not to destroy our lives but to save them, not to control our lives but to empower them, and not just our lives, but everybody’s lives, even, or maybe especially, people who don’t agree with us.
Honestly, most of the time we don’t get that. It runs against our natural tendency to want somebody to be in control. It takes the grace of God to show us how silly, how self-defeating, that tendency is. And apparently we need to be shown that over and over again. Otherwise we fall back into business as usual, and we just don’t get it.
There are other people in this story who just don’t get it. They see following Jesus as a pastime, an activity you add to your busy calendar. God’s people are the people who show up on Sunday morning. If they’re really busy they show up at the early service so they’ve got the rest of the day to themselves. Or maybe they show up for a few other activities. It all depends on what else they’re doing. Ministers have to show up more often, so they have more stuff penciled into their calendars, and of course they get paid for some of it, but they’re still in the same boat. It’s mostly about calendars and scheduling, about finding time to pencil God in.
Three people talk to Jesus about following him. One sounds ready to follow anywhere but doesn’t seem to realize that Jesus has no plans to settle down—not ever. The other two have family obligations, and Jesus’ answers to them sound awfully harsh. They’re meant to sound harsh. In fact, they’re meant to sound ridiculous.
Everything we know about Jesus and his earliest followers tells us that they handled grief and loss with compassion. If somebody’s father died, nobody, and I mean NOBODY, responded with, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” Jesus didn’t say that when Lazarus died, did he?
Luke’s first readers knew this story was a setup to get them thinking. The clue is when the characters come in threes—that signals a punch line, I guess you could call it, or maybe a couple of punch lines: “Let the dead bury their own dead.” “Watch the road, not the rearview mirror.” “You can’t pencil me into your calendar and expect everything to stay the same.”
And that’s what people just didn’t get. It’s what we don’t get. We don’t want to get it. We hear how the time is approaching for Jesus “to be taken up.” That may sound almost like an honor, but we know it’s anything but that. He’s about to be taken up on a cross—ridiculed and rejected by every established authority. He’s about to be taken up into the very life of God, so that when we see him we’re not even sure what we’ve seen. He’s about to turn our very ideas of God upside down and inside out, and we still haven’t figured out how to make sense of that.
He’s about to mess up every idea we have about success and failure. In God’s reign the trains are not going to run on time. What we think of as a blessing, say, an emperor’s endorsement, might be a curse. What seems a setback might be a victory. What are we supposed to do with that? How do you plan for it? It’s not a line item in next year’s budget.
Even when we say we know better, we don’t get it. There are quite a few of us reading this who’ve had our whole lives turned upside down after stumbling across the presence of God. If you knew everybody’s story you might be surprised. And yet here many of us are on Sundays, following a scripted set of activities. We showed up on time. We hope the hymns are the ones we already know. We hope the sermon is short enough that we can beat the crowds to brunch.
We Episcopalians want to know what’s coming next on a Sunday morning. That can be a very good thing. Another time I could preach a whole sermon on the importance of a well-planned liturgy, and of course fabulous outfits.
But there’s an item on our liturgical schedule that isn’t like the others. Tell me if you can spot it: We gather, we admit our brokenness, we celebrate God’s acceptance, we sing praises, we hear scripture, we reflect on it, we pray, we eat an executed criminal, we eat God, and then we’re dismissed.
Did anybody catch the part that sounds downright bizarre? We eat an executed criminal! And when we do that we eat God! Why doesn’t somebody round us up and lock us in a padded cell? I guess, as far as the law is concerned, we’re having bread and wine. But that’s not what we say we’re having! We say we’re eating the God who comes to us as an executed criminal. And some of us are actually deranged enough to believe it, or at least say we believe it.
How do you pencil that into your calendar? Where do you find a slot for the source of everything that is? How can the source of everything that is come to us as an executed criminal? How can the source of everything that is become, well, edible? Forget calendars, I can’t even get this into my head! What kind of God is this, anyway?
This is not the God who lives somewhere else and occasionally steps in to fix things or else destroy them. This is not the God who controls us and the rest of the world like puppets. This is not the God who guarantees my success if I just live and pray the right way.
This is the God who’s already with us no matter how messed up things get. This is the God who can’t be driven away even by execution—we know, because it’s been tried before. This is the God who acts like Jesus, setting his face to go to Jerusalem where ridicule and a gruesome death await. This is the God who starts showing up unexpectedly when our schedules are too full for any more meetings. This is the God who like Jesus draws us to be there not just for our neighbors but for our enemies, inviting everybody to a life together where nothing will ever be the same. This is the God who stares at us from behind a fenced enclosure, longing for a chance at a better life, longing to be reunited with loved ones. This is the God who promises not to rescue us but to take us up, as Jesus was taken up, and offer us to the world as a word of outrageous welcome.
That’s the God we promise to follow every time we share bread and wine in Jesus’ name. We’ve made our liturgies run so smoothly that you might not have noticed, as we go through the motions like a bunch of well-dressed cannibals. Most of the time—right?—we just don’t get it.
And that really would be bad news if everything turned on whether we get it or not. But everything doesn’t turn on us—it turns on God. And God gets it. More importantly, God gets us.
You may rattle off the words of today’s service and never notice what you’re saying, but don’t be too embarrassed. It won’t be the first time that’s happened, and it won’t be the last. And you’ve got lots of company in the rest of us. Most of the time you don’t get it, and I don’t get it, because we’re all human. But we live every moment in the presence of a God who knows what being human is like. We live every moment with a God who can show up when we’re not even looking. We live every moment embraced by a God who never gives up on us.
Whether we get it or not, the time is drawing near—it’s always drawing near—for us to be taken up, as Jesus was taken up, and offered to the world as a word of outrageous welcome. It’s what we signed up for when we were baptized.
That’s disconcerting news no matter how you spin it. But it’s disconcertingly good news. And if you can say that much, you’re starting to get it.