Sunday, June 30, 2013

Simple and Directed (Luke 9:51-62)

In this passage, Luke sets the stage for Jesus' final act -- his journey to Jerusalem, where he will be welcomed with great rejoicing and five days later hung on a tree to die.

There's some disagreement about how much Jesus might know about what is to happen to him. Some folks, of course, say that with his divine foreknowledge he knew every detail of what was to happen. Some say that, because he was also human, he had some idea that this final confrontation with the Sanhedrin would lead to his death but not a second-by-second itinerary. In this second understanding, Jesus obeyed God because that was part of his mission and God called him to Jerusalem. He had faith that God would vindicate him, but in his human limitations he may again not have known the exact means God would use.

Whichever way you believe, there are two key lessons we can draw from how Jesus begins his journey. One is the aforementioned obedience. If he foresees his death or only suspects it, either way he obeys God in all things, showing us how we as human beings are to live our lives.

The other is something I'll call focus, and it's represented by the way that Luke says Jesus "set his face" towards Jerusalem. We might say we "set our sights" on something to get the same idea across. We have a goal and when we focus on it, we hold that goal before us and ignore distractions. Now that Jesus approaches the most important part of his work, he will keep it and only it before him. I can't say for certain, but perhaps this is why the Samaritan village rejects him. Verse 53 says "they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem." If Jerusalem was his goal, maybe he wasn't willing to stop and teach them, or heal and perform miracles. Thus rebuffed, the Samaritan village responded in kind.

Whatever the reason, the village won't receive him, so James and John want to lay the smack down upon it. We're just told that Jesus "rebuked" them, and the nature of the rebuke is left to our imagination. I'd imagine that Jesus might say if he wasn't going to turn away from his Jerusalem goal in order to heal and teach at the village, then he sure wouldn't turn away to blast it from existence.

As he travels, a man comes to him and offers to follow him. Jesus warns him that those who follow him have no real home while they do -- and frankly, this is a pretty middling hardship compared with what awaits Jesus and later on, many of the apostles themselves. Apparently, it deters the man -- he will allow the hardships of following Jesus to distract him from the call to follow Jesus.

Then Jesus calls to a man to follow him, but the man wants to wait to bury his father. Some folks suggest the man's father wasn't dead, and he was suggesting that he needed to wait until his family obligations were over. In that case, Jesus' rebuke seems a little milder, because the man may have been deferring Jesus' call for many years and Jesus will have none of that. But even if the man meant that he needed to bury his father right away, Jesus' answer would be the same.

It's the same to the man who says he wants to say goodbye to his family before following Jesus. See, neither of these things are in any way bad, in Jesus' culture or our own. We have obligations to our families and friends, and we can't just ignore them for whatever we might want. Burying your father is a proper and honorable thing. But it's not going to Jerusalem. Letting your family know where you will be is a good thing. But it's not going to Jerusalem.

I've found that in my own faith life, as I've grown older, I am less and less likely to be distracted by "things of the world," although I've still been known to get a pang or two from them. What distracts me far more often are good things, things that aren't bad in any way. But even those good things can pull us from following Christ.

My denomination adopted a mission statement some years ago that said our mission on earth was to make disciples of Jesus Christ. I don't know how many of our churches -- including churches I've led -- have used that idea as the standard for measuring our activities. It's not that we have to cut everything that doesn't overtly make disciples. Some of it we should, but other things may need re-thought so we can see how they work to make disciples or how they might be retooled to do so.

Jesus closes with a metaphor drawn from farming done in his time. No one, he says, who puts a hand to the plow and then looks back is fit for the kingdom of God. Someone who plows without looking at the ground ahead does not plow a straight furrow, and that won't work. That may sound discouraging, but read it again -- what might we do if we have indeed erred and "looked back" when we've taken up the plow?

We can look forward again. We can set our face on Jerusalem as well, and it holds no terrors for us, for our Lord has already been there and prepared our welcome.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Pigs in Spaaaaaace! (Luke 8:26-39)

I am drawing the same ideas from this passage as I did in an earlier sermon, so I reprint it here. The original sermon can be found here.

In the old Muppet Show, a sketch featured a group of pigs as crew of a space-ship, in a kind of a takeoff of Star Trek. The announcer would get a real deep voice and the sound man upped the reverberation so we could hear the extremely dignified name of the “show:” Pigs in Spaaaaaace.

This has nothing to do with the meaning of the passage, especially since Luke puts it on a steep hill instead of a cliff like Mark does. But I always follow this important rule: When you have the chance to name a sermon after a Muppet Show sketch, do so.

Anyway, we have Jesus landing on the opposite side of the see of Galilee from his homeland, in the country of the Gerasenes. As his boat lands, a man confronts him. The man is possessed by demons, we are told, so he probably does this to everyone who shows up.

But this time, he meets someone other than the usual traveler who might run away in fear. The demon in him instantly recognizes Jesus and cowers in fear, and Jesus for his part orders the unclean spirit to leave the man.

Here Luke, ever the doctor, gives us the man’s symptoms so that we can know he really was demon-possessed. He lived in the tombs, among dead people. He had frenzied convulsions and in them, he demonstrated super-human strength. Today, we might hear a doctor diagnose someone with mental illness in the same way, by listing the harmful things they did to themselves as symptoms of their disorder.

After the spirit begs Jesus to leave him alone, Jesus asks it for its name. “Legion,” it says, meaning that not just one spirit but many have taken control of this man. With this command, Jesus asserts his power over the spirit. There will be no hiding behind one’s fellow demons, hoping Jesus picks one of them to be cast out while the others can stay. The eviction notice covers everyone. He has absolute authority over them and he will exert it.

The demons beg not to be sent back to “the abyss,” or whatever it is that they came from. Instead, they ask to be sent into a herd of nearby pigs. Jesus agrees, and the spirits leave the man, enter the herd, and sprint to their deaths in the sea. And Legion forever loses his ability to really harm people, as they will never take him seriously again. “Ooh, it’s Legion! Watch out! He’ll make your Sausage McMuffin jump into your coffee!”

The pig handlers are amazed at what they see. They run to town to tell everyone, and a group marches out to see what’s going on. They see Jesus having a pleasant conversation with the formerly-possessed man. They know he’s formerly-possessed because he has clothes on and he speaks words instead of howls or grunts.

According to Luke, they respond by getting scared. When some folks who witnessed the whole scene describe it for them, they get more scared and ask him to leave.

I could understand why all this might freak them out a little. It’s a pretty freaky story. But afraid? And so afraid they ask the man who worked this miracle to go away? Why? Surely they could see this man was a powerful prophet and brought a message of similar power. But why fear him? His power was great, but it was used to heal. And it could obviously heal anyone, if it healed their friendly neighborhood demoniac. It could even heal them…

Oh, I think I see now. If Jesus could heal the possessed man, then he could heal them. Now they might have to confront their own sin. Now they might need to admit they too had things that needed to be made right with God. They couldn’t pretend they were OK anymore, by pointing out that, “Hey, at least I don’t live in tombs like that guy.” Because Jesus had healed “that guy."

The Gerasenes had a pretty safe and settled situation going. As long as their village whacko was around, they could pretend they were OK. “I’m not as bad as him,” they could say. Or we might say, when we point to someone as obviously despicable as a man howling in the tombs would be. “We’re not as bad as they are,” we offer.

But Jesus has another point of view. “Maybe not,” he responds. “But to me, he’s just as good as you. He knew he needed me. Will you admit that also? Will you admit you need me as much as he needed me?”

Jesus left the villagers. But he didn’t leave them alone. He told the possessed man to go everywhere and tell what God had done for him. As a reminder of what God could do, when we open ourselves to him.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Forgiveness and Transformation (Luke 7:38-50)

Yes, yes, this story is similar to one that John tells, but it's slightly different and happens in a different location and setting. That obviously means the gospels were made up and don't tell us what happened in Jesus' ministry and life. Or it means that by the time Luke heard the story, the person who told it to him had grown a little fuzzy on the details. Or it means that the story of the original incident spread throughout those who followed Jesus or heard about him, and a second woman performed the same gesture with the intent of conveying the same love and devotion.

We don't know which, but my point is that people who want to lean on this as some kind of gospel-falsifying inconsistency find themselves relying on a weak reed indeed.

Anyway, we have Jesus eating at the home of Simon the Pharisee. This sounds weird at first, until we remember that the Pharisees began some hundred years or so before Jesus as a group of people whose main message was that followers of God ought to act like it. Legalists and hair-splitters had taken over much of that message, but the core remained and many members of that party found quite a lot of common ground with a man whose first proclaimed message was a call to people to change their lives because the Kingdom of God was at hand.

While he's there, a woman anoints his feet with perfume, washes them with her tears and dries them with her hair. Simon notes this and figures Jesus doesn't know what kind of woman she was -- otherwise, there's no way a teacher would allow himself to be ritually defiled by her touch. Jesus knows Simon's thoughts and offers to tell him a story. Simon agrees -- formal dinners in this culture often featured some kind of discussion led by the guest.

Two men owed a banker some money, Jesus says. One owed a bunch, the other not so much. The banker forgave both men, so which one does Simon think will love him more? I can imagine Simon shrugging, since the answer is obvious: The one who was forgiven more. Exactly, Jesus says, and so this woman is showing much love since she has been forgiven much. Jesus contrasts her actions with Simon's, which really didn't measure up to cultural standards of hospitality.

That last little bit may fall hard on our ears. Especially for the majority of us who understand we haven't really been forgiven all that much. Most of us have not committed great harm or done great wrong to others. So if those forgiven little love little, then we would seem to be among that number. And we don't want to be! We want to show great love to Jesus! In fact we want to show more love today than we showed yesterday and show even more tomorrow! We don't want to show little love, whether we've been forgiven lots or little.

And there's part of the key to dealing with what Jesus said. We want to show great love, and we can do exactly that. How much you want to bet the next houseguest Simon entertained had not just one basin to wash his feet, but one for each toe? If Jesus ate there again, how much would you like to bet that Simon met every last obligation he had as a host and then some?

Of course the person forgiven much feels more gratitude! But feeling is only a piece of that puzzle. If we want to show great love for Jesus, we can do so even if we are aware of being forgiven for far less than someone else might have been. Jesus' words to Simon are a warning against complacency on the part of those who live more or less upright lives.

And then there's another part that we ought to address, although we'd probably rather not. In reality, the idea of being forgiven much and forgiven little is something that only appears from our side of things. Whether we admit it or not, most of us like to see some difference between us and other people not like us. Folks who haven't hurt people or committed great errors like to see ourselves as more respectable than those other kind. Folks who may own up to serious wrongdoing like to see themselves as more honest about things than folks who don't have as much to own up to.

But the condition of sin is not a matter of totaling up a list of sins to see if it crosses some kind of border between God-land and World-land. Sin is separation from God, and from God's point of view, any separation is too much. Had there been one sin in the entire world, committed by only one person, Jesus would have offered himself just as he did.

In reality, we've all been forgiven exactly the same amount: Everything.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Either/Or (Luke 7:1-10)

This Sunday's sermon is on Luke's description of the healing of the centurion's servant. My thoughts revolve around the same focus as they did when I preached before on this passage, so I will reprint the manuscript from that sermon for this Sunday.

Every time I read the gospels, I’m glad we have the four instead of just one melded version that picked up the pieces of all of them. I like how Mark is straightforward and direct, and how Matthew always takes pains to connect the story of Jesus with the ancient story of God at work in the people of Israel. John gives us some sense of the “big picture’ significance of Jesus.

And Luke throws in great human details like one in this passage. Let me show you what I mean.

When Jesus arrives in Capernaum, he’s met by a delegation of Jewish elders who bring him a message from a Roman centurion. The soldier has a slave who’s ill and near death, and is asking for Jesus to heal him. Here’s the part I like – the elders give the centurion’s resumé to Jesus. He built us a synagogue, they say. He’s one of the good Romans and he treats us well.

They figure Jesus might not want to help a Roman, and that’s probably a safe assumption, as most Jewish people we’d meet on the street in that day wouldn’t have wept much if Rome disappeared overnight.

Whether convinced by the elders or for reasons of his own, Jesus has decided to heal the sick man and sets out for the centurion’s home. But the centurion anticipated this and warns Jesus away from his house, knowing that a Jewish religious leader who visited a Roman’s home would have problems with his own people.

He says he knows what authority is, as he has people in authority over him and he has authority over others. So if Jesus does in fact have the authority to heal his servant, then it will be done whether the two meet face to face or not.

Jesus comments that this man has great faith, “unlike any in Israel.” And the slave is made well.

We don’t always use the word “faith” in the way it plays out here. We often make it a synonym with “believe,” and we lump it in with other kinds of mental or intellectual actions.

But the centurion recognizes a different dimension of faith. For him, it is a matter of not simply agreeing that Jesus might heal his slave. It is a conviction that the healing will be done if Jesus wants it done, and a willingness to live by that conviction no matter what.

That’s where his comments on authority come in. If the centurion were here to explain his actions, he might tell us something like this: Either Jesus wants to heal my slave or he doesn’t. If he wants to, then he either can heal him or he can’t. And if he wants to heal him and he can heal him, then it’s a done deal.

I sometimes don’t do so well as the centurion, and I imagine many of us would say the same. We’ll profess a belief that God will do something and then we’ll go and try to do it as though he can’t.

I don’t mean things like praying and then not taking people to the doctor – God will work through human hands and skills to heal just as much as through his own ways.

Think of it more like this: When each of us learns to drive, there comes a point where we have to be driving the car ourselves. If the person with us tells us we know how to drive but then insists on taking the wheel anyway, we wonder if they mean what they say. And they might also be my dad, but that has more to do with him getting carsick easily unless he’s at the wheel.

When we’re driving ourselves, then we guide the car, we choose the route, we follow whichever traffic regulations we choose (or remember. Who goes first at a 4-way stop?). Other people might offer advice or warnings. Constantly. Mom. But when another person drives, they do those things.

The centurion lets Jesus know that he doesn’t have to risk his reputation among the people in order to heal. He has sent word to Jesus because he believes Jesus can heal his slave, so Jesus need make no special journey, or say special words or make some kind of show. He just has to say it’s done, and it’s done.

The centurion’s faith didn’t heal the slave – don’t misunderstand the story. Jesus did it. He noted the centurion’s faith as an example for us to follow, but he did the healing. We can’t automatically make Jesus do something just by believing in it hard enough. That’s the way we save Tinkerbell in Peter Pan, not how we trust in and follow our Lord.