Lectionary Sermon for Pentecost +6, Ordinary 13 C, June 30, 2013
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 towards 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 plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
I did not grow up in a mainline denomination like the Presbyterian Church. The Christian subculture I grew up in, however, had its own ideas of what was important: it was to avoid doing the things that were wrong so that you would not fall into the trap of becoming “worldly.” For example, we were tea-totalers, since drinking any alcohol was a sin. And we weren’t supposed to go to dances, since it provokes “lust in the heart.” Other groups of Christians I knew had even tougher restrictions: they forbade going to watch movies and had strict hair codes and dress codes.
One of the worst sins you can commit is saying a bad word: swearing, or cussing, as we called it. That’s what I thought, as a kid, growing up in a suburban American Christian home. I’m not saying that anyone ever told me to believe that, but that’s the message I got. Lying was something you should not do, so you tried not to, most of the time of course. And “lust in your heart” was something you had to repent of as often as you experienced it. But cussing was something you just never did. Nobody in your Christian circles did. None of the people in your family or church or youth group did. It was that bad. It was that important.
So, from that context, it was a shock to hear what I heard one time. A well respected Christian speaker, professor Tony Campolo was talking about world hunger. He quoted a statistic about how many children die each day of malnutrition. Then he said most of us didn’t give a “s____t” about it (insert bad word). And then he said that most of us were far more concerned that he had said a bad word than that all those children were going to die tonight.
He was right. It shocked me. I felt as though I had been exposed as a fraud. It was clearly true and obviously a terrible truth to discover about myself, that I had a stronger gut-reaction to his use of a forbidden word than the reaction I had to the needless deaths of hungry children.
It gets worse. The sub-culture I grew up in was virulently anti-Communist. Communists were godless atheists who were persecuting Christians and shutting down churches wherever their poisonous perspective took root; so they had to be opposed. Many of you may be nodding in agreement, but hear me out.
We never asked the question, not even once, what would motivate a person to join up with the communist cause? We never discussed economic injustice or oppression. So when the topic of apartheid in South Africa came up, apartheid was never questioned. The subject was wether Nelson Mandela’s ANC was getting support from Marxist sources and had communist aims. That was the only question.
Never mind the virtual enslavement of a whole indigenous population of South Africa. Never mind the shame, the humiliation, the exploitation and hopelessness that defined apartheid. We consoled our consciences with the thought that the blacks in S. Africa could at least go to church (their own churches, of course, not white ones).
I actually spoke with a missionary who had recently returned from South Africa back in the 1960’s who pointed out that all of the black people in his pictures were smiling.
If it were not already done, I could write a book entitled “Adventures in Missing the Point.” Dancing, swearing, any use of alcohol – compared with oppression, injustice, hunger! I’m not blaming anybody: we are all products of our times and places, but the naked fact is that we had trivialized Christianity. We had believed a distorted and anemic version of Jesus that left him utterly irrelevant to the compelling issues of the day.
As you all know, my life was changed by my years of living in Central Europe, Romania and the former Yugoslavia. I lived within a half an hour’s drive of mass graves in more than one directions from my home. I have seen what it means to have inherited and to practice a version of Christianity that is powerless to prevent genocide. Serbs, who identify with Orthodox Christianity, and Croats who by-and-large identify with Catholicism, both repeat the whole Nicene Creed in church. So what? The Reformed Church (= Presbyterian) has it’s own brand of nationalism that I have witnessed up-close as well.
That was the experience of my lifetime. Some of you lived through the WWII; you could tell stories that would make my experience pale by comparison. I have visited Auschwitz and seen that pile of baby clothes and the crematorium. That happened in so-called “Christian Europe” where lavish cathedrals with amazing organs first played the greatest compositions of music ever written, from Bach to Mozart and beyond, all in praise of the Christian God. So what?
I am completely convinced now that the Christianity of the Creeds alone is vacuous, maybe even dangerous, as it has been instrumentalized so often by the powers-that-be to baptize the current political agenda, up-to and including their gratuitous wars. Even Croatia’s former Communist-turned-nationalist president Tudjman lit candles in church when he found it helpful to be seen doing so, during the campaign of ethic cleansing of the Krajina region.
What kind of Christianity lets that happen? The kind that has lost the point.
I believe that’s exactly what Jesus was trying to warn us about. On more than one occasion that Luke has compiled nicely for us to read in one place, Jesus warned about the utter seriousness of his mission. There was nothing trivial about it. It had nothing to do with cussing or dancing. It had to do with the number one essential point that if lost sight of, subverts all the rest: Christianity is supposed to be about compassion.
Compassion for the world and all of the people who inhabit it is God’s primary motivation.
“God is love” the bible tells us.
“For God so loved the world that he sent his only son…”.
“No greater love has anyone than this: that he lays down his life for his friends” Jesus said.
And this love, this compassion is real. When we have real compassion we feel grieved whenever people are suffering. Compassion moves us to become involved, to look for solutions, to reach out and touch, to offer a hand.
Compassion means that not everything goes: there are right solutions and wrong solutions to problems. If people get in the way of your journey to Jerusalem, as the Samaritans tried to do to Jesus and Co., what do you do, call down fire, like Elijah of old, as James and John suggested to Jesus? No! Whatever you think was going on in that Elijah story, those days are over.
What if a compassionate agenda causes inconvenience?
What if it means we lose some of our privilege and advantage?
What if it means power-sharing to open up doors of access to people other than us insiders? Jesus would say, (did say):
“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
In other words: this is serious: and yes, it may include the embrace of inconvenience; even embracing suffering.
What if I can come up with twelve good reasons to put it off until some future moment when the time will be right?
“Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the reign of God.”
What if we start down this compassionate road and then, realizing the costs of loosing some of our power and privilege, we start to have regrets? What if the way of compassion starts to bite into our lifestyles and puts limits on our luxuries, making us nostalgic for the old days?
“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
“Fit” here means “useful.” It’s not a matter of being rejected, it’s a matter of being unhelpful in the cause of compassion? Why? Because looking back with nostalgia for the former days, before the time when Jesus changed the religious paradigm could only mean one thing: that person didn’t get the point.
It would be like a former slave owner, after emancipation, being nostalgic for slavery; a fundamental denial of the essence of compassion. Jesus changed the whole quest of the spiritual life from performance of ritual to compassion in action.
James got the message, as he wrote very soon after Jesus’ ministry these words:
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27)
In other words compassion; compassion which refuses to be seduced by dominant cultural values to the contrary.
It’s so sad when that vision is trivialized or lost. The vision Jesus held out for us of living according to the reign of God is a bright and hopeful vision. In Jesus’ vision, God is not interested in temple rituals and the blood of animals; God is the heavenly Father who supplies bread for the day.
God is not waiting in heaven to be called to come down and smite the Samaritans; God is making, Jesus said,
“his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matt. 5:45)
Any version of Christianity that misses the point of compassion is useless.
An Alternative Vision
But for those who have, as the gospels say, “repented” of our default selfishness, defensiveness, our primitive, immature, lizard brain, fight-or-flight responses, in favor of compassion, imagine what is possible:
A world in which there are no more mass graves.
A world without children dying of hunger.
A world without discrimination on the basis of anything: race, religion, sexual-orientation, social status, or gender.
A world in which our precious planet is safeguarded from degradation.
A world in which compassionate people dream God’s dream of liberty and justice for All – that’s All, with a capital A; no exceptions.
The dream is unfulfilled so far. The task is unfinished. We, here now today, as prosperous Americans at the start of the 21st century are called to join the journey Jesus marked out for us when he “set his face for Jerusalem.”
We are called to dream the dream. Jesus said then and continues to say now:
We are called to be followers of Jesus, full of compassion, accepting the struggle and the inconvenience, embracing even suffering as Jesus demonstrated, looking forward, not back, to the reign of God; the God of compassion.
And we are called to work out what it means to implement compassion in practical ways, in our community, in our nation, and for our planet.
Hand to the plow;
No looking back.