Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 8), June 30, 2019 (Luke 9:51-62) – “Foxes have Holes, Birds have Nests….”

“Jesus Traveling (Jésus en voyage)” (1886-1896), by James Tissot (1836-1902). The Brooklyn Museum. Public Domain.

Originally preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

It seems hard for me to believe (because it seems so recent), but over ten years ago, Honda had a certain advertising campaign on television and that featured an animated man who would talk about the vehicles and deals available during the Honda Year-End Clearance Event.  Once he had told the viewer or listener about the great deals available to them, he would either “rap” the television screen or “tap” the radio microphone and state enthusiastically, “I’m Mr. Opportunity, and I’m knocking.”

Mr. Opportunity was Honda’s way of telling prospective car buyers about the cars they could have if they acted quickly.  The Year-End Clearance Event wasn’t going to last forever, though, and the cars weren’t going to stick around. Just as soon as the event was over and the cars sold, Mr. Opportunity would be on his way until the next big sale.  But while the sale was on, he was knocking.

In a way, Jesus, in our reading from Luke this morning, is kind of like Mr. Opportunity.  He’s been going along, preaching about the coming kingdom of God, preaching repentance and healing people as he journeys toward Jerusalem where his work will be made complete.  He presents an opportunity in every town he enters, an opportunity for life and healing, an opportunity for second chances and changed hearts. But not everyone who comes into contact with him is open to that opportunity.  The Samaritans, theological opponents of the Jewish community, see that he’s going toward Jerusalem, the seat of their rival religion, and so they don’t let him into their town. He’s not acceptable among them, even if he is bringing with him the good news of the kingdom of God.

Some of the people who have joined Jesus on his journey don’t understand what taking the opportunity to follow him means.  The man who says he’ll follow Jesus wherever he will go doesn’t understand the stakes of being a disciple. “I will follow you wherever you should go,” he says.  But Jesus replies, “Foxes have dens, the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay down his head.” To follow Jesus is to leave behind everything, to give up your comforts, to become homeless in this world.  Wild creatures have their homes, but not Jesus. The one who expects comfort and an easy time of it while going with Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem will be sorely mistaken.

“Homeless Jesus” by Timothy P. Schmalz in the courtyard of the Papal Charities Building, Vatican City. From the sculptor’s website.

And those whom Jesus calls to follow him learn that the opportunity to follow Jesus is fleeting.  Jesus isn’t waiting around. “Permit me, going [with you], to first bury my father,” says one. “Let me say goodbye to all the folks at home,” says another.  But Jesus won’t give them time to do these things. “Let the dead bury the dead,” Jesus tells the first, “but you proclaim the kingdom of God.” “No one who puts his hands upon the plough and looks back is worthy of the Kingdom.”  Jesus is Mr. Opportunity, and he’s knocking. He’s still heading for Jerusalem, and they either heed him or they don’t.

Of course, what Jesus tells these men who wish to follow him is a hard saying.  In the case of the first, he’s telling him that following the Son of Man means becoming essentially homeless in the world.  In the world of first-century Judaea, to follow a rabbi literally meant to take on their philosophies and lifestyle. Following Jesus guarantees hardship and difficulty–no earthly security, no earthly comfort.  The fox has his den, the bird her best, but Jesus, and by extension, his followers, doesn’t have that comfort and safety. When Jesus calls these men to follow him, they learn that in order to truly follow him, they must have no earthly attachments.  Jesus comes first, everything else comes second. Even the obligation to bury one’s father, the most important thing one could do as a first century Jew, must come second.

“Fox Den” (2018) by Yellow Oxide after Shingo Nono. Image from Instagram.

But surely Jesus can’t be serious, can he?  That his followers are not to expect any kind of stability, that family comes second to following him, so much so that caring for one’s parents is made subordinate to preaching the word of the kingdom of God?  What Jesus is doing for these men who wish to follow him is that he’s pointing out their idols, the things that keep them from committing to his call, those things that take their attention away from preaching the kingdom of God and instead focus their attention on worldly matters, those things which take Jesus’ place in their hearts, those things which keep them from fully placing their trust in him, either because they dominate their attention or because they are convenient excuses.

And that’s what Jesus is doing here. By calling these men to follow him (or in the case of the first, explaining what his call will be like), Jesus is asking them to trust him utterly, to give up all they have and to follow him wherever he goes, even to Jerusalem where he will die.  But these men have other worldly cares that seem to take place of Jesus’ call. They don’t seem necessarily willing to set these things aside and throw their lot in with Jesus. They hear the call of the son of God, and yet, when they hear what’s entailed, they are reluctant. The idols in their lives–comfort, family, societal obligations–keep them from trusting him fully and taking the plunge.  They don’t have their priorities straight. They try to put conditions on their following him.

It’s worth remembering that when Jesus talks to these men, he’s talking to people who haven’t yet seen his crucifixion and resurrection (though they’re looming in the distance).  Looking at ourselves, what does this mean for us? We’re Christians, living in the promise of the resurrection. Most of us have been Christians since our infancy. But just because you’re in the church, doesn’t mean that you’re automatically following Jesus.  To follow Christ isn’t some sort of casual activity. It’s not something that we do passively (though we can’t do it without Jesus’ help), because there are all kinds of things out there that vie for our attention and which we turn into excuses for not following him, living as baptized children of God, being the church.  Maybe you’ve noticed some in your life. Perhaps it’s a desire to be comfortable. “Lord, I want to follow you, but I don’t want to take the risk–I’m afraid of the social repercussions of living out my faith publicly.” “Lord, I want to tell other people about you, but I’m just too busy making ends meet.” “Lord, I fear what others will say.”  Maybe the desire for financial security gets in the way. “I want to help people as you would have me, Lord, but I want to save money. I’m worried that if I give this homeless fellow cash, he’ll spend it on drugs. I don’t want to be defrauded.” “Lord, I know we pray ‘thy will be done,’ but I really want things to go my way for once.” “Lord, I know what I should do, but I can’t bring myself to act the way you want me to.”  “Lord, I believe— help my unbelief!” These thoughts and worries are all indicative of the idols we make out of ourselves, our time, our money, and our feelings, among myriad other things. They’re all things that we use to say, “I want to follow you, Jesus, but….” When we do that, we’re going back to that old familiar sin of ours wherein we trust ourselves over Jesus, or at least show that we’re not so ready to take him at his word, to trust that he is God and that, with him, we will be in his care and under his protection.  We can’t put our hands on the Gospel plough and then have second thoughts about it.

“The Man at the Plough” (1886-1894), by James Tissot (1836-1902). The Brooklyn Museum. Public Domain

Humans are creatures of comfort, after all.  We don’t like to be drawn into uncomfortable situations or ones in which we are vulnerable.  But that desire for comfort in the world distracts us from the fact that our Lord wants us to find our true comfort in him, not in the world.  That’s the issue that faced these men to whom Jesus called along the road to Jerusalem. But the difference for them is that Jesus isn’t calling them to follow him on their own, left to struggle and puzzle out how to best follow their master by themselves.  He is going to be with them! And while they may not understand who he is and what following him fully means, he invites them to trust him and follow him. It’s not unlike how the Israelites trusted God and followed his pillar of cloud and fire on their way out of Egypt in the Exodus.  God called them to follow him, and they did so, trusting him the whole way. They didn’t know where they were going, but he was present with them for every step, protecting them from danger.

“Moses goes through the Red Sea. The Army of Pharaoh is Drowned” (10th Century). Paris psalter, BnF MS Grec 139, folio 419v. Public Domain.

As it was for the Exodus-era Israelites, so it is for the men in our Gospel reading.  Jesus will be with them–in fact, they’ll be with him. And if they’re with him, then he will guide them.  In a sense, that’s what Jesus means when he talks about how no-one who puts his hands to the plough and looks back is not worthy of the Kingdom.  If you’ve ever seen how an old plough works— the kind that’s drawn by oxen rather than horses— you’ve probably noticed that in addition to the person who guides the plough itself, there’s at least one other person to help goad on the oxen along and keep the plough moving.  Jesus is like that person who guides the oxen, and when they start moving, you’d better hang on! But he keeps the oxen from going out of control and keeps the plough in its furrow.

And so it is for us.  Even though there are many things that fight to control our attention and entice us to hem and haw about living as one of God’s children in Christ, Jesus invites us to trust him and follow him.  We don’t have to fear or worry about discomfort or worldly obligations preventing us from following Jesus with our whole being because he will help us deal with that discomfort and meet those obligations as we follow him.  As we “go along,” following Jesus, we can perform our duties and face discomfort and unsurety in the world, but motivated by a different spirit, not because we are motivated by fear or by some law or custom, but because Jesus has given us the freedom to do so.  When we trust Jesus when he says, “Follow me,” knowing that the Son of God has our back no matter where we go or where he calls us to go, we can follow him without fear or worry, and we can do our best to be who he calls us to be. He will be with us every step of the way, and if we stumble in our following him, he will set us back on our feet to continue with him on his way.

C.S. Lewis once wrote the following: “If you read history you will find that Christians who did most for the present world were those who thought most of the next.  The apostles themselves, who set out on foot to convert the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English evangelicals who abolished the slave trade, all left their mark on earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven.  It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this one. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in.’ Aim at earth and you will get neither.”

When we remember that Jesus is with us when we go to follow him, we can live confidently in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, not worrying about discomfort, vulnerability, or fear, but living in the world while looking confidently forward toward the kingdom of heaven, made worthy of it because we trust the one who makes us worthy, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration, March 3, 2019 (Luke 9:28-36) – “Ignoring the Exodus in the Room”

Printer’s Device of Johann vom Berg (d. 1563) and Ulrich Neuber, from Veit Dietrich’s (1506-1549) “Summaria vber die gantze Bibel.” From the Pitts Theology Library Digital Image Archive.

This sermon was originally preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church in Fairfax Station, Virginia.

When you hear the word “exodus,” what comes to mind?  Perhaps you think of the book in the Bible by that name.  Makes sense— we’re in church after all. Maybe it brings to mind the event that gives that book its name: the mass migration of the Israelites out of Egypt to escape slavery and receive the land that God had promised them through Abraham.  Maybe it doesn’t bring to mind Biblical scenes at all, but rather Bob Marley and the Wailer’s brilliant 1977 reggae album and its hit single of the same name. Or if you’re more of a video-game connoisseur, it might make you think of the new release in the post-apocalyptic Metro series.  But all of these allusions point to the word’s original meaning.  “Exodus” comes from the Greek word meaning “the road out” or “departure,” and so we think of an “exodus” as a mass going-out.

Not the exodus Jesus was talking about.

But there’s another kind of exodus, and it’s an exodus that is very different from these.  When Jesus converses with Elijah and Moses in this morning’s Gospel reading, an exodus comes up in their discussion, but it’s not a mass migration made by a group of tribes from one place to another, nor is it a song about the “movement of Jah people.”  The exodus Jesus, Moses, and Elijah are discussing together is a specific kind of exodus— today we might even call it an exit.  This exodus is not one that we often like to think about.  It’s scary and seemingly final. It is the exodus of death, and here, specifically, Jesus’ death.

Oh to have been a fly on the wall for that conversation— hearing the Son of God conversing with two of the greatest prophets of Israel!  Luke tells us that when Jesus went up onto the mountain— either Mount Tabor or Mount Hermon, we’re not sure— and Moses and Elijah appeared there with him, they “were speaking with Him about His exodus, which was about to be fulfilled in Jerusalem” (Luke 9:38).  What, specifically, about this exodus, we don’t know, but we can guess that it might have been some kind of ongoing conversation, continuing from what had been spoken of in heaven about the salvific work of Christ through his passion and death.  Moses and Elijah, after all, both represent the law and the prophets, and it is through them that Jesus’ work had been foretold prior to his coming. Remember what Jesus says in the parable of “Dives and Lazarus”— the law and prophets attest to him.  But I imagine that the fact that Jesus was going to die as part of this exodus made up an important part of their discussion, perhaps the central part of it.

“The Transfiguration” (1516-1520) by Raphael (1483-1520). Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City.

And then Peter and the others wake up and see them speaking. As always, poor Peter doesn’t understand what’s going on.  “Master, oh how good it is for us to be here! Let’s set up some tents for you and Moses and Elijah!” Peter wanted to keep the conversation going; he probably wanted to ask Moses and Elijah all kinds of questions about their lives, what speaking to God is like, what it’s like to spend eternity with him.  It might have been that he was overwhelmed by the confluence of greatness that had appeared on the mountain top and felt he had to do something for these honored guests. After all, these were great men, and hospitality being so important as it is in ancient Near Eastern culture, it was only good manners to serve them.  But from what Peter says to Jesus, it doesn’t seem like he really cares about what’s going on or what Jesus, Moses, and Elijah are talking about. He, and presumably James and John, haven’t heard what Jesus and the prophets are saying about his exodus, or if they have, those words are being ignored, perhaps actively.

This kind of ignoring-the-elephant-in-the-room (or more properly, the “exodus-in-the-room”) seems to be par for the course for Peter and the other disciples.  Just ten verses prior to this, Luke recounts Peter and the disciples’ confession of faith.  Jesus asks them, “who do you say that I am?” and they reply (with Peter as spokesman), “The Christ of God”— which is to say, God’s Messiah.  And immediately after they confess this, Jesus tells them that he must go to Jerusalem, suffer at the hands of the authorities, die, and be raised again.  And Peter, as it is recorded in Matthew’s version of this account, answers emphatically, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22).  How does Jesus answer him? “Get behind me, Satan!….For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matthew 16:23).

“Get Thee Behind Me, Satan” (1886-1896), by James Tissot (1836-1902). Brooklyn Museum.

All throughout the Gospels, Jesus tells the disciples about his impending death and resurrection, and they continually ignore him, misunderstand him, or desire that it would not be so.  On the one hand, you can’t really blame them. Nobody likes to think about death and its implications.

But on the other hand, by ignoring Jesus’ words about his redemptive mission or wishing that they were not true, the disciples (Peter foremost among them) sin because they are trying to assert their wills and desires over Christ’s will and mission.  The uncomfortable fact that they have to accept is that Jesus is indeed going to die in order to complete his work. Their vision of a great future with their leader, perhaps one where they share power in his kingdom, substitutes a Jesus of their own design for the real God-man.  They pin their hopes to a false future rather than accept the reality of what Jesus, their savior, tells them must happen. They reject the truth of what Jesus must do for them to save them from their sins because they would rather be comfortable with their own visions of a glorious life with Jesus here and now rather than taking Jesus at his world and believing what he says must happen.

You and I struggle with the idea of death, too, and we don’t like to talk about it.  Death is an inherently bad thing. It isn’t natural, and it is not what God desired for his Creation from the beginning. He wanted us to live forever in harmony with him.  However, through man’s sin, death came into the world, and now we all live with it hanging over us, the wages of our sin. Everyone dies; death is now an unfortunate and terrible fact of life.  It is an all-too-common thing, death, and it is terrible. Speaking for myself, I’ve attended at least ten funerals in the last twelve months— in fact, just yesterday, I attended two funerals, one for a member of my home congregation at Good Shepherd, and one for a long-time friend and neighbor.  At death, body and soul are torn asunder. A whole being is broken, and with it, families and friendships are also disrupted and shattered, and no one ever completely heals from it. Death ends more than just the life of the deceased, it harms those left behind. It leaves gaping wounds in our hearts.  So when death comes our way, we don’t want to contemplate it, and we don’t want to think about a life without the people we love. We want Mom and Dad to live forever. We can’t imagine not having Grandma and Grandpa there to visit every summer. And the realization that we may outlive our children in certain circumstances is abhorrent to all of us.  But these are the wages of sin.

Burial at Sea” (1890) by Carl Sundt Hansen (1841-1907), National Museum, Norway.

And we also struggle with the idea that we, too, will die, and we do our best to distract ourselves from it or hide it from ourselves.  We sequester our elderly in nursing homes where they live out their last years with other people in a similar stage of life, but no young people around to cheer them or learn from them.  We use our money on makeup, supplements, injections, and plastic surgery to hide the fact that we are aging, getting closer every day to our own exoduses.  One man in the Netherlands recently even tried to get his age legally changed from 69 to 49 because he figured that he’d have a better chance at picking up younger women if the age on his driver’s license was twenty years younger.  Few of us would try something this drastic to convince ourselves that we aren’t getting older and daily moving toward the end, but we still put it off in our heads, or we focus on our glory days in order to pretend that death won’t come to us.  Like Napoleon Dynamite’s Uncle Rico, we keep replaying our old grid-iron triumphs on the lawn by the camper van rather than accepting that life changes, we age, and die. This is the wages of sin.

Uncle Rico–the saddest of the sad.

By putting off death in our minds, we, like the disciples, also act as if Jesus’ death and resurrection did not happen for us, or that its promise is not for us.  We do not take hope in it when we fear death and deny its realness instead of accepting it. When we fear death like this, we seem to be thinking somewhere inside ourselves that death is stronger than the One who promised to save us from it, who promised that he would suffer many things, die, and rise again on the third day in order to destroy death’s grip on creation.  In a way, it’s a kind of unbelief. Now, to be sure, being afraid of death is understandable. We don’t know what it feels like; it’s a plunge into the unknown because we’ve spent so much time living. But when we act like death is our end, then we are saying that Christ didn’t die for us, that we won’t listen to what he tells us. That what he’s saying about himself and his work can’t be true.  That we would rather despair.

This is possibly where Peter and the disciples have been.  Jesus keeps on telling them about his impending death and they keep deflecting.  Here, rather than hearing about what Jesus and Moses and Elijah were talking about, or why Jesus literally radiated with glory, Peter wants to make tents for everyone so that he and the others can focus on the presence of these two great, departed prophets.  But God has a way to re-center Peter’s focus and remind him that what Jesus is saying is true and cannot be ignored or sidestepped. God comes in the cloud and speaks to the disciples. “THIS IS MY SON, MY CHOSEN ONE. LISTEN TO HIM!” Jesus has been telling Peter and the rest of the twelve that he is going to die, but they’re hearing only half of the story.  Jesus’ death is going to defeat death. He is going to die and then rise again, and more than that, his death is going to destroy the hold of sin, that cause of death and condemnation, on humanity. If Peter and the disciples actually listen to him and trust in what he says, they’ll know that Jesus’ death won’t be the end of him, and that through his death, as cruel and violent as it will be, they will receive life.  He has been telling them this all along, and they will fully understand it at Pentecost.  But they have been told the promise all along, the exodus has always been in the room.  Jesus’ death will defeat death.  His death will be like the exodus of the Israelites so long before, but Jesus, the faithful Son over God’s house, undertaking it alone, will bring all of humanity with him out of death’s Egyptian slavery and into the promised land of new and eternal life with God.

Преображение (Flicker)

And this is what we ought to remember when we fear death or try to ignore our own exoduses-in-the-room.  Death is bad, but it is not the end.  Jesus has defeated it, and we will live with him.  When we trust what he told his disciples, and when we see that he indeed triumphed victoriously over death and hell, then we can face our own exoduses in confidence knowing that, despite how frightening the idea of death may be to us, he has us in his care.  His death has delivered you from the wages of sin!  His exodus through his passion, death on the cross, days in the tomb, and resurrection has brought us all from slavery of sin and its wages into new life with him in freedom.  When we trust Jesus’ word and work, we can die well knowing that we will be raised in glory, appearing like Moses and Elijah together with Christ on the last day. We can go on our exodus, knowing full well that it is not a final trip, but that we will be back to live in harmony with him, just as our first parents were intended to so long ago.