I wonder if you have ever walked into a situation and discovered that it is far more serious than you had assumed. You underestimated your friend’s hard day, maybe, and what you thought was just a cloudy or stressful day for them turned out to be something much worse, and you didn’t pick up on that fast enough. You meant well, you love your friend very much! But you were just a little slow on the uptake.
If so, maybe you can empathize with those poor disciples, the first close friends of Jesus. So often they seem to just not get it. They are excited when it sounds like Jesus will be the answer to all their political hopes, so they ignore his repeated warnings that he is headed in an entirely different direction. They are indignant and want to take vengeance on those who reject the movement, but Jesus rebukes them and says that’s not what he’s about. These stories, one after another, give the impression that maybe the disciples aren’t too bright. But in their defense, he chose them, and presumably he saw something in them worth choosing. And--Jesus is a pretty hard person to be friends with. He’s intense. He’s unpredictable. He’s sometimes just touchy.
In today’s Good News, we catch up with Jesus and his followers just after he “sets his face toward Jerusalem.” This is the moment in the Gospel according to Luke when everything seems to turn in a foreboding, even frightening direction. When he turns toward Jerusalem, Jesus has to steel himself. Some interpreters say he sets his face like stone toward Jerusalem. From now on, as he and his followers make their way from Galilee through Samaria toward Judea, his Passion and death are looming on the horizon, the darkest of dark clouds. This friend of ours just got a lot more intense.
Naturally, the disciples are slow to cotton on to all this. Jesus sends a group ahead of him--a kind of advance team--to make preparations for his arrival in Samaria, and they are rejected by the Samaritans, who discover that Jesus is headed to Jerusalem, which for them is the wrong city, the wrong mountain, the wrong place to worship God. The Samaritans! They’re famous in our Gospels because Jesus befriended them, lifted them up, included them among those whom God favors. In our own place and time, Jesus is standing along our southern border and saying that God warmly welcomes our Mexican neighbors, and he’s standing outside a mosque and saying that God has a special love for all people of faith. Well, that’s great of Jesus, but sometimes cultural and political divisions reassert themselves, and now that he is heading to Jerusalem, this is just not a time when very many people come to his defense, or even understand what he’s up to.
But Jesus stays true to who he is. He rebukes his disciples when they want to channel the prophet Elijah and bring fire down from heaven upon those ungrateful Samaritans. But Jesus wants nothing to do with “shock and awe” firestorms, not because they are hard or impressive, but because they’re too easy. His path is much harder than that. In a quick string of three mini-conversations, Jesus teaches his friends that his path--his Way--is more important than everything else. To follow him in that place and time meant leaving the security of home, and the safety of family and friends. It meant taking everything seriously, staying focused, setting your face like stone.
So what does it mean to follow him now? Unlike his first friends, we might not always find ourselves on a perilous journey with Jesus, leaving family and a steady paycheck to brave dangerous roads on the way to the gruesome death of our leader. What does it mean to follow him now?
Yesterday on campus, we held a liturgy of “lament and hope,” a service that, like today, proclaimed hard readings from Job and Psalm 88. We invited people to write down and share their laments, their grief, their sadness, their anger, their fears. I was on the planning team and almost casually agreed to stand up front and read aloud some of these laments, written on index cards. When we all got up there and I glanced at my very first lament, I discovered (like those slow-witted disciples) that I had underestimated the intensity of the grief of my friends, and reading their words out loud was not going to be easy. As we all read aloud their laments, it started to dawn on me that we could do this service once a week from now until May and probably not exhaust the deep anguish welling up inside people. And the thing is, seminarians and families and faculty and staff at VTS--this is not a collection of humans too far out of the common way. If we held a liturgy of lament and hope on every street corner in the land, every passerby would be able to knock us to the ground with her sorrow. People feel joy and happiness too, of course. But it’s harder to honestly look someone in the eye and meet them where they hurt.
My voice shook a couple of times when I read those laments, and before I allowed myself to feel embarrassed about that, I decided that that’s the very least I can do for my neighbor: I can allow their story to shake me, and not try to hide that. And... like many of us, my own lament remained very important to me, and when someone else read it aloud, it seemed like the most important thing that had been said so far. I can admit that self-centeredness.
As baptized Christians, we are challenged by our severe friend Jesus to take the hard path. Simply sitting still in the presence of your neighbor’s pain can be pretty hard. And that’s just one of our many options to do the work of ministry in the here and now.
Jesus is always heading to Jerusalem. He’s up to something more important than all of our possessions, and even our families and careers. His path takes us into dangerous places, calls us to hard tasks, challenges us to upend our whole lives. His path also leads to the empty tomb, with astonishing good news of triumph over sin and death. Through all of this, Jesus is uncompromising. He is intense.
What hard thing might he be asking you to do?
Proper 21, Wednesday, Year Two
Preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill, Alexandria, VA, October 3, 2018.