by Ellen Sims
Texts: Galatians 5:1-25; Luke 9:51-62
(Our service began with Mahalia Jackson’s rendition of “Keep Your Hand on the Plow”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ioee2W0YEXE .)
Have you ever thought that sometimes . . . sometimes Jesus can sound like a jerk? If you are not locked into an expectation of Gentle Jesus, you’ll notice the exchange with his disciples from today’s reading has more than “an edge” to it. Here are three examples:
1. He sternly, though understandably, “rebuked” James and John (verse 55) for wanting to incinerate an inhospitable Samaritan village.
2. He replied cryptically to the person who promised to follow him wherever he would go (verses 57-58). Instead of saying, “Hey, thanks. I could use you on this journey,”* he told the new volunteer, “Foxes have holes, birds have nests, but I have no place to lay my head.” What’s his tone here? Snarky? Despondent? Determined? Exhausted? Maybe barely hanging onto his convictions but hanging on? Maybe concern for those who, if they follow him, would have no place to lay THEIR heads?
3. He replied, seemingly unfeelingly, to two others who promised to follow him (verses 60-62). One man said he needed to bury his father first; the other said he needed to say goodbye to his family. Jesus judged them as unfit for the kingdom of God if they “looked back” to close out their past life instead of giving full and immediate allegiance to God’s kingdom. The Jesus speaking to us today may not be a jerk. But he’s tough. He doesn’t cut you much slack.
So Jesus rebuked those already following him, discouraged a man newly promising to follow him, and prohibited two others from completing filial duties before following him. If some religious leader today demanded that level of unquestioning devotion, we’d expect him to pass around the poison Kool-aid later on.
Would Jesus have been able to recruit any of us with those terms? With that tone?
Some of you will recall movies about naïve U.S. Army recruits realizing during basic training they’d signed up for more than they’d bargained for. Remember Goldie Hawn in Private Benjamin, a spoiled rich girl tricked into enlisting in the Army by a recruiting sergeant promising her adventure and travel? Basic training would be sort of like a spa vacation. Right. In the comedy Stripes, Bill Murray’s and Harold Ramis’s wisecracking characters are likewise duped into signing up by a recruiter who only cares about making his quota of new recruits. When the recruiter asks the obligatory “Have you ever been convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor?” he adds, “That means robbery, rape, car theft, that sort of thing.” Bill Murray deadpans, “Convicted? (Long pause as he seems to search his memory.) No.” His buddy adds, “Never convicted.” The recruiter hastily gets their signatures before his conscience catches up with him.
Well Jesus was the opposite kind of recruiter. He did not undersell his expectations or the cost to his followers. So maybe Jesus’s tone was grim. But I hear it as steely. Determined. And here’s why.
He had reached a turning point in his ministry as this pericope emphasizes. Verse 51 says, “He set his face to go to Jerusalem. Two verses later we’re told, “His face was set toward Jerusalem.” Determination.
What’s going to happen in Jerusalem? He’s going to encounter the powers that be. He’s, in effect, setting off to Selma to try to march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge. He’s preparing to protest at lunch counters in Greensboro. He’s going to face police dogs and fire hoses in Birmingham. He’s setting his face toward Washington. He’s not promising anyone a spa vacation. So those going with him must be similarly committed. In fact, in the words of a Civil Rights song, Jesus can’t afford for anyone traveling with him to try to dissuade him. He can’t let any friend or foe try “to turn him around”:
Aint gonna let nobody turn me around,
turn me around, turn me around.
Aint gonna let nobody turn me around.
I’m gonna keep on a walking, keep on a talking,
Marchin’ up to Freedom Land.
Walking toward Jerusalem is deadly serious business. And it’s this very idea of Freedom—a theme we heard in the Epistle reading assigned for today—that may at first seem to undercut a serious commitment to the cause. We sometimes associate freedom with a lack of responsibility: freedom to do whatever we want. But hear these verses from Galatians again:
“12For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. 13For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Ironically, the freedom Jesus exercised within the freedom of God made his followers slaves to one another. Lives lived in freely given service to others requires a serious commitment, which Jesus pictured well with his life and death. It’s not a muscular, soldierly commitment. It’s a pledge to vulnerability and openness to others. It was his own death that he soberly anticipated as he freely and determinedly set his face toward Jerusalem.
The cause of freedom in the Civil Rights movement was a communal cause. Freedom was not a product of individualism. Freedom did not allow the individual to do whatever she wanted. Freedom was yielded to by Spirit-led people banding together for the good of all.
We sometimes forget that our spiritual growth, our healthy relationships with family, our interactions at church, our engagement in society require a God freedom derived from faithfulness, vulnerability from a selfless and determined dedication. This kind of freedom is a paradox one can experience by living and serving others in and through a faith community.
But I have to admit that we progressive Christians sometimes soft-pedal the cost of community. We tend to be like Army recruiters desperate for more recruits, minimizing the risks and costs that come with becoming a part of a church filled with diverse people, emphasizing the welcome and inclusion, glossing over the challenges of people working together toward a mutual goal. We—and by “we” I mean “I”—sometimes minimize how hard it is to love one another when we disagree and cultivate in our own lives the fruits of the spirit that Paul described to the churches in Galatia: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23). Today’s Gospel and Epistle lections require us to admit the difficulty of staying the course with Jesus.
Some folks might assume that a progressive church allows freedom for individuals to escape compromise or unpleasantness or difficulties in relationships. But the truth is that the freedom we find in Christ has nothing to do with a kind of autonomy that lets me do whatever I want and demands nothing of me. As Paul said, we are feel to “become slaves to one another” (Gal. 5:13).
Participating in the community of Christ is no picnic. No wonder some folks just pop in from time to time. Some are attracted at first but don’t stick.
Like any covenantal relationship—with a life partner, for instance—the challenges we face in deepening the relationship with our church family can save us from our selfishness and shape us into more loving people. It’s the very messiness of our communal lives that creates our unending curriculum for learning who we are and how we are to live.
All around us we see relationships rupturing, weakening, dying—because it’s so very hard to be brave enough to hear and learn from one another, to forgive one another, to give up ego for another. The first time church disappoints, some folks just give up, especially if they’ve romanticized church.
That’s why Jesus tried to prepare his would-be followers for the tough road ahead. They needed to count the cost. If you’re going to take on this job of loving one another, he said, you put your hand to the plow and don’t look back. If you look back, you’ll veer off love’s course. It’s hard work to love others. It’s tempting to give up. But leaving a difficult relationship at the first sign of disagreement may prevent you from learning and growing spiritually.
Yes, there are toxic relationships (and toxic churches, for that matter) that need to be left behind! But often we’re just afraid to deal with problems and work together and learn from past mistakes. I admit I sometimes don’t really want the transformation Jesus promises. But that’s the prize for doggedly walking with Jesus and yielding to new possibilities.
Keep moving forward with Jesus into deeper relationships. Don’t dodge the hard stuff. Let the dead bury the dead as you stop worrying about past mistakes. Keep seeing in your marriage, your friendships, your beautiful but flawed inner self the future possibilities for grace. Because God’s kingdom comes ever closer when we set our faces toward Jerusalem, face our fears, and realize that God will meet us even there, especially there.
Yes, Jesus is talking tough to us today. Today he challenges us to show up and persevere and brace for challenge. He sounds today a lot like the mother in this Langston Hughes poem, “Mother to Son”:
Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
PRAYER: God, thank you for entrusting to us the hard work of community building and caregiving and self-discovery and sacrifice for others. We do feel like quitting and turning back and searching for a way to live without so many obligations to others, so many disappointments with our own selves. May we keep climbin’. May we keep our hand to the plow so that we can create straight and useful rows for the seeds that will grow in our lives. May we not let anyone turn us around in our march to Freedom Land. We pray this in the name of Jesus—the stern, formidable, determined, dogged, no nonsense God Man who loved without sentimentality but with great sacrifice. AMEN
*Actually, in Jesus’s world, “honorable persons never compliment others.” Malina, Bruce. The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology. Third Edition, Revised and Expanded. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001 (92-93).