I just returned from a quick trip to New York City to see my oldest son, Edward, in a play. He’s pursuing his craft as an actor and waiting tables, the way any good actor does. The path he walks started with a parental decision to take a 7-year-old with a good imagination to an audition at Children’s Theatre of Maine. Onstage, he looked terrified, but when the run of the play was over, he asked when he could try out for another one. We never looked back.
We don’t always know when we’re making a crucial decision, one that determines which way we will go for the rest of our lives. I know as a parent, I’ve made other suggestions less successful. My next child, Peter, liked nothing better than a stick and a can or a pot and a spoon, so I signed him up for drum lessons. Then he went to a program at the symphony and asked if he could try and blow into the clarinet.
These days we wonder which thing will matter most to 8-year-old Will. His life revolves around school and sports and piano lessons and church. What path will he follow? Which experience will stay with him? Will it be the Senior Pony baseball medal or the piano recital, or something we don’t know about yet?
Actor, musician or athlete – these are all callings, born out of talents given by God and pulling a person in a particular direction.
Pastor. Chef. Doctor.
Mother. Teacher. Scientist.
Inventor. Mathematician. Counselor.
These represent a small sample of the possibilities for employing the special gifts born into us and given by God for God’s good purposes. Some people use their gifts beautifully. Others get distracted by the values of the world, or the traumas of life, or the ordinary tragedy of an unhappy family. They may not even know what their gifts really are. The stories that inspire us are often of people who face the greatest challenges yet still use their gifts in amazing, life-giving ways.
Most of us are somewhere in the middle. We have a sense of what we’re good at, and we try to do it, and maybe we make the connection between our abilities and God’s hopes for us, but maybe not. We have a hint of where we’re going, but we take a wrong turn, not a horribly wrong turn, but an unnecessary detour that gets us off the path. Or we embrace living faithfully and still get it wrong, misunderstanding how God operates.
Today’s gospel lesson begins with two men inclined in that direction. James and John EMBRACED the idea of being right hand men to Jesus. They had their arms all the way around that idea. They would have done anything for him, including calling down fire on the people who did not want to hear his message of God’s love.
I think they were missing something.
We’ve had a half week of news declaring similar wishes related to various court rulings and legislative actions or failure to act, from one side of the spectrum to the other. We’re all going to hell, for sure. God’s going to rain fire on us for overturning DOMA, for passing an immigration bill in the Senate, for failing to vote on the “women’s health” bill in Texas. Yeah, we’re all in trouble.
Never mind about the minimizing of the Voting Rights Act, though. That one is okay with the people who expect fire to rain down from heaven.
I think they are missing something, too.
Jesus, himself, had to decide whether to follow the path laid out for him. His response to James and John comes as he has made up his mind. He sets his face toward Jerusalem. He’s going to follow this road to its conclusion, and he is not going to rain down fire on the haters.
The three exchanges that follow can sound troubling to us:
- A volunteer disciple is warned of the material rootlessness ahead.
- 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.” (Luke 9:57-58, NRSV)
- An invitee cites generational responsibilities, and Jesus dismisses him.
- 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.” (Luke 9:59-60)
- Finally, another eager beaver can’t get his priorities in order.
- 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 plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:60-61)
These conversations have worried me. I pondered the homelessness of Christ. I read a theory that the second man really meant he needed to stay home until his living father died someday in the future; *then* he would follow Jesus. I studied and learned that the person pushing a hand-driven plow has to keep looking ahead in order to get the furrow straight. How free was I, when I had three children at home, to just pick up and go? I struggled with this. Was I being faithful to my calling?
I’m not so sure this story is just about us. I think maybe Jesus is talking to himself. He won’t make a home, or bury his mother. He will plow straight ahead to the cross. He may be God, but he’s also human, and he knows what he’s going to miss.
What an astonishing concept our faith is built upon: that God peeled off part of God’s own self to live a human life. His way of living it brought down the wrath of people in authority. Here we see Jesus in the moment of decision — does he live through his call to the end? Or does he step aside to be the good son of his mother?
- Build a life. Every good Jewish man was supposed to have a family and a home.
- Take care of your elders. This is the gospel that tells us so much about his mother, Mary. Surely he cared about what might happen to her.
- Take care of business. Keep your hand on the plow and bring in a good crop. Or build a good set of tables and doors, if you’re a carpenter.
In Luke’s gospel, his mother knows it. She hears it when the angel visits her. She hears it when she takes him to the Temple as an infant, and the wise old man tells her he will do things that will pierce her soul. Jesus tells her himself when he runs away at age 12 and she finds him once again in the Temple, now with the elders. “Did you not know I would be about my Father’s business?”
It was clear from the beginning, but these verses suggest that Jesus, just like the rest of us, had the freedom to choose. He was free to follow the path set out for him, or not.
We know what he chose. All through the gospel he uses the power not of swords or fire but of words. He doesn’t sugarcoat it for us. God loves us, but following God in this world will not be easy. The world will not always understand, and even the people who claim the same faith will go back time and again to believing that power lies in threats and intimidation. When they make these threats in the name of Jesus, I shudder. I shudder when the world hears their loud, angry voices.
Jesus rebuked James and John. He rebuked their anger and their desire to win an earthly victory. He gave no assurance that following him would be satisfying or successful. They weren’t going to Jerusalem for sunshine and lollipops, or to break out their automatic weapons and defeat the Pharisees. They were going to Jerusalem to live through a week of argument, threats and tragedy. They didn’t know it would end with a stunning, supernatural victory over death.
I’m not sure even Jesus knew that last part for certain.
We don’t know, either, where the road is going to take us once we get past the horizon. We can only see so far ahead. But maybe we have a little sense of who God wants us to be along the way. Maybe we have a little sense of what comes naturally to us and how to use our gifts on God’s behalf.
Prayer Chain Pray-er.
We’re not all called to be the Savior. That’s good news, but we’re not off the hook entirely. We *are* called to follow the path Jesus laid out for us. He chose to take the road to Jerusalem, to do the work of love, no matter how hard it got. We can do the work of God’s love, too, by living fully as the people God made us to be. We are free to follow. Will we?
(A sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, Luke 9:51-62)