06.26.16 Sermon (June 26, 2016) “Excuses, Excuses”

posted Jul 12, 2016, 8:52 AM by David Hawkins
Old Testament Reading: 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14

Now when the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, "Stay here; for the LORD has sent me as far as Bethel." 

But Elisha said, "As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you." So they went down to Bethel.
Then Elijah said to him, "Stay here; for the LORD has sent me to the Jordan." 

But he said, "As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you." So the two of them went on. Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.
When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, "Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you." 
Elisha said, "Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit." 

He responded, "You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not." As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. 

Elisha kept watching and crying out, "Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!" But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.

He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, "Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?" When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.

New Testament Reading: Luke 9:51-62

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 toward 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 plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."

Sermon: "Excuses, Excuses"             Rev. David Hawkins

For the last several weeks, we’ve been exploring the nature of God, and the nature of the person of Jesus Christ. We’ve talked about what the Trinity means, the idea that God is God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, and that each of these three persons are equally worthy and deserving of our worship and adoration. 

We’ve also talked about Jesus Christ, who he was in his time, and who he is to us in ours. We talked about him as a Prophet, as a Priest, and as a King, and we compared him to some famous people in the Old Testament in these roles. 

We compared him as a prophet to the Prophet Elijah, who advised King Ahab against the political alliances he was forming with surrounding empires. His words fell on deaf ears, and Elijah soon found himself in conflict with Ahab’s wife, Queen Jezebel. 

We learned from the comparison between Jesus and Elijah that they were recognized as prophets when they brought someone back from the dead, that their prophetic office was fulfilled in their willingness to reach out and heal, rather than simply their willingness to speak out and condemn. Prophecy is more than predicting the future. Prophecy is living out the Word of God. 

We then compared Jesus’s actions as a Priest to the actions of Queen Jezebel, who was a Priestess for the cult of Baal. She encouraged the worship of a foreign god, to the point of outlawing the worship of the God of Israel, putting to death all the prophets except Elijah. She arranged for the death of the owner of a vineyard that her husband, the king wanted. 

We saw that her priestly office was fulfilled as an exercise of power. She used her position as priest to control, to abuse her status, and align herself with political authorities. 

What a contrast with Jesus, who fulfilled his priestly office by reaching out to a sinful woman, a woman condemned by the Pharisees and by polite society. He allowed this embarrassing woman not only to sit in his presence, but to anoint him in the manner of the ancient prophets and kings. Rather than banish her to the margins, he lifted her up to his level, and to the level of those around her. 

Then, last week, we compared Jesus as King to King Ahab. We looked at the way Ahab passive-aggressively gave his power and authority to Jezebel. We looked at the way he allowed for the destruction of the religion of his people. We looked at the way he trusted in the political alliances he made for the sake of expediency with his enemies. 

 And then we looked at Jesus, the way he went into an unclean foreign country, into an unclean part of that country, and reached out to an unclean madman running around naked in that unclean part of that unclean country. He healed the man of his many demons, and even showed a measure of grace to the demons themselves, granting their wish to enter a herd of pigs nearby. Of course, demons being demons, they soon destroyed themselves and the herd of pigs by drowning themselves in the sea. 

The contrasts between what the world thinks prophets, priests, and kings are supposed to do, and what Jesus actually does could not be more stark. In every case, Jesus has the power and the authority to condemn, to shun, to marginalize, and in every case, he chooses instead to reach out, to heal, and to forgive. This is not what we expect from a prophet, priest, or king. But by his actions, Jesus redefines what that that office really means.

In the next few weeks, we are going to be looking at what this new understanding what power means for us and for our lives. We are entering into a new season of church life, the season of Ordinary Time, during which we will look at the ways that our worship of God informs the way we live, with each other, and with the world. 

And today we begin with a startling description of what true discipleship looks like. 

And it’s not easy. 

Three times, prospective disciples of Jesus are given the terms of what it might mean to follow him, and three times, it looks like the terms are too much. And understandably so. Jesus insists that his followers give up their attachments to this world, to give up their dependencies and their conveniences. Sometimes he asks them to give up the expectations of food and shelter. Sometimes he asks them to give up their obligations to the communities and their families. And sometimes, he asks them to give their families altogether. It is a harsh and unyielding vocation, this idea of discipleship, and those who seek it out aren’t rewarded in any material or financial way. 

And the reality is, these three prospective disciples had the law and tradition on their side. The ten commandments make it clear that we are to honor our mother and father, and after all, that’s all they wanted to do. They had an obligation that was commanded by God himself. 

And yet Jesus calls them away from all that, from their family, from their parents, from the Law itself. This is hard. This is perplexing. And it’s too much for these three. They turn back to their families, to their homes, to their beds, to their tables, to their friends, to their comfortable way of life. 

What a difference this idea of true discipleship is to our present day understanding of the Prosperity Gospel. If one was to believe folks like the Copelands or Joel Osteen, or any of the other peddlers of ‘name and claim it’ theology, all one needs to do in order to guarantee money and health and security for you and your family, is to follow Jesus. 

The problem is, this isn’t at all what Jesus says. He says exactly the opposite. In order to follow Jesus, you have to give up any expectation of these things. Because the path to which Jesus has set his face does not lead to the bank. It leads to the cross. 

And this is a hard truth for those in Jesus’ time and for us in ours. In fact, it may be even harder in our time, because we have grown so accustomed to Christianity being something that is a benefit to us, that when it is inconvenient, our first instinct is to cry, ‘foul!” Like the three prospective disciples of Christ mentioned in our story today, we want the privilege of following Jesu, without the obligations or the consequences. 

When I was in college, many, many years ago, I remember a friend of mine, a dear Christian young lady, who was enrolled in a theatre workshop class. Their assignment every week was to learn to sing, dance, and act a scene from famous musicals. Which sounds pretty fun, if you ask me. 

And it was, until they were assigned a scene from Stephen Sondheim’s’ Follies, with the song, “Can that Boy Foxtrot,” which is a slightly risqué tune in which every time the female singer gets to the word ‘Foxtrot’, she would hesitate on the ‘F’ (as in, “But, oh, can that boy, f-f-f-f-f-foxtrot”) leading the audience to think that, for a moment, she was going to say something quite different. Maybe f-f-f-f-fry chicken. Or perhaps, ‘oh, can that boy f-f-f-f-f-f-find Dory.’ I don’t know. 

Anyway, my friend objected to this song on the basis of her religious faith. And while I thought this was a harmless bit of showbiz fun, she refused to do the scene, and I respected her for that. Until she got an ‘F’ (how ironic) for that week’s grade which lowered her overall grade for the semester to a ‘B’.

Well, that was just unfair. She raised all kinds of heck, lodging a formal complaint with the university, claiming religious persecution, the whole nine yards. And while I respected her choice to not do the scene, I couldn’t support the way she objected to what happened as a result. I fact, I encouraged her to accept the grade as sign of her religious dedication -- to wear her metaphorical stripes for Jesus with pride. 

After all, we don’t really get very many chances to be martyrs for our faith anymore. Hardly anybody is getting fed to the lions, or being burned alive for what they believe. I thought that this was a great chance for her to actually put herself into a difficult situation for her piety. But, for her, it was unjust, and she fought it all the way. 

She wanted the privilege of walking with Jesus, without the consequences. 

And we see this today in our fight over whether or not court administrators should have to sign wedding documents for same sex couples, or whether or not bakers should be required to make cakes for same sex weddings. I respect those who declare that in the name of their faith, they will not do certain things. I may not agree with them, but I respect them. But then they want their cake and to eat it, too. They want the privilege of living the Christian life without the obligations that go along with that life. 

But it doesn’t work that way. It didn’t work that way back in Jesus’ time, and it doesn’t work that way today. The reality is, a life of discipleship will put you into conflict with the world’s values. Living what you believe means that sometimes you find yourself at odds with what people around you think about things, what the law thinks about things, even sometimes what your family and your friends think about things. 

And sometimes, living out what you believe means taking a hit on your reputation, on your career, even on your relationships with those you love. Being a disciple means things, and sometimes it means hard things, things that you don’t see coming, things that make you wonder if being a disciple is everything it’s cracked up to be.

It would be easy to offer up rationalizations and excuses for not fully living the life of a disciple. It would be easy to find this or that reason to take a break from the hard demands of what it means to follow Jesus. It would be easy to even claim the cloak of the law or tradition, or politics or ideology to avoid the harsh demands of discipleship. “But I have a family to think about!” “Isn’t sharing what you own communism?” “Won’t loving your enemies and welcoming the refugee compromise national security?” “How do I decide between the law and following Jesus when it looks like they lead in opposite directions?”

These are the sorts of questions that the earlies disciples asked, and they are the same questions we ask today. 

And Jesus gives us the same answers. If you want to follow me, he says, you’ve got to let go. Let go of the idea that it’s going to be easy, let go of the idea that people are going to admire you and thank you for what you do and say, let go of the idea that your decisions will be simple and your obligations few. 

In short, let go of the idea that you are going to be in charge of what happens to you from here on out. Let go of the illusion that you get to decide how life impacts you. Because setting your face to Jerusalem means turning your back on any expectation you might have had that you are in control. 

And for most of us, that’s a hard thing. In fact, for most of us, it’s too hard. 

And it was too hard even for the most dedicated of Jesus’ followers. Even the twelve original disciples found the demands of Jesus’ path too much. They consistently misunderstood what it meant to follow him, and at the end, at his moment of greatest need, they could not stay with him, and they fled into the night. 

But this is also the Gospel message. Jesus asks us to go with him, and he forgives us when we can’t. He makes no promises about how much you’re going to make, about how safe and secure you are going to be, how healthy it will make you, or even about how happy you will be. In fact, he makes no bones about it, it will cost you everything you have, it will cost you everything you own, everything you hold dear. But he does promise that when we falter, when we stumble, when we just can’t imagine facing the world as a disciple, Jesus will take us the rest of the way.

And it will be worth it. We will see things that we simply can’t believe, we will experience life in its fullest measure. We will be brought through fire and water to the other side, and we will sit at a banquet table that is overflowing with eternal food. We will sit at the foot of the throne of God, and we will sing with choirs of angels and archangels. 

Being a disciple isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. And it’s much, much more than any of us can imagine. But in the end, it’s not about doing it perfectly, or even about being perfect. It’s about willing to be imperfect, to not know everything, it’s about willing to be vulnerable to the dangers of the world, to be willing to turn your face away from the comfortable, the secure, the known, and walk to a place you’ve never been before. 

And Jesus doesn’t promise us that it will be easy. But Jesus does promise that if we take that first step, he will be there beside us the whole way. 

We just have to decide if that will be enough. 

How majestic is the name of the Lord our God!