The Road to Jerusalem or The Beginning of the End

Inspired by Luke 9:51-62

So, the last two Sunday’s Gospel readings were pretty intense. I don’t know about you but they left me feeling like I need a break from those hard-hitting stories! And then I read the one for today and thought my goodness Jesus, could you let up a bit for crying out loud! Ease up already! But no, Jesus just keeps coming at us, continues to challenge us, continues to make us question things about ourselves that we try really hard to suppress. Why does Christ do this? Well, because Christ loves us, wants the best for us, is eager to transform us, and sees possibilities in us that we just don’t. But before we get into that…

I want to point out something to you that we should keep in mind for the rest of the Summer and Fall. In our three year lectionary, our three year cycle of readings that we repeat every three years, we are currently in the year of Luke. That means that throughout the rest of the Summer and most of the Fall, we will reading right on through the Gospel of Luke, skipping very little of it to be honest. And this Gospel reading that we have today begins a large section of Luke that some have called the Road to Jerusalem. Our reading began with “As the time approached when Jesus was to be taken up into heaven, he determined to go to Jerusalem.”

Jerusalem Cross
stained glass by Kathy Thaden
For the next ten chapters, a huge chunk of Luke, we slowly travel with Jesus and his followers to Jerusalem. Our author will remind us of this throughout those ten chapters because he wants us to keep this in mind. Why is this significant? Well, for a few reasons, one, in Jesus mind, according to Luke, Jerusalem had failed at her mission, her mission to be a light in the darkness of the world, and it would eventually be destroyed. And two, and most importantly, Jerusalem represents Jesus own personal death. This is the foundation that our author wants us to hear each and every story with, for the next ten chapters.

Again, why? And maybe you have already noticed, and wondered, why is pastor always talking about death and resurrection, likewise why is pastor always talking about baptism? Because it is foundational to our faith. We are constantly urged by Jesus to allow him to conquer death in our lives so that we can be raised, not after we die, but in the here and now. Christ is constantly urging us to allow Christ to change us, to transform us, and to die and rise. So, it is with this spirit that we will tackle our Gospel story we have before us.

It’s pretty straight forward. Jesus, once again, pulls no punches. I’m going to skip the part about the disciples little, albeit disturbing, temper tantrum where they ask Jesus if they can rain fire on those that won’t welcome him, and go straight to these three people that Jesus encounters on the road to Jerusalem, on the road to his death. All three of them say the same thing, I will follow you, I will follow you, I will follow you. Sounds good right? What leader wouldn’t want people to say I will follow you? Well, I don’t know if Jesus woke up on the wrong side of the bed that day but he was in a pretty sassy mood. Each of his responses was dripping with sarcasm and double-talk.

He tells the first person, “Foxes have dens and the birds in the sky have nests, but the Human One has no place to lay his head.” If I were that person I’d probably react with OK, thanks Jesus for that creepy image, as I slowly walked backwards away from Mr. Sassypants. But what Jesus was really talking about, in his very Jesus way, was sacrifice. It was his way of saying, “You want to follow me? Really? You realize you’re asking to follow a homeless guy right? Someone who has given up everything to do God’s will in this world and expects his followers to do the same? You really think you’re up for this?”

Sacrifice is foundational to our faith. I’m not sure where along the way the church got this idea that faith should be all rose petals and tulips but following Jesus means sacrifice—it means having to ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions like, what about me needs transformed, what about me needs changed, what about needs to die so that new life can rise. The answer to any of those questions is going to lead to sacrifice—it’s the way of Christ. Whether we are talking about a sacrifice of our money, our time, our skills, a change in the way we think, a change of heart, it’s all going to lead to a sacrifice of some kind.

The next person he runs into on the road to Jerusalem, on the road to his death, is someone who wants to bury his father first. And Jesus, seemingly harshly says, “Let the dead bury their own dead. But you go and spread the news of God’s kingdom.” Now to be fair, the phrase, “bury my father”, didn’t mean that this person’s father just died. It was a common phrase that meant, I need to live in my parent’s house until they die. Either way, Jesus nixes this idea altogether. Why? Because following Jesus requires dedication. And there’s an urgency in Jesus words too. Not unlike today’s world, Jesus knew that the world had a lot of needs, that the world needed his followers to be his presence in the world, and that presence was needed now, and it takes dedication—it’s the way of Christ.

And I know you know a little bit about dedication here at Bethlehem—you who have remained here, who have dedicated yourselves to this church, through thick and thin, for better or worse. And if that sounds a little like a marriage, that was intentional. Because that is the kind of dedication that Christ calls us into. In a marriage, we don’t run when things get rocky. In a marriage, we don’t run after a disagreement. In a marriage we don’t give up until all solutions have been tried. But Christ calls us to apply that kind of dedication, to not just Bethlehem, but outside Bethlehem, to Auburn, to our country, to the world.

The last person Jesus encountered wanted first to say goodbye to those in his house. And again, Jesus says, rather cryptically, “No one who puts a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for God’s kingdom.” Is Jesus saying that we should leave our families in order to follow him? Of course not, although for some that has had to be the case. But what Jesus is saying here is that following Christ takes focus. For those of you who don’t know what a plow is, when you pass a farm and the ground is turned up in nice neat rows ready to be planted. That’s a plow that does that.

And whether you are using a manually operated hand plow, or one that is pulled by an animal, or a great big machine, it takes focus in order to get those nice neat rows. It’s not a job for the easily distracted. Following Christ is very similar. It takes focus, because there is a lot in this world that wants your attention, that wants your time, that wants your money, that wants your skills. To use another farm image, it’s like blinders on a horse, to keep them focused on what’s ahead and not get spooked by what’s around them. We too are called to keep moving forward, moving ahead, without looking behind, without living in the past, to stay focused—it’s the way of Christ.

So, there you have it. I don’t know what it is about pastors and threes, but those are my three takeaways from this Gospel reading. Sacrifice, dedication, and focus—the way of Christ. This was Jesus way of laying all the cards on the table, so there are no surprises, so that we know what we are getting into from the word go, so that we know that this isn’t going to be an easy road. But it will be worth it, for you, for the church, and for our world, a world that desperately needs our spirit of sacrifice, dedication, and focus—knowing that we are never alone, but that we travel with the author of life, on the road to Jerusalem, on the road to his death. Thanks be to God. Amen.


"What is your name?" Another Question Heard 'round the World

Inspired by Luke 8:26-39

I am envious of the kind of pastor that can throw their sermon out the window, the one that they spent all last week preparing, because something else was on their heart. I’m sure there were a lot of pastors who did that last week after the terrorist attack in that gay night club in Orlando. I could not. Like many of you, I needed time to process. That, and I am in internal processor. Thinking out loud is not one of my gifts. The positive to that is that I am not a very reactionary person, which can get one into trouble easily. The negative to that is that I often don’t speak up when I probably should. But we are all a work in progress aren’t we?

As I have processed that senseless tragedy over the past week, I have done a lot of listening. Both in conversations with people, and by listening to how various people have been responding to it around the nation and the world. I have read some heartfelt and powerful responses from celebrities and theologians alike. So powerful that I began to think, what could I possibly add to the discussion? What more could I say that hasn’t already been said? So many others are so much more articulate than I, smarter than I, more caring that I.

Two things occurred to me that brought me out of that. One, it isn’t always about what we say or how we say it, but that we speak—that we break our complacent silence, our complicit silence. It is not enough to stand in solidarity, we must speak, and we must speak loud and bold, because the voices of hate are loud and bold. And the other thing that occurred to me, is that, if we speak about anything, we should, first and foremost, be proclaiming the gospel. And I mean that in two ways, with a big “G” and a little “g.” A, we need to be sharing the gospel, the good news, that was brought to us two thousand years ago. And that gospel is this, that Christ died in this world and rose in this world, so that, we too can die in this world, and rise in this world.

And B, what does our Gospel reading for today have to say? Can God speak through a Gospel reading that was selected well in advance of the tragic events of last Sunday? Of course God can! Because God is God! So with that, let us take a look at our Gospel story that we have before us. I’m gonna be honest, this story really freaked me out as a kid! It scared me. In the same way that a horror movie scared me—it’s creepy, it’s eerie, it’s violent, it just seems over the top. It almost seems like an over-reaction on Jesus’ part. Once you get over the creepiness of it all, you’re left asking, “Really? Really Jesus, you had to go there?”

I’m not an animal rights activist but, what did a pig ever do to you Jesus? But I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s take it from the top. So, Jesus sails across to the other side of the lake to the land of the Garasenes. Why is that important? Well, that was the author’s way of telling us that Jesus was crossing into outsider territory. Remember, Jesus lived in a society where you were either Jewish or you weren’t, you were either and insider or an outsider, clean or unclean, one of us or one of them. That’s the stage that the author is setting for us. And Jesus then encounters a man that is suffering from demon possession.

Now, how we interpret demon possession is important, that could mean a lot of different things. We could interpret demon possession in the very literal sense. And this may surprise you but I am ok with that. I believe there are forces in this world that are unexplainable, and I also believe that those forces are not always there for our good. However, for the purposes of this sermon, it might be more helpful if we take a look at demon possession in a more figurative sense. Because let’s be honest, even if all the claims of demon possession around the world were authentic, they would still be a very rare occurrence. So, a sermon on literal demon possession would not be very helpful to our daily lives would it?

So another way to interpret demon possession in the Bible is to see it from a mental health perspective. In ancient times people didn’t know about human biology and the chemistry that plays into our mental health like we do. So anyone suffering from depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, or bipolar, were labeled as demon possessed. They didn’t know what else to call it. And the unknown oftentimes breeds fear. So Jesus finds this man chained up, and does the same thing he did in last week’s gospel story from the previous chapter of Luke, he asks a question. It’s one of only two times in this passage that Jesus speaks, and I probably only noticed that because I read from a red letter bible.

And this question, like last week’s, seems very simple and benign. But, of everything we know about Jesus, when is he ever simple or benign? He asks the man, “What is your name?” And then it turns super creepy because not only does the man not respond, not only does a demon instead respond, but multiple demons respond! And they respond with one word, one name, Legion. It’s enough to give you chills. So, why does Jesus ask this question? There are all kinds of things I’d like to know in this situation. Asking, what is your name, would not be first among them!

I think part of it is power. There is power in knowing a name. There is power in the connection that it begins to make between two or more people. Imagine if I, as your new pastor, didn’t care or put any effort into knowing your names, wasn’t constantly reminding you to wear name tags because I desperately want to remember your names, was constantly asking forgiveness for not remembering names I should by now. What would that communicate to you if I just didn’t put any effort into it? Knowing names, making connections is powerful, in and of itself. Hold that thought.

After this, Jesus allows the demons to enter into a herd of pigs, and they jump off a cliff and drown themselves. And, as I said before, this just seems a bit excessive. Was that really necessary? I mean, yes, the demons asked for this but Jesus didn’t have to grant their request! He could have said, “Just get out of here!” So, why all the dramatics? I believe that Jesus was trying to make a point, trying to make a statement. I believe this was Jesus way of saying, you do not have power here, not even here in this place, where the outsiders live. No, I am in charge here, I’m calling the shots, says the Lord.

So, how can we apply this today, especially in the darkness of last Sunday’s massacre in Orlando? I see three stages to this story and I think we can sum them up like this: naming the demon, dealing forcefully with it, and speaking our stories. The first one, naming the demon, what demons do we wrestle with, what demons do we suffer from? Racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, classism, and all the other “demons” that we wrestle with. And you know, we do a fairly good job at naming them. You know how I know that, because I hear them mentioned in the prayers of the church often, in both the written ones and the ones that you say out loud.

And that’s good, that’s a necessary first step, because until we can name our demons, we can’t deal with them. Until we can say, I battle with homophobic thoughts, I battle with transphobic thoughts, I battle with sexist thoughts, I battle with prejudiced thoughts, we can’t get to the next step and deal with them forcefully, harshly. In the same way that Jesus dealt with that man’s demons forcefully and powerfully, we need to look our demons dead in the eye and say “You do not have power here! You are not in control here! Christ is the one in power here, in this human heart. And if Christ is in power here, than you demon, cannot be!”

Our story ends with the man, now healed, sharing, telling, speaking out loud, his story of what Jesus had done for him, and it spread like wild fire. We Lutherans do not have a good reputation when it comes to this last step, sharing our stories. We’re getting better at it, but the world needs to hear what Jesus has done for you. That’s where the real power of the gospel, the good news, is. People who are searching for answers, trying to make sense of the world we live in, are probably not going to initially respond to our theological perspectives, or our liturgical practices, or even our service projects.

All of which are important of course, but I’ll tell you what people will respond to—changed lives, transformed lives. People want to know if Jesus is doing anything in us! Is Jesus changing us? Is Jesus transforming us? That’s what people want to know. That’s what people want to hear. Because if Jesus isn’t, why should they bother coming. Now, as your pastor, I know Jesus is making a difference in your lives because, well, I’m your pastor, and the more I get to know you the more I see that. But they may not, and by “they” I mean anyone we encounter outside these four walls.

Outsiders, or as our author Luke put it, the Garasenes. Jesus wasn’t just telling that one man to go tell what Jesus had done for him. Luke didn’t share this story as an isolated incident. Luke told this story to urge us to tell our stories, to share with others what Jesus has done for us, how Jesus has changed us, how Jesus has transformed us. And if we can’t think of anything to share, well, than we are really in trouble and that’d be a whole different sermon. But I believe that we do, that we have many stories to share.

What would it look like, in our everyday conversations, to share with people, this is who I was, and this is who I am now. These are the demons that I have fought, and this is how Jesus and I overpowered them. May we have the courage to name our demons, deal with them forcefully, and then speak, louder than the hateful voices of this world. People are dying, and the world needs us to speak, loudly, boldly, sharing our stories, sharing another way, the way of Christ, who died and rose in this world, so that we too, can die and rise in this world. Thanks be to God. Amen.


"Do you see this woman?" A Question Heard Around the World

Inspired by Luke 7:36-8:3

I’ve been thinking a lot about all of the influential women that have been weaved into my life. I have been blessed with many. My grandmother, my mom, my mom’s five sisters, my dad’s two sisters, my own sister, my sister’s two daughters, my wife, and my own three daughters, oh and of course our Katie dog. Like I said, I have been blessed by many women, young and old, who have helped to form me into the human I am today. Having them all in my life, has broadened my mind, has stretched my heart, has allowed me to see God in ways I don’t think I would have without them. With so many throughout my life, I have seen their struggles, I have heard their stories, stories of pain, stories of abuse, stories of fear, stories of feeling less than, stories of being on the margins of society, stories of body images that didn’t match their own, but that they so desperately were made to want.

However, I have also seen them overcome. I have seen them rise above. I have heard and seen how they discovered who they were in spite of what they were told. I have heard and seen them tell the world what they can and cannot do. I am not a woman and won’t stand here before you and presume I know a woman’s struggle in this world. But what I can do is share with you what I have seen and heard. Not just because I love the women that God has placed in my life, but because, as a man, it is my responsibility. It is my responsibility to acknowledge the privilege that I have enjoyed throughout my life from the simple fact of being born with a Y chromosome, just because I was born male. It is my responsibility to acknowledge that fact, and the privileges that have come with it, and then, and then to do what I can with that privilege, to help women rise above it.

And it isn’t just the women in my own personal life that have me thinking about all this, but it’s today’s headlines as well. For the first time in our nation’s long history we have a woman capturing a party’s nomination for the presidency. A moment that should be celebrated on behalf of all the women of this great nation, and yet, much of the media, and many of her male counterparts, are talking about the way she dresses, her tone of voice, her physical appearance, things that men clearly don’t get criticized about! Women are getting raped and their attackers are not getting much more than a slap on the wrist! Women are being attacked at bathrooms by transphobic people! Women are still being demoralized for breastfeeding in public, for feeding their babies in public! Women are having to live with abusive men because either no one believes their claims or because they’re too afraid to find out if anyone will believe them! I could go on, but I’ll stop there. My point is, we still have a long way to go.

Our Gospel reading for today is a powerful one. It’s powerful in its simplicity, on the surface, but then is more powerful the deeper you dig into it. There is certainly more going on here than what meets the eye. Jesus has an encounter with two people in particular in this story, two people who come from very different worlds. The one is a Pharisee. And there are a few safe conclusions that we can come to just by knowing that. One, this is a religious leader with a lot of power. Two, this is a wealthy person. Three, Pharisee’s didn’t normally get along with Jesus, and that’s putting it mildly, so Jesus’ guard should be up, with maybe a healthy dose of suspicion, and four, this is a man. Because women were thought of as less than, and would have never been given a role of power or leadership.

Oil & acrylic on canvas by Wayne Forte
The other person that Jesus encounters is a woman and we can already stop there and come to some conclusions. One, women were put into a marginalized part of society. They were thought of as weaker, unintelligent, unspiritual, property, having very little to offer the world other than their womb and household skills. Like many women in the New Testament, she is not given a name but we don’t even need one to be able to name all that she was up against because she was born without a Y chromosome, just because she was born a female. On top of all of that, as if those weren’t enough hurdles to be born with, Luke mentions that she was a sinner.

Now that could mean a whole host of different things, the usual go to is to assume that she was a prostitute, which quite honestly isn’t a bad guess. However, we really don’t know what her sin was. What we do know is that she was labeled a sinner, and in Jewish thought, a sinner was one who was in continual violation of Moses’ Law. And “those” people were to be avoided at all costs, even touching them would be a sin and would make you temporarily a sinner until you could get to the nearest priest and do the appropriate ritual, or appropriate donation, to make the sin go away. This was the state of this woman’s life. And what is not said here is the fact that many women, because of the struggles of being born a female, in order to survive, had to make decisions, and live lifestyles, that those in power deemed “sinful”.

So Jesus is having dinner with this Pharisee, and this woman is washing his feet, kissing him, and anointing him with oil. And the Pharisee is disturbed by this, for all of the reasons that we just went through. Jesus then tells him a parable about forgiveness and love and the Pharisee seems to understand it, at least on the surface. What he is having trouble with is how to apply it, how to live out this kind of forgiveness and love that Jesus has been teaching about. And in typical Jesus fashion, he asks one simple, seemingly innocuous question, “Do you see this woman?” And I don’t think that it is the Pharisee’s eyes that are in question! And I don’t’ think that Jesus is asking him if he has noticed her sitting there this whole time.

I believe what Jesus is questioning is this guys heart. Jesus knows that if your heart is not right you won’t be able to see. And Jesus knows that this Pharisee’s heart is not right; that he can’t see this woman’s plight, that he can’t see the pain and struggle that she was born into, that he can’t see a life lived as less than, that he can’t see the fear that she constantly lives with, that he can’t see the gut wrenching decisions that she has to make in order to survive, that he can’t see how she has to daily swallow her pride until she’s practically choking on it in order to get by, that he can’t see her intelligence, that he can’t see her spirituality, that he can’t see her strength, Jesus knows that he can’t see her as anything but a sinful woman, and not the child of God who understand forgiveness and love better than he ever will, not in spite of, but because of the hand that life has dealt her.

Now, Jesus asks us this same question, “Do you see this woman?” And I can’t help but hear a note of desperation in his voice today. Why? Because our world is not as different as we would like to think, two thousand years later. This election year has proved that. This election year has seen some ugliness, which we thought was behind us, rear its ugly heads once again, along with some new ones. Because this isn’t the only question that Jesus is asking us. Along with, “Do you see this woman?” Christ is also asking us questions like, “Do you see this gay man? Do you see this teenager? Do you see this trans-gendered young man? Do you see this person of color? Do you see this homeless person? Do you see this elderly person? Do you see this child?

And that’s just right here at Bethlehem! But Jesus asks these same questions, and more, when we are at work, when we are at school, when we are at the grocery store, when we are driving our car, everywhere! And Christ’s hope for us is that we can somehow find it in ourselves, find him in ourselves, and stop looking with our eyes and begin to look with our hearts. And if that still isn’t working than it is our heart that needs changed, not the person that we are looking at. And Jesus desperately needs us to see with the heart, and if Christ is there, we will see with forgiving eyes, we will see with loving eyes, we will see the struggles that others are born with, and the possibility that there are struggles that we don’t even know about.

And this all started, two thousand years ago with one simple question, “Do you see this woman?” Let us pray. God of forgiveness and love, we thank you for placing in our lives many and great women. May their example urge us to demonstrate your heart to those who we encounter every day, especially those whom this world has set aside on the margins. Give us the courage to be bold with our love, to be bold with our forgiveness, to be bold as we welcome all, make disciples, and serve our neighbors. In the name of our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen.