June 30 2013 Luke 9: 51-62
Rev. Catherine Purves
How many of you make ‘To Do’ lists? I do, most days in life. I confess that I have actually added things to my ‘To Do’ list after I’ve done them, just for the joy of crossing them off. I want credit for everything that I’ve accomplished, even if I’m the only one keeping score. I don’t always do the things in the order in which they appear on my lists. I sometimes dangle the carrot of an enjoyable task, like promising myself that I’ll be able to go to the library in the afternoon as soon as I finish my sermon. But sometimes jobs appear on my lists for a few days running. They seem to take up residence at the bottom of successive lists, perpetually postponed, because I convince myself that something else is more pressing. I tell myself that I’m going to get around to cleaning the bathroom, but first let me… And, when it comes to cleaning bathrooms, there seem to be a whole lot of things that I need to do first.
You may have noticed that decisiveness is one of the undeniable characteristics of Jesus. Jesus did not dither around. He never said one thing and did another. When he decided to go somewhere, he went. When he asked a question, he expected a straight answer. When he preached or taught, the lesson was clear and unequivocal. He called a spade a spade. In difficult situations that demanded much of him, he prayed his way to decisive action. Sometimes, Jesus could get a bit testy and impatient with people who danced all over the place with their ‘To Do’ lists, conning themselves, and avoiding the obvious, ‘ditzing’ around instead of doing something, or making half-hearted attempts at faithfulness. Jesus was an all-or-none kind of guy, and when he started to move in a certain direction you’d better just get on board or get out of the way.
This refreshing but intimidating decisiveness is particularly evident in today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel. This marks the beginning of a lengthy travel narrative in which Jesus and his disciples make their way to Jerusalem. Verse 51 introduces this new section of the Gospel. “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” This was the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning, depending on how you look at it. Clearly, in Jesus’ mind the goal was now in sight. He was going to Jerusalem. His life would reach its climax there. “He set his face,” and now he was on the road. With a singular determination he faced his upcoming, inevitable death and he started walking toward it. And everyone who wanted to travel with him would have to share his same unshakable determination. They would virtually have to run to keep up with him, as he explained again and again the necessity of this journey, and warned them about what would happen when they arrived.
Well, almost immediately, he ran into resistance. It was no real surprise that a Samaritan village would refuse to offer hospitality to a large group of Jews on their way to Jerusalem. It was more surprising that Jesus would even think about stopping there, since the Jews and the Samaritans had nothing to do with one another. The antipathy between the two religious groups is evident in the suggestion of James and John who wanted to command fire to come down from heaven to consume the less-than-welcoming Samaritans. This suggestion might have shocked you, but it was not that unthinkable in Jesus’ day. Rejecting God and rejecting God’s prophet, Jesus, was a serious offense that deserved punishment. But Jesus was not going to act like one of the fiery prophets of old who might well have zapped those Samaritans. The way of Jesus was a different way, characterized by love and forgiveness. His goal was reconciliation, not punishment. This was an important lesson for his followers to learn on their way to Jerusalem.
And it’s an important lesson for us too. We live in a very contentious age in which special interest groups in society and even in the church have ‘To Do’ lists that often reflect their desire to sabotage others who promote conflicting ideas and causes. In the last couple of weeks I’ve received a number of fired-up emails from Christian organizations on the left and on the right. It seems like they would love to call down the fire of heaven on the Supreme Court for their recent decisions. Whether you are committed to affirmative action, voters’ rights, or the defense of marriage, the desire to zap the people who don’t agree with you is a temptation that we all face. As we are compiling our ‘To Do’ lists with respect to our relations with these folks, it is good for us to be reminded that Jesus sternly rebuked James and John for their desire to condemn and punish the Samaritans. Jesus was, after all, on his way to Jerusalem to die for all sinners. That includes people on the left and the right of any issue.
As they continued their journey, others tried to join them. Surely, this was a good thing. There is strength in numbers, and Jesus did keep saying, “Follow me.” So we might be a little surprised that Jesus was now making it hard for people to follow. Or perhaps Jesus was just trying to make sure that those potential followers were not simply thinking of this trip and this decision as one more thing on their ‘To Do’ lists. Let’s see…
Plow the field – check
Listen to wandering preacher – check
Bury father – check
Make sure all is well with family and say goodbye – check
Join Jesus on his trip to Jerusalem
Joining Jesus was at the bottom of the ‘To Do’ list. They had every intention of doing it. They were apparently sincere in their desire to follow Jesus, as we are, but still they said, “First let me…first let me…first let me…”
Have you found yourself saying that? How do all of those other things weasel their way to the top of our ‘To Do’ lists? I’ll say my prayers, but first let me… I want to make a donation, but first let me… I intend to read the Bible, but first let me… I’ll get to church this summer, but first let me… I’m going to make amends with her, but first let me… There is just so much else to do, and some of those things are even good things. Who would dispute the importance of arranging your father’s funeral, or looking after your family? But here is where Jesus calls us to be as decisive and committed as he is himself. Following Jesus – and everything that implies – needs to be at the top of all of our ‘To Do’ lists every day. It must rank above other good things. It should be the organizing principle of all of our ‘To Do’ lists. It just must come first, as difficult as that might be.
And it will be difficult. Jesus never sugar-coated his call to discipleship. Jesus knew that this journey to Jerusalem would involve sacrifice and danger. It required a singular commitment to fulfilling God’s will. Jesus had made that commitment, but it would be hard for his followers, and it’s hard for us, because we have a real tendency to look over our shoulders, to second guess our decisions, and to rearrange our ‘To Do’ lists to suit ourselves. This is not the way to be a disciple. Jesus said, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.,” All his listeners knew that you couldn’t plow in a straight line if you were constantly looking over your shoulder.
There is a church in Washington, D.C. called the Church of the Savior that is extremely difficult to join. In this age when most churches are desperate for new members, the Church of the Savior actually discourages people who express an interest in membership. That church has a long list of requirements for prospective members: first you must…first you must…first you must. They actually come closer to the ideal of truth in advertising than most other churches, because their new members know the kind of commitment they will have to make as disciples. Perhaps the rest of us should be a little more honest with our prospective members, following the full-disclosure policy of Jesus himself.
So, this is what I’ve decided to do from now on. At the top of all my ‘To Do’ lists I’m going to write “Follow Jesus” just so that I remember that this is my top priority each and every day. And when things appear further down the list that are an important part of what following Jesus means – like saying my prayers or offering forgiveness – I’m going to make sure that they get done and aren’t simply bumped onto the next day’s list. I’m going to try never to say to myself or to Jesus, “First let me…” I know this won’t be easy, but I’m going to try. How about you?