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Shug Avery and Celie are having a theological conversation. Before I tell you about part of their conversation, let me be sure you and they are properly introduced. They are two of the protagonists in Alice Walker's "The Color Purple." Shug and Celie are African-American women living in the deep South in the middle part of the 20th century.
"More than anything else," Shug explains to Celie, "God love admiration."
"You saying God vain?" Celie inquires. "Naw," says Shug, "not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it makes God angry if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it."
Shug, I'm not sure about God getting angry if we walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it, but I think you're right that God certainly wants us to pay attention to the color purple. After all, purple is the color of royalty. It's also the color of pain and passion. And as we arrive at Luke 9:51, there is suddenly a distinctly purple hue for us to notice. And before we walk on any further, we need to pause long enough to notice this color change in the field that is Luke's Gospel.
Jesus of Nazareth, whose birth the angel explained to the shepherds, was the birth of a Savior, the Messiah, the Lord, has now set his face to go to Jerusalem, which is Luke's way of telling us that this royal man has begun a sure and certain journey to a destination of pain and passion. Whatever color Luke's Gospel was before, it's deep purple now.
With the verses we've heard, Luke begins a new section of his Gospel-a section that will continue through the middle of the 19th chapter. With this new section, Jesus' ministry in Galilee comes to an end and Jesus' journey toward Jerusalem begins. This journey is sometimes referred to as Luke's "travel narrative." It's not so much a geographical journey toward Jerusalem since the itinerary is impossible to reconstruct. It's more a theological or editorial framework in which Luke shares something of what it means to follow Jesus. And while scholars debate exactly what Luke may have had in mind with this section of his Gospel, what gets clearly communicated is this: The life of discipleship is a journey, a steady pilgrimage to a cross, and those who follow Jesus on that journey can expect that what happens to him will happen to them. After all, Jesus has already told those who are interested in following him that they're to deny themselves and to take up a cross daily. He's already told them that real life is found by losing life for his sake. And in one way or another throughout this "travel narrative," Luke tells us that following Jesus involves nothing less than a complete overhaul in understanding and behavior. It involves a complete letting go of any former thing and a complete falling in behind the one whose ministry is the centerpiece of the reign of God.
And Luke wants us to be clear at the outset that Jesus will not change his mind. He will not waiver from this task because this is more than just a trip to Jerusalem. This is nothing less than the fulfillment of the plan of God. That's why Luke is careful to point out-that Jesus' face is set toward Jerusalem, which echoes what the prophet Isaiah had said hundreds of years before about the servant of God. "The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint (Isaiah 50:7). The journey is on, and it's too late to turn back now. I hope you notice the purple.
And so as the Royal One begins his journey to pain and passion, Luke says he sends some messengers ahead of him into a Samaritan village. It's interesting that the first stop on the way to Jerusalem is a Samaritan village. There are different opinions as to why the Jews and the Samaritans hated each other so bitterly, but they did. And the hatred between the two groups went back at least 700 years before Jesus. And Luke tells us that these Samaritans wanted nothing to do with following Jesus, precisely because his face was set toward Jerusalem.
So in response to their rejection of Jesus, James and John want to punish the Samaritans-rain some fire down on them. Jesus is not interested in that. He's told them before, and he will tell them yet again, that if people won't listen to you-if they will not welcome you-just shake the dust of that town from your feet and move on. And so they did. It's always been true that for some the direction in which Jesus is headed is not a direction in which they want to go.
And so the messengers Jesus sent move on. As they were going along the road, Luke now introduces us to three people, who unlike the Samaritan villagers seem genuinely interested in following Jesus. One says to him, "Jesus, I'll follow you wherever you go." "Fine," Jesus says. "I have no home. I have nowhere to lay my head. Any bed I have is because someone let me use theirs. You still interested?"
Jesus spots a second person. "Hey, you, let's go. Follow me."
And the guy is willing. He doesn't say no. He just has something else he needs to do first, and it is an important something else. "Let me go and bury my father." In that society, burying one's parents was a solemn obligation. It was a part of being obedient to the commandment to honor father and mother, and no one was exempt from honoring that commitment. On the list of excellent excuses, this man's excuse ranks so high that oftentimes even religious obligations could be laid aside for this purpose. But Jesus' response is harsh: "Let the dead bury their own dead." Jesus tries to teach this man what he has taught all along. The purple path is the path of life, and if you are not on that path for whatever reason, you may as well be dead like your father.
The third would-be follower also has important business to wrap up before he can fall in line. He wants to go home and say good-bye to his loved ones. And there's precedent here. Elisha had requested of Elijah that before he followed him he be allowed to return home and kiss his parents, and Elijah apparently consented. And after those kisses, Elisha followed him.
Jesus is not interested in that precedent. "If you're looking back," he says, "you can't plow a straight row."
That's tough stuff. I guess when your face is set like flint to the purple place, it's hard to be impressed even with excellent excuses. Even the best excuses pale in comparison to the deep purple of Jesus' journey.
Let's be honest. You and I are like those Samaritans. There's not a single one of us who at one time or another has not flatly refused to go with Jesus. There are times, maybe even present, that we hear his call in our lives, we know exactly what he asks us to do, we know exactly what he asks us to refrain from doing, and yet we persist in our rebellion and in our disobedience. Where in your life, in your attitudes or actions, are you in outright rebellion today? In what area of your life are you resisting the claim of Jesus? Truth be known, there is an unwilling Samaritan villager in everyone of us.
And, then, there are times when we genuinely want to follow Jesus. I suspect that most of us know him to be the way-we know that he leads us to life, we know that he's worth following-but we have other things to do. Other people to see, other commitments to honor. Jesus, I'll follow you, but may I take care of this first? Jesus, I'll follow you, but as I do, may I hold on to this? May I bring this grudge along on the journey, carry this hatchet with me, hold onto this valuable? Jesus, I want to follow you with the time I know you want from me, but may I wait until my kids are grown? Life is just so busy now. Jesus, I really do want to follow you with all that I have, and I want to give my possessions to you, to whom they all belong in the first place, but may I get my kids through college first?
There are many good reasons for not selling out to Jesus. There are many good reasons for not noticing the color purple. And Jesus is impressed with none of those good reasons. I'm willing to bet the farm that there's not a single one of us who isn't trying to applaud Jesus with one hand while holding on to something else with the other. It is impossible to applaud with one hand.
It must be lonely setting your face toward Jerusalem. It must be lonely walking the purple path by yourself. It must be lonely for those who say they love you either not to notice or not to embrace the color purple when purple is the color of your life.
Whatever we do with this passage, we cannot dull its edge, and without exception, it cuts us all. There are no bargains, no loopholes, no discount prices in the call to discipleship. Following the Royal One toward his destination of pain and passion costs us all that we are and all that we have, and Jesus wants us to know that either we are following him all the way with everything or we are not following him at all. It is a radical claim. And Jesus is able to make this claim precisely because of who he is and where he's headed. Remember, he is the Royal One. His face is set. He is on his way to pain and passion, and in the light of that journey, everything else pales. His journey, his life, his call reveal our worst behaviors and our best excuses to come up short. But when we summon the courage to see ourselves in the light of Jesus' costly journey, when we honestly view ourselves in the brilliant light of his supremely prior claim, then we begin to take on the color of life. Then we have the possibility of becoming who we are-disciples of the Royal One walking in the path of pain and passion, every day taking up a cross.
I don't grow things. Virtually every plant I've ever had died. Except one. When my mother died in 1988, a member of my church sent me an African violet. I don't know what the life expectancy of an African violet is, but mine is still living nearly 16 years later. And like most of us, it's seen good times and bad ones. One time it went years without blooming. And, then, a few years ago, inexplicably it began to bloom again until recently when the blooms stopped. I took it to a master gardener in my church. She took it in and kept it to watch it for a while. A few weeks ago I went to pick it up from her and it was blooming, but the blooms were like none I had ever seen. They were almost colorless-just the tiniest hint of purple-but closer really to silver or gray. Odd, I thought to myself.
Well, I got it back home and I put it back in its place where it gets the light it needs. I welcomed it back home, fed it, talked to it, told it how nice it was to see it again. About three weeks after it arrived back home, the blooms were different. These new blooms were deep purple. There are still some of the almost colorless blooms side-by-side with the new deep purple ones. My violet has been telling me that when it is home where it really belongs, close to the best light, it becomes what it is. It's hard not to notice the deep purple that the best light brings.
Jesus' face is set. He is on his way to Jerusalem where he will be taken up. He asks us to follow, to realize that nothing is more important than that. He asks us to see his journey for what it is-the light that makes everything else pale in comparison. But understand something about his journey. It's not only the light that brings us up short, both at our Samaritan worst and our excuse-making best. His purple path is also the light under which we find the richness of our true color, the real character of our lives. And while he may be disappointed when we pass by the color purple without noticing it, while he may be disappointed when we don't bloom or when whatever blooms we have are void of their hue, I have to think that because he loves us he will patiently continue to call us to follow him completely until one day by his colorful grace and our pale efforts, we who belong to him will at last find our home in the light of his radical claim, and our lives will come to be finally as purple as his.
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus, thank you for who you are and where you're headed. Thank you for calling us to follow you in the way of the cross. By the light of your journey continue to show us how to follow you with all that we are and all that we have. Amen.
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