Please don't go away. I know you may be tempted to find another station after hearing these words which hardly sound like good news. Some easy-listening soft rock would surely be more uplifting. Maybe even the news. But please, don't go.
I won't tell you that Jesus didn't say what you heard. He says things here that are very hard to receive. This is a turning point in Jesus' life and I think Jesus is impatient. I know we imagine that Jesus was so certain of his mission that every step was buoyant and confident. Even though we confess that Jesus was human, we also have a sense that everything was all planned out, that he simply walked to a new part of the stage. But it wasn't quite that simple. The narrator sets the stage for this turning point.
When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.
He set his face to go. He was resolute, not hesitant, and I think he grew impatient. Jesus was stymied at his first move, frustrated at being turned away at the very first village. Jesus yearned to reach out to the Samaritans who were seen as outcasts by his own people. Yet, they would not receive him.
Jesus must be growing increasingly impatient with his disciples who never seem to understand. "Lord do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume these Samaritans?" Jesus had already told the disciples that when they weren't welcomed in a place they should shake the dust off their shoes and go on to another town. Jesus never told them to call down fire. When would they get it?
Jesus grew skeptical of those who seemed eager to follow. "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." If you come along you'll be following a homeless man. Yet he wanted people to see that the Kingdom of God was in their midst and so he continued to call people as he moved on. But they had good excuses for saying no. Good excuses. Proper and appropriate and loving excuses.
"Lord, first let me go and bury my father."
"I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home." Jesus' response to both of them is very harsh. They only ask for a little time to do what is completely good and right. But Jesus' face is set to go to Jerusalem. There is an urgency now in his step Can we allow Jesus to be impatient, with even the best excuses. I feel Jesus' anger, his deep frustration that something always keeps people from moving on with him.
Jesus is not practical. There are good reasons for not going with him. It was true that day outside the Samaritan Village and on the road; it is true now. Yet, there are times when Jesus' passionate, impractical word touches people deeply. When Jesus' calling shapes your life and mine even for a brief time. When our attempts to be practical give way to Jesus' heaven on earth mission.
My father was not a pastor or a missionary. He was a farmer, a farmer who never worked in the field on Sundays. Even if we'd had a week of rain and Sunday was sunny, he didn't do it. He never said much about it but we knew his reasons, it was God's day. It was surely foolish -- for what if the rain started in again on Monday? But his life was marked by the rhythm of Sabbath. He didn't get rewarded for that by having the best corn yield in the county. That's not why he went to worship instead of the field. But I know his life was different because he saw beyond the practical.
I think of Pastor John Nelson in Seattle. Some years ago John and his mother Ruth got into a small speed boat and joined other little boats to protest the arrival of the Trident nuclear submarine into Puget Sound. It was ridiculous, of course, for they couldn't stop the Trident with a speed boat. John was arrested over and over for his non-violent acts. Once while he was in jail, some clergy friends came to bring him communion. But the prison authorities feared the communion might be contraband, something dangerous or perhaps concealing a weapon. So the bread and wine were locked in a secure place. Whenever John tells the story his face breaks into a broad grin. "Communion as contraband!" That's wonderful, isn't it? Communion as dangerous, reminder of Jesus' body among us. (Then he reminded us that one of the first Tridents had been named Corpus Christi, the body of Christ.) John was not practical. I can't point to any government policy that was changed by his actions. But he believed that Jesus called him to this ministry. He believed the unbelievable vision of the prophet Isaiah: "They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks."
Or, I think of Bill Weber from New York Theological Seminary who started teaching men imprisoned at Sing Sing. Several lay people from congregations have joined him over the years and some prisoners have completed their studies. They have been ordained and now serve as pastors to other prisoners. Questions arose about why prisoners should have such attention. Teachers from the outside were no longer allowed to spend much time inside the prison. Now the prisoner-teachers who have graduated keep the seminary of Sing Sing going. It doesn't seem very practical, does it, to train men who may be serving life sentences? To give a seminary education to prisoners who will most likely not be ordained? But Bill Weber and his friends had a vision beyond what was practical, a vision from the One who was on his way to Jerusalem to become a prisoner himself.
You may have done things like this, or something very different -- something that wasn't practical at all in the name of Jesus. Oh, I know it is possible to be so impractical that we're of no earthly good. I know we can't always follow a dream; we can't stop feeding our families to give full time to teaching in prison. But I also know that Jesus' passion is often stifled by calls to be practical. "Think of the consequences," someone tells us. "You need to decide whether the efforts will bring forth results." Or "The time is just not right for this; it could divide the church." But sometimes we need to be caught up in the impractical impatience of Jesus who set his face to go to Jerusalem. He had received his commission when he stood in his hometown synagogue and read from the scroll of Isaiah.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me
because God has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
God has sent me to proclaim
release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the
Lord's favor. (Luke 4:18-19)
Surely that mission was too grand and it was not completely accomplished. Jesus should have been more practical. And now Jesus calls us to follow in this same mission, to be anointed with the same Spirit. I have a million excuses for not going with Jesus to Jerusalem -- or wherever I am called in this time of history. Pastor/Novelist, Frederic Buechner acknowledges his hesitancy, and ours.
What can we take along with us on this journey to, we do not know where? What we must take is the knowledge of our own unendingly ambiguous motives -- the voice we hear over our shoulders never says "First be sure that your motives are pure and selfless and then follow me." If it did, then we could none of us follow. So when the voice says, "Take up your cross and follow me," at least part of what is meant by "cross" is our realization that we are seldom any less than nine parts fake. Don't let that stop you. And don't be stopped by the constraints of forever being practical. I'm not sure what to do or where to go either. But I believe the One who set his face to Jerusalem is still with me and with you. The same Spirit which anointed Jesus in Nazareth anoints us for wild and highly impractical acts of justice and love.