To Jerusalem, But First… – June 30, 2019

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Sermon preached by the Reverend Louise Kalemkerian
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Third Sunday after Pentecost (Track 2)

In the name of the most Holy, most loving God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. AMEN.

Today we begin the long Travel Narrative in Luke’s Gospel, which ends with Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, which we read in April. It is, in a variety of ways, the hinge of the story in Luke, as it provides the turning point between Jesus’ mission of teaching and preaching in Galilee and his journey to Jerusalem and the cross. This is a time of transition for Jesus.  In this long account, over the coming weeks we’ll be hearing some well-known Lukan parables, the Good Samaritan, the Unjust Judge, the Steward, the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.

Along this way there are these encounters with would-be followers of Jesus.  Since the most direct route from Galilee to Jerusalem was through the unfriendly territory of the Samaritans, messengers were sent ahead to prepare the way. But when Jesus and his disciples arrived, they were not received.  There were major religious differences between Jews and Samaritans that contributed to their long-standing conflict. The Samaritans didn’t worship in the same way as the Jews; they believed that Mt. Gerizim, not Jerusalem, was the center of true worship (Jn. 4:20); thus if you were on a pilgrimage heading to Jerusalem you were not welcomed.

The disciples James and John are offended by the disrespect shown to Jesus, and propose immolating the Samaritans, as the Prophet Elijah brought down fire on his enemies (cf 2 Ki. 1:10-14). They completely misunderstand the mission of Jesus, who chides them for their attitude. Jesus’ response to rejection is not retribution or revenge, but forgiveness (Lk. 6:27-29, 31, 35).

We too live in a time of painful divisions. Pro-choice versus pro-life. Blue versus red. We, too, are inclined to “nuke” those whose views on race, religion, immigration, taxation, climate change, and a host of other important issues are different from our own. Like the disciples, our inclination when we’ve been wounded or rejected is to return evil for evil.

But Jesus reprimands the disciples, straight up. Other places in Luke’s gospel Jesus rebukes demons and storms, but this is the only place he rebukes his disciples. He’s understandably impatient. He senses time is running out for them to “get it.”

Jesus’ concern to reach out to the Samaritans is in keeping with the inclusive nature of the salvation he offers. It is for everyone, always, in every time and place.  As he walks on from the Samaritan town, he encounters three prospective disciples.

The first person enthusiastically volunteers for Jesus’ mission, only to be told, hey, this isn’t exactly a safe and secure kind of deal. I don’t have a place to stay, you’re not even going to be staying in in Motel 6. And by the way, you know this way leads to Jerusalem, right? You know Jerusalem, as in “the city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to it.” [Luke 13:34]

In the second encounter, Jesus actually invites someone: “Follow me.” Now when he’d said that to James and John (the same two who want to call down fire from heaven on the unwelcoming Samaritans), James and John immediately left their old father in the family fishing boat and followed Jesus.

Not so with this person. He’s trying to obey the commandment, “Honor your father and mother.” Honoring one’s father meant to care for him and provide a decent, respectful burial when he died. This guy is just trying to fulfill his duty as a son and obey the commandment. So he says, “But first… let me fulfill my obligation.” These are good reasons, Jesus says but no, following me comes even before that. Now maybe Jesus is using hyperbole, exaggeration, as he’s wont to do, “let the dead bury the dead” , similar to “if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off”, but he makes a strong point about leaving your old life behind. Not a popular point, but a compelling point.

And the third person, who also offers to follow Jesus, he too just wants to say a proper good-bye to his family before he leaves. “But first, Jesus… just give me some time.”  Family in this culture was the source of one’s identity; you didn’t have any identity outside your family, your clan, your tribe. It’s why leaving home was such a big deal. It’s hard for us in our 21st -century American ultra-mobile, individualist culture to relate to.

Here’s another person trying to do something good and honorable, but Jesus says no, following me comes first. You can’t move forward while you’re looking back. No procrastination. Accepting the call to follow Jesus requires commitment.

Our everyday lives are full of “but firsts”, and as I read this text I began to consider just how much I might have missed over the years because I have uttered these words, often without even thinking.  “But first, I have to finish my sermon… write this report…” When my kids were little and they’d ask Mom to play or take them to the park I often had a “but first…”

As Jesus is heading to Jerusalem, I’m afraid I still have “but firsts…” Like those would-be disciples we read about. When Jesus says, “Follow me and preach that Jesus’ way will not accept the inhumane treatment of refugee and immigrant children” and I say, “But first…”

When Jesus says, “Follow me and preach against words or behavior that justify white supremacy” and I say, “But first…”

When Jesus says, “Follow me and preach about climate change and the future of our earth” and I say, “But first…” When Jesus says, “Follow me and preach that my way means inclusion and anti-racism, anti-sexism,” and I say, “But first…”[1]

Discipleship is difficult, strenuous, challenging, often putting us at odds with friends, family, neighbors. It often means setting aside our own priorities for the sake of the Gospel. Please know it not easier for me than for you.  It certainly wasn’t a cake walk for Jesus’ first followers. When I pose questions they are for me as much as for anyone else.

What would it be like for you and I to “set our face to go to Jerusalem?”  Where is our Jerusalem?  How can we each stand up against the violence and homophobia and racism and xenophobia, forces of evil, that are gripping our country?

Perhaps this is our road to Jerusalem, to learn to speak about our views passionately, not discounting the other, and remembering that all of us are beloved children of God?   Remember where this road leads Jesus.  In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “The cross is the eternal expression of the length to which God will go in order to restore broken community. The resurrection is a symbol of God’s triumph over all forces that seek to block community.”[2]

As disciples of Jesus we are called to stand against the forces that seek to separate persons from each other and stand with inclusion and love and the reconciling work of God. Today and every day.

[1] Karoline Lewis, Dear Working Preacher, June 24, 2019.

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr., Stride Toward Freedom, pp. 105-6.

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