A sermon for the third Sunday after Pentecost, June 30, 2019
Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?
James and John were pretty typical church members. They had an assignment, and the people they were assigned to work with wouldn’t go along, so they got mad and decided to burn the whole place down.
Unfortunately, church people often act just like the secular world acts – they try to use power to force people to do what they want. We see this all the time. People take a sentence or two from Jesus or scripture, and they try to force others to do their will, the same way people with wealth and power think they can get everyone to do what they want, because they want it.
Of course, in James’ and Johns’ case, they thought they were going to accomplish all this with miracles, holy power and fire from heaven.
And what was Jesus’ reaction?
“But Jesus turned and rebuked them.”
Jesus is about something different than power and wealth, influence and coercion. He’s certainly not about burning down the villages of people who don’t accept him.
But what is Jesus about in this gospel lesson then? Let’s look at how it begins. “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”
What a simple sentence, but how much it contains.
We need a little back story to understand what is going on here. This is not long after the Transfiguration, when the disciples saw Jesus shining in glory on top of the mountain with Moses and Elijah, and heard the voice saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!” And what Jesus said, that the disciples should have listened to was the following: “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.” Like Elijah, like the other prophets, Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem, to pronounce the word of God against human sinfulness and exploitation, and to be handed over to those very sinners. In our Gospel passage today, Jesus crucifixion is described as his “being taken up” just as Elijah and Moses had been taken up into heaven. Jesus and his disciples are on the road to Jerusalem—to announce the Gospel, to live the Gospel of freedom in God. As St. Paul says to the Galatians this morning, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore and do not submit to the yoke of slavery.” St. Paul contrasts the freedom of the gospel with the inclination of the world, to “bite and devour” one another and he warns Christians against falling into these things among themselves.
We follow Jesus on his way to Jerusalem, the way to our freedom. And on that way, the realities of this world, seeking to devour, debilitate, and destroy God’s people are on display. Following Jesus is real. And by real, I mean: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus is one of the homeless, not of those who are secure in fine houses. If any of us suffers hardship, Jesus has also faced that; he has sympathy with that suffering. He has set his face toward Jerusalem, that we might have freedom from the suffering that is inflicted by the forces of this world, yet to follow him means to face those things with him. It is not easy and saying we’re his followers as a way to show off, just won’t cut it.
They all gathered around him, “I’ll follow you … but” … and all of the explanations and good excuses and procrastination follows. You know how it works, I certainly do—there is something important that you have to get done, but it will require work, concentration or dedication—like maybe, writing a sermon, for instance—why is it that just before you sit down to get to the job, all the important things that you haven’t done for the past six months come up? Cleaning out the corners of your house? Doing that repair job you were asked to do ages ago? Following Jesus is one of those things that we find ways to avoid, telling ourselves all the excuses in the world.
The powers of this world do not want to hear from Jesus that they should regard the well-being of the little ones and the oppressed of this world to take precedence over their power, wealth and comfort. It is easy enough to see that these past couple of weeks. There is no reason to hold hundreds of children—Babies!—in detention facilities near our southern border. There is no reason that they be held in conditions that are worse even than prisoners in Rikers Island are held—and that’s a shame for our society, too. Yet what do we get from those in power? From our government? From those who call themselves “Christians” but use that word only to support everything that a party in power does so that they can have influence? Evasion, rationalization, fear-mongering based on untruths and the inclination of people to think the worst of people of a different color, or from a different country, or who speak a different language. They would rather burn it all down including all those children, than take the risk of freedom, of giving away power, of actually following Jesus.
Jesus knew that this would happen. He knew that it would happen to him. But in his love, he reached out to us, to invite us to follow with him, so that we can be free, so that we can live generously, so that we can live as God wants: living for one another, with one another without selfishness or manipulation.
This week is our big national holiday. The fourth of July is associated with patriotism. But people often forget what that means. We are not a military state, that has never been the identity of the United States. The fourth of July is INDEPENDENCE DAY – it is a celebration of peace and freedom for everyone, no matter who they are. It is not a celebration of power or domination—to assert that is the most unpatriotic thing that can be said in America. We celebrate freedom for each and every person, young and old, of every race and religion—of those who have little and those who have been fortunate that they may share with others.
Paul says: “The works of the flesh are obvious: …idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions… those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
Who does inherit the Kingdom? He continues, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, and self-control.”
We shouldn’t fool ourselves, it is costly to live in that way, the manipulations of those forces of selfishness work always to undermine lives of generosity as the forces of brutality seek to undermine patriotism.
The Gospel lessons for the coming months will be the teachings of Jesus as he and his disciples make their journey to Jerusalem. It is a profound journey and we are invited to also be his disciples. We are on this journey and Jesus tells us, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Let us pray:
Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.