A SERMON FOR YEAR C, 5th Pentecost, Proper-8
Copyright © 2007 Nathan L. Bostian
Scriptures: Galatians 5:1,13-25; Luke 9:51-62
Copyright © 2007 Nathan L. Bostian
Scriptures: Galatians 5:1,13-25; Luke 9:51-62
What was your favorite holiday as a kid? Which holiday did you enjoy the most, regardless of whether or not you got presents?
For me the answer is simple: The Fourth of July. Independence Day. Perhaps it is because in the town I grew up in, it was the one day of the year when it was legally sanctioned to BLOW THINGS UP.
As a kid, I had this ritual leading up to Independence Day. I would build models of tanks, and jeeps, and even balsa wood airplanes for weeks before the fourth of July. I would collect armies of little green army men. And the week before, I would prepare the battlefield by building fortresses, and digging trenches, in our front lawn.
Then the day would come. I had positioned my soldiers. I had attached bottle rockets to my balsa wood planes. The tanks and jeeps were filled with miniature explosives. I had a lighter in one hand, and fists full of fireworks in the other.
It was time. Operation Independence Day was a go!
For hours the battle would rage: Pieces of plastic flying everywhere. Balsa wood planes exploding in midair. The smell of burning plastic filled the nostrils. Scorched earth covered the lawn.
It was a good day, even though everyone lost except me.
And, as fun as that was, I still love Independence Day because I identify with its core message. It is the day when a small group of backwoods rebels took on the mightiest nation in the world, and won… It is a "manly", courageous holiday that celebrates both the costs and the blessings of victory.
From that victory we have gained prosperity. Indeed, we are undeniably the wealthiest, most blessed nation in the history of the world. From that victory we have gained freedom. Freedom to do anything and be anyone we want to be, without any class system to stop us.
Patriotism, Prosperity, and Freedom. These are good gifts. And Independence Day gives us an opportunity to thank the Giver of them all. He gives us good things so we can grow in His Love, and share that Love with others.
But however good these blessings may be, our readings today serve as a powerful reminder that they can be used wrongly.
They CAN become curses. They can be MADE into idols.
Even the best blessing, if abused, can slowly kill our souls. You see, an idol is usually not a bad thing in itself. Idols are good things that are used wrongly. And we have a habit of taking what is good, and allowing it to choke out of our lives what it best.
Goods were given by God as tools to help us grow in His Love. But, too often, we make our goods our goal, and use God as the tool to get them. God becomes the errand boy who, with prayer and supplication, makes sure we are healthy, wealthy, and comfortable.
But, when we let our goods to become our gods, then God becomes no good to us. We gain the world, yet forfeit our own souls.
If we look at the Gospel passage through the lens of the idolatry, it all makes sense. But, if we do not understand our human tendency to turn our goods into gods, then Jesus just sounds cruel.
I mean, we have Jesus telling one guy he will be homeless, another that he can't attend his father's funeral, and yet another that he can't even say goodbye to his family. Where is the "sweet and gentle" Jesus that puts little children on His knee? How can we reconcile this wild-eyed fanatic, with the preacher of Love and peace?
It is simple. Jesus is the Great Physician. And a physician that has a comforting bedside manner, who always assures us that everything will be OK, is the same surgeon that is a wild-eyed fanatic about getting every last bit of cancer out of our body.
This passage performs radical surgery on three good things- Patriotism, Prosperity, and Freedom- that can grow into cancerous idols.
First we see patriotism at its worst. Jesus had "set his face" on going to Jerusalem from Galilee. He was on a mission, which would culminate in his death and resurrection, and open the door to salvation for all people… even salvation for the Samaritans.
Now, as we know from the parable of the Good Samaritan , there was an extreme patriotic hatred between so-called pious Jews and so-called godless Samaritans. They had different racial stock, different religious traditions, an intense disagreement over the Scriptures, and saw each other as traitors to their national identity.
If you were going from Galilee to Jerusalem, the most direct route was through Samaria. Yet, most Jews would take the long way around out of spite. But not Jesus. Jesus' path of salvation may have started with the Jews, but it branched out to include all people- even those who were deemed "a national threat" to Jewish interests.
You would think that this would make the Samaritans glad. They would receive him with joy as their Messiah and Savior, right? Wrong.
They shut him out. They shut out the King of Glory, the Savior of Mankind. His ethnicity and political affiliation was offensive to them. He might heal the sick and raise the dead, but he wasn't "like folks around here". He was a danged ol' fer-in-err [foreigner].
And it was not only the Samaritans who shut Jesus out as a political threat. His own people tried to silence him by crucifixion for the same reason. Neither the Jews nor the Samaritans "got it", so they rejected Jesus instead.
And even His own disciples didn't "get it". They thought Jesus' agenda of radical Love could be accomplished by "power politics". In this case, it was calling down the power of God, to destroy those they disagreed with. So, Jesus had to yell at them too. No one got Jesus.
This makes us question to what degree our politics- our vision of a good America- keeps us from "getting Jesus". Do we shut out Jesus because, if we really followed him, He might change our affiliations and our goals for society? If we really served Christ, who might we have to listen to, that we ignore right now?
This is a question for the Right and the Left, and everyone in the middle. Because it is King Jesus that judges all our kings, His Kingdom that judges our politics, and it is His agenda of radical Love that judges our agendas and asks: "Is THIS an idol?"
But this passage not only questions Patriotism, but Prosperity as well. This is quite obvious when Jesus tells the man that following Him means He probably be worse off than even the foxes and the birds.
The point is that following Jesus is not a "get rich quick scheme". The point of following Jesus- no matter what the TV preachers may say- is not to be healthy, wealthy, and comfortable. The point is to learn how to live radical, self-sacrificial, unconditional Love. To grow into Christ's image. To possess the "fruit of the Spirit".
For some, this may mean that God entrusts you with a great deal of financial blessings, so that you in turn can bless the world. For others, it means that God calls you to live a life of radical dependence on God's provision.
Either way, Jesus makes it clear that He is not a meal ticket. He is the goal, not the means. And prosperity is the means to bless others, not the goal. When we confuse this, we allow a cancerous idolatry to squeeze the life out of our souls.
In a less obvious way, this is also what is behind Jesus not allowing the man to bury his father. You see, in the ancient world after a male buried his father, he was given his inheritance.
What the man is saying here is not "Let me bury my father, because I miss him so much". He is saying "I want to serve you Jesus, but only after I get all my financial ducks in a row. Let me get my inheritance, pay off all my credit cards, and set up my 401K. And after I am completely financially secure and do not really have to depend on you, THEN I will follow you".
And we all know what happens when we tell God "Yes, I will serve you, but the time is not right. Let me get a few things in order first".
Those few things turn into hundreds of things. Weeks turn into months. Responsibilities and requirements mount up. Pretty soon, a half a lifetime has passed, and we have not followed Christ.
Christ's word to that is "NO. I come first. Right here, right now, with whatever you have, or do not have, serve me. I will worry about the future, because I made it. But you… you worry about me."
And along with raising questions about Patriotism and Prosperity, Christ calls into question what true Freedom is. In our culture, we tend to think of freedom as being free "FROM": Free from slavery. Free from kings and dictators. Free from anyone telling us what we have to do!
But this is not Christ's concept of freedom. Or rather, it is only half of Christ's concept of freedom, and half the truth is a whole heresy.
Christian freedom is not only freedom "from", but it is freedom "to". We are free from oppression, from sin, and from death. But, if "freedom from" is not combined with "freedom to", it becomes a soul killing idolatry. It puts us- not God- in the center of our universe.
By His death and resurrection, Christ frees us FROM bondage so that we are free TO love like He does. It is "for freedom Christ has set us free". Before Christ frees us, we cannot serve Him. We are held in bondage to selfishness, sin, and idolatry.
But, after Christ frees us, we can finally love like He does. We do not have to be held in bondage to our past, our addictions, or our pet sins. We are free TO live in love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, humility, and self control.
But, as Paul says, this freedom is accomplished by total dependence on Christ's Spirit living in us, and giving us the strength and wisdom to live in that freedom. Paul calls this dependence "walking in the Spirit", "living by the Spirit", and "keeping in step with the Spirit".
And this is what is behind Jesus saying that following Him means having "nowhere to lay our head". We have no way to live in Christ's freedom, except by laying our head on Him, and constantly relying on Him to give us the power to love like He does.
This concept of true freedom, by depending on Christ alone, is also what is behind Jesus telling the last would-be disciple that he could not go back and say goodbye to his family.
You see, going home to say goodbye also meant going home to get approval. And Jesus knew what that man would face at home. Blank stares. Rolling eyes. A million and one really good reasons why now is a bad time to follow Christ.
When family functions as God intended, it is a beautiful gift. A good family is an incredible source of wisdom, nurture, and encouragement. But, when family goes wrong, it can be an incredible source of excuses, guilt, and discouragement.
We all know someone who has spent years in guilt, trying desperately to live up to the expectations of a family member who is never satisfied. We all know someone who's dreams were slowly crushed to death by the disapproval and discouragement of a loved one.
We all know someone who spent a lifetime hearing "better safe than sorry", only to wake up one day and find out they were sorry because they always played it safe. They never risked anything. They chose approval over the destiny God called them to.
And for this man, Jesus words were not cruel harassment, but loving surgery, as Jesus gave him the cure for his idolatry. He says to that man what he says to us all:
"Don't live for approval. Don't look back. Follow me. You can't plow a straight furrow if you are always looking behind you, and you aren’t ready for my Kingdom if I am not your true King. Follow me."
This Fourth of July, we celebrate Independence Day, because Jesus has freed us from the powers of darkness. But, we also celebrate IN-dependence, because we can only live in freedom by being in-dependence on Christ at all times.
This Wednesday, as we celebrate our independence and all of our national blessings, may we always live IN-dependence on Him who blesses us. May the King of the Universe guide us to true patriotism, may Christ our Liberator guide us into true freedom, and may He give us the prosperity that comes from the Fruit of His Spirit. Amen+