“Out of Control” Luke 9:51-62, June 26, 2016, FPC Holt

“Out of Control”
Luke 9:51-62
June 26, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

slide-1-cranky-jesusAnybody listen to this scripture text and think, “wow, Jesus is a bit cranky!”? Really, I can’t bury my father? And I can’t even say good bye to my friends and family? Can I at least leave a note? Jesus seems quite unreasonable, given the would be followers’ requests. Is it really so much to ask to want to get your affairs in order before following Jesus out into who knows what? With our story today, Jesus says, yes.

slide-2-follow-meFollowing Jesus requires not only willingness, but first priority. Faithfulness is not faithfulness without follow through. What Jesus is asking is not for them to just take on a new extracurricular activity, but to take on an entire new way of life. What he is ultimately asking them to give up is control. Giving up control can be a very scary thing. We are taught to be self-reliant, to make well reasoned, thought out decisions.

Each would-be disciples’ responses are met with Jesus’ counter-cultural control-arresting admonitions. First is the one who says“I will follow you wherever you go.” To him Jesus says, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

housing

housing

Housing security is one of our most basic needs. Your safety and physical well being are directly tied into your ability to have a roof over your head at night. If you have a consistent place to sleep each night, chances are your rent or mortgage, along with utilities and property taxes are your highest expense each month. And we pay those bills because of how highly we value the security and consistency of having a place to call our own, a place where we can live as we please.

slide-4-we-need-housingJesus, however, is calling the disciples to set aside control in this very basic aspect of human life, and to take on a nomadic existence, not knowing where they will end each day, or how they will get their meals. If you have experienced housing insecurity perhaps you understand what a seemingly impossible task to which Jesus is calling the disciples to willingly undertake.

In Jesus’ example he lifts up foxes and birds as having a home, while asking the disciples to go without, which would mean that they have less control in their lives than animals. This is a bold and frightening thing.

slide-5-homeless-jesusCanadian sculptor Timothy P. Schmalz has generated some interesting conversation and some controversy through his statue of a homeless Jesus. He has made over 30 of these statues at this point, the first in Toronto and then in cities across the United States, including Denver, Phoenix, Chicago, Austin, Buffalo, and D.C., as well as around the world in Belfast, Dublin,Longton, and the Vatican. Through the statue Schmalz has said that he’s trying to generate conversation about Matthew 25, and how we care for Jesus through caring for those in need.

As far back as Psalm 127 and David in 2 Samuel 7, followers of God have been concerned with making a home for God, but over and over again God has insisted that God’s presence is not to be contained. While we may never be exactly comfortable with the idea of God as homeless, we can come to trust that Christ is at work in and through experiences of our unrest and lack of control.

slide-6-jerusalem-graveyardA second would-be disciple asks Jesus, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” And to him Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

Rituals surrounding death have a long and deep history, involving social, physiological, and sacred purpose. Jewish burial customs of this time included a tearing of garments, constant watch of the body before it was buried, hiring of paid mourners, very specific body preparation, and then a week long mourning period for the family called Shiva.

It’s also important to note that the body was supposed to be buried on the same day in which the person had died. So this man was likely being called upon to leave and follow Jesus on the very same day as his father’s death. Asking this man to leave those family responsibilities and personal desires to process grief seems like a cruel thing. Why would Jesus ask that of him?

While grieving the death of a family member can be deeply personal there are also quite a bit of logistics to go alongside it. By asking this man to leave at this time Jesus speaks to man within his grief and stress and frees him from the work surrounding this death so that he may experience new life. In doing so there are decisions that he will have no say in, possessions he will not inherit. Jesus is asking him to willing give up control of his family’s situation so he may be able to take his place in the family of God.

The third potential disciple, tries to bargain with Jesus. He says, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus is not one to negotiate, saying to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

slide-8-plowI’ve never personally plowed a field, but understand that doing so, particularly with a mule and plow as would’ve likely been the method at that point, requires much concentration. Often mules will be outfitted with blinders to keep them headed straight. If the farmer looks to the side, or worse, turns around, chances are the mule and the plow will swerve, messing up the work that has been done, slowing down the process and creating more work.

Jesus saw this man’s request to say goodbye as a sign of reluctance, a lack of focus for the work that laid ahead. There’s a possibility too that in turning back and saying goodbye to those in his home they might try and talk him out of it. They might give him reason to never make it back to Jesus, never begin to pursue Jesus’ mission. Jesus was asking for unconditional surrender of control. No, “First I’ll do this and then I’ll follow you,” would work for following Jesus.

slide-9-three-responsesEach of these acts, nomadic living, operating outside of societal burial customs, and focusing on God’s kingdom, require renouncing the control that they thought they had, and placing their trust in Jesus’ ministry and mission. Each act requires faith.

Presbyterian minister, Carol Howard Merritt, writes, “In these three responses, Jesus…calls out to those in this time who will follow him and be his disciples. To follow Christ means a reordering of life that includes the possibility that one may never settle down. To follow Christ entails understanding oneself in relation to Jesus, even when experiencing disorientation in one’s own family and confusion in one’s sense of self. To follow Christ requires a single-minded resolve that looks forward to the work ahead and is cognizant of the risk that accompanies discipleship.”

Does Jesus seem cranky in his responses? Perhaps, but Jesus’ eyes were set to Jerusalem, set to the place where crucifixion awaited him. He was running out of time and nothing but resolute faith through action would do. May we relinquish our control so we may follow Jesus with the focus he requires. Amen.

 

“God in Control;” Psalm 127:1-5 and Mark 12:38-44; November 11, 2012; FPC Jesup

“God in Control”
Psalm 127:1-5 and Mark 12:38-44
November 11, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Our New Testament passage today is situated on Tuesday of Holy Week. I know that when I read accounts from Holy Week I have a hard time imagining how so much was condensed into this one week of Jesus’ life. I also wonder how he could have concentrated on the every day activities of this week, knowing what was coming. But Jesus knew his life was coming to an end and didn’t want people to have any doubt about God’s will for the current state of things in the country and in the religious community. Standing here on the precipice of joining God in heaven, he had no interest in seeming rationale or being likeable, just in being heard.

Though he had roused the suspicions and anger of the established religious community throughout his ministry, in this final week of his life, his actions became more and more impossible to ignore. On Sunday he rides into town on a donkey, surrounded by crowds, palm branches waving. On Monday he comes into the temple, and turns over tables in anger with the shady commerce happening there. And now it’s Tuesday. Jesus comes to the temple and speaks to a crowd gathered there. In a subversive move, he says to them “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”[1]

I can imagine the scribes of the temple, gathered around the treasury, overhearing this critique of them, their faces red from the anger and embarrassment of being called out by Jesus in this way. How dare Jesus come into this space and slander them?

As if on cue one of these very widows whose houses was being devoured by the scribes enters the scene. And scripture tells us, “She put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”[2] We’re not told much about this woman, just that she is poor, she is and widow, and she came into this temple and gave all that she could, all that she had. In this time a scribe keeping track of each person’s contribution observed the temple treasury. It’s likely that names and monetary amounts were called out at each contribution. Surely her meager offering of two coins was given some strange looks as she offered it up. She might have been giving solely as an offering to God, but chances are good that she was giving due to a debt assessed by a scribe.

I really wish that we were given a follow up report about this woman, because with this gift of everything, I worry about what comes next for her. This painting by James C. Christensen captures the expression I can imagine her having. Light shines on her face, and we can see worry in her eyes. She does not give happily, but she does give obediently. She is at the end of the line, she’s given everything and has nothing left to lose. She is in a frightening position both socially and economically. What will become of her? Scripture never gives us that answer.

This passage is often lauded as an example of sacrificial giving. In stewardship sermons it is often offered as a reason for us to increase our giving. For surely we should increase the percentage we are giving if this woman if giving all that she has. I don’t think that is necessarily the message of our text. Right before Jesus points out the relative enormity of her gift he is admonishing the scribes for their abuse of widows. It is very possible that this text is not a commendation of the widow’s gift, but a condemnation of a system that so brutally oppresses those already oppressed. And in the temple, no less!

In this time, the scribes of the temple were also scribes of the community. They were literate individuals among a largely illiterate population. They charged high fees to help people to write to family members far away, decipher legal contracts, and to manage their estates. Since most everyone else was unable to tell what they were really reading, the actions of the scribes would go unchecked. While they would help widows with their estates, they could also help themselves, creating wealth for themselves and bankruptcy for their clients.[3] Though they read and preached texts of God’s power and might, they had moved farther and farther from acknowledging God’s control of their lives and even the temple itself.

This was directly contradictory with the message of the Hebrew Bible, which has numerous appeals for people to take care of widows in their community. Exodus 22:22 says, “You shall not abuse any widow or orphan.” Deuteronomy 10:17-18 offers God up as the one who takes care of widows saying, “For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome…executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.” In Deuteronomy 24:19-21, an command is given for farmers to offer the access of their crops to widows and others in need, “When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.” Isaiah 1:17 commands us to,” learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

If you were here in worship last week, you may also notice that these scribes are working in ways opposite to the example of Ruth and Naomi. Ruth disavows the stability of her community in order to support a widow, her mother in law, Naomi, even though there is no foreseeable gain. Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi was an example of sacrificial trust in God’s will and design for her life. The scribes do not trust in God’s ability to take control of their lives and financial situation. They seek to create their own financial stability by taking from the already vulnerable widows.

Reading about the injustices of this community makes me want to turn over some tables too. This was the temple, a place where people could come and be in God’s presence. Religious leaders were still strongly enforcing dietary restrictions and protocol for sacrifices, but when it came to showing love and care for one another, they were falling short. They were concerned about themselves, worried about their own well-being with God, their own financial well-being, but entirely uninterested in caring for the most vulnerable in their community. They had lost focus of God’s heart for God’s people. This is the sort of corruption that makes a bad name for all religious institutions.

In the two verses following our passage we are told: “As he came out of the temple, one of [Jesus’] disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’”[4]

All will be thrown down. This makes the situation even less stable for the widow in our story. She comes to this temple and gives all she has to an institution that Jesus says will not last, will be thrown down. “She gives her whole life to something that is corrupt and condemned.”[5]

This seems like a terrible investment. That is until we remember the week that surrounds her actions. This story of Jesus in the temple rabble-rousing and scribe-annoying is the last scene in Jesus’ public ministry. This quick, three-verse mention of a disenfranchised woman, is a preview of what is to come. Jesus is making his way to the cross. He is about to offer his whole life, for something corrupt and condemned: the whole of humanity. [6]

She gives, even though she is giving to an unjust system. She gives, even as her gift is taking away her own life. I’d like to think that she gives with faith that God will see her through to tomorrow, but we simply can’t know the intentions of her heart.

Our Hebrew Bible passage says, “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain.”

The temple was built initially as a place for people to worship God, but it became corrupt as rules became more important than grace, and self-promotion became more important than the well being of all.

The entire world was created as a place for all of humankind to be in relationship with God, but it became corrupt as humanity chose knowledge over love, and chose to build high towers rather than reach out to those beside us.

Relationship with God is a choice we make every day. If we truly want to be people of God, we must invite God into our hearts and our intentions as both individuals and as a Christian community. God must be the builder of our relationships and of our churches.

I don’t want to ruin the surprise here, but we are not Jesus, and this church is not in and of itself a means of salvation. Any human institution will inevitably be fallible. But Christ came for the broken, for the fallible. If we remember that God is in control our future is teeming with hope and possibility. Amen.


[1] Mark 12:38-40

[2] Mark 12:44c

[4] Mark 13:1-2

[5] “Mark 12:38-44 Homeletical Perspective.” by Pete Peery in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 4, Season after Pentecost 2

[6] “Mark 12:38-44 Homeletical Perspective.” by Pete Peery in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 4, Season after Pentecost 2