Be about God’s work

Preached on Sunday, 30 June, 2019 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 8, Year C, (thematic track)

Be about God’s work.  I think that’s the message for today.

This gospel lesson is something of a pivot point, too.  Up to this point in his gospel, Luke has been focusing on Jesus in Galilee.  He has been preaching and teaching, using a lot of parables.  And there are many, many instances of healing and casting out demons.  Jesus raises the dead and feeds the multitudes.

Not long before we come in today, Jesus goes up the mountain with Peter, James, and John, where he is transfigured before their eyes. They see him talking to Elijah and Moses and they hear the voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son.  Listen to him.”

When they come back down the mountain, Jesus sets his sights on Jerusalem.  That’s where we are today, Jesus and the disciples have set out for Jerusalem.  For the next the next ten or eleven chapters, they’ll be traveling.  In these chapters, Luke focuses on Jesus’ teaching with only three stories of healing.

While it’s known as the travel narrative, it’s not like a journal or a diary.  The stories don’t come in sequential order, either geographically or chronologically.  In these chapters, Luke reveals the character of Jesus, the nature of God, and the mission of God.  He also demonstrates the shape of discipleship.

Today, we find that a few of the disciples have been sent ahead to make preparations for Jesus’ arrival with the rest of the group.  They have left the familiarity of Galilee and are entering Samaria.  One village refuses to receive him because he is bound for Jerusalem.  He’s an outsider, a stranger, the Other.

The response of James and John seems a bit extreme, though.  How dare they reject us!  Of course, we are bearers of the Truth.  They should be punished!   James and John were the ones who were with Jesus up on the mountain at the transfiguration.  I wonder if that makes them feel a little self-righteous?  In any case, they suggest that they call down fire from heaven to destroy the village!

Now, many commentaries draw a parallel to Elijah calling down fire on the prophets of Baal.  But, this reminds me of the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah when they failed to extend hospitality to the angels of God who arrived as strangers.

Jesus rejects their suggestion.  Don’t worry about them, just move on.  Let go of needing to convince them that you’re right.

The next section shows us a series of potential disciples.  The first is a volunteer, so to speak.  Jesus’ response is odd, but I think he’s trying to convey that the life of a disciple may not be what they think; following Jesus is not an easy way of life.

The next two are invited by Jesus to follow him.  Each has a very reasonable request.  They have something to attend to before they can join him.  Each says, “yes, but first…”

In each case, Jesus’ response sounds like an admonishment, like he’s chastising them for doing what seems to be the right thing to do; for not instantly dropping everything, turning their backs on their family and their responsibilities, in order to follow him.

But I wonder if that’s what’s really happening.  Maybe Jesus is pointing out the nature of his own journey, his own calling.  He must be about the work God has given him to do.  He can’t lose focus.  He can’t be distracted or delayed, no matter how worthy it seems.  He can’t wait for them.

So, what is our takeaway?  What can we learn from this?  In one sentence:
Be about the work God has given you to do.
Don’t worry about those who reject it.  Let that go.  Move on.  It’s not about you.

Don’t be distracted or delayed by the million and one “but firsts…” in your life.  And that’s really hard.  How do you figure out what’s a distraction and what’s the mission?  Because the truth is, the distractions are also, often, good works.  Among clergy, there’s a saying that our ministry is in the interruptions.  Often we find that the real work God is calling us to is not in our plans or on our calendars, but in the unexpected.

What about the work God has given you to do though?  What is that work?

Scripture gives us a pretty clear overview in the Great Commandment: Love one another. Just as Jesus loves us.  Or a little more specifically:  Feed the hungry, Clothe the naked, House the homeless, Free the captive, Visit the sick.

The church articulates the work God gives us to do, as we have discerned it over the centuries, in our baptismal covenant:

  • Be part of a community of faith; pray and break bread together, study and learn from the scriptures and teachings together.
  • Persevere in resisting evil wherever we find it and when we sin, repent and turn back to God.
  • Proclaim the Good News through how we live our lives.
  • Seek and serve Christ in every person; love our neighbors.
  • Strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being.

This is what it means to be about the work of God.
To be a disciple, a follower of Jesus.
To be a Christian.

We do the work of God right where we are.  Sometimes it’s in our interactions with another person.  Often, maybe most of the time, it’s in our homes, with our family or friends, or in our workplace.

And sometimes – probably more often that we like to acknowledge – it’s Public work.  Being about the work of God; resisting evil, loving our neighbor, respecting the dignity of every human being, striving for justice and peace is Public.

It’s speaking truth to power.  It’s advocating for and defending those whose dignity is not respected, those who are in need, those who are suffering from injustice.  It’s doing everything in our power to dismantle the structures of injustice in our society and in our world.  It’s not allowing the million and one “but firsts…” in our lives to distract us.

Does that seem just too overwhelming?  Well, here’s the thing.  We’re not doing it alone.  It’s not up to any one of us to do it all – just a manageable piece of it.  And what’s more, well, I’ll tell you a story.

I ran into an old friend the other day.  She told me about how her church is giving sanctuary to a refugee.  She told me about what it’s like to work for social justice in the holy space of a community of faithful people who are all motivated by the steadfast love of God.  She says it’s lifegiving!  And I have to tell you, she positively glowed as she spoke about it.

In a few minutes, we will baptize a new disciple and welcome her into the Body of Christ, the community of the faithful.  You will vow to do everything in your power to support her in her life in Christ; just as you vow to support one another.

It is up to all of you to tell her the stories of our faith.  More important, though, it is up to you to show her, through your lives, how to be a disciple of Christ; how to Be about the work of God.

Discipleship isn’t easy, it doesn’t shield us from hardship.
It is, however, the way of abundant, fullness of life.
It is the way of love.



Jesus and the Legion

Preached on Sunday, 23 June 2019 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The second Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 7 Year C  (thematic track)

There’s a lot of detail in this morning’s gospel.  It might be interesting to dive in and explore all the intricacies.  But it’s so easy to get lost in the details that we can miss the big picture.  So, I’m going to start by zooming out to see how this morning’s story fits in.

Luke tells four stories in quick succession, each demonstrating the power of God in Jesus.  The first comes immediately before the one we hear today; in fact, it could even be considered part of this story.

Jesus is in Galilee, it’s near the beginning of his ministry.  Late in the day, he says, “let’s get in the boat and go to the other side.”  So, they set out and there’s this terrible storm; they think they’re going to die.  Jesus rebukes the wind and the waves and storm is calmed; they’re saved.  The disciples are astonished and wonder who this could be whom even the forces of nature obey.

The second is today’s story.  I’ll come back to it in a bit.

The third is when they get back to Galilee and a woman who has suffered from a hemorrhage for twelve years is healed by touching Jesus’ robe.

And finally, the president of the synagogue comes to Jesus for help because his daughter is at the point of death.  While still on the way, they learn she is, indeed, dead.  Jesus goes to her anyway, and raises her back to life.

So, we see this arc of demonstrations of God’s power through Jesus.  Power over the forces of nature.  Power over physical illness.  Power even over death itself.  And in today’s story, power over demons, the spiritual forces of evil.

Now, let’s go a little deeper into this story.

They cross the Sea to go to the land of the Gerasene’s; this is Gentile country.  And if you didn’t catch that earlier, the swine make it clear.  As soon as he steps out of the boat he is confronted by the demoniac.

Luke uses the language of military occupation to recount the story.  This man has lost everything, though he is “a man of the city.”  Now he has lost almost all sense of humanity.  He has no home and lives in the graveyard; no clothes; no dignity.

When speaking with Jesus, it seems that he can’t even use his own voice; it’s as if the occupying demons are speaking.  Even his name is lost.

He is chained, shackled, under guard.  The demons seize him, like a prisoner under arrest.  All of these words are usually used in relation to prisoners; those who have gone against the authority of Rome.

When Jesus asks his name, he says, “Legion.”  Now, to Luke’s audience, Legion has only one, very literal and fearful meaning.  A Legion is a unit of about 6,000 Roman soldiers – the occupying army.

The location, the land of the Gerasenes is the site where the Romans committed an atrocity during the Jewish revolt of just a short time before – families were slaughtered, towns destroyed.  The graveyard where the man lives contains the tombs of the slaughtered.

The language of this story accentuates the immense power that Jesus is facing.  Just as we see in the other stories, God has power over the spiritual powers of evil.  Jesus drives out the demons.

In this story, Jesus goes out of his way and at significant risk (remember the storm?) into Gentile country, apparently for one purpose: to seek out this man who has lost his identity, his humanity and to save him and restore him to himself and to his community.

Here we see a dramatic instance of what Paul is preaching in his letter to the Galatians.

Don’t get mired in the details.

All of you are beloved children of God.  All those details that you may use to describe yourselves and others, to distinguish one from another – they all fade in importance before the grace and love of God.

For the church in Galatia, those details are male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free.  The details in today’s world may be different, but what Paul is teaching is still relevant.  All are beloved children of God…

Even those on the other side politically, the pundits on the other cable news channel.  People who labor physically for a living and those have lives of leisure.  Children, millennials, and retired folks – and folks who will never be able to retire.  PhDs and high school dropouts.  Those whose ancestors arrived on the Mayflower and those whose ancestors arrived on slave ships. Those who arrived as immigrants and those who were here before the first boats ever arrived – and everyone in between.

Those whom you think should not even call themselves Christian – and those who never would; and those who don’t believe in any god at all.

Even they, all of the “theys,” are beloved of God.
And Jesus would go out of his way and risk everything to save even one of them.

Just as he would for you.

Thanks be to God.