Sermon: Setting Our Face Towards Jerusalem

Luke 9:51-62 and Galatians 5:1,13-25

Third Sunday After Pentecost

June 26, 2022

In our gospel, Jesus and the disciples were on the road.  The passage says that Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem, which meant he was ready to face suffering and death on a cross.  His disciples didn’t understand this.  They make their way towards a Samaritan village and the disciples start making preparations to stay the night.  Our passage tells us that the Samaritans didn’t want to welcome Jesus and the disciples, especially when they know he was on his way to Jerusalem.  Now Jews and Samaritans were realted, but neither group liked the other very much. Jews looked down on Samaritans because they were “half-breeds” made up of Jews and non-Jewish backgrounds.  

Why did they reject Jesus and the disciples? We don’t know. What we do know is that they knew where Jesus was headed, the holy city of Jerusalem.  We know that Jerusalem was a special place for Jews, but not for Samaritans.  Maybe that was enough to tip them off and they sent Jesus packing.  It’s then that two of Jesus’ disciples ask if they should ask for fire to come down and consume them. Jesus is not a fan of this idea and lets them know, the “Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.”

In Galatians God calls us to live free.  Paul stresses that this doesn’t mean we get to do what we want.  Paul tells the church that to be truly free is to be a servant to the other. Paul warns what happens when we live a life that is all about ourselves and not about serving the other: “repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community.”

Ugly parodies of community.  That phrase seems to describe our time, doesn’t it?  

This past week, I had the opportunity to interview Fyodor Rychanets, a pastor and seminary theologian living in Kyiv, Ukraine.  We talked a lot about life in his country during the war.  He studied under the theologian Miroslav Volf, the Croatian theologian. Fyodor mentioned that some of the ideas of Volf’s most known work, Exclusion and Embrace were shared as in the classroom in Croatia during the Balkan wars. 

I hadn’t read that book before and I started to read it this week.  It might have been written in the 90s, but feels like it was written for today when people cling to an identity. He said it was possible back in the 90s to assume that we all believe that everyone shares a common humanity.  Volf acknowledges that the assumption no longer exists.

Turn on the TV and you can see how we have learned to look at the other side as evil.  We saw that on January 6 as people stormed the Capitol. We see it in how someone planned to assassinate Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh. We see how 31 white nationalists wanted to disrupt a gay pride festival in Idaho.  We’ve seen people vandalize pregnancy centers because they espouse a pro-life viewpoint. We see it when Republican congressman Adam Kinzinger receives death threats aimed not only at himself and his wife, but also his young infant for his role on the January 6 Committee. Everywhere we go, people are losing faith in the democratic process where we can persuade each other and raising up a more violent method.  Over and over again, people live as if we are at the edge of destruction and that we must do whatever it takes in order to not let that happen.  That open us up to using methods that can hurt others all because we are living for ourselves and our tribe.

There are many who thought that striking down Roe vs. Wade would lessen what seems like never-ending culture wars.  We see the exact opposite.  Tribal loyalties are hardening and so it seems are people’s hearts.  There is less understanding of each other.  The ways of the world are one in which we are defined by identity.  We cling to these identities that offer us succor, but wind up weakening and destroying democracy.  

That’s the problem we face.  The good news is that in a world where we are so divided and where people are so defined by tribe, Jesus offers good news.  Jesus rebukes the disciples for wanting to punish the Samaritans.  He tells them that he isn’t here to bring division, but he is setting his face towards Jerusalem, towards the life God calls- one of living for others instead of just for ourselves. Paul shows that freedom is about living for others and living according to the Spirit.  How do you know you are living according to the Spirit.  Paul says you will know by the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  God wants us to live in a different way; we want to live helping each other and not seeing the other as the enemy.

Jesus is set on a mission that mission can’t take second place.  This is why he keeps repeatedly blowing off the people who want to follow but have something to do before they embark.  But Jesus has set his face towards Jerusalem and he doesn’t have time to wait for people to finish.  The time to follow Jesus is now.

Jesus is calling us to live in a different way. What does that mean for us as Christians and more specifically, what does that mean for us as a church?

I’ve been blessed to be the pastor of this congregation. We are in the midst of massive change where we have sold our building and at the same time, we have lost members who think we aren’t going to be around much longer.  That mood isn’t out of the question.  Two congregations sister Disciple congregations in the Twin Cities have either closed or are in the process of closing because they were in similar straights as we are.  In a few months, we will not be in this building, having moved to some other place.  When we move, we have to ask some questions about how will we be church in the future.  We have to become more of a church on a mission.  We can’t be the same church, not if we want to continue into the future.  We have to change. We have to find out who we are. That’s going to be a process, but we can start with this:  our identity should be centered on the communion table.  The table is what centers us as Disciples and right now I think it needs to center us even more.  Our mission and our identity should be centered at the table, a table that is set not by us but by God. To be a church-centered at God’s table means that we are a people that brings people from all walks of life to God’s table where the community can come together to reason with each other.  To be centered at the table means that we work to bring people together instead of pulling people apart which has at times been the purpose of the church.

My friend and retired pastor Douglas Skinner brought up the professor Harold Heie who came up with three rules for the church to have respectful conversations.  Heie believes that in Christ all things are held together as Colossians 1:17 notes and because Christ holds all things together, Jesus intends for the church to a be a place “where people who have different convictions about the hot-button issues of the moment can still sit down together and talk to each other honestly and civilly and still relate to each other lovingly.” Heie has spent years working with churches to handle issues that tear these churches apart and he thinks there are three preconditions that allow a church to foster discussions.  The first precondition is humility.  That means that we have to acknowledge there are other points of view and we have to listen to someone to hear what they believe.  You can’t have a good conversation with someone if you believe you have the truth and they do not.

The second is patience which means that we have to stay at the table with someone even when we disagree with them. Both sides are growing and changing and we need to be patient as we live our lives.

Finally is the role of love.  Doug Skinner writes:

“It’s easy for me to love you and for you to love me when we see eye to eye on things.  It’s much trickier for us to love each other when we disagree on a matter of conscience and conviction, but this is exactly the kind of love that the world will sit up and take notice of because it’s just so rare these days.” As Skinner notes we are used to antagonizing each other and in turn we walk away from the table.

In light of the recent decision from the Supreme Court on abortion, could be become a place where we are centered at God’s communion table to reason with one another?  In the sharing of bread and wine, in the memory of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the one that bridges the gap between God and creation can bring people to God’s great table and learn to see each other as a child of God even when disagreeing with them? Can a table-centered identity fuel our mission and ministry to bring people together instead of pushing people apart?

First Christian Church isn’t closing. We are moving, but we aren’t closing.  But how can we live?  What is the mission that God is giving us?  In a world where there are people who want to call fire down from heaven and where we think freedom means doing whatever we want, can we follow the way of Jesus for the sake of the world?  I think we can.

I’ve always said God isn’t done with First Christian.  Just as Jesus set his face towards what God was calling him to do, we are being set in a direction to follow God. But what are we here for?  Maybe it is to be in service for others.  Maybe it is to center at the welcome table and seek to bring people together in love.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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