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Toughen Up!

Rev. Jennifer L. Adams – June 30, 2013 – Proper 8, Year C: Luke 9:51- 62

I read one commentary this week that included a sermon by a preacher who called this gospel the “Cranky Jesus” passage.  And to some extent he’s right.   This isn’t the pastoral-“Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest” – Jesus.  It’s not even the -“Blessed are the poor,” – Jesus nor is it quite the one whom we imagine seeking out lost sheep, receiving children with open arms, or feeding all who hunger.  This is something like a “Cut to the chase” Jesus.  He doesn’t leave a lot of room for discernment, or gray area, or mushy sorts of invitations or responses.  To the one who said” I will go wherever you go,” Jesus said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”  To another’s simple request to bury his father, Jesus gave a curt, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” And then to one more person (there weren’t any others after this one – perhaps you can see why) who said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home,”  Jesus responded, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”  The end.

What we don’t know is if any of them followed or not.  What we do know is that this isn’t how we tend to think of Jesus and so we tend to use language like “cranky” or “out of character” to explain this.  And even if we’re willing to cut the Son of God a little slack here, we’re still left with sayings that are tough to reconcile with other things Jesus said and did in the gospels.  Just last week he healed a man who wanted to follow him from town to town and Jesus sent him back to be with his family, insisting that the man NOT leave those in his home.  Besides, the healing of relationships seems like a relatively high priority when it comes to faith and here’s Jesus telling people to leave their people.  It doesn’t seem to fit.  But before we simply write the Savior off as “being in a cranky mood that day” I want to look at other options.  And the context in which these conversations happened might help us do that.

Remember we heard a few weeks ago that Jesus had formally begun his ministry in his hometown of Nazareth where he read from the prophet Isaiah:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

It was a grand opening of sorts, a proclamation that you would expect to be followed by a celebratory sort of reception. But right after he said that, literally just a few minutes after he said that, the people were filled with rage and drove him out to the edge of town in order to throw him off a cliff.

On another occasion, Jesus was in a synagogue on the Sabbath and while he was there he healed a man with a withered hand.  And because Jesus did that on the Sabbath, the Pharisees were “filled with fury” and essentially made sure that Jesus moved on quickly to another town.  Along similar lines we heard in the passage last week that after Jesus had healed a man who had been possessed by demons the “people were seized with fear” and they asked Jesus to leave them too.  And finally the passage we heard today began by saying that Jesus and his disciples had passed through a village of Samaritans where “the people did not receive him because his face was set toward Jerusalem.”

So there you have it.  The context was this: Jesus had come to offer healing to a broken world, to offer healing to a broken people and while he was batting a thousand in terms of opening eyes, releasing captives, bringing good news, and even raising the dead, the reality was that he had been welcomed almost nowhere. He had a following, sure, but unlike the birds and the foxes he had nowhere to lay his head.  Even Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth had rejected him. Sticking around to bury his father or offering proper “good- byes” and “thank- yous” and “see you laters” to his hometown people?  None of those things were options seeing as how those very people were trying to chase him over a cliff.  The truth was that once he’d begun to plow the fields, Jesus didn’t even have the option of looking back.  And so part of what I wonder about today’s passage is if he was talking to himself as much as he was talking to anyone else.

When you consider how this story was unfolding, when you realize the nearly universal lack of reception – not to mention that by this point in the story Jesus knew that the authorities who were plotting to kill him – you can see that Jesus was speaking his own truth in this passage.  He had nowhere to lay his head and even he was completely separated even from his hometown people.  And so rather than “cranky” I’d use the language of honest.  The road was hard.  And so Jesus was telling himself and those around him that he and they had to keep their focus forward, on the larger goals – on the ultimate healing that would break forth as the story continued in Jerusalem and beyond.

So what does this mean for us?  Well, I think it’s a couple of things.  First our roads can be hard too and we don’t always remind each other enough about that. I actually think other denominations do a better job of “shoring up their people” than Episcopalians do. Maybe we need to toughen up a bit!  Now you can over do it on that end of it – we see that on occasion out there even this community. But every now and then it’s good for us, good for Episcopalians to claim that faith is hard work.  Sometimes being faithful, in the way we interpret faithful sets us apart.  Rejection happens.  Remaining true to the proclamation means taking some risks and so toughening ourselves up a bit can be as important as softening ourselves up a bit.  This passage reminds us that we need to do both – the toughening and the softening in some sort of gospel combination in order to really do love in this world.

Second, and just as important:  We need to name that it wasn’t OK that Jesus had nowhere to lay his head.  That was his reality, but it was a sign that he was not in the kingdom yet; it was not a vision for how things should be.  And so part of what we can do while we work on toughening up is to also be that place where anyone can lay their head when they need to.  We can be home for all those who need it, a place where both hard core followers and life-long seekers can come without fear of being chased over a cliff or run out of town.  We can be that place where healing is expected to happen on the Sabbath and every day.

The good news is that through grace, we can be that place where tough meets soft and loving our neighbors comes to be.    Amen.