The Frustration of Discipleship

Luke 9:51-62

When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village. (Read the Whole passage)

Sermon

Our Lutheran seminary in Saskatoon works in cooperation with an Anglican seminary and a United Church seminary. While I attended, students from the 3 schools started a hockey team to play in the University of Saskatchewan intramural league. One way that the 3 schools worked together was to regularly have shared chapel services, and one particular service there were a number of hockey team members in attendance. During the prayers of the people, the  worship leader opened up time for petitions from the congregation. One of the hockey players piously added a prayer for the hockey game that day,

“Dear Lord, bless our team and keep us from injury or harm. Give us strength and unity in our play. And finally, Lord, reign down a hellfire of pucks on our opponents.”

Suffice it to say, there were those among the other students and some professors who were not impressed.

When Jesus and the disciples enter into a Samaritan Village, and things don’t go as planned, the disciples pray a similar prayer to the seminary hockey player. They wonder if fire from heaven that will consume the Samaritans would be appropriate for the unreceptive villagers. And Jesus is not impressed.

The disciples just don’t seem to get it. They are supposed to be out working alongside Jesus to proclaim the Kingdom of God coming near. They are not supposed to be wanting to destroy people whom they think are their enemies. But as usual, the disciples end up frustrating Jesus.

But frustration doesn’t end there for Jesus. As Jesus comes along to potential disciples, he invites them follow. It isn’t a glamorous lifestyle and there are some drawbacks. But the disciples Jesus invites seem to have a commitment problem. The first says that he will only come once he has buried his father… and not that his father is already dead or anything. The second says that he will only come once he has said goodbye to his family, the group of people most likely prevent his leaving. These potential disciples are lukewarm at best.

Discipleship and following Jesus seems particularly frustrating for Jesus today. If the disciples aren’t getting the whole point completely wrong by wanting to punish and destroy the very people they are trying to reach, potential new recruits are are balking at jumping in with two feet.

These two experiences of disciples are something we know all too well. The disciples’ desire to destroy their enemies, or to the blame foreigners for their troubles sounds disturbingly like the motivation behind the violence in Orlando, like some of the reasons that Britons voted to leave the European Union, or like the words of a certain blustery presidential candidate.

But the disciple’s frustration with the Samaritan village for not receiving Jesus is also the same experience of churches who put time and energy into a new program or initiative only for the people they are trying to reach not to respond.

And this leads us to the half-hearted commitment of the potential disciples. It isn’t just that we all have things tying us down at home and at work, things that prevent us from spending all our time at church. But our hesitancy to jump in with two feet is just as much about uncertainty. We just don’t know where all this discipleship and faith stuff will take us. Jesus says follow, but he doesn’t alway give a clear picture of where. Jesus invites us to leave everything behind, but without much promise as to what we will earn in return. Like the non-committal recruits, we just don’t know where God is calling us to go and that scares us.

That is the thing about discipleship, it is messy, it is uncertain, we don’t know where it is taking us. Jesus doesn’t give us a roadmap, but just an invitation to follow. And like Jesus who is frustrated with the disciples and non-committal recruits, we can get frustrated with trying to follow Jesus without getting the results we expect. The fact is, discipleship is hard.

It it hard when the people we are trying to reach don’t respond the way we hope. It is hard when the disciples like us just aren’t in with two feet.

And maybe that is the heart of issue today.

As Jesus sets his face to Jerusalem before heading out with the disciples, it isn’t just a place. Jesus is setting himself towards the cross. Towards the empty tomb. And as we know the story before and after those things, that the disciples seemed just as confused about discipleship after Jesus rose from the dead as they were before.

So maybe the point isn’t the disciples and how good they are at discipleship.

Maybe the point isn’t us and how good we are at discipleship.

Maybe this is about God, and what God is doing in the world. Maybe this is about who God uses to accomplish God’s mission in the world. Maybe this is about God who is doing the saving and God who able to use us for God’s mission of saving all of creation.

In fact, Jesus’ frustration with discipleship is about exactly these things.

Today, isn’t about being better disciples.

Today, Jesus sees that the disciples that he has, the disciples that we are, are exactly who God needs for God’s mission.

Disciples who don’t get it, disciples who are only partially committed, disciples who find discipleship frustrating.

These are the disciples, we are the disciples, that God uses despite our flaws. We are the ones whom God uses to be God’s hand and feet in the world. We are the ones who are same before and after the crucifixion and resurrection, but who are still transformed to be the Body of Christ in the world.

And somehow, through us, God is saving and transforming, God bringing the Kingdom near.

Today, on the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, after we have seen Jesus heal a sick slave, raise a dead son, forgive a forgotten woman, and cast out an unclean spirit… we see the people that God chooses to be disciples.

And those people are us. Imperfect, uncertain, confused, uncommitted us.

And somehow through us, even with all the frustrations and complications and uncertainty, God is bringing Good News to the world. God bringing Good News for us, with us and through us. And God is using exactly the people that God needs to save the world.

Amen

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Orlando and Unclean Spirits

Luke 8:26-39

Jesus and his disciples arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me” — for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (Read the whole passage)

 

At a legislative budget committee meeting on Friday, an odd thing happened. Rather than political foes going at each other over ideological differences, two people – NDP MLA Nahanni Fontaine and Premier Brian Pallister – talked about their mothers. For half an hour, the two set political and partisan differences aside to talk to one another as people. What resulted was a personal and intimate conversation that led the two to a deeper understanding and appreciation for one another. Political rivals speaking to one another in this way was so surprising and unusual that it made news headlines around the province.

Two Sundays ago, a contingent from the MNO Synod, including lay people, pastors and the Bishop walked in the Winnipeg Pride parade in downtown Winnipeg. The presence of a faith group in the parade prompted some surprised looks, and more than a few on-lookers to say things like, “Wow! The Lutherans are here!?! – That’s cool!”

Today, Jesus and the disciples sail across the sea of Galilee to gentile territory and show up in the region of Geresa, a place where no self-respecting Jew would ever want to find themselves.

We are 5 Sundays into Ordinary Time, and while there are about 22 more to go before we get to Advent, we have already seen a wide variety of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus has healed a sick slave, raised a dead son to life, forgiven a forgotten and sinful woman, and today Jesus exorcizes an unclean spirit. Yet, perhaps the thing that ties these different acts of ministry together is who Jesus is ministering to. Each example is of Jesus encountering a person that he wouldn’t be expected to encounter, and in places where Jesus isn’t expected to go.

Geresa, where Jesus is today, is the strongest example of Jesus being somewhere he shouldn’t be. Geresa was a town on the other side of the sea of Galilee from Judea, it was a mixed territory, where Jews and Gentiles both lived. But Geresa more recently was also a Roman military outpost, where Roman soldiers were stationed. And because occupying soldiers need food and shelter, the towns people were forced to work in service of the army, raising pigs and hosting their oppressors.

But Jesus doesn’t just show in Geresa, the first person he meets there is a man possessed by unclean spirits. A man living in the town cemetery. An outsider.

So when Jesus shows up in Geresa, he is showing up in a place that good jews would avoid at all costs because everything about this place is unclean. The town, the cemetery, the pigs, the possessed man. This isn’t just the discomfort we might feel visiting a poor, impoverished, rundown part of the city. This is about Jesus and the disciples coming into contact with the unholy, about Jesus becoming unholy himself. It isn’t just the possessed man who has an unclean spirit, but everything around this place seems to suffer from unclean spirits.

And those who lived there, did as much as they could to protect themselves from the unclean spirits around them. The people shackled the possessed man in the cemetery in order to avoid his uncleanliness. The possessed man tries to escape the chains of the townspeople, so that he can avoid their shackles. The pigs are kept near the cemetery so that everyone can avoid the unclean spirits of the Roman occupiers. And by the time people figure out what Jesus is up to in their town, they even ask him to go away too, fearing what kind of unholy power he might possess. Of all the unclean spirits in this place, the greatest is not Legion or the Romans or the pigs. But fear. The unclean spirit of fear has gripped and paralyzed the people of Geresa.

And just like the fearful people of Geresa, we go to great lengths to mitigate coming into contact with the unclean spirits of our world, to avoid coming face to face with the things, or other people we fear the most. We are possessed by unclean spirits of fear as much as the poor man is possessed by legion.

And in case we thought we could forget or pretend the unclean spirits of our fear don’t exist, this week we were reminded in a horrific and tragic way.

Early last Sunday morning, a deeply troubled man walked into a packed nightclub in Orlando and began shooting. The result was the largest mass shooting in US history, with 49 people dead and 53 injured. But it wasn’t just any troubled man walking into a random nightclub, but a young Muslim walking into a popular gay nightclub.

And almost immediately the unclean spirits of our fear began speaking for us:

“The shooter was muslim, so we must protect ourselves from terrorists”

“The nightclub was full of LGBTQ people, and the shooter may have been gay, so this is their tragedy and their problem”

“Mass shootings are a problem that Americans have, Canadians know better”

The unclean spirits of fear push and pull us to blame anyone other than ourselves. They demand that we protect ourselves from anyone or anything different. They make us feel like need to divide ourselves from the other, build walls to keep the other out, destroy the other in order stop feeling threatened. And thus fear begets more fear and violence begets more violence.

But the most powerful thing that the unclean spirits of fear make us feel is stuck. They make us feel like we can never escape the other unclean spirits around us, like we can never make the dangers go away.

And that is why Jesus’ presence in Geresa can seem like such a problem… he is too close to all the unclean spirits, too close for our fear’s liking.

When Jesus shows up in Geresa, he does exactly what the unclean spirits of our fears keep us from doing. Jesus approaches unafraid.

Jesus is not afraid of the unclean spirits. He doesn’t fear the town, or the cemetery, or the pigs, or the possessed man. And because Jesus is not afraid, not afraid that the spirits will taint him, he is willing to meet and be with the community of Geresa. He is willing to meet the possessed man on the man’s turf, in the cemetery. When the possessed man begs for mercy, Jesus simply asks his name.

And because Jesus is willing to brave the uncleanliness around him, Jesus does what we cannot. Jesus begins to reconcile and rebuild the people of Geresa. He sends the unclean spirit of Legion away. He sends the unclean spirits of oppression, division, intolerance and fear away. Jesus restores the man to community and the community to the man.

Anyone else would have been afraid of becoming unclean in Geresa. Anyone else would have feared the unholy taint of unclean spirits. But when Jesus comes to this unholy place, God comes and meets the unclean and the unholy. And all of sudden, the fears that held everyone back don’t matter anymore. They don’t matter because the God of all creation, the Holy One of Israel, the Christ in whom we are God’s children makes the unclean clean. In Christ, God shows us how not fearing the unclean spirits, the unclean places, the unclean people allows God to see people instead of a condition. God sees beloved children instead of things to be feared and avoided. God shows us what it looks like to see beyond our perceived uncleanliness, and how to see one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Last Sunday in Orlando, the unclean spirits of fear pushed us to the edge of fear and division. The unclean spirits threatened the places of sanctuary and refuge for the LGBT community, the unclean spirits churned up bigotry towards all muslims, and the unclean spirits made us all feel like potential victims of arbitrary violence.

And yet throughout the week God began showing up precisely where God shouldn’t have been. In places and in people we wouldn’t expect. In the people who stood in line for hours waiting to give blood, in the vigils of solidarity with the LGBTQ community around the world, and even in a short conversation between politicians who were able to set aside partisan differences to see each other’s humanity.

When the unclean spirits of fear threaten to divide us beyond all hope, to keep us stuck and afraid… God shows up. God shows up despite the uncleanliness. God shows up despite the fear. God shows up to free us to see one another as God sees us. As beloved Children of God.


This sermon was co-written with my wife, Rev. Courtenay Reedman Parker – Twitter: @ReedmanParker

The Stanford Rape Victim, Jesus and Forgiveness

Luke 7:36-8:3

Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” (Read the whole passage)

In January of 2015, a young woman was sexually assaulted on Stanford University’s campus following a campus party. A young man named Brock turner was caught in the act by two  passersby and later convicted in the assault. Last week, the victim impact statement written by the anonymous woman was released to the public. Over the past number of days, the 7000 word letter has been trending online, and making headlines on TV and Radio news and in newspapers. Celebrities and pundits have commented on the case. US Vice-President Joe Biden even wrote an open letter to the young woman at the heart of this case.

Brock Tuner was sentenced to a shockingly lenient 6 months, of a possible 14 years because the Judge believed any longer would have had a “negative impact” on the young man. Turner’s swimming career and affluent background with no prior convictions were cited as reasons for the lenient sentence.

You may have read the statement from the young woman who was Brock Turner’s victim. You may have heard the commentary or read about the story. You may have discussed it with family and friends, or maybe you just heard about it for the first time now. But almost certainly, you would not have expected to read this story in church today…

This week, Jesus meets Brock Turner and the anonymous Stanford Rape victim. They go by different names, Simon the Pharisee and the woman who was a sinner, but make no mistake, this morning our gospel lesson is telling the same story that the world has been telling all week.

Jesus is invited by Simon the Pharisee for dinner. Simon is a well-to-do Pharisee, a religious authority, a moral authority, one who occupies position and privilege in his world. Someone that proper people would have considered righteous, a stand-up guy, some one who should be given the benefit of the doubt. Someone who gets a name in the story.

Just as Jesus, Simon and the other guests are about to sit down for dinner, a woman enters the scene. The woman only descriptor the woman gets is “sinner.” She doesn’t get a name, or position, she is only known for her “sins.”

And as if to emphasize the point, when Simon objects to this sinful woman’s presence, Jesus tells a story about two debtors, and how the one who is forgiven more would love more. It almost seems like Jesus is saying this poor sinful woman is to be pitied.

Can you see Brock Turner in Simon? The privileged man with power who doesn’t even see a person in the woman.

Can you see the anonymous woman who is a victim of her world in the woman who washes Jesus’ feet? The woman who is assumed to be a sinner first and foremost.

In case it isn’t clear, the assumptions built into this story are the same as the ones so many have made about the Stanford Rape case. 

Simon is assumed to be righteous, because we tend to think that people of his kind, powerful, respected, well-to-do people, are righteous. Brock Turner is assumed to be a good kid because he is a college athlete, he comes from an affluent family, he is a white guy going to a prestigious university. If he is accused of doing something wrong, it must not be that bad.

But more importantly, the woman who washes Jesus feet is assumed to be a sinner, but not just any kind of sinner. While the text doesn’t actually say, we assume that this is a prostitute. A promiscuous woman. She is assumed to be a prostitute because she is a woman, because there is no husband with her, because she is doing something intimate with Jesus’ feet. If she is a sinner, it must be the worst kind of sinner can think of.

And young woman who was assaulted? Every detail of her sins were laid out in court. Her clothing choices, how much she drank, what kind of relationship she had with her boyfriend, whether she actually wanted what Brock Turner did to her. Because she was sexually assaulted, we feel the need to question the ‘assaulted’ part.

Our assumptions about Simon and this woman who washes Jesus’ feet, about Brock Turner and the young woman he assaulted… our assumptions show our bias. How we can easily assume someone is righteous without any real evidence. How we can easily assume someone is a sinner just because of their gender or social standing.

And in case we still don’t see our assumptions about who is righteous and who isn’t, who should be given the benefit of the doubt and who shouldn’t, Jesus makes sure we get it.

Lest Simon think that he is the one with few sins to be forgiven, Jesus reminds Simon that just in that moment Simon has failed to show hospitality according to the law. He has failed to wash the feet of his guest, he has failed to offer a kiss of peace, he has failed anoint his guest with oil. The “sinful” woman has done all these things. The sinner has kept the law.

And then Jesus turns to the woman and says, “Your sins are forgiven”

But not forgiveness in the sense that her wrongdoing have been forgiven. Because Jesus knows that this woman is victim too. A victim of her society that sees women as property to be owned and casually discarded if perceived to be broken. This woman is a victim of a world where an unowned woman’s life choices included begging or prostitution.

Forgiveness in the sense that the sins that have been heaped on her do not define her. Forgiveness in the sense that the judgment and scorn of the well-to-do and powerful don’t get to determine her value.Forgiveness in the sense that her righteousness isn’t decided by the standards of her unjust world.

Forgiveness in the sense of freedom and release. 

A seminary professor of mine once said to us,

“The gospel is always contextual. You wouldn’t tell a rape victim that she is forgiven of her sins”

But after reading statement of the young woman whom Brock Turner was convicted of assaulting, after reading about the shame, self-doubt, the regret and suffering, after reading about the trauma and re-traumatization, after reading of helplessness and injustice she endured…

Perhaps forgiveness is exactly what is needed.

Release and freedom from the sins that have been dumped on her. Release from the shame and judgment of the powerful. Forgiveness of any need on her part to demonstrate her victimization or righteousness or need for justice.

Forgiveness and freedom.

Forgiveness and freedom found in The One who has been victim and accused sinner before us.

Forgiveness and freedom found in The One who does not live by assumptions about our goodness, worthiness or sinfulness.

Forgiveness and freedom shown by The One who determines our righteousness solely in love.

Forgiveness and freedom found in Christ. 

The reality is that our world is full of Simons and Brock Turners, those whose power and privilege protect them from seeing their un-righteousness. Our world is full of anonymous, unnamed people looking for freedman and release from the shame, judgment and sin of the world. The reality is that we are both Simon and the woman who washed Jesus feet, we are both Brock Turner and the young woman who was his assault victim.

We are people who assume our righteousness, our goodness, or worth is based in our power, achievements, wealth and status. We are people who assume our sinfulness is based on our gender, race, language, religion, orientation.

But most importantly, we are people for whom God chooses to discard all that. We are people loved and freed by Jesus. We are people that God chooses to forgive.

God chooses to forgive us and free us from our sin, to free us from all the ways the we try to define ourselves, to free us from the burden of trying to be righteous on our own, free from the shame and judgement heaped on us by the world.

God chooses to forgive and free us. Period.

The Widow’s Dead Son and Interrupting Jesus

Luke 7:11-17

When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up… (Read the whole passage)

 

In this third Sunday of Ordinary Time, we hear the second part of a story that really began last week. Jesus was simply minding his own business when the Centurion sent for him to come and heal his beloved slave. Jesus was surprised to find such faith in this Roman Officer – a gentile and an enemy, but the slave was healed.

Today, the story is much the same. The focus is on a grieving loved one. A widow whose only son has died, is processing with the community to the grave where she will say goodbye to her son.

But beyond this shared grief over the death of a loved one, the widow and Centurion do not share much else. The Centurion was a man of power and control. He existed almost entirely outside of Israelite society, other than to command the military force occupying the land.  The Centurion was faced with the loss of a slave, someone who served him.

The Widow is a person of weakness and dependance. She is completely dependent on the structures of society around her. She would have first been a servant to her husband, and then to her son. She would not have been permitted own land or to make money on her own. Without her son to provide for her, she would be left destitute, reduced to begging on the streets, dependent on the charity of society around her.

And yet, before they encounter Jesus, the Centurion and the Widow are equals before death, there is nothing they can do about it on their own. Perhaps that is why the Centurion, being a man of power, tries anything, reaching out to a local rabbi and healer knowing that this something outside his control. Perhaps that is why the widow is simply accompanying he son to the grave, here again is another confirmation that she no power in her world.

And so with no other recourse, the Widow is doing the only thing that she and her community know how to do. They turn to the rituals that can add the tiniest bit of dignity to the death of a loved one. They have gathered for worship, they weep and mourn, they console one another and pray. And now they are marching to the grave of this dead son. They are doing the only thing that they can do at a time like this.

But the widow is not just marching her son to the grave. She has marched her husband before her son. And now that her only son has predeceased her, her life as she knows it over, and she will soon become a forgotten widow surviving on scraps in the streets. She is marching to her own grave too.

Like the Centurion, like the widow, we too occupy the same place in life. When we stand before death, we have no power over it. It happens to all of us, weak or strong, powerless or powerful.

And like the widow today, we have the same response. When we are faced with death in our community, we gather together to do what we can to add some dignity to tragedy. We gather for worship, we weep, we mourn. We console one another and we pray. We offer hugs and casseroles, we do all that we can. And do these things without question, because these things are all we have in the face of death. This is what powerless creation, powerless humanity can do in the face of death.

And so the widow and her community do that know, they take this dead son to his grave as best they can.

Yet… while they are focused on the task grieving and mourning, of doing the last things for a loved one… Jesus does something that neither that the widow and her community would ever expect.

Jesus interrupts.

As the widow walks with her dead son to his grave, Jesus interrupts the whole funeral procession. There is no mention of a request for healing, there is no mention of the faith of the son or widow, no mention that they even knew who Jesus was.

Jesus interrupts and raises the dead son to life.

Jesus interrupts this community focused on the task of attending to and adding the smallest dignity to the death of one of their own… Jesus interrupts in an almost playful, even flippant, manner.

Yet he is touched by the widow’s hopelessness and helplessness. “Do not weep” he says.

It is out of compassion he walks up to this woman who has not seen him. He walks into the widow’s broken community and reaches out to death.

Jesus interrupts the flow of the last things and brings the steady march of the inevitable to a halt. The pallbearers stop in their tracks.

Death stops.

Death stands still.

And then Jesus does the unimaginable: he commands the widow’s son to rise.

Death hears the Word of God speaking.

Death hears the words of the Lord of Life:

‘Young man, I say to you, rise!’

And the dead man sits up.

Jesus’ compassion for the widow, his compassion for the community turns their world upside down. Jesus shows up at this funeral and interrupts the un-interruptible. Jesus stops the most powerful force known to humanity, and Jesus sends death away.

And Jesus raises not only the son, but the mother. But not only the mother, but the whole community. But not only the community, but us too.

Jesus raises us from the dead, just as the son was raised. Jesus raises us in this community week after week in the words of forgiveness and mercy, in the Word of God that we proclaim to one another, in holy baths where we are washed with grace, in holy meals where we are fed with love. In this community, with the very things that we fall back to when faced with death, with tears and prayer, casseroles and consolation, Jesus us raises from the dead.

Today, Jesus interrupts. Jesus interrupts the widow on the way to her grave. Jesus interrupts the ritual of the last things that consumed all the attention of the community and turns their words upside down, turns the finality of death into the beginning of new life.

And Jesus interrupts us too. Jesus interrupts us at our graves, Jesus interrupts our deaths. When we are powerless in the face of death, when we are consumed with the last things. Jesus comes along, interrupts our community and makes us sit up with the command:

People of God, I say to you, Rise!