Thompson’s Sermon from June 27

June 28, 2010

Struck By Truth

Luke 9:51-62
51When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54When 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?” 55But he turned and rebuked them. 56Then they went on to another village.
57As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

This is not a particularly endearing passage of scripture that we’re looking at this morning. These aren’t the words people generally choose to read at weddings, funerals, or other significant moments in life. These words are sort of low on comfort and assurance, and they aren’t particularly inspirational – but they aren’t insignificant. I guess there is some good news here for people who are the equivalent of those bad Samaritans who had no hospitality for Jesus as he journeyed toward Jerusalem. Jesus went against the recommendation of James and John and chose not to respond to their hard heartedness with a rain of fire.

But I don’t take much comfort in the fact that Jesus didn’t take great offense at outright hostility toward him. Most of my inhospitality toward him is much more subtle than outright rejection, and the passages that follow this story of accommodation to inhospitable behavior involve indictment of people who were guilty of more subtle forms of denunciation. The people Jesus judged to be unfit for the Kingdom of God had more ambivalence about the undertaking than actual antagonism for the way of Christ.

Jesus almost seemed more sympathetic toward the unwelcoming Samaritans than he did toward the people who came up to him and expressed affection for him. The first person who came up and said he wanted to follow him was welcomed with the promise of homelessness. The second person was invited by Jesus to follow him, but Jesus expressed disappointment that the man wanted to go home and follow through with the burial ritual of his father. And the third person who came up to Jesus was similarly chastised for wanting to give notice to his family that he would be heading out in a new direction.

Jesus was not exercising what we would call good southern hospitality in this passage, and frankly it sort of grates on my sensibilities. I’m inclined to act nice toward people even if I don’t necessarily appreciate what they’re doing. And I guess that’s just another difference between myself and Jesus. In fact what this passage does is expose a lot of difference between the way I tend to operate and the way Jesus functioned, and as I say, I don’t consider these to be particularly comforting words.

I definitely think that in our society we are more inclined to exercise subtle forms of rejection to Jesus than outright hostility. There is a lot of similarity between many of us and the characters we see in this passage who had trouble sorting out what is most essential. The demands and opportunities of this world are relentless. There is a lot of pressure on us to perform well, to act proper, and to establish positions for ourselves here on earth. I don’t even think we recognize the extent of those demands, how they define our priorities, and how they take precedence over the call of Christ.

I think we are often as oblivious as that unfortunate person who told Jesus he wanted to follow him after he went home to say farewell. We are so much more conscious of the protocols of this world than we are to divine opportunities. It’s so much easier to know what certain people expect of us than we are to know when we need to let go of standard behavior and to go with God.

This is a large challenge for us. And part of the challenge is that we can’t hardly tell the difference between the way the church portrays Christ and the way the world functions. I don’t know how an organization maintains the radical nature of Christ over the course of centuries, but in many ways the church has the same priorities as does secular society. The church wants to be powerful in the same way that corporations and political parties want to be powerful. In many ways our mother organization serves those familiar masters of fame and fortune, and it’s hard for us to not do the same. The expectations of this world are powerful. The things we generally want are not the things Jesus offered.

As Jesus very clearly reveals in this passage, he was largely homeless, he had little concern for the way he was perceived, and there was no question about his allegiance. I don’t know about you, but I like my nice house, I care what others think of me, and I have variable priorities. It’s hard to know how to balance functioning in this world and following Christ. In many ways those agendas seem so divergent. It’s a tough balance, and I like to think God understands our human and American dilemma, but I also think it’s important to at least recognize our self-absorption every now and then. I had a little tutorial in this last week while we were in Boston.

Sharla and I had a really nice trip to Boston. I largely avoided most all of the spiritual disciplines recommended by Wesley without feeling spiritually traumatized by what you might call routine self-indulgence, but there was one night that got to me.

Through my uncle Jack, and his daughter Whitney, who is married to Jay who was a friend to Stacey who is married to Larry who is connected to the Red Sox, Sharla and I got tickets to a Red Sox baseball game. Now this was more exciting to me than it was to Sharla, but she agreed to go along, and our instruction was to retrieve our tickets from the VIP Will Call window. I’m not sure why, but we were asked by more than one person if we were sure we were looking for the VIP Will Call window, but we were taken to the window and our tickets were there.

So we take the tickets and it turned out that our seats were inside a club section of the stadium. We found our seats and they were really nice. We weren’t sure how to get a hot-dog inside the restaurant that we walked through to get to our seats, so we actually went down to the main level and bought a hot dog, but we made it back to our seats and other people had begun filling in the section. We were then handed a menu by a man who would turn out to be our waiter, and after we ordered a bowl of clam chowder and something to drink I handed the man my credit card and he responded by saying no, the concessions were paid for in our seats.

And let me tell you, this was no small deal. Just for a little perspective on the economics of the situation, you can buy a six-pack of anything for the price of one beer in Fenway Park. So here we were, in prime seats in this beautiful ballpark, a waiter who will bring us whatever we want and the bill was going to someone we didn’t know. It was a nice setup. I took this picture and sent it to my cousin with the complaint that I was about 2’ off from the center of home plate, but that things were pretty well.

I never had been very clear on who had provided our seats, but as we spoke to the man sitting next to us we came to find out that Larry was in fact one of the owners of the Red Sox. Let me say, it felt pretty heady to be sitting where we were, and I was living large. We didn’t go without anything we wanted that night, and I was telling our neighbors more than they ever wanted to know about life in Arkansas.

Things got really interesting near the end of the 8th inning when Larry Lucchino himself appeared and sat down to my left. Well I assure you I was doing my best to make sure the President and CEO of the Boston Red Sox had the right impression of me. Not that I was succeeding at my objective, but I was doing all I could to make sure he knew how clever a United Methodist minister from Arkansas could be when all of a sudden I saw him make a desperate dive to his left as a baseball came flying toward his forehead.

I was so focused on what I was wanting him to know about me and what I thought I had been paying no attention to the game, and I never saw the foul ball coming our way. It struck him right above his right eye, and within moments he had been whisked away by some people who knew who he was and had seen what had happened. He hadn’t lost consciousness from the blow, and someone thought he had been able to slightly deflect it with his hand, but I’m telling you that ball came in with some force.

And it really let the air out of my ball. If anything, I felt like I had been a source of distraction for him, and what had been feeling like a really wonderful time had become a pretty ugly situation. I wasn’t exactly responsible, but it left me feeling pretty bad. On one level it hurt my ego because I felt like I had failed to be the hero. I wish I had seen the ball coming and been able to reach out and snag the incoming baseball. In reality I’ve got such slow reflexes that never would have happened if you had told me in advance that it was coming, but my ego was somewhat wounded for my failure to do something remarkable for a very important person.

Which brings up the other painful reality of the evening. The abrupt end of our delightful evening brought into focus the extent to which I loved the feeling of being next to someone who was somebody. It was a big thing for me to be enjoying the hospitality of this man who was a high level executive with one of the premier baseball teams in the world. It was like being in the presence of royalty, and it didn’t end with me being knighted, which I suppose is what I was wanting to happen on some level. I had this overwhelming desire to be well regarded by this person who occupies such a significant position, and while the evening could have ended in a less painful manner for him, it probably was destined to end poorly for me.

I don’t think it’s a bad thing to enjoy the fruits of this world. In fact I don’t think there’s any virtue in avoiding delightful experiences, but this world is incredibly seductive, and it’s easy to think that the most important thing is to become important in the way that we generally measure importance in this world. I know it’s easy for me to want to have a high level position in an incredible organization and to spend my time associating with other significant people.

And sometimes I forget that this is the very thing Jesus offers when he asks us to follow him. We don’t always see it, but we are in the presence of royalty, we are invited to abide with Christ in the Kingdom of God, and I’m not sure how to find better company than that. It’s hard to keep both hands on this plow, and it’s not fun to recognize the ways in which we’ve let go and are looking back, but by the grace of God we get struck by the truth every now and then. It’s always good to see who we are and what we’re doing – even if it isn’t a pleasant sight because it’s always good to be reminded of where it is we will find that peace that passes all understanding the kind of joy that endures when the ballgame is over.


One Response to “Thompson’s Sermon from June 27”

  1. Mary Henry Says:

    Maybe the errant foul ball was a good thing though Larry might think otherwise. That ball hit you, Thompson, as well and reminded you of your humanity. I’m frequently whopped upside the head to have my petty yearnings and desires to be more than I am exposed for all to see. Most painful, alas, for me.

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