A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 30 June 2019 [Proper 8]:
2Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62

FOLLOW THE LEADER

Do kids play “Follow the Leader” any more? Is there an app for that now? I confess that it has been such a long time since I played this game that I had to “google” it to recall how it works. This is what I found:

“Follow the leader” is a children’s game. First a leader or “head of the line” is chosen, then the children all line up behind the leader. The leader then moves around and all the children have to mimic the leader’s actions. Any players who fail to follow or do what the leader does are out of the game. When only one person other than the leader remains, that player becomes the leader, and the game begins again with all players joining the line once [more].

In our gospel lesson, Luke portrays Jesus at a turning point in his life and ministry. In portentous words, Luke rather matter of factly tell us that “[w]hen the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem”. And it is from this point and this specific perspective that we encounter what sounds like a stark conclusion to today’s gospel, where Jesus seems to be an impossible leader or at least a leader who makes it hard to follow him.

For instance, to the one who pledged to go wherever Jesus went, the Lord curtly responded (in effect): “Are you ready to rough it? You know, this isn’t some sort of picnic we’re on!” To another to whom Jesus extended the invitation to follow, Jesus denies the understandable request to be given leave time in order to bury his father. With what again seems to be a harsh, Jesus abruptly says, “Let the dead bury the dead.” And to a third potential disciple and his thoughtful need to pay his bills and kiss his wife “goodbye”, Jesus responds with a Hebrew version of “carpe diem,” “seize the day!”

What’s going on? Why is Jesus being so unreasonable or at least sounding so uncaring? Moreover, where does all this leave us? Where does this leave you and me, as we struggle to do our best to follow Jesus?

In the encounters that Luke conveys, Jesus sure seems to be making it harder and harder for the likes of us to be a follower. At the very least, given these words of Jesus, can we be blamed if discipleship sounds too daunting for the likes of us? And in all honesty the words of Jesus do sound off-putting. Why is following Jesus, which is something we do wish to do, couched in such demanding terms?

What I want to say to you is that I’m not sure that this is what Jesus is actually saying or doing. Yes, rabbinical tradition often uses extremes to make a point, and Jesus often employs such a teaching tactic: For instance, “Cut off your right hand rather than allow it to lead you into sin.” And yes, in a life that is God’s life and not simply something we make up for ourselves, Jesus’ sense of urgency to follow him cannot and must not be ignored. Priorities matter: First things first. Yet, to leave what Jesus is saying at the level of our lives, of what these words hold for us in our on-again-off-again relationship with God is, I think, not only to miss Jesus’ point but also to be tragically and ironically self-centered. This is to say, in terms of the urgency of first-things-first, these words of Jesus about following are not so much about us, as they are the terms by which Jesus himself follows.

In this vein, I call your attention to the key in the opening line of today’s gospel lesson: When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.

As I said at the outset, this line sets the context and establishes the perspective for the rest of what Luke conveys in this lesson. Specifically and to my point, Jesus is the follower. He knows with every fiber in his body what this following entails. Setting his face to go to Jerusalem, Jesus moves into the events that will culminate his life’s purpose, and that following of God’s will will cost Jesus his life.

Jesus is following his Father’s will. The words that conclude this particular gospel lesson and sound so harsh to our ears are (in a manner of speaking) Jesus talking out loud to himself, as if to remind himself of his unique and necessary purpose in Jerusalem. And only Jesus is prepared to finish what the following requires.

There is no other social, familial, or religious obligation that can claim his attention. Jesus must plow straight ahead to Jerusalem and to the cross so that in following the Father’s will faithfully and without wavering, Jesus reveals what life on God’s terms is like: namely, that with God fear and death do not define life.

This is the significance of our liturgical proclamation at every celebration of Holy Communion: “Christ our Passover is sacrifice for us.” Jesus comes to Jerusalem at Passover and is the lamb that frees all of God’s people from the tyranny of fear and death.

Three times a year in the ancient Jewish tradition, the faithful were called to make one journey to Jerusalem. And as they walked the three-to-four day pilgrimage, the land itself would underscore the point, as Mt. Zion was easily 1000 feet above the lowlands in which most people lived. And as the pilgrims moved higher and higher and closer and closer to the Jerusalem and the Temple, they recited the stories of the Exodus, the stories of their liberation by God from slavery. When Luke reports that Jesus’ time had arrived, that the climax of his revelation was about to unfold, and when the text says that the time “drew near for Jesus to be taken up”, the word that in English is translated “taken up” is the word for “exodus”, meaning that Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem would inaugurate the new Exodus, the new and complete deliverance of all people into life as God intends it to be.

Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.

All of which is to say that as demanding and unreasonable and impractical sounding as all that Jesus seems to say to others who want to follow him is, Jesus’ words actually define what he must do. The words about discipleship are his lines in this drama, and only Jesus, the Son of God, is capable of following the divine leadership. The strange and hard words concerning following describe what Jesus must do in order to follow his God-life. These words are his way of stirring up his own courage and steeling himself for the cross that he may be and do what his pilgrimage has always entailed, that he may finish his race and provide the victory for all.

It is all about Jesus and what he must face, the walk he must walk, the sacrifice he must make in Jerusalem. It is his time, his path.

“Christ our Passover, our new Exodus, is sacrificed for us.”

The urgency, the radical demand of following that Jesus speaks to in this lesson is essentially and fully about him and what he must do and what he does do in Jerusalem. First things first: Jesus takes no thought to accommodation. He eschews spiritual and pastoral custom and any and all other practical concerns. No backward looks because he plows straight rows from fear and death to demonstrate God’s freedom and life. Jesus follows God’s lead – for all of us.

Yet having said this, there is still a question we must not avoid: Whom do you follow? Whom do I follow? How’s it going? Granted, our following wobbles in comparison to Jesus’ faithfulness; but this is not a matter of “all or nothing”. The question for us, for those of us who truly desire to follow Jesus and to learn to receive the God-life’s hope, forgiveness, and deliverance is this: Are we on our way? Are we making progress?

Specifically, when our time comes to face our “exodus”, when we must face death, will we have had enough practice following Jesus – imperfectly as we do – will we have had enough practice walking his walk to continue to follow – indeed, to follow through and finish well, finish faithfully?

“What is the function of your church?” This is one of the four orienting questions I continue to pose. (They are listed in the parish hall.) Like points on a compass, these question are designed to guide us to a deeper life, one that is free of fear and free of our addiction to death. In the case of asking what our church is for, I suggest that the church, our church’s function is to be the place where we practice, practice, practice following Jesus. We keep walking his path, stumbling and fumbling as we are wont to do yet never giving up. And as we keep faith in following Jesus – or at least keeping him in sight, our examples also serve to help others to keep walking, keep following, and finally to finish.

In my ongoing convalescence from back surgery, my physical therapy is walking, walking, walking in order to regain my muscle strength and stamina. The same is true for my spiritual therapy: Walking, walking, walking – Just do it?

Remember: Jesus never asked anyone to worship him, but he very clearly asked us to follow him, to go where he himself has gone so that we may receive what he has revealed and given: Life on God’s terms; unbreakable Communion with the Holy One and with one another.

So, walk on, Jesus! And walk on, Church. Thanks be to God. Amen.