August 18th's Sermon
Wow, Jesus, you’re really being a downer here. This probably would have been a great week to have gone on vacation! This is certainly not the Jesus that we are used to - baby Jesus, meek and mild and drooling, who comes to us on Christmas; or grown-up Jesus, meek and mild, welcoming children and letting himself die for us on the cross, who comes to us on Easter. But we are about as far from Christmas and Easter as week can get - it’s mid-August, and it’s hot, and all we really want to do right now is go to the beach, or at least coast our way into the beginning of September. The last thing we want is to hear some hard words, especially from Jesus.
Well, this Jesus we follow holds the patent on paradox. He is both human and divine; both powerless peasant and commander of countless angel armies; both homeless wanderer and enthroned on the right hand of God, both lifting up the low and bringing down the great; both prince of peace and divider of families; and both kind and crabby, I guess.
Perhaps we should cut Jesus a little slack. Ever since he set his mind to go to Jerusalem early in Luke’s gospel, he has seen the end of the story, and knows that it will not end well for him, at least initially. Before he can be resurrected, he has to go through that very unpleasant business of being painfully crucified. He is going to die, and that is what he has to look forward to. Knowing that was on the horizon, wouldn't you be a bit stressed out, too?
But Jesus still presses on, traveling the path marked out for him, all the way to death on the cross.
Two weeks ago we heard Jesus tell the story of the rich farmer and his barns. At St. Paul I talked about my family’s dairy farm in Wisconsin, about how expanding a farm is always about providing something better for future generations and not about living it up in the present. When one of my younger brothers fully takes over the farm from my dad, he will be the fifth generation of my family to run that farm. But if we go back even farther, past my brother Tony and my Dad Jeff and grandpa Raymond and great-grandpa Walter and great-great-grandpa Ernst was my great-great-great grandpa Fredrick, who came over from Germany to settle in central Wisconsin not long after it became a state.
At that time, there were no barns, or silos, or farmhouse, or even fields to plant. Just trees, trees, and more trees as far as the eye could see. So Fredrick and his wife Ernestine began the slow work of clearing the forest to get to the rich soil underneath. It took hard work and many years, horses and saws, and even dynamite to get the gently rolling fields that you would see today.
But for some, Wisconsin was not wild enough, no remote enough. Some who came off those boats traveled right passed the comfortably settled East, through the partially settled Mid-West, right on into – literally – the edge of the map. They forged their own paths, blazed their own trails, and generally fended for themselves, since no one had invented Wawa or Shoprite yet. They were the pioneers who paved the way for those who came after them, the way becoming just a little easier, just a little more passable with every traveler since. Pretty soon, the Oregon Trail is a national park and a computer game played by those of us who grew up in the 80s and 90s.
The game of life; life is highway; life is but a dream; life is like a box of chocolates; life is a journey, not a destination. To the writer of Hebrews, life is a race. Let’s his words again:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Jesus is literally our trail-blazer – not the SUV, but of the intrepid explorer variety. While we were stuck in the tangled wilds of sin and brokenness, Jesus cleared a new path of sacrificial living, a way of love to its fullest extent. He knew that way lead to a cross, but brushing off the humiliation and agony that came with it, he plowed on, full speed ahead, setting a collision course with death itself.
I don’t think I need to tell you which one was left standing when it was all over. I’ll give you a hint: all that was left were some wrappings and an empty tomb.
This is the same path that Jesus has cleared for us to follow. But we aren't the first to travel this way, nor are we traveling it alone. The writer of Hebrews calls up the giants of faith in the Old Testament to cheer us on, and we could add plenty to the list in our own generation: Mother Teresa, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, C.S. Lewis, Nelson Mandela, and more. They are our witnesses and companions, not present to make comparisons, but to cheer us on so that we can let go of the fears that weigh us down.
This “cloud of witnesses” idea was remarkably lived out this week through modern technology during the biennial ELCA Churchwide assembly. Over a thousand people from all over the country came together to Pittsburgh to “do the business of the church” which is not always the most interesting task. But there were also people around the country who tuned in on their computers and participated using social media. At one time twenty-five hundred people were watching the assembly live who were not able to be there in person. And so together we celebrated the election of the first female presiding bishop in the twenty-five year history of the ELCA.
But we are not very far down the path when we realize that not everyone we know are walking the path with us. There are a lot easier and nicer paths to take in life, following happiness or success or likability or security or self-reliance or activity, or even progress. There are still plenty of place to trip up, still a few obstacles to overcome now and then, still a few places to get tangled up on this road.
And indeed, if Jesus had not already paved the way, we might never have even started. And if this Jesus were not also walking with us on our way, we may have easily given up long ago. Just check out the at list from the rest of the reading from Hebrews: torture, floggings, lions, chains, poverty, being stoned to death or sawn in two – which if the saints who have gone before us, in their right minds would ever have gone through all that if not for the one who ran the race ahead of us?
Who in their right mind would ever have picked a state full of trees in order to build a farm? My 3rd great-grandpa’s faith, at least in the potential of his descendants.
And why did Jesus press on, despite twelve clueless followers and stubborn religious leaders and the fickle crowds of people and a murder plot? I believe that the joy that was set before Jesus was US. Clueless, stubborn, fickle, tender, determined, adaptable US.
So let’s put on our running shoes and get going. AMEN.