June 27, 2010
Breathe on me, Breath of God, and fill me with thy Spirit that I may serve only to glorify thee. Amen.
I love this poem by Robert Frost; I love the way it evokes winding trails in golden Vermont autumns, and I love it for its sense of quiet reflection. But most of all I love it because it captures something of the essence of my own life, one traveled on paths off the beaten trail, sometimes lonely, sometimes scary, but almost always leading to unexpected adventures and unsought-for treasures.
This poem might also be an apt metaphor for the journey Jesus begins in today’s gospel. Jesus sets his face to Jerusalem, because Jerusalem is the city where prophets die, the place where his destiny will play out. The rest of the stories in Luke’s gospel about Jesus’ ministry are told in the context of this journey, which as it turns out is less geographical than theological. Luke’s readers don’t get a travelogue of the way to Jerusalem; instead they get a series of stories illustrating what it means to be a follower of Jesus, and what Jesus’ power means for the world.
Right off the bat we get a lesson in setting our priorities. Jesus encounters someone who says, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Perhaps Jesus’ BS detectors were on full-tilt; perhaps he was just wary of a promise that came so quickly, but he replied not with, “Sure, come along,” but rather with, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head," a not-so-gentle reminder that with discipleship comes a cost, in this case potential homelessness.
To another would-be disciple, Jesus says, “Follow me,” but the man says that he must first bury his father. In a culture where honoring one’s family is paramount, in religion where burial of the dead was a son’s duty, Jesus’ reply that even this obligation should not delay proclaiming the good news is startling. And to the third who wants to say goodbye to his family before departing, Jesus cautions against looking back when one is seeking the kingdom of God.
We can only imagine the reactions of the would-be disciples Jesus admonishes this way. Did they slink away in embarrassment? Did that go along with Jesus leaving families behind? We don’t really know. But we can empathize with how they might have felt when Jesus reminded them that with discipleship comes sacrifice and responsibility, because I suspect that we often feel much the same way.
As Christians in the 21st century Jesus is inviting us to travel with him on the way less traveled by. Yes, that’s right. Despite our implicit assumption that we live in an at least quasi-Christian society, in a country where Christianity is the predominant religion, to truly follow Jesus, to take discipleship seriously, to live a gospel-centered life requires us to make choices that are counter-cultural, that are sometimes inconvenient, that cause us to reassess our priorities and our normal way of being.
Consider this: Almost 75% of American adults consider themselves to be Christians. Yet no more than 40% (and perhaps as few as 20% depending on how you view the stats) attend church regularly, where “regularly” is defined as 3 out of every 4 Sundays. Only 3-5% tithe, although 17% claim they do. Religious beliefs are far less important than personal experience in shaping political views.
So what does “being Christian” mean to the average person who claims that affiliation? Is it like being “American?” An identity we are born with, the benefits of which we often just take for granted? Is it like being a Yankee fan? Something we claim to show we are on the right team, a team we are loyal to and root for but that requires little else from us? Is it just the box we check off because none of the others fit?
What does it mean to be Christian? The bottom line seems clear: although we call ourselves Christian, our faith has relatively little influence on our “real life” short of perhaps prompting us to be “good.”
The gospel, however, makes it abundantly clear that Jesus is asking for more Jesus is not interested in lip service; he is asking for commitment. Jesus is asking us to prioritize our lives consciously, to live intentionally, to put the demands of discipleship, of the gospel FIRST. FIRST. Rather than letting the ever-shifting norms of popular cultures define what is important, Jesus asks us to make decisions about how we spend our time and our resources in light of our faith, our beliefs, our spiritual values.
We need to ask ourselves what is really important. What do we want to do with this “one wild and precious life” God has given to each of us? Are we willing to say no to some things that are good and desirable (like sleeping in on Sunday, a soccer game, a cruise or a trip to Disney) in order to say yes to things that are more important for ourselves and our children, more central to God’s kingdom (like regular church attendance, sacrificial giving, real Christian formation, caring for the poor and oppressed)?
We need to ask these questions of ourselves as individuals and as a parish. As difficult as it is, our spiritual lives depend on it. One of the most difficult areas to prioritize this way is our money, but over the next few months as we gear up for our fall stewardship campaign, I will be inviting you to do just that. We live in uncertain times, and it is easy, understandable to feel that we must protect our resources, perhaps cut our spending. Often that means that we put giving to the church at the bottom of the list. But is that what God is calling us to do? Is that the priority Jesus sets for us when he says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth” or “where your heart is there your treasure will also be” or “from everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required?”
These are not easy questions to address, and in the coming months I hope that we will take time to talk about them in more depth. But we need to do so in light of Jesus’ message in today’s gospel: we must get our priorities straight if we are to be disciples of Jesus. And we must ask ourselves this:
Are we willing to go with Jesus down the road less traveled?