I honestly want to say ‘thank you’ for being here this morning; and I mean this as something more than just an agreeable, nice, polite thing to say, which I hope will come clear by the end of this sermon. I’ve said on more than one occasion that Sunday mornings – to me – are just a miracle. When I get here on Sunday mornings, there’s no one here except for the few of us whose job it is to be here. But then, suddenly – there you are! It’s a miracle. Not one of us actually has to be here. The church is a completely voluntary organization. But you’re here.
Look around, at all these people, at all of us, you could be anywhere else; but here you are. Sometimes, I find myself wondering, what it is that has brought you here this morning? Why are you here? What are doing in church on Sunday morning? What are you looking for or hoping for?
If you knew beforehand that we’d be gathered to hear Jesus say to us, ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple’ – would you still have thought it was a good idea to come to church? Is that what any of us wants to hear? It’s not terribly polite or nice.
This time of the year, churches large and small are all suddenly feeling under the gun to get it together. The new ‘program year’ is just around the corner so we all want to be ready for things like signing up children for Sunday School and having our calendar of events ready to go. We all want to be able to show you what we do and how you can be a part of it too. We all are working to recruit volunteers to fill out ministry groups. We all want to do a better and better job of giving people new to our churches just what they need so they won’t go shopping for a new church someplace else next Sunday. And for sure, all of us churches are working on how we can make our annual giving programs the most successful and best ever.
If this all makes you feel like vines are climbing up on you and threatening to pull you down into the overgrown brambles and be lost in the undergrowth, well you’re not alone. And it’s not just churches. All kinds of organizations are working on the same things too. And honestly, plenty of them do a much better job than churches in stating their mission and giving people a real sense of purpose and making them a part of a community where they know they belong and are deeply valued.
Most Tuesdays at our weekly church staff meeting we begin the meeting by reflecting on the gospel reading for the upcoming Sunday. It’s always interesting to hear how the reading strikes us: how something is confusing or comforting or challenging or even funny. This past Tuesday I heard several comments that reminded me of conversations that have been going on in my own soul for a long time and that I’m pretty sure aren’t finished. These comments more or less boil down to the realization that a lot of us would much rather hit our thumbs with a hammer, repeatedly, than be asked to pray. The thought of someone turning to you and saying, ‘will you pray,’ is enough to make faithful souls break into a cold sweat.
I wonder why when it comes to praying a lot of people sound just like we did at our staff meeting. Are we afraid we’ll say the wrong thing and embarrass ourselves? Are we worried we won’t sound like the beautiful Book of Common Prayer prayers? Maybe something too personal will slip out. Whatever the answers are, they all seem to point towards the way it all makes us feel just a little too vulnerable, like just a little too much of our humanity is showing.
Some of my favorite television shows to watch are the ones where you see something put together right in front of you. Cooking shows where a written recipe becomes a steaming, savory dish; woodworking shows where a drawing becomes a handsome side board; even Orange County Choppers – from a few years ago – where drawaings on paper get hammered and welded into a roaring motorcycle so beautiful it brings tears to the eyes of the salty, muscle-bound shop owner.
What I love is seeing it put together. I love seeing an idea, a vision becomes real.
Of course, the folks we see on television are experts at what they’re doing. They’re experts because they have skill and talents and above all determination to learn their craft. None of them got good at their craft overnight. My guess is that Bobby Flay has ruined more mole sauces than most of us will ever attempt.
It takes practice and hard work and failure to turn theory into practice. I think the hardest part is to keep believing you can really build a table that won’t wobble because one leg is an eighth of an inch too short. Especially if it’s about the tenth time you’ve made the same mistake. The hardest part is not giving up on an idea in the face of repeated failure.
They say anything worth doing is worth doing right. But none of us gets it right the first over even the fiftieth time. It takes practice.
If there were Bibles in our pew racks, I’d start by asking you to take out your Bible and turn to chapter 9, verse 51 of the gospel according to Luke, which is where our gospel reading for this morning begins. And I’d do that to point out, not what’s written there, but so that you could see the blank space on the page that comes between verses 50 and 51. In lots of versions of the Bible I’ve seen, there are extra spaces before verse 51. It’s there to give us a heads up that we’ve come to the significant conclusion of one section and the significant beginning of the next.
So after the blank space, verse 51 reads: “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” The time has come for Jesus to turn his face towards Jerusalem and the cross that is waiting for him there. The larger than usual blank space is there to let us know that we’ve come to a turning point. The early days of Jesus’ ministry with his disciples is over. We’re leaving that behind and crossing over to a more perilous time.
To be clear, it’s not that this big turning point happens because Jesus sees that his disciples and those closest to him are now somehow now ‘ready’ for this more perilous time because they have successfully completed their initial training as disciples. It’s not like he has observed that they have mastered the introductory courses and can now move on to the more advanced level. In fact, recent events make it look like sort of the opposite has happened.