Sunday’s sermon: We Can Do Hard Things

hard things

Texts used – 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Luke 9:51-62

  • Friends, did you know that technically, there are 11 – yes, eleven – Disney princesses? Eleven official princesses … and at least 10 other characters that aren’t technically princesses by title but are often considered in the same category: all women whose stories teach us time and time again about the “happily ever after” of life. Sometimes their happily-ever-afters are fairly passive – think Snow White and Sleeping Beauty who literally slept their way through the conflict in their stories to the happy ending – while some are more active in bringing about their own happily-ever-after like Mulan and Belle from Beauty and the Beast. “And they all lived happily ever after” … *sigh* Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Especially in the midst of current headlines:
    • Deadly and devastating weather phenomena – Hurricane Florence and Typhoon Mangkhut and the tornados that made their way through this area just a few days ago
    • More Chinese sanctions and backlash that may come from them
    • Yet more stories coming out about clergy sexual abuse
    • Yet more stories coming out about women who have been abused and assaulted and long silenced
    • Deadlock in Washington over … well … basically everything
    • Reports of attacks and acts of violence in countries around the world
    • And of course, let’s not forget all of those lovely political ads that we are bombarded with every time we turn on our TV or radio or open our internet browser. And those are just the things happening on the grand scale – the things garnering enough attention to make the headlines. What about all of those things happening in our own lives and the lives of those we know and love that are causing us to worry and fear and question and struggle? Bottom line: the world around us looks a lot less like “happily ever after” than we’d like it to, doesn’t it?
      • Scripture readings this morning address the flipside of “happily ever after” – what happens when the “ever after” is less starry, less shiny, less perfect than we’d like it to be
  • Let’s look at our gospel story this morning first.
    • Starts out on a difficult foot right from the very first verse – text: When the day drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.[1] → As after-the-fact readers, we know what this means. Unlike the disciples who were traveling with Jesus at the time. For them, they’d been crisscrossing the countryside with Jesus for a while now, and changing direction yet again probably didn’t even register. Or perhaps they just thought that they were headed in the direction of the holy city to celebrate the Passover like thousands of other Jews did every year. But we know what is coming. And Jesus knew what was coming. You can just hear the weightiness and the portent of this passage.
      • Gr. “set” = more determination and purpose than just turning your head and looking in the direction of something → connotations of strength and establishment and being firm
        • Abraham Lincoln regarding the Civil War and abolishing slavery: “I walk slowly, but I never walk backward.” → feels like Jesus’ frame of mind as he makes this deliberate turn
          • Strong
          • Deliberate
          • Unwavering
        • Lets us know that what is to come is significant → 3 significant if not unsettling occurrences in this short passage
  • FIRST: He sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When 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?” But he turned and rebuked them.[2]
    • James and John … poor, misguided James and John.
      • Brothers → “sons of Zebedee”
      • Dubbed “sons of thunder” by Jesus in Mark’s gospel[3] → And here, we can certainly see why! Now, in their defense, hospitality was and continues to be a deeply held and cherished tradition in that region of the world, so the fact that this village turned Jesus and his disciples away instead of welcoming them is bad enough. The fact that the village is Samaritan – those whom the Jews thought of as unclean and unworthy – made it even worse. And here we have James and John: wholly devoted to Jesus – his teachings, his message, his cause. And suddenly, their beloved Rabbi has been turned out and dismissed by the likes of the lowliest, least-worthy people they can think of. It is an insult to be sure. So James and John sort of go off the rails a little bit. “Should we call down fire to burn this place to the ground, Jesus?”
        • Stark reaction
        • Startling reaction
        • But can we say that we wouldn’t have had a similar one? When we go into protective mode – whether it’s protection of our children, our friends, our careers, or anything else dear to us that we feel might be under threat – don’t we go a little savage, too? At least in our minds.
          • “Mama bear culture”[4] (according to urban dictionary) = a mom who can be cuddly and lovable but also has a ferocious side when it’s necessary to protect her cubs – can be biological mom, or the head of a group
          • Brings to mind all the bickering and mudslinging that goes on in our political climate today – cause the damage before damage can be done to you
    • But instead of going in on their plan, Jesus rebukes them. Jesus quashes their self-righteous anger and excessive desire for retribution. Because that is not what faith is about – paybacks and reprisals. Faith is Jesus knowing what’s coming and still setting his face to Jerusalem step by deliberate and dangerous step.
  • SECOND unsettling occurrence: Then they went on to another village. As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And 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.”[5] → difficult on a lot of levels
    • Difficult to decipher: This is about as cryptic as Jesus gets. Usually, when he speaks in metaphors and parables and obscure language, Jesus will decode himself for the disciples later, but we don’t get that with today’s passage. We have to go on inference and implication.
      • Scholar: Implicitly, [this] saying works on the assumption that the follower will be like the one who is followed: If the Son of Man has no place to lay his head, then neither will those who follow him. Does the would-be follower realize what he has promised?[6]
    • Difficult to accept
      • Jesus’ words imply discomfort
      • Jesus’ words imply an inherent unbelonging
      • Jesus’ words imply an unwelcome-ness that I think we can safely say is not a goal any of us aspire to
      • As human beings, we inherently seek out shelter and safety and community – people and places that make us feel comfortable and comforted in our times of greatest need. And yet Jesus, who has just been turned out of even a Samaritan village, is saying he has none of those things and neither will those who follow him.
  • But it gets even more unsettling than that – THIRD: To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”[7] → All kinds of difficult, right? All kinds of hard stuff in there that Jesus is exacting of those who would follow him. There’s no mincing words. There’s no taking the edge off of this, folks. This is Jesus, raw and real. He’s saying that discipleship is was not, is not, will not be an easy road to walk. If we truly desire to grab hold of this Savior and follow with our whole selves, we’re going to have to let some things go. We’re going to have to let some people go. We’re going to have to leave some of the more accepted, more expected ways behind for something completely new and different and challenging and strange.
    • E.g. – Jesus saying “Let the dead bury their own dead” → scholar: Times of loss can be marked by bewilderment. As familial roles are redefined, a person’s identity may be shaken in the process. … Jesus speaks to the man’s disorientation when he tells him to let the dead bury the dead. … Jesus is letting the man know that his response to Jesus’ invitation is central to God’s purpose for his life and future identity. Heard in this way, Jesus’ words can comfort and assure him that things with his family will be sorted out; yet the words also confront him with the need to act on what is most important.[8]
      • It’s this idea that brought our Old Testament passage to mind for me this morning. → another e.g. of loss and discipleship
        • Prolific prophet Elijah with his devoted apprentice, Elisha → Elijah knows his time has come → time and time again throughout the day, Elijah tries to get Elisha to leave him so Elisha won’t have to see him taken up into heaven, but Elisha refuses → Elijah finally capitulates and lets Elisha stay → Elijah is eventually whisked up into heaven by the horses and chariot of fire in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.[9] → The rending of garments has been a powerful expression of grief for millennia and continues even in Jewish tradition today.[10]
          • Tearing = vent of pent-up anguish (“religiously sanctioned destruction”)
          • Fulfills Jewish dictate to “expose the heart” in morning → torn clothing without = torn heart within
          • That is the strength of Elisha’s grief, and yet he rises up, takes up the cloak that Elijah has left behind for him, and continues on with the service to God that was laid out before him.
    • Similar to the call that Jesus makes at the end of our NT passage this morning: even when it is hard – hard to do, hard to understand, hard to accept, hard to explain – FOLLOW
      • Scholar: To journey with the Messiah of God is to be formed in the white-hot crucible of kingdom values: self-sacrifice, self-giving, self-forgetfulness. The way of the cross is ever costly and demanding. The three brief encounters of Jesus with would-be followers establish the rigorous nature of being a true disciple.[11]
  • But in the face of all of this challenge, friends – challenge to our innermost selves and challenge to the world around us – we continue to hear the good news of the gospel ring true: Jesus indeed came for us. Jesus indeed died for us. Jesus indeed rose from the dead for us. Can we really say that it gets any harder than that? I don’t think so.
    • Glennon Doyle/Glennon Doyle Melton
      • Motivational speaker, philanthropist, contributing writer, blogger
      • Founder of wildly popular online community Momastery → all about the challenges and craziness and crushing joy of parenting in all its forms
      • Made liberal use of the phrase “We can do hard things”
        • Didn’t come up with it (couldn’t find the actual origin)
        • Speaks of it being on the wall of a friend’s classroom and on a plague on her own wall at home
        • From Love Warrior[12]: We can handle it. We can do hard things. Because we are warriors.
      • Quote: Years ago, my hopeful, faithful, joyful minister surprised our congregation by saying: Life is pain, and anyone who tells you different is trying to sell you something. I squirmed in my seat and thought … Jeez. How negative. But now I’m older, and I think … How true. Life is hard and terrifying and unfair and overwhelming. Life is the cross. … Life is brutal, but it’s also beautiful. Life is Brutiful. So I look hard for the beauty. I try to drown out my fear voice, which wants me to run away from the pain, and listen instead to my love voice, whom I call God, and who is asking me to run toward To allow my heart to be broken open, because a broken heart is a badge of honor and the most powerful tool on earth. That love voice – she’ll help you find treasure. But she’ll guide you right into the minefields first. … I am grateful for the treasure hunt through the minefield of life. Dangerous or not, I don’t want out of the minefield. Because truth, beauty, and God are there.[13] → Friends, let yourself be broken open for the gospel. Let yourself be led into the dangerous minefields of life for the gospel. Let yourself not only see but hunker down into the brutiful world around you for the gospel. Because as hard as it is, God is there. And indeed, we can do hard things. Amen.

[1] Lk 9:51.

[2] Lk 9:52-55.

[3] Mk 3:17.

[4] https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=mama%20bear.

[5] Lk 9:56-58.

[6] R. Alan Culpepper. “The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 9. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 217.

[7] Lk 9:59-62.

[8] Carol Howard Merritt. “Luke 9:51-62 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: Luke – vol. 1, chs. 1-11. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 280, 282.

[9] 2 Kgs 2:11-12.

[10] https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/281558/jewish/Keriah-The-Rending-of-Garments.htm.

[11] Mitties McDonald DeChamplain. “Luke 9:51-62 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospel: Luke – vol. 1, chs. 1-11. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 281.

[12] Glennon Doyle. Love Warrior: A Memoir. (New York, NY: Flatiron Books), 2016.

[13] Glennon Doyle Melton. Carry On, Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life. (New York, NY: Scribner Publishing, 2013), 227, 228.

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