No excuses! I think that’s what Jesus, and Elijah, are talking about here. Benjamin Franklin once said, “He that is good for making excuses, is seldom good for anything else.” My personal favorite is: “why do today, what you can put off until tomorrow.”
Jesus has “set his face to go to Jerusalem,” nothing will get in his way, and he doesn’t take any excuses. And Jesus, of course, is just a stand in for us. Jesus bids us go – “go and proclaim the kingdom of God,” no excuses! Jesus gives us the spirit, and the power, to be the church. Go: There can be no excuse.
And yet, when it comes to excuses, you might say that we’re all trained professionals. How hard it is to let go of our own stuff, and our own agenda! We all make excuses. When a parent or partner is diligently trying to motivate us, even for the simplest things, like going to work or school, to a concert or to visit a friend, do we come right away? When they say, “time to go,” why don’t we go, instead of saying, ‘be there in a minute,’ as we continue watching TV, playing video games, reading a magazine, or sleeping!
As a pastor, I always have at the ready, my call story to the ordained ministry. Everyone expects that. But all the baptized, and all those spiritually searching, have a call story too. God says go, and, what do we say?
I admit, I had an excuse too. I said, God, I’ll go, but not yet. I was like the 3rd one in the gospel story who wanted to follow Jesus, but asked to say his farewells first. After college, I took a year off before making any decision about enrolling in seminary. My excuse was that I had some unfinished business with friends. So I hitch-hiked around the mid-west. Along the way I met some unbelievably great people, and one guy who tried to kidnap me. I ended up down in St. Louis with my friend Tom, who was going to grad school there. My sister and her husband lived there too, and were about to have their first child. They needed a renter to help pay the bills, so I moved in on the 2nd floor. It just so happened that my brother-in-law was enrolled in Seminex, the break-away seminary from the LCM-Synod’s Concordia seminary. It was an exciting time, lots of tension and unrest, because of the creative things that were happening in the church. As I look back on it now, I was like a Jonah running from God, only to be spit back out, on the beach of my destiny – no excuses. God was at work, beyond my control, and sent me to the perfect place, at the perfect time. I was able to see the church, and my calling, in a new way. By the fall, I was ready to start at the Lutheran School of Theology, our seminary here in Chicago. No more excuses! Gabriel Meurier said, “Whoever excuses him/her/self, accuses one’s self.”
My youngest sibling, Bill, is a compassionate family doctor in Madison, WI. He had the longest journey in answering his calling, of anyone in our family. Out of college he applied for and was accepted onto a very short list of Physical Therapy students at U. of Iowa. My dad was ecstatic, because that was his alma mater. A month later though, Bill decided he really wanted to take a year to go explore Europe, and he got a job as a bartender in London. My parents were not happy campers! What kind of an excuse was that? Not to mention that he would lose his place on the list for the Physical Therapy program, and would have to start all over, if he turned away now. Long story short, when Bill came back from his wanderlust, he did get back in the program, and he became a great Physical Therapist. He took his profession into the Peace Corp, and went to Malawi for two years, using his expertise to help hundreds of kids with disabilities. Finally, all this was just a warm up to what he really felt called to. When he returned from Malawi, he enrolled in medical school and became a family doctor. No more excuses! Or as Thomas Fuller said, “Bad excuses are worse than none.”
God sends the prophet Elijah to call Elisha to be his replacement. So Elijah throws his mantle on him, as a sign. Elisha runs after Elijah, only to tell him, I’ve got some stuff to do before I can come, to which Elijah can only roll his eyes, and walk away. But Elisha is not fooling around. He’s got a plan. He slaughters his large herd of oxen, chops up his wooden plow to use as firewood, and puts on his own farewell feast, one of the largest family BBQ’s of all time! Elisha gives up everything he has, and then, better late than never, he goes, as he is called, to become Elijah’s servant. As Dave Del Dotto, the self-made real estate man turned wine-grower has said, “No one ever excused his way to success.”
And so, there are many ways to set our face to follow Jesus, and oh so many more excuses not to. Let’s take a minute to share our own, with a neighbor next to you, or, pick out someone across the room. What’s your best, or worst, excuse?! What excuses do you use to avoid what you really should be doing with your life?
* * * * * *
In this green and growing season of the Sundays following Pentecost, our gospel readings all come from Luke. And they all deal with Jesus as he “sets his face” to Jerusalem, from now, thru October. Jerusalem is an important place for Luke. The story of Jesus starts and ends there. In between of course, Jesus is crucified and raised in Jerusalem, or “taken up,” as Luke says. So, it is this journey to Jerusalem where Jesus “sets his face,” “his countenance,” to go there deliberately, which is a sign to us, of taking on our calling from God.
Jesus shows us how to do it, which includes intentionality in building a community of faith, honesty to the powers aligned against us, and a deep trust in the one who will be with us through all our deaths and resurrections.
There’s Yiddish Proverb that goes: “If you don’t want to do something, one excuse is as good as another.” We have some days, and hopefully years, ahead of us here at Unity, to intentionally work on “setting our face,” to where God is calling us. It includes both some death and some resurrection, no doubt. And, it will help to know our own stories of the way that God is calling us individually, so that we can face up to where God is calling us as a community. And Jesus says, there can be no excuses.
Grace to you and peace, from God almighty and from our savior, who is Jesus the Christ. Amen.
What do you think of when I say, Rod Blagojevich? I think, ex-governor, scandal, and, haircut! By now, everyone has some impression. When you not only make it onto the late night talk show host’s joke list, but actually make it on the show as a guest, then you know you are a household name across the country.
But I don’t want to discuss whether or not our Blago is guilty of “pay-to-play”, but how he has become the perfect scapegoat for all our frustrations and failures. He is a fine target, and a perfect receptacle, for all our angst, anger and fear, over our budget problems, our polarization of politics, and our inability to order and re-order our rapidly changing society.
As a scapegoat, what we’re able to do is, blame Mr. Blagojevich, for corruption in the system, which gives us satisfaction we have addressed the problem. We can dump it all on him, we can laugh at him, we can convict him in the headlines we read every day, but the fundamental problems persist. Truth be told, that makes us co-conspirators in the dysfunction, and constipates the solution that could bring us the healing we so desperately need.
I don’t bring this up just because it’s in the news, but because it helps us to understand our gospel – believe it or not. The possessed man that Jesus heals across the Sea of Galilee in Gentile territory, is famous there, in his neck of the woods, too. Legion, as he calls himself, doesn’t have a famous haircut. He’s known as, the naked guy, who used to live in town, until he started acting crazy. He goes around without clothes in the wilds, so that they used to chain him in the local graveyard down by the Sea of Galilee, and the pig farms, until he regularly broke out of them again, and the game started all over. So, even though there were no talk shows, he was the talk of the town! He was known as, a holy terror and a blight on the neighborhood. And so was the collective embodiment of their shame and sin, a kind of monument, which they had no intention of tearing down! I’m not saying he was the same as Rod Blagojevich, but, I do mean to suggest that there is a similarity in the way the Gerasene townspeople made him the scapegoat of all their problems.
It is tempting to read this story as simply the healing of a sick man. Jesus goes to a foreign territory, and is confronted by a demon possessed man. We already know that it’s in Jesus nature to heal, and so, as expected, Jesus commands the unclean spirit to come out of him. The Legion of demons beg Jesus not to be sent back into the abyss, but to go into the large herd of swine. Jesus gives them permission, and when they do, the pigs go crazy, and run off a steep bank into the lake, to drown. The man is healed and found to be “in his right mind”, at Jesus feet, the pose of a disciple.
But it is just this kind of simple reading, I think, that can so easily turn off the modern reader to the gospel story’s power. Jesus is not just an ancient physician who’s been replaced by modern medicine. Jesus is not simply a teacher of morality and social worker. But the gospel goes wider and deeper, to reveal Jesus, the “Son of the most High God”. One of the key words for our interpretation is “healed”. “Those who had seen it, told [everyone else] how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed,” it says. But “healed” can also mean, “saved”. He was saved, in addition to being healed! But saved from what? Saved from a life of being shackled, on the one hand, and saved from being the convenient scapegoat, from being the towns’ dumping ground for all their problems, on the other hand. Jesus changes the demonic system we live in, and saves us (from it).
But being saved injects a new dynamic, a new reality, into the community, which is why the people are initially fearful after Jesus takes away their scapegoat. Now their corrupt system has been exposed. They must either find another scapegoat to hide their sins and perpetuate the system of demons, or respond to the gospel, and begin to take responsibility for their problems, themselves. The good news will set you free, but first it will make you miserable! You can imagine, it’s not going to be particularly easy for the man who had been possessed by demons, to go back home and live with his neighbors. Nor is it going to be easy for the townspeople to accept him, and face up to their complicity in the system of corruption.
The same is true for us! We live in a Blagojevich system, in which it’s easier to blame ‘the man’ than it is to take responsibility for our healing. But notice, Jesus doesn’t just send the evil spirits back to the abyss where they can repossess another scapegoat, but he sends them off the cliff, to their death, ending the scapegoating system itself. Jesus heals the tormented man, and the sinful system of the townspeople.
In the conclusion to the story, the healed man, found to be “in his right mind”, is in the disciple pose, at Jesus feet. He wanted desperately to stay in Jesus presence, and begged Jesus to come with him. But Jesus tells him to, “return to his home” to tell everyone “how much God has done for you.” Jesus will live in him, as he tells his story to his own community.
So, we have a simple story of healing, but also, a much more wonderful story of salvation. God is freeing both victims and perpetrators, all of us who are sinners, and throwing us all back together again into the same town to live now as free people, never to be shackled again, masters of our own kingdom! Now there’s a Juneteenth Day message for us! Or, in Paul’s words from the 2nd reading: we have become “clothed in Christ,” where, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
So today we can end with your talk-time, just as we did last week. God has set you free. Jesus has come to break the bonds of our oppression, to end the demonic system that separates us. The way to do that, he says, is to tell our own stories, in our neighborhood – to be reconcilers in our own towns.
So, let’s practice our story now with our neighbor here.
2 minutes total. 1 minute for each person.
What has God or Jesus done for you? How have you been freed up? What do you want to tell others in our neighborhood and town?
This sermon blog is another way to hear and discuss God's word. At Unity we usually have "talk time" during the sermon because God's word is a two-way communication. I'll post my Sunday sermons here and you can continue the conversation on the blog.
Pastor Fred Kinsey