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On May 16th, 1865, at Trinity Church Copley Square, Boston, The Reverend William Reed Huntington preached a three thousand, three hundred, ninety-three word sermon entitled “American Catholicity.” It will serve as the basis of one of the papers for one of my classes this summer, so I thought maybe I would just read it to you instead of preaching this weekend. It should only take forty minutes… But then I thought better of it and instead I will simply say thank you for the opportunity to take another three weeks away from Saint Paul’s to study, pray and relax atop the holy mountain at Sewanee. I took two great classes that I hope to share with you in some sort of teaching in the fall, and better than that I secured a thesis advisor and should have a proposal approved by the end of the year. I know it was a difficult few weeks for the Saint Paul’s family and you were fervently in my prayers each day. Now that we’ve dispensed with that bit of self-indulgence, I suppose y’all are waiting for me to actually say something about the Bible.
In the fifty-first verse of his ninth chapter, Luke writes, “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” This is almost a throwaway line: just one more decision Jesus makes in a lifetime of decisions. We could easily skip over Jesus setting his face to go to Jerusalem, but we’d be foolish to do so. You see, not only will the rest of today’s lesson be shaped by this short phrase, but, in fact, the next 15 chapters of Luke’s Gospel will be defined by Jesus’ choice to head to Jerusalem.
When Jesus set his face for Jerusalem, he knew full well what was ahead of him. He wasn’t heading off to study at Sewanee. He wasn’t traveling for his summer vacation at the Monteagle Sunday School Assembly. No, Jesus wasn’t headed to the comfy setting of the tourist city of Jerusalem. He was headed for the cross. Jesus set his face for the cross. At this point, he knows full well what the future holds for him, and here, at the base of the Mount of the Transfiguration he has made the choice to fulfill his mission and set out toward the cross and our redemption.
Of course, like any major life decision, this one comes with all sorts of consequences. As Jesus and his disciples set out on their journey they find themselves in need of a place to stay. The messengers that Jesus sent ahead to secure lodging for the night have returned with bad news: they can’t stay in the nearby Samaritan village. Luke knows that it is because Jesus has to keep moving, but James and John are indignant. As if they have their finger directly on the red button, they press Jesus, “You want we should command fire to come down from heaven and turn their town to glass?”
Just fifteen verses ago, the disciples couldn’t even handle exorcising a demon out of a small boy, but now here they are ready to harness the power of fire to destroy a whole town? “No,” Jesus says, “that’s not the way things are going to work. This is going to be tough, and it isn’t going to end up the way any of you want it to, but we’re headed toward Jerusalem, toward the cross, toward death and resurrection. Trust me, it’ll be ok.” So, they head on to the next town.
As they worked their way down the road, someone from the crowd piped up and said, “Jesus, I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus’ response is perhaps my favorite in all the gospels. I picture him looking around with his arms out wide, the sun is probably setting, that last Samaritan village is well behind them now and the faint flicker of the next town is on the horizon as Jesus says, “Really? You want all of this? All the glitz and glamor? Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
And then, looking at another member of the crowd, one of the stragglers who was obviously preoccupied by something else, Jesus said, “If you are ready for all of this, you are welcome to come along. Follow me.” But looking at his shoes and with pain in his eyes, this would-be disciple said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus knew that this man couldn’t really follow as long as he was distracted by outside forces, and so he replied, “Our business is not death; let the dead bury their own. Our business is life in the Kingdom of God and your job is to proclaim the Kingdom!”
Finally, some brown-noser shouted above the crowd, “If that guy can’t do it, I will. I’ll follow you, Lord, wherever you’d like… But first, let me just say good bye to my family back home.” Here, I probably project some of my own impatience onto Jesus as I picture him rolling his eyes and saying, “C’mon man! You can’t plow a straight line while you are looking backwards. The fields are ripe for the Kingdom, join in and see where we are going.”
Life is full of distractions, and it is no less so just because we are disciples of Jesus living in the Kingdom of God. The truth of the matter is that the distractions of life pull us away from the Kingdom of God. This week was rife with distractions that looked really important given our place in history, but in the scope of the Kingdom, they are simply things that cause humans to stumble. No matter what side of the debate you are on for abortion, the Voting Rights Act, Paula Dean, or the Defense of Marriage Act, this week’s Gospel lesson reminds us that these distractions ultimately pull us away from the Kingdom of God. That’s not to say that racism, abortion, and human sexuality aren’t issues that Christians should have a theologically thoughtful opinion on, but when they distract our attention from our job as heralds of the Gospel: that is to say, evangelists of the Good News of God’s redemption in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of his only Son Jesus Christ; we have allowed the deceiver to take control.
Our sole job as Christians is to point to Jesus. Share the Good News that the Kingdom of God has come near, and let the political wrangling about whose side Jesus is on in any particular debate fall to the wayside. With the Spirit at work in your heart, these issues won’t matter nearly as much as will taking up your cross and giving up your life to follow Jesus to Jerusalem. Jesus has set his face in that direction, and we have 21 more weeks to follow along, so let’s put aside the distractions and follow Jesus to the Kingdom of God. Amen.