No Turning Back, No Turning Back

A sermon in three parts for June 26, 2022, Prepared and Preached for the beautiful people of Zion’s Lutheran Church in Trinidad, Colorado. Based on the texts of the Revised Common Lectionary, Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year C

I Kings 9:15-16, 19-21, Galatians 5:1, 13-25, Luke 9:51-62

Today is our last Sunday together before we welcome our new interim pastor, Kate.

During the next many months, she will help us transition from our beloved Pastor Andrea’s leadership to the care and leadership of our next called pastor. 

The scripture texts the Revised Common Lectionary has dished up for us for the season after Pentecost Sunday Three in Year C of the three-year cycle strike me as gifts from the Holy Spirit just for Zion’s today. 

Our reading from the Hebrew Bible and our Gospel reading from Luke are both stories about leadership transfers among the people of God. 

Our Psalm assures us of God’s abiding presence and protection of us, and the Epistle reading contains the wisdom of Paul, writing to the young church in Galatia, reminding us how we are to behave toward each other, all the time, not only in times of transition. 

The problem with the abundance of this gift is the abundance of this gift! 

I think I have three related sermons to preach today. 

I will try to keep each of them brief.

Sermon One: Allegiance to God Alone

Our Gospel story in Luke takes place as Jesus comes to the end of his ministry years. 

He is heading toward Jerusalem. 

He is heading toward the time and the place when he would stand face to face with the political power people of his day. 

Jerusalem is where Jesus would contrast the ways of God’s bottom-up, priority for the poor, jubilee and freedom for all, not by might and not by power but by the Spirit-of-God, kingdom with those of Caesar and all the underlings and leaders that greased the top-down authoritarian, militaristic wheels of empire. 

In this story, crowds of people are following Jesus and proclaiming their allegiance to his ways. 

Jesus calls to one man saying, 

follow me! 

The man responds he will, but, first, he must bury his father. 

Jesus calls to another, 

follow me!

and he says, 

Sure thing, but let me run home and tell the family where I am going.

Unimpressed by both answers, Jesus says,

you cannot follow me by going somewhere else first. 

When you follow me, there is no turning back. 

People are hurting and in need. 

We must change systems.

We must address the old ways that take advantage of the poor and keep the sick-sick. 

The grace of God is for everyone. 

The love of God is for everyone. 

The will of God for the world is wholeness and peace. 

That work and those people are waiting for us right now in Jerusalem. 

My work can not wait for you to attend to your other allegiances, said Jesus. 

You cannot bring the Kingdom of God into being on earth if you are still looking back at the way things have always been.

What Jesus said reminds me of the old camp song, 

I have decided to follow Jesus, 

I have decided to follow Jesus, 

I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back. (Maybe you want to sing it with me).

Do you remember when you first decided to follow Jesus? 

Most of us do not have a clue what will be asked of us when we first make that decision, do we? 

In my case, I fell in love with Jesus when I was three. 

E.J. Weeks read a story to us about Jesus while we ate our graham crackers like little squirrels. 

When I was ten, I insisted I was ready to be baptized. 

(In my tradition, we bless babies, and baptism comes as a personal decision later-kind of the reverse order of the ELCA where you baptize babies and youth later make a personal decision to confirm their earlier baptism). 

So, on Palm Sunday, 1970, I confessed my faith:

Jesus is the Christ, the son of the Living God, and I accepted him as Lord and Savior of the World.

On Easter Sunday the next week, Dr. Hurst immersed me, baptizing me in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. 

No turning back, no turning back.

Deciding to follow Jesus shapes our entire lives.

Following Jesus has changed my mind and opened my heart in ever-widening ways to the depth, breadth, width, and height of God’s love and mercy for all people. 

Following Jesus led me into ministry. 

It led me places across the globe and led me to encounter people very different from me who helped me to see God’s ways in a whole new light, ways that made me change my mind and grow. 

I had to abandon allegiances to old ideas and by-gone ways to follow where Jesus led me. 

Following Jesus has been the best decision of my life and the hardest. 

Continually studying the word and ways of Jesus has come around to bite me in the behind. It made me let go of fears and prejudices and it called me into a closer walk with God and my neighbors.

Following Jesus is like pledging allegiance to the Kingdom of God alone.

Remember when Jesus said we cannot serve both God and Mammon? 

To follow Jesus requires our allegiance. 

We have to do things his way–his non-violent, buck-the-system, tell-truth-to-power, raise-up-the-powerless, no weapons, turn-the-other-cheek, truth-telling, honest-dealing, borders-crashing, compassion-giving, all-serving, humble in the face of our own sins and our collective sins way. 

Following Jesus is not about pie in the sky by and by. 

It is not about an eternal life insurance policy where, by virtue of our baptisms, we carry get-out of hell-free cards. 

It is about going where Jesus calls us and serving those whom Jesus calls us to serve. 

By doing that, we bring a bit of the Kingdom of God into our midst. 

No turning back, no turning back.

Sermon Two: Leadership

In ancient Israel, the job of Elijah, the Prophet, was to speak the truth about politics to and about King Ahab. 

King Ahab was a corrupt and unworthy leader. 

When Elijah reached the age to pass the mantle of his prophetic leadership on to another, God made it clear to Elijah that it was to go to the young man, Elisha. 

When Elijah caught up with Elisha, Elisha was out plowing a field. 

Elijah threw the mantle of leadership over Elisha, and Elisha responded, 

I will be right with you, but first I must tell my parents where I am going. 

Elijah said something to the effect of,

now would be better.

So, Elisha took care of his oxen then and there.

And he followed Elijah for his orientation into the life of a prophet.

He learned how to do the demanding and dangerous job of telling the powerful how their ways departed from the ways of God. 

Following in Elijah’s footsteps was perilous. 

But, Elisha took up the mantle of a prophet and did not look back. 

God needed someone, to tell the truth to the King and about the King to the people. 

God needed someone to remind them who and whose they were. 

God needed someone to speak for justice and loving kindness and humility and righteousness–for care for the poor and hospitality for foreigners. 

The poor, the foreigners, and the prisoners needed a champion in their corner.

As we prepare for the mantle of leadership to be passed from Pastor Andrea to Pastor Kate and then beyond, we need to pay attention to the example set by Elijah and Elisha long ago. 

Pastors give up a lot to follow their call from God. 

They leave a lot behind to study the ways and will of God. 

The job they take on is full of pleasure, to be sure–sharing the good news of the love of God, but it is also full of peril—sometimes they have to speak unwelcome truth about what is wrong with the way the powers-that-be are doing things. 

And, sometimes, pastors have to tell unwelcome truths about the sinful ways we treat each other. 

Being both prophetic and pastoral is not all butterflies and flowers.

It has been said, of pastors, that their task is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.

Pastors, by their calling, are to be both prophets and priests for the people. 

Pastors, called by God and ordained by the church, must tend to the wounded, teach the ways of God, and speak the truth of God into the politics and problems of each new day. 

Speaking that way and teaching like that can take preachers into treacherous territory.

I lived for seven months in the small village of Le Chambon sur Lignon in France, where I studied French before going to Zaire to teach in a Training Institute for Pastors. 

Outside of the protestant church in Le Chambon, there is a plaque identifying the congregation as Righteous Gentiles by the nation of Israel. 

You can read the story or watch a movie about Le Chambon called, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed. 

In Le Chambon, a simple, small-town pastor found himself wearing the heavy mantle of leadership, following Jesus and leading his congregation to do the same in opposition to the government, at great peril to their own lives.

One night, after the fall of France to the Nazis, and the establishment of Vichy France, a knock at the parsonage door revealed a young Jewish mother with her young son, 

Take him, please. 

Hide him, please. 

Save him, I beg of you.

And the answer at the parsonage door that night, in the name of Jesus who welcomed the little children, who celebrated the Samaritan, who gave his life to save others, was, yes. (of course).  

Thus, began an operation by the congregation receiving, hiding, and escorting thousands of Jewish children to safety over the mountains to Switzerland.

I worshipped with many of those who had risked their lives to save their neighbors. 

I communed every Sunday for seven months with Christians who risked having their own bodies broken and having their own blood shed on behalf of strangers who were also children of God.  

Pastor Trocme was not popular in his congregation once these things started. 

Some of the people in the church believed they should all just go along to get along with the Nazis. 

Some were terrified of being found out and felt Pastor Trocme’s job was to keep them safe. 

Some did not support the Nazi cause but were not that keen on their Jewish neighbors, to begin with. 

But, Pastor Trocme wore and bore his mantle of leadership and followed Jesus. 

No turning back, no turning back.

In every congregation, some people say politics do not belong in the church. 

They want the church to be a nice safe place. 

They want the church to be free of conflict. 

The problem with that is it also renders the church free of consequence. 

They will not say it, but as Mike quotes his favorite old Lutheran pastor, they want the church to be, simply, their Sunday morning coffee drinking club.  

We do not want to hear that God’s ways are not always our ways. 

But, we need to hear it when that is true. 

People say politics do not belong in the church. That only Jesus belongs in the church. But, everything Jesus did and taught and said was political. 

Politics is how people treat each other and how we order our society. 

Jesus had a lot to say about how people were treated. 

He had a lot to say about how his society was ordered backward. 

So, following Jesus, our new pastor will follow her calling to speak God’s name into the way we treat each other and how we order our society. 

That is her job.  

She will also comfort and care for us. 

Pastor Kate will inspire and love us through and despite our heartaches and mistakes. 

No turning back, No turning back.

Sermon Three: Living Free

These are among the most contentious times through which I have ever lived. 

According to some, our nation is more divided now than it has been since the Civil War. 

Christian Nationalism which is unchristian at best, has infected churches across the theological spectrum, and we are not immune. 

The culture wars infect us right here. 

We say we welcome all because God welcomes all. Do we mean it? What do we mean, and who do we mean by that statement? 

Many a congregation prefers burying heads in the sand, seeing no evil, hearing no evil, speaking no evil–ignoring the issues that swirl around us. 

But that is dangerous. How can we reason together, understand each other, and help each other grow into greater faithfulness and a deeper love for God if we refuse to talk with each other about difficult things?

My college friend, Ray Person, who went on to earn a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible and is now a renowned scholar, writer, and professor, wrote to me this week, 

As the chair of a conference-level ministerial committee, I have become so much more aware of how corrosive patriarchy, racism, and homophobia are in the church. When in the midst of some crisis, even the “best” congregations can too easily evince these problems. If a congregation is not actively talking about these issues on a regular basis, they are simply lying below the surface waiting to raise their heads for the kill when an opportune time comes. Any congregation (or other institution) that thinks it is immune from this is fooling itself and setting itself up failure, ending in abuse of some of those connected to it, most often leaders.

We are calling into our midst a new leader. Our congregational lay leaders are weary after these hard COVID years combined with the weight of added worries and work during Pastor Andrea’s cancer Camino. We owe it to our leaders, both lay and clergy, not to let things simmer under the surface only to pop up like a game of church whack-a-mole. We owe it to ourselves and our neighbors (who need Zion’s to be a strong, healthy, giving congregation), to be wise, loving, and up-right in our dealings with each other. 

We need to speak the truth to each other in love. 

We need to work hard to listen and learn from each other.

And, we especially need to listen and learn from those who God calls to lead us. 

When we disagree with something the pastor says, talk with the pastor about it. Perhaps that is a topic we should explore in a Bible study or in a discernment process. When we disagree with the pastor, it is not an occasion for phoning allies or holding meetings after the meetings, circling the wagons, and starting up letter-writing campaigns to stifle or cancel conversations about important ideas. We who follow Jesus must be willing to consider seriously together what Jesus would have us do, especially when we disagree. 

Paul, the apostle, had some wise words for the people of Galatia years and years ago about how to live together in contentious times. His words are sage for us here at Zion’s today.

Galatians five (selected verses)NRSV:  

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. 

Live by the Spirit, I say…

…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

I have decided to follow Jesus, 

I have decided to follow Jesus, 

I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back.