First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
June 30, 2019
“Tales From the Journey”
The Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith
Luke 9:51-62 (NRSV
51When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54When 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?” 55But he turned and rebuked them. 56Then they went on to another village.
57As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58And 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.” 59To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Two weeks ago today, I loaded up my little Prius with more than what I would need for two weeks to travel to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to attend the 32nd General Synod of the United Church of Christ. It’s our biennial church family reunion disguised as a business meeting. I’ve been going to General Synod since 1987, having only missed two of them since then. On good days, I credit for my actually being in ministry partly on General Synod. On the not-so-good days, it’s more of a blame thing.
When I left here two weeks ago, I had intended to attend General Synod strictly as a visitor. It’s the true mark of a church nerd when someone will drive 1500 miles to attend a 4 day church meeting in an over-air conditioned convention center when they don’t have to. However, along the way, I got an email from our Conference Minister. Turns out one of our elected delegates was unable to go at the last minute so I was being asked to step in as a delegate. Montana-Northern Wyoming Conference only gets three of them so when one drops out, well,… you do the math but it’s a big deal.
I agreed but I have to tell you, it totally cramped my style to have to be a responsible General Synod attendee and show up for all the business sessions, the early morning caucuses, and at least pretend to know what I’m doing. The upside is that the conference will reimburse me for my expenses. Yay!
So, a journey across the country should come with pictures, right…
This falls under the category of “You know you’re in Montana” when there are warning signs about rattlesnakes at the rest areas. Apparently, if your Cocker Spaniel needs to relieve herself along the way, you’re taking your life in your hands or you have to let her do her business on the sidewalk.
I had a hard time keeping my eyes on the road through southeastern Montana and finally stopped to take a photo. We live in an exceptionally beautiful corner of God’s creation, don’t we?
First night out was in Broadus where we have a lovely little UCC congregation…
Who leave their doors unlocked so anyone can go in and sit in the quiet for a while.
Note the personalized pew cushions… no doubt, everyone has their preferred seat marked out… and, if a pew isn’t your style, you can always sit in the back on the rocking chair row…
On to Minnesota… to Blue Earth, the home of Green Giant vegetables… and yes, they do have a Jolly Green Giant statue
as well as Little Sprout
Which both rival the uniqueness factor of Sandy, the world’s largest Sandhill Crane who lives in Steele, North Dakota. That was the trip home.
In between, was Synod.
Wonderful worship, difficult business sessions, meeting up with old friends…
and hanging out with two of our own.
Timoth says “hi.”
It’s summer time… the time that people travel. Some to family reunions, some for vacation, some to exhilarating, exasperating, and even downright boring church meetings. And the travels all come with stories and some even come with pictures.
But not Jesus… when he started out on his important trek to Jerusalem, he kicked into teaching mode. He didn’t have time for the pictures and the gatherings at the bar. Time was short and he was on a mission to get to Jerusalem. The struggle is, the folks he was traveling with wanted to stop for pictures. He had a date with destiny and had some last minute teaching to do along the way and didn’t have the time for such frivolity.
But his teaching sounds so… harsh… so…. judgmental…
He rebukes his disciples. He almost seems to be whining about not having anywhere to sleep, (sassy) “even though the foxes and birds do but the Son of Man? Nooo, nowhere to even lay his head.”
He brushes off the grieving who want to bury their dead and tells those who have some fields to plant that they’re not fit for the kingdom of God.
You can almost hear the disciples: “C’mon Jesus, just one selfie?” And when that doesn’t work, they all pile in the back of the van and grumble amongst themselves.
We have to remember that there’s more to Jesus than these hard things. Before he got to foxes have holes and birds have nests, there were selfies at dinner tables with Tax collectors and Sinners. Before he uttered the harshness of who is and who isn’t fit the for kingdom of God he lived out the divine gentleness of healing and compassion. Underneath the driven itinerary marked by harsh words to the grieving are the intertwined journeys of a young girl raised from death and a bleeding woman restored to life. These are the images we have to hold in one hand while we listen to him speak with urgency. He’s supposed to be somewhere and he’s not going to let anything slow him down or get in his way. It’s all part of one journey. A journey that still didn’t end when he got to Jerusalem and the cross. The journey in the midst of the sick and lame and outcast was all part of his travels to Jerusalem, the cross and the grave and beyond. In a sense, once he’s travelled with all those no one else would be caught dead in an elevator with, he’s taking there stories with him. He’s got them all in the photographs of his mind. There’s new life for them in the journey ahead and he can’t wait to get it done!
And he did… he made it to Jerusalem, the cross and resurrection. End of journey… or is it.
The journey is not ended yet. It’s a journey that is now ours, the church’s. Sometimes that journey will demand some urgency… no time for selfies when children are going hungry at night. No time to reminisce when bullies take the upper hand to the detriment of the vulnerable in our midst. No time to pull off to the side of the road to take in the scenery that draws our attention away from life-threatening injustices done in the name of fear and protection from threats that don’t exist.
The challenge is that we don’t get to judge the persons. Not our job. Be critical of actions, yes, people no. Call out behavior that is unjust and mean and threatening and downright life taking yes. People, no. Jesus may seem to be doing some of that righteous judgey stuff about people and we have to simply let him. But, it’s not our job… remember what our job is? To love God with all that we have and all that we are and to love our neighbor as ourselves. And sometimes there’s some urgency around that.
But the urgency only works when it’s based on the compassion and grace that comes before. And it only works when it’s addressed to behavior, not persons.
And that’s a very hard thing to do. It was something that the General Synod struggled with deeply when we were faced with a resolution seeking to ban a particular group from the exhibit hall because their behavior was anti-open and affirming. We were challenged with the claim that when we say no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. … and if we believe that, really really believe that, it has to go many directions. We have to find a way to sit at the table even with those who don’t like us or agree with us or approve of how we go about doing things. We can, however, define behavior that establishes the covenant of how we live with one another. Abusive, derogatory, hateful, judgmental, racist, sexist, homophobic behavior or any behavior that does not build up the body of Christ should never be allowed. But people who may be compelled cannot be excluded because of who they are.
We had to reach deep into our compassion and grace buckets this past week and remember that the all of the people we travel with in life and faith have their own journeys – journeys of pain and triumph, journeys of power and loss of power, journeys of hope fulfilled and hope dashed, journeys. Underneath anyone’s urgency is usually a story, a deep story that can only be told their their words. Just as we hold Jesus’ urgency to get to Jerusalem against the stories of love and grace, we must hold our own stories of struggle and urgency and those of others, up against the photographs that we carry in the photo album of our souls. There’s usually a reason and, it’s usually very personal and very real.
So perhaps one of the most important parts of Jesus’ story for us to recall in the midst of our urgency to be right is the many times he did take the time to sit at table with his adversaries and learn their stories. If we know our story well enough, that of other’s should not threaten or demean us. Instead it can make us wiser. It can deepen our faith. It can even make the road ahead a bit more smooth for in the broadening of the table is the kingdom of God.