Growing up, my family went to church faithfully every Sunday. As such, my parents had lots of friends in the congregation, and inevitably, also ended up on various committees over the years. I tell you this because it meant that I had lots of time to hang around the church, waiting. Waiting for them to finish talking with their friends at coffee hour. Waiting for their committee meetings to wrap up. Waiting after all my friends had already gone home with their families, leaving me with nothing to do.
This being before the era of smart phones, I would spend the time hanging out in the youth room, or wandering the church building, or poking at church pamphlets and flyers. Therefore, I had enough free time and boredom to take notice when artwork suddenly appeared in the hallways.
Our church had never had much in the way of art before. Then one day it did. I honestly don’t know where they came from, though I seem to remember hearing that they had been donated by a member of the church. But I had plenty time to kill, and not much else to do, so over time, I went around looking and considering each one.
They were all depictions of stories from scripture. There was a drawing of a boat being tossed about in the waves outside of the church administrator’s office. Another showed a dessert scene. Further down, near the youth room, was a drawing of the walls of Jerusalem.
And they were all terrible. Just awful. They existed somewhere at the intersection of religious devotional artwork and motel bedroom art. And they stayed up for years, all through middle school, high school, and beyond. I would come home to visit, and those pictures were still hanging for all to see. Only much more recently, did I notice that they are now gone, the original donor having moved on, one way or another.
They are all gone, save for one piece, the biggest one of all. It hangs prominently outside the sanctuary. On it is depicted Jesus, holding a young child in his lap. The child has golden curls. Jesus is white, so white that he could have walked off the pages of a Lands’ End catalog. He has his finger outstretched, and on it, a bright blue butterfly lightly rests. The child is delighted. Jesus’ blue eyes are crinkled around the edges, his smile revealing brilliantly white teeth. The landscape around them is softly out of focus, suffused with a gentle golden light.
It is the image of Jesus that is buried deep in our psyche. It is the Jesus who speaks only in deep and dulcet tones, the Jesus who carries us along the sandy beaches of life, the Jesus who welcomes the little children and who waits to greet us in the next life. It is Jesus the way we like to imagine him: gentle, warm, and comforting.
The trouble is, Jesus is not always like this in scripture. We want soft-glow Jesus, but sometimes we get grumpy Jesus. Sometimes Jesus flips over tables in the temple. Sometimes Jesus provokes the people of his home village and gets chased out of town. And sometimes Jesus scolds his disciples for not getting it.
We aren’t particularly fond of grumpy Jesus. He doesn’t square with the way we like to think of Jesus—endlessly patient, soft-spoken, and understanding. We don’t know what to make of grumpy Jesus when we encounter him in scripture.
This is exactly the Jesus we encounter in our passage today. He is distracted. Something weighs heavily on his mind. His face is turned toward Jerusalem and there is a new urgency in his steps. He rebukes his disciples who are angry with how the Samaritans have treated him. He is quick to dismiss the people who are gathering around him and want to start following him and he snaps at them when they make reasonable requests: burying a dead parent, saying goodbye to family members. This Jesus is not smiling at the butterfly on his finger. This Jesus troubles us.
I find that when a passage of the Bible makes me feel uncomfortable, it can be helpful to sit with it for a while. It is helpful to sit and look inward so that I am able to better understand what it is exactly that is making me feel uncomfortable. It is helpful to sit and listen so that I can understand what the scripture is speaking to my discomfort.
Sit with this passage long enough and you will discover that there is something much more uncomfortable than a grumpy Jesus. There is a deeper trouble here.
Jesus has turned his face to Jerusalem. Jesus has no time to waste, and this combined with his impatient and curt rejection of new would-be followers gives the distinct impression that they have missed their chance. Even more, two of the three weren’t even called by Jesus to follow, leaving home the real possibility that part of Jesus’ rejection is that he was being picky about who he would take on this late in the game. Jesus is on the way of the cross, and the cross is now starting to draw near. The deeper trouble of this passage is that they are too late and weren’t invited.
This is troubling because it seems to be in conflict with what many progressive mainline traditions, such as our own, teach about the openness and inclusivity of God. For we teach that God is always ready to accept us with open arms, like the father in the story of the prodigal son. And we believe that Jesus’ teachings are for people of all nations; anyone who desires to be his disciple can be. And we proclaim that the salvation Jesus offers is for all of creation, not just for an elect few. So, the idea that there might be times when it is too late to follow Christ, the idea that all people might not be called to be his disciples, is deeply uncomfortable.
Sit with that discomfort long enough and you will discover that there is something even deeper yet. Sit with it long enough and you will find the heart of what is troubling about this passage.
There is a shadow side to a tradition built on openness of salvation and inclusivity of faith. The shadow is this: convenience. The mistake that is so easy to make, so seductive to make, is to equate a God who seeks to be found, a faith that is about relationship with God, and discipleship that demands obedience with a God who demands nothing of us, a faith this about us, and discipleship that is on our own terms.
The heart of what is so troubling about this passage is that it lays bare the dichotomy between the discipleship to which Jesus calls us, which is always about the difficult journey toward the cross, and the discipleship we want: on our own terms and convenient.
The would-be followers of Jesus wanted to be his disciples, but they wanted to do it on their own terms. But that is not discipleship. We too want to follow Jesus. We have heard his teachings, and they resonate with us. We have witnessed his love and compassion, and they have stirred us. And we have felt his healing power, and it has moved us. But we want to follow Jesus on our own terms. We want to follow Jesus in the time that we have allocated in our busy schedules. We want to practice Jesus’ teachings, but just with the people we love. We want the picture of Jesus holding a golden-haired child in his lap, butterfly in hand, but we don’t want to welcome the little children in Jesus’ name, especially when those children do not look like us. Especially when those children are immigrants. Especially when those children sleep on concrete floors, separated from their families, in detention centers along our borders.
We want to be disciples of Jesus on our own terms. But that is not the discipleship to which Jesus calls us.
The discipleship to which Jesus calls us is difficult and asks everything of us. It is dangerous and can cost us everything. And it is not convenient, but demands that we make real and substantive changes in our lives. It will lead us to take unpopular stands in our society, to fight for things that might make our neighbors raise their eyebrows, and to align ourselves not with the powerful and influential, but with outcasts and sinners, those who are on the edges of society, and those who have been deemed unclean and unworthy by the world.
My friends, we want to be disciples of the soft-focus Jesus. But that discipleship is little more than a picture that hangs unremarkably on a wall, costing little and affording less, until it is at last cast to curb. But the discipleship to which Jesus calls us is far messier, at times lonely, and occasionally dangerous. It is discipleship that rarely looks nice decorating a church wall. Before the cross, we discover that it costs us everything, but like anything of great value, this is not a cause for despair, for it affords us even more. For through the cross we discover the transformation of the world. Through the cross we encounter the risen Christ with our own eyes. Through the cross we find our lives growing into the eternity of God.
Friends, Christ will call each and every one of us. So let us prepare ourselves and be ready so that at last we may step out without reservation or hesitation to follow the path upon which he walks.
Preached by Adam Yates