Power Play: A Calling
As some of you know, I spent a week recently in Collegeville, Minnesota, at St. John’s University attending a writing workshop. It was an awesome experience; I feel so lucky I had a chance to go. There was wonderful weather and an amazing setting, and the whole time I felt, well, strange.
Strange, you ask? Well, for one thing, all my travel expenses were paid in full. And there were people—like, staff—managing my travel, including when my flight was delayed for four hours. When I arrived at the airport I was met by a man who knew immediately who I was. He welcomed me to the “Fun Van,” a luxurious van fitted with leather seats, lots of snacks, and wi-fi.
When we got to Collegeville we were met at the door by three staff members who introduced themselves and showed me to where I was going to stay, which was an apartment on the edge of an idyllic lake. As they carried my luggage in for me, they handed me a piece of paper and said: “Our commitment is to make you as comfortable as possible. Please list any food or other items that would make your stay more comfortable, and we will be happy to get them as soon as we can.”
This was new for me. But, you’ll be glad to know, I adjusted pretty quickly.
The entire week was amazing; workshops to help us sharpen our writing, colleagues who were wonderful, any kind of food we could think to request. I have to say, this was the most unusual pastors’ conference I have ever attended.
When I asked later why…why are you being so nice to us? Here’s what I heard: “Pastors never get treated like this. We want to let you know your contributions are important and valued.”
Yeah, I am still reeling. And I agree, all pastors’ meetings should be just like this…. I was still basking in the glow and my new conviction about what all future meetings should be like, and then I cracked open the today’s gospel passage from the gospel of Luke.
Today we begin a few weeks of looking at the gospel texts and thinking about the curious way in which Jesus always seemed to turn the notion of power on its head. That is, in so many ways that you and I understand power, influence, success…Jesus redefined them. He lived and taught a new paradigm for understanding power, and his first disciples learned the hard way that they really did not know what they were getting into when they signed up for this gig.
With that in mind, today’s gospel lesson is Jesus’ commentary on the phenomenon of calling.
Sometimes in the church we’re guilty of using “insider” language, and the word “calling” can be one of those insider words. When we talk about calling we’re talking about that mystical experience we have of feeling conviction and purpose around a decision of faith. You know what I mean: there are in our lives these moments in which we experience some clarity and see some direction about what we believe and how we practice our faith. In churchy words, that’s calling.
Sometimes we talk about calling exclusive to professional expression—“he was called to be a minister.” But for the vast majority of us, our calling happens in and among our lives as regular people in the world. How does calling happen? In lots of different ways. For Jesus’ first disciples, it came through actual calling (maybe that’s where we got the term?). That is, Jesus was walking along the Sea of Galilee and called out to them inviting them to drop everything—to put up their fishing nets—and to become his followers.
They did that—dropped their nets and their lives and everything to follow—and it’s not like Jesus didn’t tell them what they were getting into. But when we look at the story as a whole it’s clear that they hadn’t spent much time thinking about what that really meant. Today’s Gospel passage is a hard conversation Jesus had to have with his disciples, telling them again that what they thought they were getting into was, perhaps, not really what they’d envisioned when they started.
When I began thinking this week about the disciples and their experience with calling, I thought about those Book-of-the-Month Clubs. Remember those? Actually, I think they still exist. They were started a long time ago—the earliest in 1926, I learned this week. But I remember when I was a teenager that we’d get offers to join a book of the month club in the mail several times a week. I thought the idea was genius; after all, I love to read! You get a bunch of books free and then an additional book every month in the mail and you can quit anytime you want to!
So, I joined one.
And I learned that I really didn’t know what I was getting into! There were very specific rules, you see, about payment requirements and the logistics of canceling your membership…all of which were listed in very small, easy to overlook print. And as I didn’t read the rules in enough detail ahead of time, I eventually felt like the books were coming relentlessly, one right after another, like standing in a batting cage with a pitching machine hurling baseballs at you with increasing speed. I clearly did not know what I was signing up for when I sent in that form, but I found out eventually…the hard way.
To be fair, it’s not like following Jesus had been all hearts and flowers for the disciples up until this point. By this chapter, chapter nine of Luke’s gospel, things had really started heating up; the disciples had to suspect if they didn’t know already that this was intense.
Take a look at what had happened in just this chapter: They’d begun making waves around Galilee, so much so that Herod had started noticing Jesus and his little band of disciples. Jesus fed the 5,000—and after that there was no flying beneath the radar. Peter had uttered the words that shocked everyone—that he actually thought Jesus was the promised Messiah. Then they went up to a mountain and Jesus started glowing—they saw a vision of Moses and Elijah, two of Israel’s most famous prophets. Next Jesus ramped it up and started casting out demons…everyone was paying close attention to what was going on.
The disciples had had their suspicions, their thoughts that hitching their wagons to this guy was a good gamble, their callings, you could even say…which is part of the reason, of course, they’d laid down their nets when Jesus “called” them.
With a couple of exceptions, they were no dummies. They suspected that if they signed up to follow Jesus they would be headed for the big time. Because Rome was in power and the political scene was full of controversy. Rebellion was on everybody’s minds; they were just waiting for the right leader to come along and make it happen.
Jesus was compelling; he talked about things that made people sit up and listen. And then he started feeding them and healing them…. It seemed to the disciples that they had made a good call joining up with Jesus; they were on their way to the halls of power!
Or so they thought. Today’s gospel lesson tells us that something had shifted; something fundamental. Jesus was no longer going about his business in Galilee, healing people and preaching a message that was making people follow him around like he was Justin Bieber. No. He had “set his face toward Jerusalem,” a phrase that Luke uses twice in this passage. It meant something; it meant something big. Jesus knew, if nobody around him did, that he was headed toward the center of power, and something big and hard was about to happen.
Right here in this passage you can see the shift beginning. Jesus and his disciples were traveling and they came to a village of the Samaritans. There were tensions between Jews and Samaritans, to be sure, but the custom back then was to extend hospitality to anybody traveling (no Motel 6, in other words). The Samaritans in that village had heard what Jesus was up to and, I suspect, he was making them nervous. So they refused to offer Jesus and gang hospitality.
Well, the disciples were outraged. Do they know who we ARE? Do they know we are following this one who HEALS people? How dare they?
If he didn’t suspect already, Jesus knew then that the disciples, for all their good intentions, really, really didn’t get it. They did not understand what it meant to be his followers. And they certainly were not prepared for what was coming in the days and weeks ahead as they moved toward Jerusalem. Jesus had “set his face toward Jerusalem”—determined that he was going to endure whatever was coming. But the disciples didn’t understand.
So it’s into this situation that Jesus says some of the most troubling words in the New Testament. Maybe, as they left that inhospitable Samaritan town, one of the disciples in the crowd said, “Well, other people might reject you, but I will follow you wherever you go!”
I can imagine Jesus, upon hearing that, muttering under his breath: “Yeah, right, you have no idea. Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Unpopular. That’s what it really means to follow me. Are you ready?
And then it comes up in conversation again, when one in the group says “I’m ready to follow; I just have to take care of my family obligation as a son and stick around a bit longer until I can see my father through the aging process (it says here ‘bury my father’).” Jesus replies almost callously, “Let the dead bury their own dead. You, get on with things that are more important—the coming Kingdom of God!” You’ve got to make some hard sacrifices; that’s what it means to follow me.
And then a third time, someone asks if he can just say goodbye to his friends…then he’ll be glad to follow. No, Jesus says, and using a powerful agricultural metaphor he comments: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of heaven.” There’s nothing here about personal acclaim or achievement; that’s what it means to follow me!
As you may already suspect, this passage is not a commentary on advance funeral planning or Jesus making an across the board rule that anybody who wants to follow him is going to have to sleep in a tent.
Jesus has what seems like a harsh exchange with his disciples because he suspects that they really, really don’t get it. They claim they do, but it’s obvious to Jesus that they don’t: this message he’s been preaching about the structures of the world being turned on their heads, the people with power becoming powerless, those who suffer, healed, and the way of love ruling the world…these are radical, troublesome ideas, and if we live them right they are going to make a lot of people really, really uncomfortable.
And Jesus knew, even if his disciples didn’t, that going to Jerusalem meant that they were headed into intense controversy that would culminate in violence and death. The message Jesus was teaching and living was too radical and upsetting to the people in power. And the disciples needed to know: this calling they had answered way back when…what had seemed like a great idea, a fun adventure…was much, much harder than what they’d thought.
And what about us? What does this mean for us?
Well, you know, it probably means something similar to what it meant to the first disciples. Following Jesus is not a joke. It’s not something we set our minds to when we feel like it. It’s not part of our life we compartmentalize and pull out when we want it. It’s everything: everything we are and everything we do, every decision we make and every resource we have.
When we read today’s gospel passage we remember: Jesus’ notion of joining a revolution that will make a difference is not the same as what we think of when we think of hitching our wagons to a star. Jesus’ way will change the world, there’s no doubt about that. But the way of Christ is not the way to power and prestige as this world imagines it. He was the one who said, after all, that anyone who wants to be my disciple should take up his cross and follow me.
And last time I checked, that cross was pretty darn heavy.
Today’s gospel passage invites us to look hard at our lives and think again about what it means to answer his call—in whatever way that has come to each one of us. And as we do, we think again about what it means to be powerful—truly powerful—and consider again this wonder-filled and sometimes terrifying task of being a disciple. Do you think we’re up for it?
I don’t know about you, but sometimes asking questions like that makes me scared—wondering if I really read the small print closely enough. When we have the courage to answer the call, however, we are not alone. Jesus goes ahead of us to lead the way; we don’t have to be afraid.
The reality of following Jesus can be scary to consider; it’s a situation in which power is turned on its head, and that has to make us uneasy, unsure. But the invitation to give our lives to something bigger than ourselves and to embrace a power unlike that of this world…it’s a calling unlike any other.
I close today with words of Guatemalan poet Julia Esquivel, who prays this beautiful prayer of discipleship:Jesus said, “You ought always to pray and not to faint.” So we do not pray for easy lives; We pray to be stronger women and men. And we do not pray for tasks equal to our powers, But for power equal to our tasks. Then, the doing of our work will be no miracle— We will be the miracle. Every day may we wonder at ourselves And the richness of life Which has come to us by the grace of God. Amen.