51When the days drew near for him 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.”(NRSV)
Some call it The Seven Last Words of the Church: “We’ve never done it that way before.” When a congregation or denomination gets so ensconced in familiarity, when it commits itself to policies, procedures, and dogmas rather than to following Jesus in grateful, prayer-actioned love for God, neighbor, and earth, it creates static idols who are just projections of its own desires for control and comfort. And when focusing most of its energies on itself, that community is just digging a deep hole in soft sand. Eventually the sides will cave in and bury them alive. But hey, they tell themselves, at least it’s easy digging!
Jerusalem Jews and Samaritan Jews don’t get along. Each group is used to doing things their own habitual ways. And as far as Jesus’ disciples are concerned, it’s always open season on Samaritans. So, when a Samaritan village refuses to welcome Jesus, the disciples say, “Just give us the word, Jesus, and we’ll give ‘em hell!”
Luke says that Jesus “turned and rebuked” his disciples. He doesn’t record specific words, but I like to imagine Jesus saying something about giving people hell being rather inconsistent with the Gospel.
We can’t judge the disciples too harshly, though. Going back as far as Elijah’s mass murder of the prophets of Baal after Elijah called down fire at Mt. Carmel, as far as Joshua’s genocidal order at Jericho, and God’s total destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, hellish vengeance accurately describes “the way they’d always done it.” But when Jesus “sets his face to go to Jerusalem,” he embarks on an entirely new spiritual path, a path on which neither vengeance nor violence belong. And that makes discipleship far more difficult than digging in soft sand.
Along the way someone says to Jesus, I’ll go with you.
Will you? says Jesus. Come on, then, but be ready to rely on the providence of God the way refugees rely on the kindness of strangers.
Jesus encounters two more potential disciples. Both of them declare their intent to follow Jesus, and being faithful Jews, they both say that they’ll join him just as soon as they have fulfilled their family obligations under the Law. We can almost hear each man say to himself, Jesus will really be pleased to see how dedicated I am to the way we’ve always done it since Moses. So, imagine their shock when Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead…[and] no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
When Jesus “sets his face” toward Jerusalem, he calls all disciples to do the same. So, St. Francis leaves family wealth and influence behind and lives in solidarity with the poor. Susan B. Anthony, a devout Quaker, wades into the anxiety of the post-Civil War years to lead a movement for equal voting rights for all Americans, regardless of race or gender. Martin Luther King writes and delivers his prophetic and timeless I Have a Dream speech. Such followers set their own faces and join the Jesus journey, a journey from which there is no turning back.
John Rankin was born in February 1793 in Dandridge, TN.1As a young adult, he went to seminary and became a Presbyterian minister. Not known for his gifts as a public speaker, Rankin struggled as a preacher in his first church, Jefferson County Presbyterian Church in what is now Jefferson City, TN. As he matured, though, he found his authentic voice as a fervent abolitionist. After Rankin preached his views, his session told him that if he planned to preach against slavery ever again, he should go ahead and leave Tennessee. Unwilling to take his hands off the plow, Rankin decided to move his family to the free-state of Ohio.
On the way, Rankin happened upon the abolitionist congregation of Concord Presbyterian Church in Carlisle, KY, about fifty miles below the Ohio border. The congregation was looking for a pastor, so it was a match made in heaven. For four years, Rankin and the Concord Church worked to welcome, minister to, and even educate slaves. Violent mobs eventually forced Rankin to sneak his family across a frigid Ohio River, under the cover darkness, on New Year’s Eve 1821. In Ripley, Ohio, Rankin continued to preach against slavery, and became a major “conductor” along the Underground Railroad.
After the Civil War, another well-known abolitionist, a New Englander named Henry Ward Beecher, was asked Who ended slavery? Beecher said, “John Rankin and his sons did.”
John Rankin hailed from Jefferson County, TN, just 70 miles south of Jonesborough. Not only that, he attended Washington College, right here in Washington County. And not only that, his teacher, mentor, and, eventually, grandfather-in-law, was the Rev. Samuel Doak, another openly-abolitionist Presbyterian minister, who also happened to be the founding pastor of Hebron Presbyterian Church – which today we call Jonesborough Presbyterian Church. Rankin and Doak, along with many others, set their faces – however imperfectly – toward a calling bigger than the way we’ve always done it.
You and I are direct descendants of Martin Luther King, Susan B. Anthony, John Rankin, Samuel Doak, St. Francis of Assisi, Paul, Peter, and anyone else who accepted Jesus’ challenge to set their faces toward a life that runs counter to humanity’s all-too-familiar scheme of pride, greed, and vengeance. Those things define the way we’ve always done it, because they define the nature of human sin.
The world is never reformed or renewed by chronic commitment or hopeless resignation to the way things have always been. It’s reformed and renewed by individuals and communities who see what’s before them, and who imagine what’s possible when they work for the benefit of others and of the whole. As followers of Jesus, as Easter people, we have been liberated from the ways of selfishness and despair so that we might live the new and renewing life of God’s household in the midst of all that feels stagnant, hopeless, and even threatening. As disciples, we’re like Abram whom God calls to leave all that feels comfortable and familiar.
“Go from your country and your kindred,” says God, “…and I will bless you…so that in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3)
God’s blessedness comes upon us not as reward for good works, not as escape from illness and suffering, and not as dominance in any form. It comes upon us as God’s call to follow Jesus. So, to live our God-given blessedness means living in relationship with God by living in relationships of gratitude, care, and stewardship. It means disciplining ourselves to look for, to see, to cherish, and preserve the image of God in every person and in all Creation.
“Follow me,” says Jesus, who then leads us faithfully, lovingly, graciously toward Jerusalem, the City of Peace, where our lives may prove temporary, but our witness and our joy, like God’s kingdom, prove eternal.
My name is Allen Huff. I am a Presbyterian pastor (PCUSA) living in the delightful community of Jonesborough, TN. Jonesborough - home of the International Storytelling Center and the National Storytelling Festival - is nestled in the beautiful foothills of northeast Tennessee.
I find that preaching forces me to wrestle with God, my faith, and trying to live as a Jesus-follower in a broken and all-too-often violent world. I want to be known as someone who trusts and follows the Jesus' way of compassion, peace, and justice. I also know the road of discipleship is fraught with challenges from within and without. I tend to use my sermons as a way of struggling, like Jacob at the Jabbok River, with God and with how to make sense of life in this magnificent but incomplete creation. If something you read in these sermons, newsletter articles, and occasional, random musing speaks to you in a positive way, I will be grateful. I'd love to hear your thoughts, too. And feel free to take issue with anything I say. I certainly don't claim to have a lock on the truth.
When I'm not writing sermons, I may be writing songs on my guitar, taking photographs of the mountains, rivers, or streams in east TN and western NC, hiking the woods with my wife, or throwing a stick for our insatiable Border Collie, Todd.
*I have been posting my weekly sermons and monthly newsletters for several years on another site, Storied Faith at: pastorallentn.blogspot.com. While I will soon stop posting on that site, I will maintain it. So if you find anything on either of these sites interesting and helpful, please share with others!
Blessings and peace. Allen
View all posts by allenhuff