About Face

Do not stop them for whoever is not against you is for you.
—Luke 9:50

Introduction: Discipleship

I’ve added a little bit to the beginning of the gospel reading appointed for today, and cut off the end; because, even though the two parts that Frances just read are two distinct stories, I think they have something in common that we need to talk about in the time and place we live in. What they have in common is a lack of understanding about what it means to follow Jesus.

In the first part, there are actually two examples of the misunderstanding of what discipleship is. The first one is the most obvious to us, I think. It’s when Jesus becomes aware of an argument that had arisen among his friends. The argument was over who the greatest disciple was.

It sounds silly when you say it out loud, doesn’t it? To us, discipleship should be about simplicity and humility. Arguing over which disciple is the greatest would be a lot like proclaiming, “I’d be perfect if I weren’t so darn humble!” I know I’ve told you this joke before—after so many years here there’s no way I can think of any new ones—but this one bears repeating:
 I. On Being Nothing

There was once an evangelistic type of congregation, and its pastor was very good at getting his congregants worked up. During one sermon on humility, he told his listeners to repeat after him, “I am nothing without God!” They did as they were told to do, and as they did so, the Spirit took hold of them, and they began to repeat it over and over until they were shouting. And so as everybody in the church was shouting, “I am nothing without God!” one of the more well-to-do ladies of the church took note of one of the church’s poorest and least reputable members shouting along with everybody else in the sanctuary. And so she turned to her neighbor (a woman no less well-to-do than she), pointed at the less fortunate member, and whispered, “Well, look who thinks he’s nothing!”

Arguing over who was the greatest probably seemed on the surface to be no less preposterous to the twelve. But even consensus can’t completely keep misunderstanding from seeping in. Perhaps they didn’t literally argue over who the greatest was. Perhaps they were arguing over who the most loyal was, or the most courageous, or the most able to work miracles. Whatever the bone of contention, the result was the same: They were arguing over something followers of Jesus shouldn’t argue about.

Such has been a problem of the church ever since. It was something that Paul dealt with in his letters, and it became a huge problem among Christians once theirs became the official religion of the empire. Even after the Protestant Reformation began emphasizing simplicity and doing away with much of the hierarchy, Jesus’ followers still managed to try to one-up each other. And really, anytime a controversy arises in any church, it’s just a form of the same argument: Who is the most correct? Whose idea of mission is the best? Who knows best how to spend money? Who is the greatest? Who is the most faithful follower? They’re all petals of the same silk flower.

Jesus’ response, of course, was to take the least among them (in this case, a little child), and tell the disciples to forget their own notions of greatness, for here was God’s idea of who the greatest among them was. It was somebody they didn’t even count among their number—somebody they hadn’t, in fact, bothered to notice—the one whose voice was least likely to be heard, whose advice would have been immediately discounted: Such a one was greatest in the government of God.

II. About Face

But there’s another example of misunderstanding what a disciple is in this first section of the reading that I think is even more important for us to hear, and it’s the one that seems to best mirror the example in the second section. It’s when one of them responds to Jesus’ reaction to greatness by trying to change the subject. Or at least that’s what I think he thought he was doing. Instead of engaging Jesus in an actual discussion of what he might’ve meant by placing that little child among them and saying that it was the greatest, John breathlessly informs Jesus that they saw someone else acting in his Name, and that they tried to stop him because he didn’t belong to their group.

“Don’t do that,” Jesus said, “because if he’s not against you, he’s for you.” In other words, if he’s doing something good in my Name, he’s also my follower.

Which brings us to what happened next. We break the gospels into such tiny bits and pieces when we read them that we often don’t notice the grand narrative. And one aspect of this narrative is the two major divisions in the ministry of Jesus. There is the earlier ministry which he spends in Galilee. And there is the later one which is spent on the way to and in and around Jerusalem. And it’s at this point in Luke’s gospel that the transition occurs. For right here in the middle of today’s reading, Luke tells us that the day was drawing near for Jesus “to be taken up,” and so he set his face toward Jerusalem (which is a poetic way of saying he was headed in that direction).

Most pilgrims who went from Galilee—a region populated mostly by Jews—to Jerusalem—a city in Judea, another Jewish region—they would often cross to the other side of the Jordan for a while in order to avoid a region populated by non-Jews called Samaritans. We often read about how Jews looked down on Samaritans because they worshiped the same God in the “wrong” way, but it seldom occurs to us that Samaritans might have been of the same opinion about Jews.

But we see something of this when Jesus does what other Galileans don’t—that is, stay on the west side of the Jordan on his way to the Holy City of the Jews, and making his path through Samaritan territory. While there, he sends his disciples into a village to help prepare a place for him to stay. But the Samaritans don’t want him there. Why? Because his face is toward Jerusalem—this time, meaning he worships God at the wrong mountain.

Filled with righteous anger, John again—this time with his brother James—offers to call down the wrath of God on this faithless village in the form of fire from heaven. Now, I think, we begin to see why Jesus elsewhere called James and John the sons of thunder. Instead of explaining patiently (as he seems to have just done twice in the previous section), Luke tells us that this time Jesus rebuked them.

III. Geneva, Canterbury, Rome, or Wittenberg

The Pulpit of St-Pierre
Cathedral in Geneva
The Samaritans want to spite Jesus; and in response, James and John want to smite the Samaritans. In studying this passage this time around, I found that I’d written something years ago in my Bible that I found kinda interesting. “Just because Jesus’ face was set towards Jerusalem,” I’d written, “doesn’t mean his ear wouldn’t have been toward them—we can still be present for one another even if we have our own beliefs.”

Those of us who are blessed with eyesight depend on it greatly. But in a way, it is one of our more limited senses. We can only look at something when our face is pointed in the right direction. But if we’re also blessed with the sense of hearing, we can hear things coming at us from any direction—even behind us. By only being concerned with Jesus’ face, the Samaritans rejected the notion that he might have anything meaningful to say to them. He was facing Mount Zion, therefore he had nothing in common with them. And by the same token, I’m sure they imagined (as the woman at the well did in John 4) that because their faces were toward Mount Gerizim, Jesus wouldn’t be interested in anything they had to say.

Luke is here referring to our line of site as a metaphor for our religious beliefs. Jesus’ face was toward Jerusalem, therefore he was a Jew. My face is toward the cross, therefore I am a Christian. I suppose you could also say that my face might even be toward Geneva, because my congregation belongs to a Reformed church. Other Christians have faces that point to Canterbury, or Wittenberg, or Rome. And there are people who aren’t Christians at all whose faces are toward Mecca or Salt Lake City or India. It’s okay for us to hold on to our own beliefs when we find ourselves in conversation with people of other faiths. Our faith, after all, is a gift of God. But just because I don’t believe as someone else does doesn’t mean that I have to close all my senses to them. My eyes can remain on the cross even as my ears listen to what they have to say.

This is something we’re going to have to think more and more about in the days to come: How do we remain true to our beliefs while listening to what others have to say?

This is not something that we need to worry is unchristian. By my interpretation of the Bible—and I would challenge you to find any UCC pastor who would disagree with me—Jesus encourages us to be open-minded, and to listen to others. This means finding ways to be in dialogue and even relationship with people whose missions intersect with ours—maybe not on all points, but on important ones that make life better for others.

Conclusion: Who Are We?

A few years ago, when this church was struggling with how we might best become an Open & Affirming congregation, there were very few members who objected to stating our welcome of the LGBT community. Most objections were that stating it at that time seemed to imply that this was something new, when in fact our attitude had always been welcoming. It also seemed rather disingenuous of us to be formulating a statement that had to be approved by a group within the UCC that seemed to cater to a limited demographic, when our Open & Affirming statement included all all of God’s children. And so we decided that we would formulate not so much an Open & Affirming statement as a Who We Are statement that we would keep, regardless of whether or not the Open & Affirming section was approved by the appointed channels within the UCC. Needless to say, our statement was approved, but I believe our witness was deeply strengthened by the process we went through to formulate it. It required real listening skills on everybody’s part.

And one of the cool things that came out of it was something I didn’t really expect. There were many in the congregation who didn’t feel comfortable omitting people of other faiths. How could we remain a Christian church while still including non-Christians in our Who We Are statement?

And so, before I end today’s sermon, I want to read to you who we are:

At the Congregational Church of La Jolla, God isn’t just a word, and Jesus Christ isn’t a set of rules by which we judge others. God is a loving presence in our lives, and Jesus Christ—through the Holy Spirit—transforms us into a family which cares for its members and reaches out to the world. Though we cherish our traditional architecture and worship, we are also an open-minded congregation. With the rest of the United Church of Christ, we value diversity, and decry discrimination in all its forms.

The Congregational Church of La Jolla is, in fact, an Open & Affirming congregation of the United Church of Christ. We open our church doors to the full diversity of humankind in God’s glorious creation, warmly embracing all differences in age, race, nationality, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, marital status, mental and physical ability, ethnic and cultural identity, religious background, educational level, and socioeconomic status. Furthermore, we affirm that all those to whom we open our doors are welcome and encouraged to fully participate in the worship, life, leadership, ministry, fellowship, sacraments, responsibilities, blessings, and joys of our congregation’s life in Christ.

Though we are a people for whom Christ is the gateway to wholeness and Christianity the way to fulfillment, we engage in sacred conversation with sincere followers of other faith expressions, enthusiastically acknowledging that which we share in common, and joyfully seeking ways to reach out together to a divided world.

Let me close by reminding us all: Our face is toward the cross, but despite that (or maybe even because of that), our ears can still hear what others say.
—©2016 Sam L. Greening, Jr.