05 March 2007

On the Way to Jerusalem,Take Risks

Texts: Psalm 27; Genesis 15:1-12,17-18; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35

The strangest thing about this story is who comes to Jesus to warn him of danger. Elsewhere, Luke presents the Pharisees as opponents of Jesus who seek to undermine his teaching and proclamation of the kingdom. Yet, it is the Pharisees who approach Jesus in the Gospel reading today, trying to dissuade him from continuing on the hazardous road to Jerusalem. They are unexpected advocates, even though – like the disciples – the do not fully understand what Jesus is about.

Perhaps we must re-imagine the Pharisees: not as adversaries, but as advocates. Although Jesus speaks of the Pharisees with caution, he also broke bread with them, at their invitation. The Pharisees so often appear to be in conflict with Jesus and his followers not because their teachings and practices were antithetical to those of Jesus, but because they had much more in common with one another than with the other movements in Judaism at the time.

Like Jesus and his followers, Pharisees of the first century interpreted prophetic works like Isaiah as scripture. They, unlike the Sadducees in particular, believed that scripture should in interpreted through reason and in light of changing circumstances. They welcomed Gentiles who wanted to follow their teaching. And, like Jesus, they placed the center of religious life not in the Temple, but in the daily practices of individuals, living in community with one another.

So: the Pharisees, seemingly the opponents of Jesus and his followers, are actually far more complicated, more human. They are not a homogenous group, anymore than any group can be lumped together. Some Pharisees, to be sure, were not in agreement with Jesus, but others became Christians, members of the body of Christ alongside Peter and the other apostles and along with us.

Jesus does not seem to welcome this advice, though, as well meaning as it is. Most of us have experienced the well-intentioned advice of others, and perhaps we’ve given some ourselves. It can sting, to have your advice rejected, especially if you’re doing your best to help the other person. Ask any parent of a teenager how it feels – it happens a lot at that time of parenting – and I can say this not as a parent, but as a former (and reformed) teenager.

In fact, Jesus’s response reminds me a lot of my own responses to well-intentioned counsel from very wise people. Although the message is nominally intended for Herod, in reality, Jesus is saying to the Pharisees: I know what I’m doing! I know where I’m going! He is saying, Thanks for the warning, but no thanks.

Now, I don’t know about you, but there is a part of me that just wants to scream. I wish I were there to give Jesus a piece of my mind. Doesn’t he know that he is putting himself at risk! Doesn’t he know that this is doomed! What on earth is he thinking?!?!

And of course, unlike most teenagers – and certainly unlike me, then and now – Jesus actually does know what he is doing. That is precisely what he tells the Pharisees and what he is saying to us. He is claiming his future for himself. It is not forced on him. It is a future that he accepts and welcomes as his work. He is willing to go towards a future that is at best uncertain and perilous, and at worst, fatal.

The question for us in Lent is not can we make it for forty days without our favorite sweets, but can we follow the Jesus to Jerusalem? Are we willing to accept a future that is risky, rather than comfortable?

At least for me, I like risk, sure, as long as I get to be comfortable too. I’m willing to take risks only insofar as I have security as well. I have to be wary of focusing so much on accumulating ‘stuff’, the good things of life. If things and accomplishments are my priority, I cannot enter fully into the journey that Jesus undertakes to Jerusalem. The things that I desire for myself aren’t the focus of the future that Jesus has embraced, and they cannot be the center of what it means to follow Jesus. These things are the physical stuff that we gather to us as a comfort, a sort of security blanket that leaves us more vulnerable because we can’t imagine life without it. We get addicted to the security of stuff, rather than embracing the liberty of letting go. And while we might reach the point of letting go of the physical things, we are less aware of the cultural “stuff” that we carry with us. It is the cultural mindset, this acquisitive impulse, that I will have more trouble shedding.

We set Lent apart in our tradition, for fasting from those things that are not necessary to our truest life as human beings. It is a time that reminds us of who we are in relationship to one another and to God. It is a time when we stand in opposition to our society and let go in many ways, small and large, of the things that bind us to this world. It is a time of preparation, a way of participating in Jesus’s walk to Jerusalem. We remember, in Lent, our priorities and our anxieties, just as Jesus did. And, just as Jesus claimed his future for himself, we too can claim our future: uncertain and perilous, to be sure, but also a journey we do not undertake alone.

Because, although Jesus walked to Jerusalem in the company of his disciples, his actions there – his death and resurrection – guarantee that he will be with us, as we practice the discipline of Lent, as we live into the way of the Cross, and as we struggle to set aside our love of earthly things.

Do not be deterred by the prospect of a difficult journey, because you are not alone. We do not walk as individuals but as members of the body of Christ. We walk with one another and with Jesus. The act of faith that Jesus modeled for us is fundamentally about accepting an ambiguous and challenging future and looking beyond it to the “means of grace and the hope of glory” that we have already in Jesus Christ. Amen.