Monday, March 14, 2011

The Ides of March: A Sermon (Luke 13:31-35)*

In Margaret Jensen’s book First We Have Coffee, there is the touching account of her Baptist preacher father’s being voted out of his church. She describes how the news reached her. Called to the dormitory phone, she heard her sister saying, “Margaret, this is Grace.” Long pause. “Papa’s been voted out.”

She goes on to write: “Unable to share the family disgrace with anyone, I went to class and failed the biology exam for which I was well prepared … I tried to figure out what could have gone wrong with Papa’s call. In my mind, the ministry had somehow been disgraced.”

For ten years he had shepherded and loved that congregation, but now they didn’t want him anymore. When Margaret arrived home, she found her sister Leona furious. She explained life as she saw it for the Norwegian immigrant pastor: “They wanted an American pastor, one more geared to the changing times.”

“What will we do now?” Margaret asked. Her mother, taking cups out of the cupboard never looked up:  “God never fails,” she said. “But it will be interesting to see how He works this one out. But first, we have coffee.”

Rejection. Feel it?

Just how severe a blow rejection is, I think, can be measured in at least two ways. Look at the lengths to which we are willing to go to avoid rejection.

In a recent report, a consumer psychologist said that now that the American economy has entered what many have called "The Great Recession," Americans have had to learn how to shop all over again. In these tighter times, many American shoppers simply do not have the money any longer to pay “retail” for goods, and so this consumer psychologist was suggesting that Americans are going to have to learn to walk into an up-scale department store and offer the salesperson a price for a commodity that may be less than the sticker price. She went on to say that though many Americans will find this difficult to do, they can learn to do it. It is difficult for Americans, she went on to say, not only because they have never learned to do it, as people in other cultures have, but because Americans are terrified of rejection, even from a salesperson. And so this psychologist was suggesting strategies for this new generation of shoppers and encouraging them to “go ahead and try it.” “It’s not like being jilted by a lover,” she said. “It’s only a vendor, for heaven’s sake!”

And look at the reactions rejection touches off. Bo Jackson, whose athletic career ended sadly with an injury, spoke with venom in his voice about the decision by the Kansas City Royals to let him go.

“I gave them the best I had. I sold tickets for them they would not have sold had I not been playing. And what do they do? The moment I’m hurt, they give up on me! I wouldn’t play for the Royals I don’t care what they paid me!”

Rejection. Is any one a stranger to it?

Luke was certainly no stranger to the pain of it either. He writes to a church struggling with this very issue. Luke’s gospel was most likely written sometime around the mid-80’s of the first century A.D. Though the separation between the church and the synagogue was all but complete, dialog was continuing still between Jews and Christians. As a matter of fact, most early Christians were Jews, and many of them still retained ties to Judaism. The fact that as late as Acts 10 Simon Peter was still concerned about eating kosher is compelling evidence that the early Church regarded itself as a faithful community within Israel. But because these “Messianic Jews” called “Christians” also had some newfangled ideas about the law and about inclusion of non-Jews, they were rejected by the synagogue. And the charges against them were three: (1) you’ve been unfaithful to your heritage in Judaism; (2) you’ve been unfaithful to your own Founder, Who was a faithful Jew; and (3) you’ve been unfaithful to the Scriptures. And so, in part to answer those charges, and in part to encourage a Church caught in the cycle of rejection, Luke writes his two volume work, Luke-Acts, to remind his church that their Lord too suffered rejection and to invite them to “overhear” how He dealt with it.

And “deal with it” He did! As a matter of fact, our text is actually a part of a much longer section in Luke’s gospel, running from 9:51 - 18:14, in which Luke depicts Jesus as steadfastly journeying to Jerusalem and to the final rejection that awaits Him there. Luke’s so-called “travel narrative” foreshadows it: “And He set His face toward Jerusalem.”

And all along the way, as Luke tells it, Jesus encountered it — rejection. In His hometown synagogue at Nazareth, in the synagogues of Galilee, at a Samaritan village, and now, with Jerusalem looming large on the horizon, word comes from the Pharisees, of all people, that Herod Antipas is waiting for Him once He steps foot in Jerusalem. They appear on the scene, like the augur in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “Beware the ides of March!” “Don’t go to Jerusalem!”

But Jesus does a strange thing. He tells them to go back to Herod and say: “Get the gallows ready, for Jerusalem has had a lot of practice putting prophets to death. You ought to know what to do with one more.” But then, instead of railing against the recalcitrance of the Holy City, He weeps over it: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood, and you would not.”

Do you see what Luke is doing? Do you see what he’s doing? By letting his church, in the throes of their own experience of rejection, “overhear” Jesus dealing with rejection, he reminds them of some things the people of God ought never forget — then or now. He reminds them, in the face of uncompromising rejection, of the steadfast love of God.

“I would … you would not!”

God’s love, Luke says, is not contingent on anything we do or fail to do. It’s not even contingent on our acceptance of it. It is unilateral, unconditional, unwavering. The synagogue may have rejected them, but God hadn’t.

And he reminds them that their Lord too had known the pain of rejection. Chapter 9:51 - 18:14 runs like a long, extended commentary on Isaiah 53: “He was despised and rejected of men.” And Luke wants them to notice: though rejected, He did not reject. Nor does He engage in self-pity, either: “You know, I just don’t understand why they don’t like me?” Motivated by a larger vision, “He sets His face steadfastly toward Jerusalem.” There’s more at stake here than feelings — even Jesus’. They could be sure that they were not now being asked to endure anything the Lord Himself had not endured.

But more than anything else, do you know why Luke wants his church to “overhear” this story? Because he wants them to remember what it feels like to be rejected lest they ever be tempted to do the same to others. To make sure they “get the point,” Luke follows this story immediately in Chapter 14 with four other stories that all take place “around the table.” The context is still Jesus’ Journey to Jerusalem and the subject is still “acceptance and rejection.” This is no pleasant stop-off on the way to the Cross. For Luke, nothing is more serious than the table. Throughout Luke Jesus sits “at table” with all kinds of people, much to the dismay of His critics. “Jesus, why do you eat with sinners and publicans? Birds of a feather, you know …”

And in Acts, the issue on which the entire story of the early Church turns is precisely this: “Who will be admitted to the table?” “Can you eat with their kind and still be the Church?” To accept someone at table is to accept them. And to refuse to eat with someone is to reject them. Don't think so? Look over your own guest list at your home in the past year. The people who have sat at your table are the people whom you have accepted.

It was so critical for Paul, that he once told Simon Peter off right in front of the whole church over this issue. He and Peter had been eating with some Gentiles at a church supper in Antioch, and they were having a great time until some Jewish members from the church at Jerusalem showed up. When he saw them come in, Peter got up from the table, took his plate, and went over to join them, refusing to eat with the Gentiles in the presence of these folk from Jerusalem. And right in front of the entire church, Paul stood up and called him a “hypocrite. And you think you have some tense church meetings.

But Paul was right. What made the church the Church was the fact that only here would Jew and Gentile eat together.

“Can you not eat with their kind and still be the Church?”

Lose that…lose that, and you don’t have a church anymore.

And so Luke reminds his church, and ours, that we are a Fellowship of the Rejected Lord, set into a community called “Church” where each receives the other just as all have been received by Christ.

Fred Craddock tells a story about being invited to give some lectures at the University of Winnipeg in Canada. He’d never been to Winnipeg, so he asked his host, “How shall I come dressed, it’s the middle of October.” He said, “Well, it’s a little early for the bad weather, but you might want to bring a windbreaker.” Craddock took a windbreaker.

The first lecture was Friday night. When he came out of the lecture hall it was spitting a little snow. Craddock said, “No problem. It’s a little early. It won’t be anything.”

Next morning Craddock got up and looked out, it was up to the top of the window. It had blown against the door, up to the top of the door.

The phone rang. The voice on the other end said, “Listen, this town is shut down. We were taken by surprise, nothing is moving. We’ve canceled the lecture, the airport is closed, in fact, I can’t even come and take you to breakfast.”

Craddock said, “Thanks. What am I to do?”

He said, “If you can make it down to the corner, go out of your room, take a right, go down to the corner, take another right and in the middle of the block is a bus depot. There’s a little cafe in there and it might be open.”

Well, Craddock put on his windbreaker, it didn’t even work in the room, and got his little cap, and,…I’ll tell you the truth…what he did was roll up a lot of toilet paper inside his cap to keep his head warm, and out into the cold he went, down to the corner, turned the corner, and sure enough there was a little bus depot and sure enough there was a little cafe. Craddock went inside; it was packed, wall to wall. Every stranded traveler in the country was there. Somebody scooted over and let him sit down in the booth with them. A big man in a greasy apron came over.

“What do you want?” Craddock said, “May I see the menu?”

He said, “What you want with a menu, we have soup.”

Craddock said, “Good, I’ll have the soup. Soup sounds good to me. I always eat soup for breakfast.”

Soup. He brought the soup. The soup was strange looking soup. It was gray soup. It looked the color of a mouse, but it was hot. Craddock took the spoon and tasted the soup. It was awful. He didn’t know what it was; it was awful soup. He couldn’t stand it. He put the spoon down, put his hands around his little soup stove to warm himself and rail against the world, what a horrible fix to be in.

The door opened, somebody yelled, “Shut the door!” and she did. This woman came in, she had on a coat, nothing on her head. Somebody scooted over and she got in there and the big man in the greasy apron came over.

“What ya want?”

She said, “A glass of water.” He brought her a glass of water, took out his little tablet and said, “What are ya ordering?”

She said, “Nothing, just the water.” He said, “Order something!” She said, “Just the glass of water.” He said, “Lady you gotta order something.” She said, “Just the water.” He said, “You gotta order or get out. We got paying customers here.” And she said, “I just wanted water.” And he said, “Lady, order something or leave.” She said, “Well, can I stay long enough to get warm?”

He said, “Order or leave!” She got up, the other people at the table got up, other people around her got up, others got up, Craddock got up. He said he didn’t know why, he just got up.
They all got up and started towards the door and the big man in the greasy apron said, “Okay, okay, she can stay.”

And she sat down and he brought her a bowl of that soup. Craddock asked the people there who had let him sit with them, “Who is she?”

The man said, “I never saw her before in my life, but if she ain’t welcome, ain’t nobody welcome.”

Then all you could hear was the clinking of spoons as people ate that gray soup. And Craddock said to himself, “If they can eat it, I can eat it.”

And so he took the spoon and started again to eat the soup. He said it was pretty good soup after all. Matter of fact, he said he kinda liked that soup. Matter of fact, he said he’d never had any soup like that before. And Craddock sat there and ate that whole bowl of soup. He said: “I don’t know what was in it; I’d never tasted anything like it, at least I didn’t think so; but as I started out the door I remembered what it tasted like. It tasted like bread and wine.”

“It’ll be interesting to see how God works this one out,” she said. “But first we have coffee.”

Rejection. Feel it? I tell you the truth, it’s doubtful you’ll make it through the day without experiencing it in one form or another – as victim or perpetrator.

It may well be that right now you’re caught up in its vicious cycle. Brothers and sisters, listen to Luke: God loves you; Jesus understands you; and the Church has a place at the table for you.

Forget the danish! Try that with your coffee.

*I published this somewhere, but for the life of me I can't now remember where. It happens.

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