Pentecost 5 June 27, 2010

Galatians 5:1, 13-25                                                          

Luke 9:51-62                                                                      

I buried a woman once who’d grown up in Holy Cross when it was in East Weare village. Among the people who came forward to speak at her funeral was a grandson, a young man who is mildly retarded. I was a little nervous about what he might say, but his words about his grandmother were beautiful. “She called me her little tagalong,” he said. “I was always trying to follow her. I had trouble keeping up, but then she would turn and wait for me.”

I thought about what that young man said as I prayed with the gospel passage this morning. It is the beginning of the long central section of Luke’s gospel, where Luke departs from the structure of Mark’s gospel which he’s been following to this point and gives us a series of sayings and wonders set in the context of Jesus journeying to Jerusalem and his final destination on the Cross. “As the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up,” Luke begins, “he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”

The Jesus that Luke presents is a bold, prophetic figure – here echoing Elijah in the Hebrew Scriptures. He comes to proclaim the kingdom of God, without compromise, without hesitation, without fear or doubt or seeming tiredness. And listening to him, watching him, I feel like his little tagalong. How can I keep up? How can I hope to follow him into his kingdom – I with all my hesitations and compromises, fears, doubts and weariness?

I don’t know what you do to prepare for worship on Sunday. Probably just get up, get dressed, grab some breakfast and try to get here on time – not an easy matter, especially if you have children. Our lives are so crowded, so over-full. If you read the Book of Common Prayer, it supposes that Saturday will be a day of sabbath, rest and preparation for worship of God on Sunday. The whole day! It used to be that we were supposed to fast from midnight Saturday in preparation for Communion; in some traditions, that we were supposed to go to Confession if we were to receive. Saturday night was the night you took a bath in the old days, in a tub in front of the wood stove.

Those customs, or at least the rules that tried to enforce them, went by the board a generation or so ago. And indeed they had often become meaningless, routines that served no purpose. But preparation for worship is important. We need to take prayerful stock of where we are, who we are, as we prepare to come into God’s presence. We are not here as consumers, shoppers. You may have noticed that we’ve begun to offer a private prayer of preparation in the bulletin each week. The one this morning comes from Martin Luther.* We are here as “empty vessels that need to be filled,” Luther says. We are “weak in faith,” “cold in love,” at times doubting, our sins abundant. Tagalongs after Jesus, his face set towards Jerusalem and the Cross.

Think about that for a bit. It puts things in a different light, doesn’t it? To think of ourselves as needing to be filled, to be strengthened, our hearts to be warmed, our sinfulness to be turned to righteousness by our encounter here with holiness in Word and Sacrament. To come to receive, since we are unable to give.

James and John in the gospels had the nickname “sons of thunder.” They were “insider disciples,” ambitious, pushy, needing to special, seeking the seats of honor next to their Master at the heavenly banquet. So they’re quick to suggest in the passage this morning that they call down God’s fire from heaven to consume the unwelcoming Samaritans. We’ll show them, those nothing losers! But Jesus rebukes them. They’re just tagalongs on the journey – unable to give; like everyone else, needing to receive. So too with us.

St. Paul was acutely aware of this. As a Jew, a Pharisee, he had been like James and John, at the front of the pack. He had exalted his own righteousness and persecuted the followers of Jesus. He had been scrupulous in following all of the rules and quick to criticize anyone who deviated from the prescribed ways. And then, on the road to Damascus, everything got reversed. Jesus came to him in blinding light and showed him his emptiness. In one stroke the journey of his life changed completely. Christ set him on a new road, one leading to the Cross.

If you and I begin to practice emptying ourselves – of all the ideas we’re so sure of, all the goals we’ve set for ourselves, all the possessions we think we need, the connections we depend upon – if we make a practice of doing that especially in preparation for our worship on Sunday mornings, then maybe we’ll be more fit for the kingdom of God. If we let go, in preparation for worship, of some of the “desires of the flesh,” as Paul calls them, then maybe we’ll have more room in our lives for the “fruit of the Spirit.” Maybe we won’t be so tired, trying to keep up with the rat race of worldly life.

The tagalong young man who spoke at his grandmother’s funeral touched our hearts there because he said that when he couldn’t keep up she would always turn and wait for him. I think Jesus turns and waits for us too – when he sees us trying. But his mercy is not something we can take for granted, it’s not “an opportunity for self-indulgence,” as St. Paul says. We only walk this road once, my friends. May we walk it in the company of Jesus the Christ.

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 * The prayer by Martin Luther, taken from the Oxford Book of Prayer, is as follows:

Behold, Lord, an empty vessel that needs to be filled. My Lord, fill it. I am weak in the faith; strengthen me. I am cold in love; warm me and make me fervent that my love may go out to my neighbor. I do not have a strong and firm faith; at times I doubt and am unable to trust you altogether. O Lord, help me. Strengthen my faith and trust in you. With me is an abundance of sin; in you is the fullness of righteousness. Therefore I will remain with you of whom I can receive but to whom I may not give. Amen.