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June 27, 2004 (Pentecost 4)—“Free to Follow...Free to Serve”
Pastor David Barber
Sisters and brothers, grace be unto you and peace from God our loving Creator and from our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.
When we moved from Colorado, one of the items that we moved was a 36" statue of St. Francis of Assisi. It was a Father's Day gift from Karen, and it stood by a pond that I constructed at our home.
St. Francis is one of my favorite saints. In fact, in one of my previous congregations, we had a "Blessing of the Animals" Service near October 4th for a number of years to commemorate and to remember the life and the ministry of this popular saint.
Francis loved the whole world the sun, the moon, the fire, the insects, and the stones along the road. He believed that you can't separate human life from the life of the air, or land, or water.
In his travels, Francis would pick up worms along the path so he didn't step on them. He would preach to the flowers and the trees and wrote songs of praise in honor of Brother Sun and Sister Moon.
For Francis--everything--absolutely everything--animals, plants, air, water, sun, moon, and stars, and yes, even death--everything existed to praise and serve God. "All creatures of our God and King," says Francis, "lift up your voice and with us sing: Alleluia! Alleluia!"
There's a part of his life, however, that's very confrontational to my own. It's a 180 degrees from where I live my life. For instance, he renounced his relationship with his Father.
"No longer will I call him Father, " said Francis. "I will only say, 'My Father who art in heaven." He declared his faithfulness to Lady Poverty, and he remained faithful to this bride until death.
He had no place to lay his head and he depended entirely upon the hospitality of others. He owned nothing and he insisted that all members of his order own nothing as well.
He insisted on this not to cut them off and exclude them from life, but rather to free them so that they could love all of life...free to love people, and animals, and rivers, and mountains...free to love all in God's creation.
They were free from all--in order to love and to serve all.
The life of St. Francis is a fitting example of the life described by Jesus in our Gospel for today. That's why it's so confrontational. I'm just not there.
For us, too, Jesus has freed us not only so that we can love and serve all of life. But in terms of our Gospel for today, he's set us free so that we might follow him on the road to Jerusalem.
In these verses from Luke, we see anything but a user-friendly Jesus. Jesus is focused. He's determined. He's single-minded. He's a man with a mission, and nothing, absolutely nothing will detain him from this mission.
In three different ways we're told that Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem. He sent messengers ahead of him. They entered a village of the Samaritans, but they wouldn't receive Jesus because his face was set toward Jerusalem.
He wouldn't be sidetracked even though the Samaritans snubbed him and the disciples wanted to wipe them out with a holy fire from the heavens. Jesus is on the way--on his way to crucifixion and death--and on the way to resurrection and ascension.
On the way, someone came up to him saying: "I'll follow you, wherever you go." But Jesus brings him up short by confronting him: "I'm totally dependent on the hospitality of others. Are you willing to be that vulnerable?"
To another Jesus says, "Follow me." And he was ready to go, but he first needed to go home and bury his father. "Honor thy father and thy mother. After all, isn't that what the Good Book says?"But Jesus responds, "Let the dead bury their own dead."
And then a third one steps forward to volunteer, "I'll follow you Lord, but just give me some time to get my things in order at home and say goodbye to Mom and Dad. You certainly aren't against family values, are you?"
Jesus replies, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God."
These are troubling words for a couple of reasons. First, in the hands of dysfunctional people, they can lead to an unhealthy and warped Christianity not at all what Jesus had in mind.
We've experienced far too many horrendous situations where the rigidity of these words has bred and fostered abusive cults which turn children against their parents, or family members against each other.
We've seen situations of violence against abortion clinics or other institutions or people that don't measure up to their standards of morality. We've seen and heard far too many horrible stories where some form of fire from heaven has been commanded to come down and consume their enemies.
Fred Craddock, a New Testament commentator has written: "Is it not interesting how the mind can grasp and hold those Scriptures which seem to bless our worst behavior and yet cannot retain past the sanctuary door those texts which summon to love, forgiveness, and mercy?"
Secondly, the very things, which Jesus tells us to leave behind, are gifts that come to us from the hand of God. Are we being asked to turn our back on these good gifts of God, which enhance and enrich our lives and even make us more fully human?
After all, it would seem that in the tension of these human institutions we live out our calling as a child of God. Sometimes the call of our baptism does put us 180 degrees from the demands of our family, or work, or even our country. Most of the time, however, we work out what it means to follow Jesus to Jerusalem in the very midst of these other loyalties that demand our time and attention.
It would be much easier to reduce this tension all together by either forsaking everything to follow Jesus, or as we often do, forsaking Jesus and giving our life to these other loyalties.
But that leads us to death and not to life. When Jesus asks us to follow him, he wants to free us from possession and worship of family so that we might find the distance necessary to more fully love and serve them and others. He wants to free us from any anxious grasping that has the desire to possess whether it's a person in a relationship, or material objects, or even satisfying experiences.
Sometimes we have to work this out in some very messy and complicated situations. Many of you have seen the prize-winning movie The Pianist. It's the story of Waldyslaw Szpilman, a concert pianist in Warsaw during the Nazi invasion. Although his family had been deported to the death camps, Szpilman, a Jew, spent the war as a fugitive, in constant danger of being discovered by the Nazi forces.
Near the end of the movie, Szpilman is hiding in the attic of an abandoned Warsaw home when he's discovered by a German officer. Normally this would have meant certain death, but astonishingly, the officer befriended Szpilman secretly, and at great risk to himself, provided this fugitive with food, warm clothing, and protection.
The movie version omits the officer's identity, but he was, in fact, Captain Wilm Hosenfeld - a Christian. After the war it was revealed that Hosenfeld had saved the life of many Jews He defied orders and took the risk of being executed as a traitor for doing so.
Once when riding a bicycle near the Polish town of Pabiance, Hosenfeld had encountered a young Jewish woman running desperately down the road. When he asked her where she was going, she was so frightened she stammered out the truth.
She told him that she was pregnant and that her husband was a prisoner in the concentration camp. She was going to the camp to beg for his release. Hosenfeld wrote down the husband's name and said to the frightened wife, "Your husband will be home again in three days." And, indeed he was.
On another occasion, Hosenfeld had learned that the Gestapo had rounded up a number of men, including the brother-in-law of a priest who had labored sacrificially in the underground. They were being taken by truck to a work camp, and the brother-in-law was to be executed.
Hosenfeld spotted the truck moving through town, waved it down, and told the S.S. commander, "I need a man" for labor detail. He picked out the priest's brother-in-law, as if by random selection, and the man's life was saved.
As the German war effort collapsed, Hosenfeld was captured, and died, forgotten and alone in a Russian prisoner of war camp. Just before he died, he wrote in his diary, "Why did this war have to happen at all?...We will not listen to the divine commandment, 'Love one another.'"
Today, Hosenfeld is remembered as a saint and a hero, and there is a tree planted in his memory in Israel on the Avenue of the Righteous, beside the River Jordan. (From the book The Pianist and also retold in a sermon by Dr. Thomas Long entitled "Today is...").
As with St. Francis, the call to follow is not given to cut us off and exclude us from life. It's given so that we may more fully love all of life.
In Jesus we are free from all in order to love and to serve all of life with all of our being.
Copyright © 2004 David Barber
Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org