A sermon for the third Sunday after Pentecost

When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today’s gospel is really an important turning point in the gospel according to St. Luke. Up until now, Jesus has mostly been in Galilee, which is where he was from, his home area. He’s been teaching and healing, but the pace is picking up a little bit in the story. Just before this, he twice tells his disciples that he’s going to be betrayed. He’s going to suffer and die. They don’t seem to get it, but he knows what’s coming. He knows it’s time to head to Jerusalem, and he knows what’s going to happen there. That phrase, he set his face to go to Jerusalem, is so resolute. There’s no turning back now.

So the first thing he has to do to get from Galilee to Jerusalem, and to do that you have to go through Samaria. And as you probably know, the Samaritans and the Jews were once all one family, and they broke apart. And they didn’t always get along, which is why, the meaning of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that someone that they ordinarily wouldn’t have thought too much of is shown to be a good person.

But I digress.

So they are going to go through Samaria, unfriendly territory. He sends a mission ahead to say, “Jesus is coming. Will you receive us?” And they’re turned away. We don’t know why exactly. Jesus was obviously expecting hospitality. It could have been because their destination was Jerusalem, because the Jews worshiped in Jerusalem. The Samaritans worshiped on another mountain. We don’t why they were turned away, but James and John are disturbed by this. They suggest calling down fire to destroy the village. Jesus says no, and they go on. And the end of the gospel is three examples of the kind of single-minded commitment that is going to be required of people who follow Jesus.

So there’s a lot to preach on in this passage. There’s a lot of opportunity for digression. But I thought that one of the interesting things for us here in this church was this little glimpse it gives us of St. James, our patron. There are a lot of legends about St. James, how he went to Spain and so on. He’s only mentioned a few times—but very significant times—in the New Testament.

James is one of the first disciples Jesus calls. Luke says that Jesus comes upon these two boats owned by the brothers, Peter and Andrew, and one with James and John and their father, Zebedee. And they’re washing their nets. Part of the story is that Jesus sends Peter’s boat out to fish, and Peter objects saying, we’ve been out all night and didn’t catch anything. Peter tells them to go out, and the catch is so enormous that they have to call for James and John and Zebedee to come and help them, and they can still hardly pull in this catch.

And they’re so impressed that James and John drop everything and go after Jesus. I always imagined that Zebedee must have been mighty pleased by this, because he didn’t go. He was left with the boat. James and John, the brothers, were clearly among Jesus’s closest companions, his closest friends. There are a couple of times when Peter, James and John are the only ones who are allowed to go along with Jesus. One of those is when they go up the mountain for the transfiguration. One of those is at Gethsemane, where he calls those three to come aside with him.

So they’re very close friends, but apparently they have rather strong personalities. Jesus’s nickname for them is the Sons of Thunder, and they didn’t always come off looking good. At one point they asked him if he would let them sit at his right and left hand when he comes into his glory, and he says, you don’t know what you’re asking. And there is the time in today’s gospel when they want to call down fire to burn up the village, and it says he rebukes them. He rebukes them, but he doesn’t reject them. I think he appreciates their passion, even if it sometimes needs to be directed.

And I think today, on a day when we’re going to commission vestry members here, it’s a good day to think about, what are the lessons we’ve learned from these guys, from all of these stories? What does James have to teach us about how to be a church?

I think the first lesson is this lesson of passion. If you’re going to be a follower of Jesus, you need to be passionate about it, and that comes along with commitment. You put hand on the plow and you don’t turn back. You don’t even have time to go say goodbye to your family; it’s time to go proclaim the kingdom of God. Real commitment. We know also from the New Testament, from the Book of Acts, that James was the first of the apostles to be martyred. Herod ordered his head to be cut off with a sword. That’s commitment.

And another lesson from James and John is that it’s important to be friends with Jesus. It’s important to have that close personal relationship. I think that’s true for all followers of Jesus. I think that’s especially true for those who would be leaders, because where else are you going to get your marching directions, as it were? Who is going to guide you when you’re ready to call down thunder and that turns out not to be the right response? So friendship with Jesus, passion and commitment.

And I think the last important point is to know that no matter how passionate and committed you are, maybe the things that you want aren’t always going to happen the way you want them to. The Sons of Thunder wanted to call down fire. Jesus said no. There may be things that you want and maybe things you want for the church, and maybe they aren’t going to happen. Now, don’t think that I have any special inside knowledge from the diocese about what’s going to happen here. I don’t. Sometimes I feel like I got dropped into this boat with you, and I’m along for the ride.

We’re just doing the best we can. You know better than I do how much work it’s been to keep this parish going, and you have stayed the course, and you’re still here. And when you think you’ve had problems, let me tell you, all of the churches in the diocese, all of the churches have problems. There is a statistic I heard that post COVID, the return rate, the attendance after COVID compared to before, is 30 to 50%. There’s a third to a half as many people. That’s the little parishes. That’s the big parishes. I think you’re doing better than that. I don’t have all the numbers, but I think you’re doing better than that.

And there are tremendous financial challenges. That’s true across the board. Maybe the richest parishes aren’t really feeling it the way the small parishes are, but it’s tough times.

And I think maybe in the past we’ve seen an imbalance, where the clergy took too much of the leadership, as it were. I spent a lot of time learning and studying and trying to figure out, trying to be instructed in how to be an ordained leader, but it isn’t just on us. It’s on everybody.

You vestry members, you are being asked to do things you never thought you’d be doing. You didn’t know that was going to be your job. But let me tell you, if you’re going to survive, that is your job. You’re going to have to be the leaders here. I know you’re doing that, but I’m just saying. The church is challenged in many ways these days. And one of the challenges the church faces—and when I say “the church,” I don’t mean just this parish, or the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania. I mean Christianity. One of the challenges is that there are a lot of people out there speaking something that I think is not the gospel message and claiming that’s Christianity. It isn’t. It really isn’t. And it’s on all of us, as Jesus says, to proclaim the kingdom, to speak the true gospel. So that’s going to be part of the job.

So today, after the creed, in your leaflets, we have a little service. We will be commissioning vestry members, and we will be asking them to make certain promises about their commitment to this leadership role.

But we will also be promising all of us to be there for them, to be support from them, to speak truthfully but kindly to them, to share the load that’s put on them. It’s a promise that is really important in these times more than ever.

Maybe we don’t know what the future is, but we know how to do this job in the moment: Moment by moment, step by step, put your hand on the plow and don’t look back. Amen.

Amen.

Preached at St. James the Greater Episcopal Church, Bristol, PA.