|Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on September 6, 2016 at 10:40 AM|
My campus ministry students know that I am something of an expert on all the naked people in Scripture. I don’t know why this is, but it somehow comes up a lot in Bible studies. And this is not only a fun fact, but actually has something to do with the sermon.
Well, last semester at UMBC, we spent one night reading stories of saints- those “official” Catholic saints and other faithful Christians who had done extraordinary things in order to follow Jesus. And that’s when I happened to come across the story of Brother Juniper who served with St. Francis of Assisi. And his story stuck with me, because, wouldn’t you know it, kept giving his clothes away to everyone in need that he met on the road. He did it so often that his superiors finally had to forbid him to do it again. So the next time Juniper saw a man in need, he told him that he couldn’t GIVE this man his tunic, but we wouldn’t prevent the man from taking it either. Brother Juniper just couldn’t imagine another way to live than to give all he had to his brothers and sisters in need.
Folks like Brother Juniper make us laugh at the absurdity of this way of life, but they also make us rejoice at the sheer beauty of it. What treasure of God must Juniper know to live like this? What secret joy in giving away everything for Jesus did he find? And how did he have the courage to follow Jesus like this?
These are the questions we have when we see someone actually be able to live like Jesus calls us to this morning. Because, today Jesus is really pulling out all the stops in telling us how hard it is to follow him. You know, the big stuff like not putting our families or our safety first and giving up all we own. Things that are pretty much antithetical to how much of our culture tells us to live. And things that are pretty terrifying and heart-breaking.
And Jesus starts where it hurts- with our families- those folks that both love us and shape our lives from day one. And Jesus tells the crowds around him that they need to hate their families to follow him. But he meant something more like, “don’t give first preference to.” Don’t let your family’s wants and needs dictate your decisions. Don’t let them be your first priority. That place belongs to God alone.
And he says the same things about our own lives- we’re called to refuse to put our desires or even our safety first and foremost in our lives. So perhaps it then doesn’t come as a huge shock that Jesus tells that unless we give away all we own, we cannot follow him.
And that just sounds mean and unreasonable and a little condemning. If we can’t do what seems impossible, then we’re not allowed to be a follower? Does Jesus not love us then? That’s where we may go in our heads, but we already know Jesus’ love for us is without question. But Jesus is trying to tell the crowds and us something else this morning.
When Jesus says, “if you don’t do these things, you can’t be my disciple,” it’s better translated as “you will not be able to.” As in “If you don’t treat what you have as completely unimportant in comparison to following where Jesus leads, then it’s not going to work. You’re going to get a little ways on the journey and then not make it since you will be weighed down. And if you don’t make Jesus’ calling a priority far above the obligations and wants of your family, you’ll be called in many directions and get distracted. If you’re worried about safety at all costs, you won’t be able to do the courageous things that Jesus asks of your for the sake of bringing love and justice to the world.
You see, Jesus is being honest about a life spent with him. It’s not for the faint of heart. He was telling the crowds that he was going to keep preaching and living out the kingdom in the face of persecution. And that meant that only those who trusted his lead and put it first in their lives were going to have a chance of withstanding what was ahead. Because even though this following Jesus thing leads to joyful, purposeful God-filled life- it’s not going to easy.
Jesus is giving us a gift- he’s telling us the truth about what needs to be central so that we can put other things- even good things- in their place. If you don’t make this one central choice about where your focus lies and where your heart lies, then you’re not going to be able to make any of the smaller decisions you will need to make. Jesus sorts through all the things that compete for our attention and our devotion and puts them in their place.
And frankly, it’s a gift to have someone who knows where life and beauty and joy are found do the orienting of our lives. Because we have a tendency to not always make such good choices when left on our own! So it’s a gift to have one who loves us be the one to lead us. It is a gift to get to follow one who promises that we can join him in bringing the goodness of God into the world.
But it will mean change and a complete reorientation of our lives. So we need to count the cost before we sign on. Because those who follow Jesus no longer make decisions based on what is best for themselves or even what’s best for their family. They may be called to live in more dangerous neighborhoods so that they may bring a gracious and calming presence there. They may live more simply than others to devote their resources to those in more need. They may spend a lot of time away from their family for the sake of helping those who seem less deserving. Their choices may not always be supported by their family or by our society when they do what Jesus calls them to do. Just like Brother Juniper’s actions weren’t exactly celebrated, even by his religious community.
But Jesus calls us to follow him toward the life and beauty he brings no matter what just like Juniper. You see, Juniper got so caught up in the loveliness of following Jesus that even though he did things that were ridiculous to our eyes, they seemed perfectly normal and even necessary for him to do. Because he had different priorities. And because his eyes were looking toward a different future. As he looked toward God’s future where all people had enough, clothing those in need with whatever he had to give was the only possible way to walk this path with Jesus. So he just did it.
But , since all of you here at church are clothed, perhaps we’re not as gifted as Brother Juniper was at seeing and trusting this kingdom. So what do we do then? What if we’re not as foolish and courageous enough to dance into this beautiful kingdom of God like him? How then can we LEARN to be?
I don’t know the answer, but this is one things that my students and I have tried together. Every year a few of my Towson students and I make a promise to gather every other week to hear what God had been up to in our lives. We share about the moments when we felt like something greater than us was at work and those nagging thoughts that God keeps tapping us on the shoulder with. And we would support each other by connecting those moments and thoughts to the stories of Scripture, as best we were able. Then we would simply ask, “What is God saying? And what are you going to do about it?” We would ask the questions that are THE questions in the life of following Jesus, but they are also the questions that often don’t get asked in the course of a busy life.
And then we would check in with each other later in the week and the week after that and the week after that to see if we had actually done what we planned. We checked in because this is what love does- supporting each other in the things that matter, supporting each other in the things that lead to life. This life of following Jesus matters, so it was worth pushing each other a little.
And because we found that checking in wasn’t always enough, we promised each other that in any crazy thing Jesus called us to do, that we would find two others to walk the way with us so that we would be strong enough. And that we would be some of those people for each other. We called each other to listen to God. We held each other accountable and we walked beside each other as we did the hard work of following. We echoed the exact things that Jesus does on the way with us- he calls us, supports us and goes on the way with us.
Now, together we didn’t do all that Jesus calls us to. Not by a long shot. But we took some steps along the way. And we hoped that living like this together might prepare our hearts for the moment when Jesus may ask us to walk away from anything for the sake of following.
So I pray that I pray that you find those Christians in your lives that love you enough to ask you hard questions about following Jesus. That challenge you and cheer you on. And I pray that you will be ones who love others and enough to ask them about things that matter and walk beside them in the courageous work of following.
Because Jesus invites us to a life where we are free of the stresses and pulls of so many things on our time , by inviting us to make the one decision that decides all others. He loves us whether we follow well of not, but he wants us to have the freedom to leave behind all that bind us in order to follow him. Because the life of following is beautiful, just like the life the Juniper lived. And it is what Jesus wishes that each of us would grab hold of for the sake of knowing the love of God.