Scripture can be found here...
It happens to all of us. Every single one of us. There comes a time when we realize, we’re not really doing something. We’re merely “playing at” doing it.
I was watching the new Netflix series “House of Cards,” and admiring Robin Wright, who plays Claire Underwood, wife of Kevin Spacey’s Francis Underwood. Between them, the Underwoods are essentially a Lord and Lady Macbeth for 2013. I was admiring Robin Wright’s slim figure, as she went running in various neighborhoods in Washington, DC, listening to music on her iPod. As I watch her, I was thinking, “Yeah, getting into shape is really a good idea. I really have to do that. Look at how cool she looks.” And it hit me: I have been “playing at” my attempts to get healthier. I haven’t really been doing it.
It can apply to nearly everything we do in life. We can “play at” our marriages, our intimate relationships. We can “play at” our attempts to shift careers. High School students can “play at” their college applications. When we “play at” something, we are not really taking the enterprise seriously. We have not thrown ourselves into it. We know, on some level, it’s a worthwhile pursuit—a better marriage, job, the college of our choice—but our heart’s just not in it.
In our reading from Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ followers seem to be playing at following him. Our passage opens with that powerful and thrilling sentence, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he [that is, Jesus] set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). This is a turning point in the gospel. Following the stories of Jesus’ birth, the opening chapters have taken us along on his ministry in the area surrounding the Sea of Galilee, which includes his hometown. We have witnessed his teaching and preaching, his casting out demons and healing, even his raising someone from the dead. But now Jesus needs to go to Jerusalem—and he is steadfast in his determination to do it. Jerusalem is the beating heart of Jesus’ people: the Temple is there, the most important place of worship. Which also means that the religious authorities are there. And because Passover is approaching, the Roman authorities are there with heavy military reinforcements. The Romans always bring in extra soldiers to control the crowds at this feast commemorating an ancient Jewish triumph over tyranny, their escape from slavery in Egypt. No wonder Passover in Jerusalem makes the Romans uneasy. No wonder Jesus has to set his face to go there.
Jesus’ friends seem to be pumped up for the journey. When they experience rejection from a Samaritan town, they respond with a fervor that reminds one of an inebriated pack of fraternity brothers, ready to do damage at the slightest provocation. “Shall we rain down fire from heaven?” they ask Jesus. We don’t hear his answer to them, but we understand that it amounts to a firm “No.”
And then… we have three different followers, or would-be followers of Jesus. His responses to them are… difficult.
First, we have: The Enthusiast. “I will follow you wherever you go!” he cries. Jesus’ reply is a poetic version of, “Yeah. We’ll see.”
Next, we have: The Orphan: “Let me go and bury my father.” Jesus’ rebuke is harsh: “Who’s it going to be… the dead or the living? Choose NOW.”
And finally, we have: The Homebody: “I’m just going to say goodbye…” And Jesus suggests a little experiment. “Try to walk backward and forward at the same time. See how far that gets you.”
A friend told me of a bible study in which someone said of Jesus, “He was just a very nice man.” Clearly, whoever said that had not read this particular sliver of the gospel of Luke. There is no “nice” Jesus here. Even those who were already committed and following, the ones who had been with him from the beginning, must have taken a deep breath and drawn themselves up and set their own faces after hearing those very tough, very harsh, utterly uncompromising words.
We can play at a lot of things, and in many cases, there won’t be anything wrong with that. We can play at writing that novel, we can play at losing that ten pounds, we can play at perfecting our serve. We can even play at church, I guess. There is no “playing at” being a follower of Jesus. We either are or we aren’t. We either take him seriously or we take him lightly. We either give our hearts over to Jesus entirely or… we go on playing at our faith.
So… what stops us? What gives us the idea that there’s always more time, that we can always get serious later, that there are exceptions for busy people like us?
Pastor and author Tony Campolo tells about a pastor who, speaking to a group of students, started his sermon in a striking way: “Young people, you may not think you're going to die, but you are. One of these days, they'll take you to the cemetery, drop you in a hole, throw some dirt on your face and go back to the church and eat potato salad.” We may not like to acknowledge it, but someday, every one of us will have to face the "potato salad promise", that we will all die. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
You can’t get much more denial-free than a smudge of ashes on your forehead, to remind you to get back to basics, to what really matters.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret. The world will keep spinning if we go on playing at our faith, playing at church, playing at life. God will be fine. Jesus will be fine. The Holy Spirit will continue to blow where she will.
But as for us… I don’t know if we’ll be “fine.” It’s not that I think God will smite us, or anything like that. It’s that… we will miss out. We will miss out on the strength that can be gained from leaning on the everlasting arms, on God’s love for us. We will miss out on knowing, here in this flesh, the breadth and length and height and depth of Jesus’ love for us. We will miss out on the bracing wind of the Spirit as it blows through and fills us, with every gift and grace, with every insight and inspiration. If we only play at our faith, if we only play at being followers of Jesus, we will miss out.
So I invite you, in just a few moments, to take on yourselves again the sign of the cross, and the sign of your own frail brokenness and broken-heartedness. I invited you to commit yourselves, heart and soul, mind and strength, to following Jesus, no matter the cost. I invite you to know that this yoke and this burden are not yours to carry alone, but are shared by an entire community of love and support, of caring and concern—and also by God, the author of all our days. I invite you to come on the journey with Jesus. Thanks be to God. Amen.
** Thanks to Laurie Tiberi and Taryn Mattice. Your words and spirit were in this sermon.