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Following Jesus

Luke 9:51-62

June 26, 2016

Sermon preached by Rev. Donald Ng at Sunset Ministry, San Francisco.

Greetings! It’s wonderful to be with you this morning. It’s been many years that I have been here and if I’m correct, this year is your 20th church anniversary since Sunset Ministry was founded. Over these many years, you have been faithful to the Word of God. You have followed Jesus and have pledged your loyalty to him.

Our son Greg is social media obsessed. He posts pictures of the food he eats. He goes on Instagram or Twitter or Four Squares or Facebook and who knows what! I only know those names by reading about them rather than be actively on them. In fact, he has his own “Follow Greg” blog and would remind me if I have seen his recent post—usually not. One time, I was following Greg eating a donut while he was driving to work. I don’t get it.

For many people today, following Jesus is usually seen as just plain, ordinary, widely affirmed, common sense. When you surf the internet and listen to many sermons posted there, we hear a gospel of common sense. Often the sermons are lively and engaging, well delivered and interesting. But the message preached there tends to be little more than common sense.

Congregations are being told how to have happier marriages, how to find satisfaction in their work, how to live with a positive attitude. Some of it is good advice, but the advice being given isn’t much different from the advice one might receive from any fairly wise person whom you asked, “How can I live a better life?” The advice is no better than what Dear Abby gives.

What if Jesus did not come to us to enable us to live better lives? What if the way of Jesus is a way that is strikingly different from the way of common sense? Are you following Jesus the way that few want to travel?

Samaritan Village

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is on his way toward Jerusalem. And you know what will happen there. Jesus is about to take up his cross and go down a narrow path that few want to tread. And yet on his way, he invites people to walk with him. He sends a couple of his disciples on ahead of him to a village of Samaritans, a place they don’t want to go.

“But the Samaritan villagers refused to welcome him” (9:53). The emissaries from Jesus face outright rejection from the Samaritans. Why did they reject Jesus? “Because he was determined to go to Jerusalem,” said the Scriptures. They don’t reject Jesus because of differences with his interpretation of scripture or because they found him offensive. They reject walking with him because of the way he is walking and where he is going.

And the disciples, after the Samaritans’ rejection, urge Jesus to incinerate those Samaritans. He doesn’t do that. Rather, Jesus continues going down the road and; on going further down the road, Jesus is more graciously received by others. Three people come up to Jesus and announce, “I will follow you wherever you go.”

I Will Follow

Each of the three makes an amazingly strong declaration of discipleship. And yet there are a few conditions. The first one might have asked Jesus which hotel he will be staying at if he were to follow Jesus. He didn’t have a reservation. Jesus said, “Even animals have a safe place to burrow but I have no place to lay my head.”

One of the would-be disciples has just suffered the loss of his father. He must first give his dad a decent burial. Jesus responds with a quick answer, “Let the dead bury their own dead. But you go and spread the news of God’s kingdom.” Not the most gracious of words to a grieving person.

Likewise one says, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say goodbye to those in my house.” Jesus rebukes him, implying that he is unfit for God’s kingdom.

And though Luke doesn’t say for sure, I suspect Jesus’ entourage got smaller that day.

Christians Today

When Asians first immigrated to America, becoming a Christian was a big part of being an American. Our forefathers and mothers went to church not just to learn English but to participate what they along with most people in this country did on a Sunday morning at 11:00 AM is to follow Jesus.

Today Jesus is rejected by a wide array of “Samaritans.” A recent poll by the Pew Research Center indicates that the group of Americans who identify themselves as “atheists” is growing. We often refer to them as “Dones” and “Nones” meaning that they are done with Jesus and that they have no affiliation with Jesus at all. They check the religion affiliation box that says, “None.” Whereas rejection of the Christian religion was once shocking, today it is widespread. There was a time when I was growing up that I felt guilty skipping church to go to the mall. Today, Sunday is just another weekend day to go on a hike or a Giants game.

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Many people today frequently see the Christian faith as exclusive, racist, and homophobic and if you are at all a thoughtful and informed person, you should reject Christians and their childish beliefs.

While we will always have those who out-rightly reject Christ, this lesson from Luke is not focusing on those hostile, antagonistic ones like the Samaritans. Rather it’s those believing, affirming ones who say, “Yes! I’ll follow you, Jesus,” This lesson is about those who say, “Lord, I find you fascinating, and I have a keen interest in spirituality.” This lesson is about those who say, “Lord, your church is filled with nice people, who seem a lot like me and my family. Put my name on this list.”

Jesus says, “Are you prepared to risk parents, family, home for me? Are you prepared to go with me amid people whom you despise and to try to be my church with people with whom you have little in common?”

Jesus says some tough things to those who are would be followers. I have often thought of this passage being particularly difficult for me as an Asian American. The challenge of discipleship is not always a turning from bad to good; sometimes the challenge that Jesus poses requires us to turn from an otherwise good toward the good of discipleship.

Family is a good thing. Parents ought to be honored, especially in death. All of us here are expected to take precious time in our lives to attend a funeral. And what if you were about to embark on a mission trip overseas and you wanted to say farewell to those at home, we would expect you to do that. Yet Jesus’ call to discipleship conflicts with even these noble commitments. Are you willing to follow Jesus?

In following Jesus, some of our primary loyalties become secondary. Jesus will show his complete obedience to God’s will by setting his face toward Jerusalem and the cross. If we would follow him, we also must be prepared for conflict of good with good and be prepared to have some of our cherished loyalties rearranged.

What Jesus Wants

Are we more like the “would-be” disciples? How many of us have swaggered up to Jesus with, “Lord I will follow you wherever you go!” only to fall away when Jesus specifically told them where he was going?

How many among us this morning, having first “put a hand on the plow,” decided they really weren’t fit for this demanding road?

I can’t speak for Pastor Jerry but as a pastor, I confess that too many of my sermons are based on the assumption, “find out what people really want more than anything” (a happy marriage, a happy family, financial security, peace of mind, whatever) “then convince them that they can utilize Jesus and his church to get what they so badly want.”

But what if Jesus comes among us not to be used for what we want but rather to use us for what he wants? What if Jesus wants more than an hour a week from us, more than our hearts, more than our good intentions? What if he desires nothing less than the full advent of God’s kingdom?

Accepting Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior in believer’s baptism when I was a youth in Boston is the most significant episode in my life. From that first decision to follow Jesus, everything else has been different.

During the Vietnam War, I was struggling with the possibility of being drafted. This is over 45 years ago! For me following Jesus was to become a pacifist—that no war justifies the taking of another person’s life. In my faith, I can only conscientiously object to war. Joy and I were dating in those years of the early 1970s and to follow Jesus, we were willing to give up our US citizenship and to move to Canada. For me, following Jesus was more than an hour a week, more important than keeping my American citizenship that was earned by my own father when he served the US Army in Germany during World War II; nothing less than striving to bring on the full advent of God’s kingdom on earth.

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In retrospect, I was a conscientious objector when I was just a college student, not yet married, no kids, no grandkids, no house, not even a college degree. I was brash and untested. And frankly, I’m not sure if I would be ready today to give up all of the material wealth that I have accumulated to follow Jesus. Over these 45 years, I have amassed too much.

There was a woman who emerged from church one Sunday and said to the pastor, “I’ve had an horrendous week. Trouble at work, bad news in our family. So I came here this morning seeking some comfort and consolation.”

“I’m sorry for your trouble,” said the pastor. “I hope that my sermon was helpful to you.”

“Not particularly,” she snapped back. “I came here hoping for some comfort and help only to be given an assignment!”

That’s sometimes the way it is when you dare to follow Jesus.

Sunset Ministry

As the pastor who watched you get started in ministry in the Sunset District of San Francisco, you’re not like those rejecting Samaritans. You haven’t refused to receive Jesus. You have indeed received him, welcomed him into your life, and you have followed Jesus on the way that few want to travel.

In some way or another you are therefore like those who came up to Jesus on his way and said, “I will follow you, Lord.” To be sure, you may not be the most faithful followers Jesus ever had. None of us have been that faithful including me. You have reservations, questions, commitments, and loves that restrain you from complete, totally dedicated discipleship. To be honest, we all have some of those restraints to discipleship.

But still, there you are, on the way with Jesus that few want to travel. While you’ve kept things from him. While you have not wholeheartedly committed to his way, you are still following Jesus. You have gotten out of bed to be here unlike most people in the Bay Area on this foggy Sunday morning, even if the assigned Gospel is Luke 9:51-62. As Jesus moves to his cross, you’re moving toward your cross, as well. Who knows what he may demand of you along the way? Who can say what tough truth he will tell you? Who knows where God is calling Sunset Ministry to be in the years to come?

Which makes all the more remarkable that you are here, not just here listening to this sermon but also walking the way of Christ. You are following Jesus. You know it’s the way of the cross and yet, there you are, following Jesus anyway. You know that he may tell you things that you don’t want to hear, truth about yourself that you’ve been avoiding. Perhaps Jesus has plans for Sunset Ministry to grow to the next level of effective and faithful ministry and mission. Still, there you are.

You can tell that this is a narrow, demanding way that Jesus walks. Only a few of us in our city are here this morning walking with and following Jesus. Many in our neighborhood are more like those Samaritans than the people who came up to Jesus along the way and said, “I’ll follow you, Lord.”

And yet there you are, listening to Jesus, walking with Jesus, trying to keep up with Jesus. In spite of all the setbacks you’ve had in your attempts to be faithful to Jesus, there you are. You haven’t looked back or taken your hand off the plow, Sunset Ministry. There you are, walking the way Jesus walks, following Jesus today.

Let us pray.

Lord Jesus, you called us, and we have followed. But sometimes when we are encountered by your discipleship demands, sometimes when the radical quality of the gospel really comes through to us, we’re not so sure. We have been attracted to you, Lord Jesus. We feel a kinship with you and find much about your way appealing. But when you demand that we risk, that we let go of much that we hold dear, that we walk in the same direction that you walk, we begin to wonder if we are cut out for discipleship or not.

Lord, you have called us to follow. Now we pray, give us what we need to follow. Amen.

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