Sunday, June 30, 2013

Sermon: "Follow the Yellow Brick Road"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
June 30, 2013
Luke 9:51-62

“Follow the Yellow Brick Road”

Have any of you ever tried to bargain with God?
Have you ever lifted up a prayer and promised God that you would become a more faithful servant in exchange for an answer to your prayer?
Have you ever said, “If you do this one thing for me, God, I promise I’ll go to church every Sunday” or “I promise I’ll pray every day and give more of my time and money to those in need.”
Some of us may even take it to the extreme and say, “God, if you get me out of this bind, I promise I’ll become a priest or a nun or a missionary and dedicate my life in service to you!”
I sometimes wonder if people look at us in the clergy and think, “Dang, I wonder what kind of trouble she got into to make that deal.”

In our gospel story today, one of Jesus’ prospective disciples makes the promise that we all make as Christians. The man sees Jesus walking along the road and he calls out to him,  “I will follow you wherever you go!”
But just as with us, Jesus knows this is a promise that the man is unlikely to keep.

We make a lot of promises like this in our lives, not just to God but also to each other.
We make those in-the-moment commitments that we swear we’ll live up to from this day forward - Assurances spoken in earnest with a genuine belief that we will never fall back on our word.

It starts when we’re young.
“Mom, if you let me get a puppy I swear that I’ll walk him and feed him every day!”
 “Dad, if you let me borrow the car I swear I’ll never ask for anything else ever again.”

As adults the promises we make to each other may not be explicitly contingent on what we expect to receive in return, but the expectation is there all the same….even if we don’t say it at the time.
I promise I will love you forever….(unless you fail me in some way, or stop loving me).
I promise that I will always be there for you….(unless I’m distracted by what’s going on in my own life, or if it’s too painful for me to be present with what you’re going through).
I promise that I will never hurt you or let you down in any way……(but you know I will, because as human beings this is an impossible standard for us to live up to).

We break our promises to each other because rarely is life as simple as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Human relationships are messy, complicated undertakings, as we drag all the baggage of our upbringings, expectations, and past hurts into every encounter that we have.

If we have so much difficulty honoring our commitments to each other, how much more difficult is it for us to honor our commitments to God?

In our gospel reading this morning, we encounter three newly minted disciples who shout out to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go!” and one by one Jesus turns to them and says, “Are you absolutely sure that’s what you really want to do?”

Jesus has turned his face towards Jerusalem.
Which means he is preparing to journey to his death.
He knows that what he has done up until this point and what he is about to do in the holy city of Jerusalem will ultimately get him killed.
And here he has three fresh-faced disciples in front him ready to sign on without truly understanding the cost.
We too are eager to walk in the ways of Jesus and yet most of us have no idea what it is we’re getting ourselves into.

We’re like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, who joins the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion on an adventurous search for love, wisdom, and courage.
All we need to do is follow the Yellow Brick Road to find the One who will give us everything that we seek.
But while some may view Christianity as a roadmap to happiness, Jesus is quick to point out that following in his footsteps is a dangerous undertaking. The road to Jerusalem is chock full of roadblocks and landmines, and there is no marked path of golden bricks to keep us from wandering astray.

As with the novice disciples in our gospel story, before we even leave the comfort of our homes to step onto the road to Jerusalem, Jesus issues us three warnings about the conditions that we will face along the way….and the level of commitment that is necessary to see it through to the end.

Warning #1:
“Although the birds have nests, and the foxes have holes, the son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” On this journey don’t expect to stay in four-star hotels, or even one-star dives in the sketchy part of town, because like Jesus, the message we have to share about God’s inclusive love and grace is not one that many people are willing to hear.  We will have plenty of doors slammed in our faces, and we will spend many a night sleeping on the side of the road. This is not a life of power and comfort that we are committing to, but rather one of destitution and rejection.

Warning #2:
“Let the dead bury the dead”… because as disciples of Jesus we have been resurrected and given new life. There is no time to waste. There will always be one more thing that we need to do before committing to the road of discipleship.  One more bill to pay, one more loose end to tie up. Let those who remain attached to their old lives stay behind and tend to the dead.
We are called to preach the coming of the Kingdom of God, to ensure that one day death itself will be no more.

Warning #3:
“Do not put your hand to the plow and then look back”… for those who turn away from their work end up plowing a crooked furrow.
We must keep our eyes ahead and watch where we’re going. We must detach ourselves from whatever it is that we’ve left behind, as these things only serve to distract us: Our home, our family, the responsibilities that have kept us rooted in place. We must let go of all of them to be a true disciple of Christ.

Now after hearing these harsh warnings many of us may be inclined to respond like the three hopeful disciples by saying, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Instead, we’ll return to our homes, our families, and our obligations, while doing our best to be observant Christians in our every day lives.

After all, the requests that these potential disciples made of Jesus were not unreasonable. Didn’t Jesus preach about love and compassion?
Shouldn’t he understand why one should be allowed to bury one’s father?
Or say goodbye to one’s family?
Isn’t it selfish to walk away from those who love us to go on a religious quest? What kind of person does such a thing?

In the mid 1980’s, American journalist Steven Newman left his life and family behind and became the first person to travel by foot around the world.
In his book, titled World Walk, he documented what turned out to be a four-year journey across the United States, Europe, northern Africa, southern Asia, and Australia.

Newman felt called to embark on this journey because he had a desire to learn more about the world and its people, but he also viewed his walk as a spiritual pilgrimage. 
Newman’s decision to strike out on this journey was not an easy one.
His father was seriously ill at the time and was not expected to live the 3 to 4 years that the journey would take. 

And yet, on a cold April morning in 1983, Steven Newman strapped on his backpack, said goodbye to his family and friends, and walked away from his home. He looked back only once, to notice the frail form of his father in his upstairs bedroom window, wiping away tears as he watched his only son leave home.
Newman spoke of the pain and sadness that turned his stomach as he walked away.  He knew that it was most likely the last time that he would see his father alive, and that his mother would be left to deal with her grief on her own. But he walked away all the same.

We may think that Newman’s decision to leave his family and walk around the world on a spiritual pilgrimage was selfish and unwise.
If he was leaving home to follow some controversial religious guru we might judge him all the more harshly.

So what would be running through our minds if we were living in first century Palestine, standing with one foot on our family’s property, and the other on the road to Jerusalem? 
Before us stands a man named Jesus, a religious guru touting controversial beliefs - beliefs that will most likely get him killed - and he’s looking us straight in the eye and saying, “Follow me.”

What would we do?
We’ve already watched him rebuke three men simply because they had other ideas about was expected of them as disciples.
Would he do the same to us if we wished to say goodbye to our families? Or bury a loved one? If we hesitated to respond because we didn’t like the idea of not having a warm bed to sleep in every night?

The cost of discipleship is something we hear a lot about in our churches.
But how many of us know what that means in modern day terms?
If it was hard for those in 1st century Palestine to walk away from what little they had, how much harder is it for those of us living in 21st century America?

Are we expected to give up our homes, our families, and all of our worldly possessions to be true followers of Christ?
Are we all supposed to live like Francis of Assisi or Mother Theresa?

It may reassure us to know that many scholars believe that Jesus did not intend for his words to be taken literally in this text.
He was most likely using hyperbole to make his point, as he did many times before. Jesus was not averse to employing exaggerations to get peoples attention - to break them out of their rutted way of thinking, to help them to imagine a new way of living in the world.

Perhaps Jesus’ objective in this text is not to tear his disciples away from their homes and families, but rather to stress the importance of getting the word out about the all inclusive Kingdom of God, and the role that we’re expected to play in bringing it about.
If Jesus could get some of his more casual followers to make the same commitment that his 12 disciples had then he could get the word out that much faster.
But before accepting any new disciples into his fold he had to determine whether they were up for the challenge.

Jesus’ words may seem harsh, but if we were about to set out on a journey that would take us far from home through potentially hostile territory, wouldn’t we want to know ahead of time what we were getting ourselves into?
Admittedly, committing oneself to following Jesus in 21st century America is much less fraught with danger then making the same commitment in 1st century Palestine.  

Or is it?

Would you feel safe walking into a war zone, unarmed, carrying only a sign that read, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you?”

Would you risk arrest and interrupt a state sanctioned execution by standing up and saying, “You have heard it said, an eye for an eye, but I tell you, we are called to turn the other cheek – to practice forgiveness, not revenge?”

Would you be willing to not just serve up meals at a soup kitchen or volunteer at Anne Marie house, but to take it a step further by inviting a homeless person to live in your home? Or provide sanctuary to an undocumented immigrant? Or publically witness as a person of faith who stands up against racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and discrimination and injustice in any form?

These are hard questions, and truthfully, most of us would struggle to answer “yes” to any of them. But when we consider Jesus’ teachings, this is what the cost of discipleship looks like in our time, or any time.
Whether we stand in 1st century Palestine or 21st century America, with one foot in our front yard and the other on the road to Jerusalem, the commitment that Jesus asks of us is the same.

Perhaps you’ve seen the bumper sticker that reads: “If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”

Discipleship means living in ways we might not otherwise live.
When we make a commitment to follow Jesus we should be prepared for him to step right up to us and ask, “Do you know what it is you’re committing to?”

Because what we’re promising to do is hard, hard, stuff.
And it’s not just about participating in a church community and giving generously to those in need.
And it’s not just about standing up and publically speaking out for peace, equality, and justice.
Following Jesus is primarily about opening our hearts and treating every person we encounter with compassion, understanding, and grace.
It’s about swallowing our pride, not getting lost in our sorrow or anger when others have let us down, and being able to say to others, “I’m sorry I hurt you…what can WE do to move towards healing.”

To speak and act as Christians in our personal relationships is possibly the hardest requirement of discipleship.
Because it’s something we’re called to do every day of our lives.

We may be in search of a yellow brick road to follow, but Jesus has led us onto a road that will bring us to a much greater reward:
The healing of our human relationships.
The healing of our relationship with God.
The healing of our world.

The Good News is that all we need to do to get there is to answer Jesus’ call…
 by saying, “I WILL follow you… WHEREVER you may go.”


Sunday, June 23, 2013

Sermon: "I Am Legion"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
June 23, 2013
Psalm 22:19-22; Luke 8:26-39

“I Am Legion”

Before I begin the sermon I want to address one question that I suspect popped into many of your heads as we heard this gospel story today – and if you’ve read or heard this story of Legion before it’s likely that you’ve had this question lingering in the back of your mind ever since.

In fact, a friend of mine asked me this question just the other day after I told her what the gospel text was for this Sunday.  She said, “I get that this story of Legion is about demonic possession and Jesus healing a very troubled man…but tell me Reverend, why did Jesus have to kill the pigs?”

We can’t seem to get past the pigs.
It’s hard enough to sift out a meaningful, modern-day message from a story about demonic possession, but if we’re picturing Wilbur and Babe leaping off a cliff to their deaths, it can really get in the way.

Yes, the pigs are innocent bystanders in this story.
There they are grazing on the hillside minding their own business when suddenly they become a convenient home to a legion of demons.
The pigs are so troubled by this development that they choose to run down the hillside and drown themselves in the lake – effectively sending the demons into the very abyss they were trying to avoid.  And what we end up with is a lot of dead pigs and a group of angry pig herders who have just watched their livelihood destroyed right in front of their eyes.

So before we talk about the man named Legion, or Jesus’ extraordinary healing abilities, or the extensive reach of God’s love….
let’s talk about the pigs.

The traditional explanation is that in first century Jewish culture the pig was considered to be an unclean animal. They were not to be eaten or touched. There were no pig farms in Judea.
Jesus and his disciples encountered these pig herders in Gentile country.
So it stands to reason if you have a hoard of evil demons on your hands, why not send them into the nearest unclean and therefore expendable animal that you see?
Middle Eastern mythology also held that demons could not survive in water. So the frightened and stampeding pigs offered a convenient vehicle to get the demons into the watery abyss where they would ultimately reach their demise.

While the death of the pigs in this story may ruffle the feathers of our 21st century, animal loving sensibilities, I assure it was not Jesus’ intention to anger the folks at PETA.
(I promise you, no animals were harmed in the telling of this gospel story)

What may be more troubling to some about this story, is that Jesus seemed to have no regard for the pig herders - who most likely had families to feed, and who were now left without a source of food and income. 

The possibly unsatisfactory answer to this objection is that when we live out the radically inclusive message of the gospel in the world, the results are sometimes painful.
Systems of power and commerce are overturned and we as a people have to make sacrifices and painful adjustments to ensure that everyone is included at the table.
Jesus asked many of his followers to make difficult choices and to give up their livelihoods to spread the hopeful word of the gospel.
But some, like the pig herders, end up as unwilling participants in the destruction of systems of imbalance.  Unfortunately, in order to raise some up, others must be willing to take a step down.

I said that this answer might be unsatisfactory to us because we don’t like the idea of having to suffer a loss to allow others to gain, even if we all stand to gain so much more in the long run.
But what is it that we gain from the healing of Legion?
Now that we’ve set the pigs aside, it’s time to tackle our demons.

When Jesus steps out of the boat in the land of the Gerasenes he is immediately smacked in the face with the stench of overwhelming evil and fear.
And all of it is contained in the form of one man -
a naked, screaming, wild-eyed man who hides in the shadows of the tombs on the outskirts of this Gentile city.

We’re told that many times he has escaped the chains and shackles of those who’ve tried to tame him, as his internal demons drove him over and over again into the wild.

His name is Legion.
But Legion is not the name of the man who cowers at Jesus’ feet.
It is the name of what possesses him.
The version of the story that appears in the gospel of Matthew says it best:
Jesus asks the man, “What is your name.” and the demons respond,
“I am Legion: for we are many.”

In the Roman army, a Legion consisted of up to 6,000 men, and it believed the gospel story invokes this name to drive home the point that this is no ordinary demon possession that we’re talking about.
This is not about one man wrestling with one demon – which today we might define as an addiction, or a physical or mental illness that causes one to behave erratically and disruptively.
This about all of the demons that we encounter when we step into the world.

This story is a foretelling of what the disciples can expect to encounter when they take their message of the gospel to a world that is for the most part unprepared and unwilling to endure the changes and the sacrifices that must be made to build the kingdom of God – a kingdom where oppression, poverty, and systems built upon fear and control are no more.

These are the systems that permeate our world.
We don’t know how to function without them.

We live in a world where some are leaders and others are followers, and this inevitably creates imbalances of power that lead to oppression and tyranny.
We live in a world where individualism and personal achievement are rewarded, which leads us to lift up those who succeed and cast blame and judgment on those who are struggling – telling ourselves that they fail because they lack ambition, discipline, or have become too reliant on the support of others.
We live in a world where our differences are alternatively celebrated and feared; where we pride ourselves on our tolerance for diversity while at the same time remain suspicious of those from other cultures, countries, races, and religious traditions.

The evils of this world are inevitable.
They are a product of human fear, free will, and brokenness.
These are the demons that possess us all.

We each have our personal demons as well. Our addictions. Our traumas. Our physical, emotional, and spiritual scars that influence how we treat one another and how we treat ourselves.

These are the demons that we wrestle with on a daily basis.
And like Legion, we resist God’s efforts to drive them out of us.

When Jesus encounters the cowering Legion, the demons within him say, “What have you to do with me?” “I beg you, do not torment me!”

These are the voices of the demons speaking, for they of course fear their own demise, but we can imagine we also hear the faint voice of the man trapped within. This is the only life he has known. As much as the demons have forced him to the edges of society – to be bound up in chains and feared and mocked – to be free of the devil he knows and be left to wander in a world he does not know and has few skills to navigate, is much more frightening than being chained for life.

Many of us have been there or have loved one who have been there.
Some of us are there right now.
We feel at home amongst the tombs, hiding in the shadows, resisting those who reach out to help, because we’re so deathly afraid of letting go of what has become comforting and familiar, even it’s slowly killing us and we know it.
Drugs. Alcohol. Depression. Abusive and unhealthy relationships.
Impossibly high standards that drive us to work more, earn more, buy more, and achieve more while our health, families, and sanity crumble around us.

What the gospel gives us is hope.
In this story of Legion, this poor withering soul of a man weighted down by the force of thousands of demons, comes alive at Jesus’ command.
He did not cast the demons out. Jesus did.
But in their absence it would have been easy and expected for him to continue to cower in the shadows in fear of a world that he barely knew.

Like an ex-con just released from prison, an addict transitioning into sobriety, or a woman living on her own for the first time after a lifetime of dependence on abusive men, taking that first step into the glaring light of the free world is both exhilarating and terrifying.

Which is why this man healed by Jesus does not leap up and run into town shouting in joy and amazement – a small detail that makes this story ring truer than many others.
Instead the man sits at Jesus’ feet, now in his right mind, but silent.
Until Jesus moves to leave and the man begs Jesus to take him with him.
His instinct is to cling to Jesus, just as many of us who find healing wish to cling to the people or place that helped transform us.

But Jesus tells the man to return to his community, to serve as a living testimony to the power of God’s love and healing.
Return to the people who knew and loved you before you started spiraling downward. Your story is inspiring to strangers, but it is all the more powerful when told to people who know the battles you’ve faced, who see themselves in you, who look at you and think, “He overcame his demons with God’s help, maybe I can, too.”

At the end of this gospel story, Jesus gets back in the boat with the disciples and returns home.  He traveled all the way to the land of the Gerasenes and never made it past the shoreline.
It’s as if the entire trip across the sea of Galilee was done to meet this one man. The calming of the stormy sea, the casting out of a legion of demons, one man’s life is changed for the better, a new disciple has been set loose in the land of the Gentiles, and the stage has been set for the building of the Kingdom of God.

Jesus’ disciples are witnesses to all of this, as are we.
There’s a reason why the gospel writers felt this story was worthy of inclusion in their accounts of Jesus’ life.
I’d like to imagine that they hoped their Gentile readers and their future readers from other cultures and other lands would see their way past the drowning pigs and the fleeing demons and see the joy of the gospel message contained within.
This is a story of transformation.
The kind that only be found in the power of faith.

If we’re going to work together to transform this world – to cast out the demons of systemic poverty, oppression, and inequality, then we need the power of God and the belief that God is willing us to do this to get it done.

If we’re going to transform ourselves, to seek help to cast out our personal demons and to ultimately help others to do the same - then we need the power of God and the belief that God is willing us to do this to get it done.

The only way to achieve transformation is to stand toe to toe with the Legions that possess us and our world and lean on the strength of God to pull us out of the abyss.

As writer Suzanne Guthrie puts it, “Healing requires Confrontation - and bold truth telling. If you can't name the disease, how can you find the proper cure? Perhaps it takes a radical withdrawal into the desert, or living naked among the tombs to isolate a problem so enmeshed with everything else in life and culture. Here, evil finds its name revealed, and, shouting and protesting in fear, it trembles in the presence of Holiness.”

The people who witnessed the healing of Legion reacted with fear.
They asked Jesus to leave because they were afraid that he might do the same to them.

How do we respond when confronted with the gospel truth that we have something possessing us that needs to be released?
That there’s something inside of us in our heart, our something outside of us in our common culture that has us bound and chained in fear?

How willing are we to let Jesus reach into our lives and turn them upside down so that we all might be healed?

We are Legion, for we are Many.
The good news is that God is much bigger than the fears that we hold onto.

The good news is that love conquers fear.
Always. Always.

Thanks be to God, and Amen.