The End of the Journey
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 13:22, 31-35
In seminary, we preachers are counseled that an occasion will inevitably come when we have been harried and pulled in so many directions that we will not have time to adequately prepare a Sunday morning message. A certain pastor, on just such an occasion, remembered the words of his seminary professor who advised that, on such occasions, step into the pulpit and open the bible and point. Wherever your finger lands, consider that your preaching text. Boldly read the verse and pray for the inspiration of the Spirit as your message begins.
And so said preacher mounted the stairs to his lofty pulpit. He opened his bible – in a rather lopsided fashion – for his index finger landed on a verse from Revelation… hardly the best choice for preaching when one is unprepared. He read boldly, “I am coming soon.” He paused; nothing. Buying time, he proclaimed the verse again with greater intensity, “I am coming soon.” Again; nothing. A final time, he passionately leaned over the pulpit peering down at his congregants. With all the energy he could muster, he nearly shouted, “I am coming soon!” He had leaned too far. Losing his balance he fell from the lofty pulpit and landed at the feet of a startled congregant in the first row. Terribly embarrassed, he stood up and began to profusely apologize to the woman who, recovering her wits, interrupted the pastor to say, “It’s OK, pastor. I don’t know why I was startled. You warned me three times you were coming.”
The middle of Luke’s gospel, a section spanning ten chapters, is what bible scholars refer to as Luke’s Travel Narrative. For ten chapters, our gospel narrator informs us, repeatedly, that Jesus is journeying toward Jerusalem. It is his goal; his destiny, so to speak. And the gospel writer clearly warns the reader how this journey will end. It will end with Jesus being put to death and rising again.
It is a long journey toward Jerusalem. Within the gospel story world, it seems to drag on for an eternity. Are we there yet? When will we arrive? The emphasis on the journey motif is so strong that, also within those ten chapters, Jesus tells two popular parables that are unique to Luke’s story: the parable of the prodigal son who travels to a distant land to squander his inheritance and the parable of the Good Samaritan who helps a man who has been brutally attacked on his journey from Jerusalem to Jericho. So focused is the gospel on the journey that we have travel narratives within the travel narrative.
On and on the journey to Jerusalem stretches; yet the narrator never allows his reader to forget where we are heading and what will happen when we arrive there. We have been duly warned. Three times across those ten chapters, Jesus tells his disciples quite clearly saying things like: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected… and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”[i] Jesus recites the litany: betrayal, abuse, death and resurrection.
Across those ten chapters, we find over and over things like:
They went on from there…
They were going along…
As they went on their way…
Jesus approaches towns and villages (as we heard in this morning’s scripture); he goes through them and keeps moving. On and on he goes, determined – ultimately – to arrive at his date with death in the holy city of Jerusalem; a city that kills its prophets and messengers. As readers, we have been adequately prepared. So, when the moment comes, we ought not to be surprised or startled.
This Lenten season, my sermon series has been titled “The Journey.” Life, my friends, is a journey. Not some static, stagnant holding pattern. If you’ve dug in your heels and planted your flag, you’ve missed the point. Life is an on-going journey.
It is a decisive moment when Luke tells us that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.”[ii] In his journey to Jerusalem, Jesus embraces the work God the Father has sent him to do: he will suffer rejection and abuse at the hands of the Jewish and Roman leaders, be put to death and, on the third day rise from the dead.
And we are well on our way. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday: that day when we commemorate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. We are almost there. We have nearly arrived.
And so, in this morning’s scripture also, Jesus speaks again of his determination to complete his mission in Jerusalem. Regardless of obstacles, he will finish his work. Some Pharisees have arrived to see Jesus and they’ve have come to warn him: “Herod wants to kill you.” This is hardly news to Jesus. Whether their intentions are sincere and they are truly concerned for Jesus’ well-being; or whether they are testing Jesus to see what kind of response he gives… Well, their motivation is unclear. But, once again, Jesus is crystal clear. He will march on toward Jerusalem. No one can deter him from finishing the work God has entrusted to him. He knows where he’s going, how to get there, just how long the journey should take, and what will happen when he reaches his destination. He knows death is coming; he knows resurrection is coming.
And this morning’s scripture tells us something about the journey itself. All along the way, Jesus has been teaching and healing. He is making the most of his time on the road. He is using it to reveal the good news of the love of God. Good news that he expresses by way of a poignant metaphor in this morning’s scripture. Jesus likens himself to a mother hen. He seeks to gather God’s children lovingly in his arms in the same way that a mother hen gathers her vulnerable baby chicks under her wings. It is an intimate, nurturing image and it serves as a symbol for God’s passionate, compassionate care for us.
When Britt and I lived in Indianapolis, one spring a duck laid eggs close to our house. It provided a ring-side view to their development. One morning when I was in my study doing some work and getting ready to leave for the office, I glanced out my window and it was quite the show. There was momma duck, wings outstretched, moving her brood along. Behind her were two male mallards, behaving aggressively and rushing alternately toward the female duck and one another. Suddenly, momma duck turned around, opened those wings as wide as they would go and made herself as big as she could be, and started toward those male ducks. And did those boys back up fast. Now, that did not end the drama. The guys then got into quite a tussle with one another. Let me tell you the feathers were flying. I was afraid it might end with a dead duck. But, momma duck was done with them. She turned back around, gathered her brood, and on they went, leaving those battling boys behind.
Friends; Jesus is like that momma duck. He loves you. You belong to him and he wants to draw you near. Jesus is determined to walk the path to Jerusalem, but it is no mad dash to the finish for he will take whatever time is needed along the way to reveal the passionate love of God. That is the nature of his journey and he invites us, his disciples, to journey with him.
Folks, we too are on a journey through life. But, my question this morning is: are you journeying with Jesus or are you trying to blaze your own trail? If we journey with Jesus, our life’s goal will be this one singular task: to reveal the passionate love of God for his children; to reveal that Jesus will stop at nothing in order to draw us near. Everything else along life’s journey will take a back seat to our desire to make known to others the seeking love of God. Now, if we walk this journey with Jesus there will be unexpected twists and turns along the way. There will be no shortage of struggles. Jesus will lead us through places of risk and vulnerability. But, if we take that risk; if we follow in the footsteps of Jesus, we know, ultimately, how the journey ends. It ends in resurrection and we can walk in that confidence.
Friends, life in this world, will try to steer us off the path. There will be many voices, like those Pharisees, that will caution us to look out for number one; to be focused on our own safety and security. After all, if we’ve learned anything from this year’s primary elections, the world wants winners, right? Leaders who are strong and aggressive and unapologetic. Why would we want to be followers?
But we can’t have it both ways. On the journey of life, to follow or to seize control; those are our two choices. Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not recommending apathy or ignorance or irresponsibility. I’m just making sure we all recognize that being a follower of Jesus means letting Jesus take the lead. And that isn’t always easy.
Still, Jesus invites us to join him on the risky, rewarding journey. And to move along the path at God’s pace, not our own, so that we, too, can complete the work God entrusts to us. So that we, too, take time to stop along the way to share the good news of God’s love with others. To let them know that Jesus is like that hen or that momma duck, desiring to draw his children close to him. Risky though it is, we can walk with Jesus on that journey to Jerusalem because we know how the journey will ultimately end – in resurrection. When we die to sin and selfishness, then like Jesus, we conquer the power of death.
We are called, invited, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Jesus doesn’t journey to Jerusalem alone, by himself. He could have, but he didn’t. Those thick-headed disciples must have slowed him down, I imagine. Yet still, he takes those disciples with him. He invites them to walk with him, to follow him on the way. Jesus pulls no punches when he describes the nature of the journey to them in chapter 9.[iii] He says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” Folks, journeying with Jesus is no walk in the park. It is a journey that will demand a great deal from us. As Jesus journeys, he won’t be side tracked by fearful self-preservation. He pays little attention to the words of those Pharisees. He continues on; focusing all along the way on teaching people, and healing them, and showing them the love of God. His focus is on revealing the grace and forgiveness, the compassion and mercy of God. He moves onward to Jerusalem knowing that both death and resurrection await him there.
And Jesus invites us to join him on the journey. He doesn’t force us; he invites us. Jesus could journey with faith toward Jerusalem because he had confidence in how his journey would end. He knew how his journey would ultimately end and so should we.
[i] Luke 9:21. NRSV.
[ii] Luke 9:51.
[iii] Luke 9:23-24.
The Merciful Journey: Stop to show kindness along the way
Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” Luke 10:30-37
An astonishing thing happened in New York City ten years ago in 2006. A construction worker named Wesley Autrey was standing on a subway platform with his two young daughters, ages four and six, waiting on a train. Suddenly, another man on the platform, apparently suffering from a seizure, stumbled and fell off the platform down onto the subway tracks. Just at that moment the headlights of a rapidly approaching train appeared in the subway tunnel. Acting quickly, and with no thought for himself, Wesley Autrey jumped down onto the tracks to rescue the stricken man by dragging him out of the way of the train. But he immediately realized that the train was coming too fast and there wasn't time to pull the man off the tracks. So Wesley pressed the man into the hollowed-out space between the rails and spread his own body over him to protect him as the train passed over the two of them. The train cleared Wesley by mere inches, coming close enough to leave grease marks on his knit cap. When the train came to a halt, Wesley called up to the frightened onlookers on the platform. "There are two little girls up there. Let them know their Daddy is OK."
Immediately, and for good reason, Wesley Autrey became a national hero. People were deeply moved by his selflessness, and they marveled at his bravery. What Wesley had done was a remarkable deed of concern for another person. He had no obvious reason to help this stranger. He didn't know the man. He had his young daughters to think about. What he did was at severe risk to his own life. But a human being was in desperate need, and Wesley saw it and, moved with compassion, did what he could to save him. "The Subway Superman"-that's what the press called him, the "Harlem Hero." But the headline in one newspaper described Wesley Autrey in biblical terms. It read, "Good Samaritan Saves Man on Subway Tracks."
Wesley Autrey was indeed a Good Samaritan, and many of us, when we heard his story, wondered, "If I had been the one on the subway platform that day, what would I have done? Would I have been as courageous as Wesley? Would I have had what it takes to jump down on those tracks, with a train bearing down, to help that man? I Would I have stopped to show kindness along the way?
In other words, would I have been a 'Good Samaritan' that day?"
Many people believe that this is the exactly the question that Jesus wants us to ponder. That's why, they say, he told his original parable of the Good Samaritan in the first place. The Parable of the Good Samaritan is one of Jesus' most familiar stories, and the way we usually hear that parable is as Jesus' way of getting us to ask ourselves, "Am I willing, when the circumstances arise, to be a Good Samaritan to other people? If I see a person lying in a ditch somewhere or in trouble on the highway or on subway tracks in distress, would I risk myself to be of help? Am I a Good Samaritan?
But I wonder if that's what Jesus was really saying in that parable. Let's take another look at it. You may remember how it happened that Jesus told the Parable of the Good Samaritan. He was headed toward Jerusalem, and in a village along the way, he got involved in a rather testy conversation with a local attorney. The lawyer evidently did not like Jesus' message, and he was pressing Jesus, trying to make him look foolish, attempting to expose a weakness in his teaching. He was figuratively cross-examining Jesus on the witness stand: "In your view," the lawyer asked Jesus, "just what do I need to do to inherit eternal life?"
"You're the lawyer," said Jesus. "What does it say in the law?"
Well, the attorney knew the law, of course, the law of Moses, and he quoted it. "The law says, 'Love God with all your heart and soul and strength and mind and also love your neighbor as you love yourself.'"
"Well," said Jesus. "There you have it. You're right. Love God fully and love your neighbor as yourself. Do this and you will have life.”
But the lawyer was not going to let this drop so easily. "Ahh, but wait just a second," he objected. "There's a problem with your definitions here. State your terms, Jesus. Just what do you mean by 'neighbor'? Be precise here. Who exactly is my neighbor?"
It was in response to that challenge that Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. It's not the story about the man on the subway tracks, of course, but it's like it. Jesus' parable is about a man traveling down to Jericho who is mugged by robbers and left bleeding and near death beside the road. So, like the man who fell onto the tracks, here is another man in serious, life-threatening trouble. A man in desperate need of help. Nothing unusual about this, really. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was notoriously dangerous, riddled with thieves, unsafe to travel alone, so the fact that a man was beaten and robbed...well that was a familiar story. Nothing shocking.
But now, two genuinely shocking things do happen in Jesus' story. The first shock is that two people who could have helped, in fact who might have been expected to help, a priest and a Levite, both religious people, came up the road and saw the man in trouble, but did nothing, absolutely nothing. They intentionally avoided the man by crossing over to the other side of the road and continuing on their journey. The first shock in the story is that people whom we would expect to help did nothing, the second, and even bigger, shock is that the last person in the world we would count on for help is the one who in fact mercifully and bravely rescues the injured man.
Down the road, said Jesus, came a Samaritan. Now Jesus is, of course, Jewish, and the lawyer and the rest of those listening to this parable are also Jews. Even the characters in the parable are Jews-the priest, the Levite, almost surely the injured man, maybe even the robbers. But here comes a Samaritan, and Jews and Samaritans have a bitter history of racial and religious hatred. They have nothing to do with each other. Jews and Samaritans are enemies. In fact, not only would the injured man not expect any help out of one of these despicable Samaritans, he probably wouldn't want any help from a Samaritan. A Samaritan was viewed, well, like a member of Al Qaeda. Better to die in a pool of blood on the road than to be touched by a Samaritan. But it is this Samaritan, despised and rejected, who is nevertheless moved with compassion and who tenderly cares for the injured man. Even though they were enemies, he cared for him.
Having told that story, Jesus now says to the lawyer, "So, you now define the term 'neighbor.' Who proved to be the neighbor in this story?"
The lawyer cannot bring himself even to spit out the word "Samaritan." He simply mumbles, "The one who showed mercy."
"Go and do likewise," said Jesus.
Now, as I said before, some people think that what Jesus is saying in this story is, "OK everybody, I want you to go out and be just like that Good Samaritan. He cared for someone in need; I want you to imitate him. Go and do likewise." But there are two problems with this. The first problem is that if this were really Jesus' point, then he probably would have told the story differently. He would have made it into a simple moral example and left out all that troubling Samaritan business. What he would have said is there was a man in trouble, and three people passed by who could have helped. The first one didn't, and neither did the second, but the third one did, so be like the third one and not like the first two.
But this isn't a simple moral story. It's a parable, and parables always have something shocking, surprising, unexpected, something to be wrestled with and puzzled over, and in this story, it is the fact that an unwanted, rejected Samaritan is the one who shows mercy to his enemy. That throws a monkey wrench into any simple explanation. There's something deeper going on here than merely, "OK folks, go out and be like that Good Samaritan."
The second problem is even more significant. If Jesus' point is that he wants us to imitate the courageous compassion of the Good Samaritan, the sad fact is we can't do it. That is why what Wesley Autrey did on that subway platform is so remarkable and almost incredible. Almost none of us would have done it. It is simply not in our nature to forget ourselves and risk everything for a stranger.
Some years ago a famous experiment was conducted with seminary students. Researchers gathered a group of ministry students in a classroom and told them that each of them had an assignment. Their assignment was to record a talk about the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The thing was, the recordings were going to be done in a building on the other side of the campus, and because of a tight schedule, they needed to hurry to that building.
Unbeknownst to the students, on the path to the other building the researchers had planted an actor to play the part of a man in distress, slumped in an alley, coughing and suffering. The students were going to make a presentation about the Good Samaritan. But what would happen, the researchers wondered, when they actually encountered a man in need? Would they be Good Samaritans? Well, no, as a matter of fact, they were not. Almost all of them rushed past the hurting man. One student even stepped over the man's body as he hurried to teach about the Parable of the Good Samaritan!
We should not look down at these seminary students who couldn't put the Parable of the Good Samaritan into practice, because neither can we. Simply knowing in our minds what the right thing to do is does not mean we can do it. If we are going to be Good Samaritans, then this will mean more than a change of mind. It will take a change of heart. And that's what this parable is about: a change of heart.
Robert Wuthnow, a professor at Princeton University, once conducted some research about why some people are generous and compassionate, while others are not. He found out that for many compassionate people something had happened to them. Someone had acted with compassion toward them, and this experience had transformed their lives.
For example, Wuthnow tells the story of Jack Casey, a rescue squad worker, who had little reason to be a Good Samaritan. Casey was raised in a tough home, the child of an alcoholic father. He once said, "All my father ever taught me is that I didn't want to grow up to be like him."
But something happened to Jack when he was a child that changed his life, changed his heart. He was having surgery one day, and he was frightened. He remembers the surgical nurse standing there and compassionately reassuring him. "Don't worry," she said to Jack. "I'll be here right beside you no matter what happens." And when Jack woke up again, she was true to her word and still there.
Years later, Jack Casey, now a paramedic, was sent to the scene of a highway accident. A man was pinned upside down in his pickup truck, and as Jack was trying to get him out of the wreckage, gasoline was dripping down on both of them. The rescuers were using power tools to cut the metal, so one spark could have caused everything to go up in flames. The driver was frightened, crying out how scared he was of dying. Jack remembered what had happened to him long ago on the operating table, how that nurse had spoken tenderly to him and stayed with him, and he said and did the same thing for the truck driver, "Look, don't worry," he said, "I'm right here with you, I'm not going anywhere." When I said that, Jack remembered later, I was reminded of how that nurse had said the same thing and she never left me.
Days later, the rescued truck driver said to Jack, "You know, you were an idiot, the thing could have exploded and we'd both have been burned up!"
"I just couldn't leave you," Jack said.
Something had happened to Jack Casey that transformed him, made him into a Good Samaritan. Has anything like that ever happened to you? Yes it has. That is the point of Jesus' Parable of the Good Samaritan. What the lawyer discovered - and what we discover, too - is that we cannot stand on the sidelines and figure out how to be good, defining our terms-is this person my neighbor or not-figuring out just what we have to do to inherit eternal life. For all of our religious virtues and attitudes, we just cannot do it. We are helpless to be Good Samaritans on our own strength. In other words, we are the person in the ditch, the one who lies helpless and wounded beside the road, the one who needs to be rescued. And along comes a Good Samaritan, a Good Samaritan named Jesus -despised and rejected-who comes to save us, speaks tenderly to us, lifts us into his arms, and takes us to the place of healing. As Paul said, while we were still God's enemies, God saw us in the ditch and had compassion, and in Jesus came to save us.
So, the question is not the lawyer's, "What is the definition of 'neighbor'?" The question is: who has been neighbor to you? Who has stopped to show you kindness along the way? Jesus Christ has been neighbor to you. The crucified one has been neighbor to you. Have you felt his mercy make your own heart merciful? Then in your heart you will know what this means: Go and do likewise.
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