Headed in the Wrong Direction

(Luke 13:31-35)

One of the bravest things I’ve ever seen anyone do was done by my daughter when she was 12. I don’t usually tell stories on my family, but I asked and I have permission.

So, here’s what happened. Mary and two other girls were scheduled to do this hula-hoop routine for a talent show. It was set to music and choreographed. They practiced in our yard to get everything just right.

Everybody was afraid. After all, it wasn’t only the middle schoolers in the talent show; there were high school kids too. And everybody’s parents.

The girls kept talking about how nervous they were. “It’ll be fine,” I said, as only one who’d not agreed to stand up in front of the whole school and risk humiliation can do.

Right before the show, the other two girls came to Mary and said they didn’t want to go through with it. They weren’t comfortable. They were scared, afraid they weren’t prepared enough.

“Well, that’s it,” I thought. “They’re not going to do it.”

And I’ll be honest, I was relieved. I didn’t want my baby girl to get up in front of everyone and do something that she might find humiliating if they messed up. If you have kids old enough to embarrass themselves, you know the kind of fear I’m talking about. It’s not the messing up so much as what messing up feels like—and you’d move heaven and earth to protect your child from that kind of crushing self-doubt and recrimination.

So, there I was, sitting by myself—privately tickled that I didn’t have to brave the hula-hoop routine—when Mary came up to me. I was all ready to console her, and tell her that it’s all right. These things happen. There’ll be time to get ready for next year. You know how that talk goes.

But Mary said, “Dad, I’ve made a decision.”

“What’s that?” I said, with a sinking feeling.

“I’m going to do the routine myself.”

“But, what about the other girls?”

“They’re not doing it. They said they were too nervous.”

I said, “Yeah, I know that. But I mean, I thought you were nervous too.”

“I am, but I’m going to do it anyway. I worked too hard not to go through with it.”

What am I supposed to say? “Honey, that’s all well and good, but can you stop for a moment and think about me for once? You know, how’s this going to affect me? Because you’re not going to be the one trying to hold the pieces of a little girls heart together with hands that are inadequate to the task. Yeah, that’s going to be me. So, if it’s all the same to you, I think you should just sit this one out.”

But of course I can’t say that, so I just say, “I’m really proud of you, sweetie. I know that was a difficult decision.”

It made me realize yet again that it’s a good thing for parents that kids don’t get a front row seat to our inner monologues … or they’d completely lose all confidence in our competency.

So, Mary’s turn came up, and she walked onto the stage … and crushed it!

Nerves and all. In spite of the fact that she was stuck with a stupid Dad, incapable of getting beyond his own anxiety.

It was one of the bravest things I’ve ever seen. Despite her anxiety, despite her disappointment at being let down by her friends, despite the feeling of being all alone in front of a crowd … she kept going.

I’ll never forget it.

But if you’ve ever watched a war movie, you’ve seen something like this. There’s almost always some part where a grizzled, battle-tested soldier who reassures a raw recruit before heading into battle by saying something like, “Everybody’s afraid. Anyone who tells you they’re not is either lying or a fool. Courage is doing what needs to be done, in spite of your fear.”

This advice to the warrior is some variation on Aristotle. (If you ask an Aristotelian, almost every discussion about behavior comes back to Aristotle.)

I bet when you woke up this morning, your first thought wasn’t, “Gosh, I’d better get up. I need to get to church to hear the preacher talk about Aristotle and virtue ethics!”

That’s okay. But it’s your lucky day—because that’s exactly what you’re going to get.

You’re welcome.

So, in Aristotle’s view of moral philosophy, what we’re trying to do is develop the kind of character that allows us to do the right thing, in the right way and in the right time and place, and to feel the way a virtuous person would feel while doing it. And this isn’t a one time decision to do the right thing; it’s forming the habit of doing the right thing, which we don’t even have to think about.

“But how do we know what the right thing to do is?” you may be wondering to yourself. The simple answer, according to Aristotle, is that you watch a virtuous person, and do whatever that person would do. See how easy that is?

But in theory, here’s how it works. Bravery, according to Aristotle is a virtue. And a virtue is the mean between two extremes. The scope of bravery is the mean between Cowardice and Rashness. The cowardly person is too afraid to do the right thing. The rash person is a fool, because the rash person isn’t afraid enough. (Rash people don’t usually last very long. In the mountains, we used to call this person the “Hold my beer” guy. As in, “I’ll bet you couldn’t jump off the bridge, while sitting in a lawn chair and holding lit fireworks.” “Oh yeah, hold my beer.”)

The brave person, on the other hand, is the person who is appropriately afraid, but who nevertheless acts to do the right thing anyway.

I was thinking about Aristotle’s theory of the virtue of bravery while I was reading our Gospel for this morning.

These few verses seem to be strung together sayings of Jesus, which show up out of the blue. It’s traditionally given interpreters fits trying to make sense of it. But there’s a lot going on that leads us to these seemingly disconnected verses.

The set up for our passage this morning is all the way back in 9:51: “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”

Everything after Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem—until he finally rides into Jerusalem for the first time as an adult on the back of a donkey in chapter 19—is part of this travelogue.

But why does Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” in the first place?

I mean, he’s from a ways up north in Galilee. He doesn’t have to go to Jerusalem. He could just stay home, punch a clock, go to the pub on Fridays after work, and play rec. league softball.

But he doesn’t do that, does he?

Why?

I suspect Jesus feels drawn to Jerusalem, not because he’s some baptized Manchurian candidate, who’s compelled to go on a suicide mission by some outside force. He goes because, after living in Herod’s desultory wasteland of Galilee, seeing how the poor and the peasants have been treated by the face of the Roman Empire, he decides that if he’s got a responsibility for helping to inaugurate a new kingdom of peace and justice, he’s going to have to go to the heart of the beast, the power center of the Roman Empire in Palestine … Jerusalem.

So, he sets his face to go Jerusalem.

But along the way, Jesus starts talking about this new kingdom, a kingdom in which God—and not Caesar—calls the shots.

See, and that means Jesus is headed in exactly the wrong direction. If Jesus is going to Jerusalem with a message that challenges the kingdoms of this world, he’s buying himself a ticket on the express train to trouble. Because, if we know one thing about Caesar—now as well as then—Caesar doesn’t like to be challenged … and is willing to rain down retribution on those with the temerity to try.

If there’s anything Caesar can’t stand—then or now—it’s resistance.

But Jesus is preaching a reign of resistance—one that disrupts and unsettles the current power arrangements that so obviously benefit the people in charge—the people who can pay an extra million or two to get their kids into the finest universities, the people who can rig the justice system so that poor people and people of color are punished for the most minor of crimes, while those who steal millions and billions—even if they do get punished—walk away with a casual slap on the wrist, and the reassurance that—despite a little slip-up here and there—they live otherwise blameless lives.

That kingdom, says Jesus, is coming to an end; and it will be displaced by a new reign that will appear unfair to those who have a stake in keeping things (and people) just the way they are.

In Caesar’s kingdom, the poor and the powerless have no value except as they can be used by the rich and the powerful to amass more wealth and power.

But in this new reign Jesus announces, those who’ve found themselves always beneath the boot of the folks in charge will finally be ushered into the party, and given the places of honor—while those who’ve taken for granted that the vulnerable are there to be exploited and used, will wind up being the servants of those who've been used to receiving only scraps.

In fact, that’s the very lead-in to our passage this morning: “There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out. Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last” (13:28-30).

Our text begins right here, where Jesus is warned that Herod’s out to get him, but Jesus insists that he’s still going to Jerusalem, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.”

Do you see what’s happening here?

Jesus has just mentioned a new kingdom where the prophets are gathered, and where those used to being first will be last. No sooner is that out of his mouth, according to Luke, than some Pharisees come to tell him to make his getaway, because one of the highest of muckity-mucks, Herod Agrippa, wants Jesus’ head on a platter. And that’s a real threat, because this same Herod actually served up John the Baptist’s head on a platter.

What’s Jesus’ response? Remember, Jesus is already on his way to Jerusalem—headed in the wrong direction—where he’ll meet up with all the power the empire can marshal against him. So what does Jesus do when told that Herod is after him?

Jesus says, “Tell that old fox for me: ‘He knows where to find me.’ I’m headed toward Jerusalem … you know, the heart of the old kingdom, the place where they kill the prophets that are going to fill up the new kingdom.”

You see the thing that’s so amazing to me about this passage isn’t that the powerful want to kill a prophet, the one who’s sent to turn a stable world upside down—that’s what the powerful always seem to want to do.

No, what I find so amazing is that … knowing the danger ahead of him, Jesus goes to Jerusalem anyway to challenge the old kingdoms with a word about a new reign.

Afraid as he must be, he still sets his face to go to Jerusalem. That is bravery in the most Aristotelian sense of the word. Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem when common sense says he should just find a place to lay low until the heat blows over—all because he can’t keep quiet about the world God wants to create to replace the old one.

And what about us who say we want to follow him, to walk the path he walked, to drink from the cup he drank?

When we hear about strangers who’ve risked their lives in coming here to find safety, but are treated as hostile invaders, stripped of their dignity, torn from their families, and thrown in cages … where’s our bravery?

When we turn on the television to see a man preaching hatred of Muslims, who then takes up an assault rifle and kills 49 of them as they gather to pray to God … what will the world see in us that resembles the prophet Jesus?

The sensible thing to do would be to keep our heads down, just be quiet, but Jesus asks us to be brave, to stand up, to speak out, to thwart the deadly machine of the old kingdom—not just for the sake of being brave, but because there are people suffering and dying, being crushed under Herod’s boot.

I know it’s scary. But we follow Jesus, and he always seems to be headed in the wrong direction.

—Amen.

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