I am not much of a dancer. I believe this stems from the fact that I lack rhythm and coordination. I am not going to dance for you this morning, because I don’t want to embarrass myself. You’ll just have to take my word that I am a bad dancer. If you take my word for it, you are different from my wife, Becky, who did not take my word for it. As we were preparing for our wedding several years ago, Becky, who is a wonderful and talented dancer, informed me of her dream to have a very special first dance at the wedding reception. “Very special” meant choreographed. Choreographed meant trouble. In spite of my objections, Becky arranged for us to begin taking dance lessons… 6 months before our wedding. That turned out to be a good idea. I was a disaster on the dance floor, especially at the beginning, and there was one lesson I needed to learn right away, or else I wasn’t getting married. While I was dancing, I needed to keep my eyes off my feet and off the floor. The reason for that was because, as any dancer will tell you, where your eyes are there will your body be also. Now since I wasn’t doing any jumping or leaping I didn’t have to worry about falling as much as Becky had to worry about me stepping on her poor toes, which I did a lot. However, as I learned the lesson, and began to keep my eyes focused on Becky and not the floor, I actually improved as a dancer, and her feet began to feel a lot better.
Our Scripture readings this morning seem to be focused on where we keep our eyes as we run the race of faith and continue following Jesus as his disciples. Our weather eye, based on these readings, is not actually to be focused on the weather. See, the storm isn’t coming… it’s already here. Rather than look out for certain turbulence, we are to keep our eyes focused on Christ, a solid rock and a shelter in the storm. We are to pay careful attention to where he is calling us in the world, and where he is inviting us to share his good news and abundant grace and mercy. When we keep our eyes on Jesus we are in a much better position to see three things. First, we can better see what God is doing in our midst. Second, we can see where justice and righteousness are lacking, and work to restore them. And finally, we can see that there is a point to all of this difficult faith business – a goal, if you will – and we are assured of reaching it if we persevere.
Jesus in the gospel lesson shares some particularly harsh words with the crowd gathered around him to hear his teaching. The language Jesus uses conveys the sense of urgency that Jesus is feeling. He is on his way to Jerusalem where he will be arrested, convicted, and executed. For him, time is most definitely short. But his sense of urgency transcends his earthly ministry, because he knows that God will send us the Holy Spirit to continue his work. His urgency stems from a concern he has for how people are treated in the here and now. Jesus sees the community that is forming because of him, and the church is beginning to take root. He desperately wants these people to follow him at all costs, because there is something so much bigger than themselves at stake. Jesus is seeing the big picture. Where individuals are concerned with themselves and their small sphere of influence and control, Jesus is inviting us to live in God’s presence where a bigger picture and concern is revealed. Jesus sees how we are all connected, and how we all have a responsibility to join in what God is doing to provide for all of creation – not just a few members of it. This is why, immediately before our reading this morning, Jesus uses a story to condemn a slave who abuses and beats his fellow slaves, gorging himself on food and drink and not sharing from his abundance. This slave, Jesus says, will be cut off and put with the unfaithful.
Now Jesus appears at the ready with a sword, not to hurt, maim, or kill, but to divide. Those who share in Jesus’ baptism are cut off from this world of sin, and given a new life and a new master – Jesus. Those baptized with Jesus no longer live their lives according to the world’s values and institutions, but rather seek out ways to express Kingdom values, which are in direct opposition to worldly institutions and powers. When we understand this, we can understand that Jesus’s mission isn’t to separate people. Rather, people will separate themselves from one another because of their allegiance to Jesus and his teaching. These Kingdom values, reflected when we sacrifice of ourselves for the good of others, and forsake personal gain in order to proclaim the gospel to all people, involve living in ways that are counter to the standards and priorities the world sets before us. When we are deliberately trying to put these values into practice in our lives, we are much more aware of what God is doing in our midst, and how God is doing it.
Yet living out these values is often hard, and we may even find ourselves at odds with our family members. What higher cost is there than to be separated from the ones we love most because of our allegiance to God? Perhaps none besides our own lives. Yet to go where Jesus calls us and follow where Jesus leads is exactly how a disciple takes up her cross and follows Jesus. In the midst of such separation and division, we may experience pain and a strong desire to give up on the race we’re running. We may want to stop running, turn, and walk off the track, reestablishing our allegiance to the world for the sake of those we love and want to be in communion with. It is at those moments when it is hardest to trust that God does indeed have a plan for those people. God is working in their lives as much as God is working in yours. Perhaps even more so. While it is tough to keep moving on when it means leaving loved ones behind, we can place our hope in God, continuing to pray for those people while trusting in God’s loving mercy and the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit.
However, quitting our faith journey, whether for the sake of someone we love or for the sake of personal gain, is not a good idea. Isaiah offers us a love song this morning that relates some painful truths about a people who receive everything they need – love, protection, and nurture – yet repeatedly fail to live up to the expectations of the one providing for them. God provided so much, according to Isaiah, and expected three things in return: God expected the people to produce good fruit, God expected justice from the people, and God expected righteousness. Instead, the people rebelled, and their act of rebellion brought them to ruin. They became so self-centered and focused on meeting their own needs, that they couldn’t “interpret their present age,” as Jesus says. With mounting greed, acts of intolerable cruelty towards the poorest in their midst, and less and less focus on God, the people of Judah were completely oblivious to the threats piling up at their doorway, and they left themselves vulnerable to destruction and exile.
Sometimes it is hard for us to see that God desires what is best for us. Yet, God also wants what is best for everyone else, too. We, like Israel, are continually faced with the expectations to bear good fruit, to seek out and restore justice in situations where it is absent, and to live righteous lives. When we live with our eyes fixed on Jesus, he will help us see how to act in situations where the fruit of the Spirit needs to spring forth. He will reveal to us, through God’s word and through the church, where injustice is thriving, and he will equip us to work together to reestablish justice. And he promises, if we only spend time with him, to continue molding us into his likeness, so that we will be made righteous through him (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Finally, keeping our eyes on Jesus assures us that we run this race and persevere for a reason. The author of Hebrews must have understood that there are days (and perhaps weeks, months, and years) that it would just be easier to give up than to keep going. Faith can be extremely challenging, and the call to follow Jesus can be downright dangerous. It can and does demand our wealth, our time, our pride, at times our very life, and everything else we hold dear. But Hebrews reminds us of two very important realities. First, we are not running this race alone. We are being cheered on by a great cloud of witnesses, who have endured everything we have endured and more. We find their stories in our faith family history book, where they inspire us, challenge us, and often make us feel a little better about our own lives and situations. The second reality present in Hebrews is that Jesus is firmly planted at the right hand of God the Father. We believe in Jesus’ resurrection and the promise it holds for us. We are assured of victory in our race because Jesus is victorious. All that is left for us to do is to throw off the weight of sin that hangs around us like a wet blanket and tries to keep us subservient to the world and its agenda. But we have freedom from the soul-killing priorities of the world, and we are called to share that freedom with all God’s children. We are called to share it as good news that is as sweet as summer fruit. We are called to share it as justice restored to the poor, the outcast, and the marginalized. And we are called to share it as God’s own righteousness.
Hebrews talks about our lives of faith as a race that we are running. What if we considered it a dance, instead? Rather than keep our eyes focused on the floor, let’s keep our eyes planted firmly on our dance partner – Jesus. He will lead, he will keep our steps sure, he will show us what God is doing in our midst so we can partner in the work.