Today’s scripture readings:
1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
I want to start by saying directly to those of you gathered here today and watching online who are angry and afraid for your daughters or granddaughters, or who feel betrayed by the Supreme Court, I see you, I hear you, and I stand with you. Your rage is holy, and it will provide necessary fuel for the struggle ahead. The religious ideology behind Friday’s Supreme Court decision is not the Christianity I have committed my life to, nor is it the faith we claim in this church.
Not long after the Supreme Court decision was announced on Friday overturning Roe v. Wade, ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton issued a pastoral message to the church. Acknowledging that Lutherans across the country have different opinions about abortion, Bishop Eaton urged the church to consider the ELCA’s Social Statement on Abortion. Since the ELCA was formed 35 years ago, the church has developed a number of social statements as a means of focusing attention on pressing issues and guiding the church’s response. The development of a social statement is a lengthy process of education and deliberation, by which a team of theologians and ethicists prepare study documents and receive input from the whole church before finally drafting a final version of a social statement, which then goes before a Churchwide Assembly for approval. The ELCA’s Social Statement on Abortion was adopted at the 1991 Churchwide Assembly, at which 86% of those present voted to approve it.
The social statement asserts that “the number of induced abortions is a source of deep concern” but also teaches that abortion should be legal, regulated, and accessible. According to the social statement, “Laws should be enacted and enforced justly for the preservation and enhancement of life, and should avoid unduly encumbering or endangering the lives of women.” Bishop Eaton writes to the church that overturning Roe v. Wade and placing decisions about abortion regulation at the state level does encumber and endanger the lives of those who need to make decisions about unexpected pregnancies. Bishop Eaton goes on: “This decision affects many people, especially those whose pregnancies unfold in complex situations and the people who love them. Many now find their moral agency restricted because federal law no longer guarantees access to legal and safe abortion. They already face difficult moral questions, and the Supreme Court decision only adds to their anguish.”
The bishop reminds us that, despite this new legal landscape, we as the church “continue to depend on our social teaching for guidance. Our social statement provides the moral framework for our church’s communal discernment and ministry, holding in tension both the strong Christian presumption to preserve and protect all life as well as the complex moral situations in which pregnancy sometimes occurs.” What is so unfortunate about the Supreme Court decision is that it denies this complexity and short-circuits faithful deliberation of the difficult questions people who are pregnant often face.
Of course, this week’s Supreme Court decision on abortion was only the tip of the iceberg. Justice Thomas’s concurring opinion makes it abundantly clear that at least one member of the Court is prepared to go even further, restricting access to birth control and recriminalizing the LGBTQ community. And the abortion opinion was not the only one issued this week. Thanks to a series of other newly-announced decisions, Americans can no longer be prevented from openly carrying weapons in public, taxpayers of all religious persuasions will be compelled to fund private Christian schools, and while those under arrest may still have the right to remain silent, there is no longer a requirement that police inform them of that right. And this is all to say nothing of what we’ve learned from the January 6 Special Committee in recent days about our nation’s crumbling democracy. The challenges we face are daunting. The difficult work of righting our country’s wrongs and bringing about structural change is going to require everything we’ve got.
“When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” That’s how today’s Gospel lesson begins. Up until now, Jesus has been teaching in Galilee—the northern part of the region the Jewish people called home. Galilee was far removed from Jerusalem, which was the cultural, religious, and political center of the Jewish world, and the rural Galileans were routinely scorned by the supposedly more sophisticated Jews who lived in the big city. The Jesus movement originated as a movement of these despised Galileans who were fed up with the way they were treated by the elites in Jerusalem.
Now, at the beginning of today’s Gospel lesson, we read that Jesus has “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Jesus has built a movement; now he senses that it’s time to confront the powers in the capital city. But this passage begins with those ominous words, “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up….” The Gospel writer is foreshadowing the end of the story, reminding us that what’s coming is Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension to heaven. Jesus has been proclaiming this hopeful and radical good news around Galilee, and now it’s time to take this movement to the next level, to go into the belly of the beast and confront the authorities—and here the Gospel writer hints at the heavy consequences of this decision. Jesus could have certainly predicted that his arrival in the city and his confrontation with the authorities would spark a conflict and land him in hot water. But he knows that achieving the kind of change he is looking for and ushering in the world God envisions for the people requires nothing less than the complete dismantling of the world as it is. And so, Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem.
Having set out toward Jerusalem, Jesus encounters someone who says he’d like to follow. Jesus responds that foxes have holes and birds have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. Maybe Jesus is saying that on this journey to Jerusalem, there isn’t going to be any rest. Or maybe he’s saying that the message he brings is so off-putting that nobody along the way will dare take them in or provide shelter. Maybe the message is that from here on out, he and his followers are going to feel very far from home, far from any place that offers rest, security, and stability; that from now on they are going to feel estranged and alone. Whatever the case, it seems clear that Jesus is offering this man a warning, that following Jesus to Jerusalem isn’t going to be all sunshine and roses. Come and follow if you like, but don’t say Jesus didn’t warn you that this would be a long and difficult journey.
The next two people Jesus encounters along the way are people he invites to follow. But each of them asks for a delay. One man wants to bury his dead father; the other just wants a moment to say goodbye to his family. At this point we’re not surprised to hear Jesus say, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” These are harsh words, but I think we get the point. Following Jesus will be difficult and lonely. It will demand our undivided attention. It will mean giving up everything that has made us feel safe and adopting an entirely new way of life. Following Jesus will require everything we’ve got.
Bishop Eaton concludes her pastoral message by giving us work to do. “As we live into this new legal framework, we can respond to and minister in the current situation, for instance, by ministering to individuals who seek abortions; advocating for laws that provide free or affordable health care, child care and education; providing and promoting sex education; continuing to be a community of discernment where thoughtful and diverse perspectives can be shared and heard; and advocating for state laws that provide legal, safe and affordable abortions, and against legislation that would outlaw abortion in all circumstances.” She acknowledges that this a daunting assignment. It will require more from us than most of us have been willing to give in the past. It’s going to be messy and hard and uncomfortable.
Today I hear Jesus challenging our assumption that following him to Jerusalem, embodying his love and justice, and confronting the powers is work that we can do at our convenience; something we can do for a little while and then take a break. It’s work that has to become a way of life, not something we do occasionally with our free time.
It all sounds so overwhelming, but here’s the thing: I think all of us want to make a difference in the world. None of us want to be part of the problem, to be overcome by complacency or distracted by issues of secondary importance. I would bet that most of us feel disappointed in ourselves when we realize our efforts have fallen short, or we could be doing more, and that most of us would like to do better. So I think it’s actually good news that while Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, he finds us along the road and says, “Follow me.” Maybe we drag our feet or have second thoughts. After all, Jesus has told us it’s not going to be easy. But the invitation is there and Jesus promises to show us the way. He promises to show us how we can be part of his mission to bring about the kingdom of God. He helps us get clear about what matters most so we won’t fall behind or get knocked off course. Jesus doesn’t give up on us but keeps calling us to follow, guiding our feet each step of the way, until we reach the destination and the mission is accomplished.
Elizabeth A. Eaton, “Bishop Eaton issues pastoral message on SCOTUS ruling regarding Roe v. Wade,” published and accessed June 24, 2022, https://www.elca.org/News-and-Events/8141.
Justo L. González, Luke, in the Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible series, eds. Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010).
Karoline Lewis, “But first…” on WorkingPreacher.org, June 24, 2019, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5362.
Sharon H. Ringe, Luke, in the Westminster Bible Companion series, eds. Patrick D. Miller and David L. Bartlett (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995).
Marilyn Salmon, “Commentary on Luke 9:51-62” on WorkingPreacher.org, 2010, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=623.
The featured image for this post, “Pro-Choice Supporters,” is from Brianne on Flickr and is made available by an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.