Think. Serve. Worship. Belong.

Nowhere

Nowhere

Rev. Fritz Ritsch

June 30, 2019

St. Stephen Presbyterian Church

 

Imperfection clings to a person, and if they wait till they are brushed off entirely, they would spin for ever on their axis, advancing nowhere.–Thomas Carlyle, Scottish Philosopher, 1795-1881

Our son Bennie is on a great adventure. He’s in India with a couple of college friends. This is his graduation present. His one friend lives in New Delhi, in the northernmost part of India. He’s been so many places already in the past couple of weeks that I decided I’d start following him on a map. First they travelled south and east from New Delhi to Agra and visited the Taj Mahal. From there they took a long, uncomfortable bus ride straight north to the boundary of the Himalayas to Dharmsala, where they visited the site of the Tibetan Government in Exile. They hoped to meet the Dalai Lama, but didn’t; but they visited the Buddhist temple there. They also hiked a little ways up the Himalayas and visited a village there. From there they returned briefly to Delhi and are now travelling along the western coast of the Arabian Sea. They will visit Mumbai and then take a few days to go to the beach city of Goa, which apparently is very beautiful.

This has been an ambivalent trip for Bennie. He’s seen poverty that he’s never seen before. He has been disgusted by all the trash—even up in the Himalayas. The bus rides are hard on him because he’s long legged and the buses are cramped and small. They’re trying to make it on $25 a day, and it’s not easy. But he’s having an amazing adventure and he’s with friends, and you can’t help but think an experience like this will be vital in shaping his character. Frankly I admire him for taking on this daunting challenge.

When someone is on a trip like this you might ask them, “Where are you going next?” But you wouldn’t ask him, “Where are you going?” as if there is some final destination. There really isn’t, unless you view the destination as something amorphous, like developing character, or learning about the world, or overcoming adversity. “Where are you going?” in literal terms is an irrelevant question. A traveler might honestly respond, “I’m going nowhere.”

In our two scriptures today we see the Old Testament prophet Elijah, and the New Testament savior Jesus, are each on a journey. Elijah’s journey seems disjointed and haphazard, in part because he’s trying to shake loose his disciple Elisha who won’t let him out of his sight. Elisha has figured out where his boss is going, sort of. He knows Elijah is leaving. I’m not sure what he thinks that Elijah’s leaving will be. Will he die? Will he simply wander off by himself? I doubt he expects what actually happens—that Elijah will be taken up in a heavenly chariot to be with God. Elijah’s destination is not on any map. Elijah’s destination, it turns out, is nowhere—nowhere on this earth, that is.

Jesus’ perambulations by contrast seem quite clear. Our passage from Luke begins: “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” “He set his face”—one imagines a look of grim determination. Jesus knows that the days are “near for him to be taken up.” An interesting turn of phrase. Does it mean that Jesus knows that he will be “taken up” into heaven like Elijah was? Or does it mean that Jesus will be “taken up” by his enemies to be nailed to a cross and die? Maybe he knows both those things. Regardless, at this point Jesus’ destination is a clearly marked point on any map of the Middle East, then or now—his destination is Jerusalem.

Along the way, people try to follow him, much as Elisha tried to follow Elijah; and just like Elijah, Jesus tries to discourage them from following him. One person says he wants to follow him as soon as his father dies, but Jesus basically tells him, I don’t have time to wait for you. Another man wants to say goodbye to his family, and Jesus tells him you need to be looking ahead, not behind. And one person says to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” It sounds like a clear unequivocal offer, but Jesus challenges it: “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son has nowhere to lay his head.” The man said, “I will follow you wherever you go,” but Jesus says, “I’m not going anywhere. I have nowhere to go. Do you really want to follow me there?”

In all of the examples I’ve just given of people offering to follow Jesus, he puts a challenge to them. We don’t know if they took up the challenge and followed Jesus anyway. Maybe they all did. If they did, Jesus wanted to be sure they knew exactly what was at stake. They were following someone who would likely die, and if he was likely to die, so were they. From a worldly perspective, Jesus could be viewed as going nowhere. Jesus wasn’t going to defeat the enemy and he and his followers would likely never benefit from the trappings of success—fame, money, public adulation, great jobs and credit for a job well done. Jesus could be viewed as a real nowhere man, living in a nowhere land, making all his nowhere plans for nobody. Is this the guy you really want to follow?

A lot of times we follow Jesus because we expect to get something out of it. There’s the “fire insurance’ approach: We want to know we’re going to heaven and not the extremely hot other direction. Or perhaps we believe that because we follow Jesus we will have success or happiness or at least a sense of peace. Or we might have a noble cause, like making the world a better place, helping those in need, doing something for the larger good.

The problem with all those things is that we are seeking some visible, tangible way to measure our success. Not only that, but they are our personal ideas of what is best for us, best for others, best for the world. But do we really know? And how do we know if we’ve succeeded or not? We all venerate Mother Theresa for the work she did for the poor in India. But her journals indicate she was often troubled and frustrated, feeling like nothing she was doing was making any difference. Martin Luther King, Jr., often found himself in the same dark valley of despair, wondering if anything he was doing made any difference.

My point is that you and I are not the best judges of what the best plan is, or what success looks like, or of the best way we can be of service to God and neighbor. And not only that, there are crosses we have to bear along the way, and sometimes those crosses obscure our vision. When we follow Jesus, success may not always look like success to us.  Even for the people of greatest faith, sometimes it seems like following Jesus is getting us nowhere.

Historian Yuval Noah Harari says that the Scientific Revolution was not a revolution of knowledge, but a revolution of ignorance. Western Europeans went from believing that they had all the answers to believing they had none of the answers. Until the scientific revolution, westerners believed that everything that needed to be known was already known. The Bible said the earth was about six thousand years old; the classical scholars thought that the sun goes around the earth; people thought that all the land masses that they knew of were all the land masses that existed.  Even after Columbus discovered the Americas, he went to his deathbed believing that he’d discovered the western passage to the Indies. But Amerigo Vespucci, who drew the first map of the world after the discovery of the Americas, thought very differently. He thought scientifically. He drew a map of the world that showed every detail of the coastlines of North and South America that had been discovered—but beyond that he left a huge portion of the map blank. Half a map with nothing but empty space. It was a cartographic representation of nowhere. His point was that beyond the coastline there were whole new worlds waiting to be discovered. No one could predict what those worlds would be. Going nowhere presented endless and unimaginable possibilities. [1]

To follow Jesus, we do well to acknowledge our own ignorance. All the things we think that we need, and all the things that we think the world needs, are going to be negated or revolutionized by our submission to the Lord of Life. The more we hold on to certainties, the less likely we are to be following Jesus. We have to acknowledge that all our self-made plans, all the prejudices and presumptions that we think shape our character and personality, are going nowhere with Jesus. Our goals for our lives need to be submitted to his goals for our lives.

What that means in practical terms is that we no longer see our lives mapped out and planned or our hopes and dreams as set in stone. There is a gigantic portion of our lives that is unmapped, that looks like it’s leading nowhere, because that’s where Jesus is taking us. When we follow him, we have to let go of the destinations we have set for ourselves and take the risk of going where he takes us. Rather than viewing this as risky and fearful, perhaps we can instead view all this as a voyage of discovery. There are unknown places Jesus wants to take us, unknown people Jesus wants us to meet, unknown challenges and opportunities that he sets before us.

I think many of us can relate to that. Think about what you thought when you were in high school or college about what you were going to do with your life. Think about the assumptions you had that have now been turned on their heads.

When I was in my twenties, for instance, I went through a period where I thought I might become an actor. A few different decisions thirty-five years ago and right now I might be waiting tables in New York City waiting for my next bit part as a witness on Law and Order: SVU.

In my mid-thirties I thought I was called to be a pastoral counselor; in my forties I thought I was called to be a community organizer. At various points in my life I thought I was supposed to be something different from a minister, yet here I am, and happy to be here. One thing I never thought was that I would become as deeply involved in homelessness as I am here. That happened because God called me to a church in Texas, which I never expected; and to this church in particular, that has a long-standing commitment to homeless ministry. I could never have predicted or planned any of this.

Along the way life gave me a lot of lemons, too—some of which I brought on myself, and some of which were out of my control. Dealing with one’s own flaws, and with pain and loss and suffering, is never any fun. But it can shape us to be more compassionate, more durable, more wise, and more determined. I heard recently about a Japanese American woman named Chizu Amore. When she was twelve she and her family were imprisoned in an internment camp after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Now nearly ninety, she is an outspoken in her opposition of detaining immigrant children on the Mexican border. She says that she and other formerly interned Japanese Americans feel like “because of our particular history we have the moral authority” to ask that the United States “not repeat history.” “I just want to do something useful in my old age,” she says. Certainly life took her places she didn’t want to go, but she is using that experience now for redemptive purposes.

I had an older mentor several years ago who said to me, “The older I get, the more comfortable I get with the idea that God is sovereign.” She meant by that that over the years she’d learned the hard way that the best laid plans are best laid to rest. Experience had taught her to relinquish her grip on her own life and her own plans and to trust God to take her the direction she needed to go. Life is too full of surprises for any of our own plans to last long or to hold much water. It’s no fun to live our lives as if every unexpected turn of fate is out there simply to thwart our personal plan. It’s more rewarding to see in the unexpected an answer to our ignorance—an opportunity to discover a new world.

I expect that Bennie’s two-month trip in India will shape him for years, probably for the rest of his life, in ways that strengthen his character and direct him to new and surprising places. Something of the same happens when we follow Christ. We follow him into that blank space on the map that looks like nowhere—and by the time we are done we discover this is the somewhere that we’ve always needed to be.

 

[1] Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. New York: Harper Perennial, 2014. Chapter 14: The Discovery of Ignorance.

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