The long route (Hebrews 1.1, 2.5-12)

Hebrews 1.1, 2.5-12   
“The Long Route”
Ordinary 27B/World Communion Sunday 2018
Eastminster United Presbyterian Church
Tom James
Back when we lived in a little village north of Cincinnati called Glendale, we were too close to the elementary school for our kids to be able to ride the bus.  Most days that worked out fine, especially in the fall and the late Spring, when the weather was beautiful in Southwestern Ohio.  The little village we lived in was very picturesque and filled with beautiful homes and lots of old trees.  Sometimes, we would make our little trek as a family, complete with both parents and our youngest in a stroller.  We could walk along the wide sidewalks that lined the streets, or we could cut through a pathway that put us back onto the road just a block or two from the school.  So, we faced a choice every morning:  take the shortcut, or the more scenic, longer route?  Our middle child, interestingly, often had strong opinions about that, and most often she preferred the longer route.  “What do you think, [child’s name], should we take the shortcut today?”  “No, daddy, let’s talk the long-cut.” So, in no great hurry, we took the “long cut.” (I think that she imagined that it would make her school day shorter!).
But of course, taking the long cut isn’t always easy.  Especially when you enlarge the scale a little bit, and time gets scarce. Especially where I live now! I find that I am often in a hurry, and sometimes I have to get back home in Michigan to pick up a kid for practice or a game or to rush off to somewhere else for a meeting. And there is construction in lots of places, and, in some places, there are trains and bridges!  No matter where we are going, it seems like to we are almost always in a hurry to get there. The clock is always ticking, and we can feel the minutes dribble away.  When time passes quickly, or when we feel it passing quickly, we experience anxiety, and with it the need for quick relief. So, of course, it’s our second nature to want to take the shortcut.
But there are some problems with shortcuts.  For us, back on our walking paths in the village of Glendale, Ohio, they were the low-hanging branches that would slap our unwary faces, and there was that one place along the pathway that was just a little too steep for comfort.
But the bigger problem with shortcuts is that often they don’t really get us where we want to go.  That is because not all journeys take place according to two-dimensional maps with easily marked destinations.  Sometimes there really is no shortcut (Is there a shortcut to character? To happiness? To peace?) and so trying to take it, trying to grasp the quick fix, trying quickly to change the situation that is causing us the worry, backfires.  Pretty often, in fact, the situation isn’t really what’s causing the worry, anyway. Often, what’s causing the worry is our own worrisome responses to our situations, our own fears and anxieties about them, fueled by our unrealistic expectations that we can fully manage or control our lives.
There is no doubt that the long cut, or the long route, is the harder one during stressful times. But it may be the only one that will get us through. Our New Testament passage from the letter to the Hebrews speaks of Jesus taking the long cut.  The language that is used is that of being made “perfect” (mature) through suffering.  Now, the notion of being made perfect through suffering is troubling and potentially problematic, especially considering the realities of abuse that many people live through.  We Christians need to be very careful about how we talk about suffering and its value. But suffering here need not mean physical or even emotional trauma. There’s nothing particularly helpful or praiseworthy about suffering in this sense. But the root idea behind the word “suffering” doesn’t mean just that—rather, “suffering” is simply being acted upon, being not completely in charge, being at the mercy of some things we cannot control, at least to some extent.  You’ve perhaps heard the expression, “so-and-so does not suffer fools?”  It means, “so-and-so does not tolerate having to listen to, to be affected by, foolish words and thoughts.” This is the most basic meaning of “suffering” that I want to lift up here.  Jesus suffered primarily by acknowledging that he was not in control, by submitting his will to God’s will. He had to suffer someone else’s power and influence.  He didn’t control his situation. This is how, according to Hebrews, he “learned obedience.”  This is how he became perfect, or mature.
Here again, we need to be careful, though. There is nothing particularly great about not being in control, either—especially if that means that we are the mercy of another, perhaps a more powerful person who does not have our best interest at heart. Suffering in this sense means being violated, and being violated has nothing in common with the kind of discipleship that Jesus calls us to, because the kind of discipleship that Jesus calls us to involves rejoicing in the power that God’s spirit gives us to do good. Jesus calls us not to be doormats, nor to keep silent when we are violated. Jesus calls us to be bold, active, striving to create a better world, and filled with confidence and joy.
And, yet, there is a more general sense of suffering, in the sense of not being in control, that is part of becoming a mature person, isn’t there?  It is a matter, in part, of learning how not to get what we want immediately.  It is a matter of being able to defer gratification, as we sometimes say.  It is a matter of learning to live happily and purposively when things are up in the air, when conclusions and results are not yet clear.  And we likely know from experience that these skills are valuable because they tend to keep us from making snap judgments; they keep us from plunging ahead when it would be wiser to wait.
And there is another problem with shortcuts. The shortcut is also a major source of conflict.  In our worry or fear, we try to take too much into our own hands. We try to turn our uncertainties into certainties by force, and we find ourselves trying to force issues that others, in their worry, or fear, are trying to force in a different direction. Force meets force. And this, of course, is how violence can escalate, and we can become embroiled in a process that is brutal and harmful.
It would be tempting, considering these dangers, to adopt the opposite attitude: one of passivity.  It is tempting sometimes to simply throw up our hands, despairing of the immensity of the forces that are working on behalf of injustice, or else cynically denouncing all attempts to change things as if they were a fool’s errand.  It’s the response of saying that gun violence or climate change or drug abuse or drop out rates or poverty or sexual misconduct by powerful men are so deeply rooted in our society (or perhaps in human nature itself) that we will never resolve them, so why bother trying? Passivity is a shortcut because it is a way of withdrawing from the situations that cause us worry, that prick our conscience, or trouble our souls.  Passivity seeks instant relief not by seeking rashly to change a situation, but by casting that situation in bronze, treating it as somehow “natural,” and refusing to acknowledge the possibility, and the necessity, of change. Passivity is the sweet indulgence of giving up.
So what is the better way? If violence and passivity are equally unhelpful, is there some attitude that we can adopt that is better, and that is more in sync with the teaching and example of Jesus?
On world communion Sunday, we often stress the importance of peacemaking. Peacemaking is the long route. It lies not in between violence and passivity, but is, in fact, a whole different path, and it is much harder than both, with steeper inclines.  It requires activity rather than passivity. It requires taking steps that are difficult, and sometimes uphill. It requires listening to those who disagree with you.  It means finding ways to acknowledge their legitimate interests, and not becoming defensive when confronted with them.  It means acknowledging, and treasuring, the dignity of those who seem at first to have nothing in common with you at all.  As embattled as we are in this country right now, it has probably never been more tempting to look for a quicker, easier route than peacemaking: it is so tempting just to dismiss those who are on the other side, if you will, and think of them as either so bad that they must be controlled or so impervious to reason and sentiment that we should just write them off and do nothing to make anything different. And, just because it is so easy to succumb to those temptations, it has probably never been more important to slow down, to take the long route to life, and recognize the humanity of those who are journeying alongside us.

As we remember Jesus, both as we contemplate the Word and as we gather around the table in just a few moments, perhaps we can learn a little about how to make our own way through our own long routes to peace.  Let’s take a little time. Let’s not be in too much of a hurry, for once. Let’s take a breath, enjoy the scenery, acknowledge that we are not in control of the destination, nor the pathway. Should we take the shortcut, today?  “No, friends, let’s take the long cut.” Isn’t that the route that Jesus walked? In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.
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