Jesus in the Driver’s Seat

Matthew 16:21-28

Mo Willems’ Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. Great book, right? Kids love it because they know what it’s like to want to be in the driver’s seat, and they know what it’s like to be told NO. Turning the tables and saying NO to the pigeon is pretty fun.

But let’s face it: we adults love it for the same reason. We all want to be in the driver’s seat, right? We want to be in charge of our lives. The thing we hate most is to have someone else tell us what to do. It’s disempowering. Makes you feel like a child.

That’s what was going on with the disciples in our Gospel story today. Jesus had just revealed to them that he was the Messiah, and now Jesus goes on to tell the disciples what that means.

Now, you can imagine they must have been expecting something grand. The Messiah was the promised King, like David! The Messiah was the Son of God! But Jesus bursts their bubble and tells them that he was going to suffer and die. Instead of being acclaimed as the Messiah, he was going to get killed. He did mention something about rising again after three days, but the disciples were so worked up about the suffering thing, they didn’t even hear it.

Peter says, “Jesus, this can’t happen to you! It’s not in the plan!” But Peter was thinking about an earthly plan, the kind of plans you and I make every day–plans with goals, and steps and measurable results. But Jesus wasn’t looking for that kind of success. He wasn’t looking to climb the ladder. He wasn’t trying to create a new program. He wasn’t even trying to “grow the church.” Jesus had a spiritual plan, and it looked pretty different than what the disciples had in mind.

“If any want to become my followers,” Jesus said, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” The plan is that Jesus is going to the be the leader, and the disciples followers.

Now the idea of “followers” isn’t that popular these days. In the church, as with any other organization, we want leaders, not followers. We need people with vision! We need people with organization! People who will delegate but also roll up their sleeves and make sure stuff gets done. Following sounds so…sheep-like. That’s because when you’re a follower, you’re not in charge.

That’s what Peter and the disciples had trouble with. Eugene Peterson in his modern version of the bible The Message puts Jesus’ words this way: “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how.”

It’s a hard thing to give up being in the driver’s seat. It means taking direction. It means letting go of your ego and the desire to control everything. The disciples had surely been thinking they would be leaders, sitting at Jesus’ side when he came into his glory. But now they were followers, and they didn’t even like where they were headed.

We are often faced with the same struggle to follow Jesus when we feel like being in charge. We say, “Give it to God,” and yet, still we hold onto stuff: we hold on to responsibilities, worry, old ideas that don’t work, dead dreams. We want to give it to God, but it’s so hard. We know that God is good, but sometimes we don’t entirely trust God. Sometimes we don’t like where Jesus is heading with us.

Epiphany has repeatedly taken the challenge of following Jesus’ lead. Sixty-four years ago a few people of faith from Hope Lutheran in downtown Dayton took a risk and planted a new Lutheran church in South Dayton. The Far Hills campus was an apple orchard then. They met first at John Hole Elementary and built a small sanctuary, now the Flag Room. Focusing their ministry on children’s and family’s needs, they build a congregation with thriving ministries of worship and outreach, trained young pastors to serve the church, and cultivated the faith of multiple generations.

In 2009, Epiphany followed Jesus’ lead again in opening its second campus at Austin. The idea was to reach out to the new folks moving to this part of town as well as cities further south. It was to connect with neighbors and build community through a sports ministry. Through the creativity and commitment of pastors and people, that is what has happened here, despite some pretty hard times including a congregational split, the pandemic, staff retirements and downsizing, and pastoral transition.

Our congregation is in the call process right now. We want to add a new associate pastor to our church, and it is an exercise in the challenging art of trusting Jesus. We are trusting that God guided the leadership as they selected representatives from across the demographics of the congregation to form the Call Committee. We’re trusting that Jesus is at the wheel when the Southern Ohio Synod forwards names of candidates for the call committee to consider.

We’re trusting in the Spirit’s work through the Call Committee as they pray and ask questions during interviews and discussions. We’re trusting Jesus’ leading when the time comes for the Council to meet with the candidate and again test the call: is this pastor right for Epiphany? And finally, we’ll be trusting that Jesus is present when the congregation meets the pastor, prays together, and votes on the call of that pastor. The process is an exercise in letting Jesus be in the driver’s seat and trusting his direction, even when we can’t always see where it’s going. It will not always be easy or comfortable, but it is what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus wherever he leads.

Yesterday I tuned into the livestream of the ordination of one of my former parishioners back in Connecticut. I heard again the words of promise that we pastors make in ordination. Among the promises we make, we are asked:

Will you accept this ministry,

believing that the church’s call is God’s call

to the ministry of word and service?

Believing that the church’s call is God’s call can be a tall order for those of us who want to drive the bus, and we clergy are no exception to that inclination. And so the candidate for ordination responds:

I will, and I ask God to help me.

I think the same could be said to us as a congregation, as staff and leaders of this congregation. We can ask for God’s help to believe that the church’s call – in all its stages and seeming delays and human involvement – is God’s call. We can ask Jesus to help us let him drive the bus.

Jesus said, “If any want to follow me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Taking up Jesus’ cross is a process of laying down stuff that gets in the way of following Jesus including our need to know, our desire to choose the destination and route to get there, our inclination to direct instead of to follow Jesus.

But as Jesus has led us in the past, Jesus leads us again today. With God’s help, we can trust that the church’s call is God’s call. With God’s help, we can believe that Jesus stands with us today, guiding our Council and Call committee. With God’s help, we can rely on Jesus to guide each of us as we live out our faith and let Jesus have the driver’s seat.

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