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Christian Karma

The first reading this morning is Luke 9: 51: “Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Despite its shortness, it’s a key verse in the whole gospel story. Before this decision to go to Jerusalem, Jesus had been preaching, teaching, and healing in the region around Galilee. In just this one chapter, he has commissioned the 12 disciples to go out into the villages. He has fed 5,000 people – not counting women and children. Peter has declared Jesus to be the long-awaited Messiah. He has been transfigured up the mountain, and he has come down the mountain and healed a boy who had convulsions…

            As long as he stayed in Galilee, Jesus could probably have kept right on doing these things for the rest of his life.

            But this verse is the pivot, the turning point. Jesus turns his back on the “safe” region and decides to go to Jerusalem – and sets up everything that happens on Palm Sunday, Holy Week, Good Friday, and Easter

            The reading is just one verse. Luke 9: 51 – “Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem…”


The second reading comes from American poet Robert Frost. It probably contains his most-quoted lines:


Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both and be one traveler,

long I stood and looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;


Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,


And both that morning equally lay in leaves no step had trodden black.


Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.


I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I

— I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.




Hinduism and Buddhism both have a doctrine they call “karma.” K-A-R-M-A. Robert Frost doesn’t use that word in his poem, but that’s what he’s writing about.


Picture it. He’s out walking the woods. He comes to a fork in the road. One road leads to the left, the other to the right. He can’t take both at once. He chooses the road less travelled, thinking he might, someday, come back and follow the other road. But he knows he never will. Because, having made this one choice, he has committed himself to the chain of choices offered by the road he’s on. Not any other road.


That’s karma.


We tend to associate karma with Hinduism and re-incarnation (which of course we don’t believe in, and therefore we assume has nothing to do with us) – about how your actions in this life will determine whether you come back as a cow or a cockroach.


But there’s another angle. In effect, karma says that every action, every decision, has consequences. And every choice that you make pre-determines, to some extent, the kinds of decisions that will face you in the future. Your choices create your fate.


Like Robert Frost, once you’ve taken the road less travelled, you can’t undo what’s done.


Here’s an example. I was away most of February. I drove to California to spend three weeks with Christine.  I took my cat with me. It’s a two-day trip, each way. Dickie was an excellent passenger.  He rode in my rear window and made faces at other drivers.


We kept him inside the house for two weeks, because we didn’t know if he would find his way back home in a  strange environment. And then one morning he shot between my legs when I opened the back door.


He was outside for the whole day. He wouldn’t come when I called. He didn’t come in at night. Not even when it started raining. During the night, I heard something outside. So I went out and called Dickie. I thought I heard his little “merp.” I looked up, and there he was. On the roof. Over my head. I couldn’t reach him. And he wouldn’t jump. Which explains why I ended up climbing a step ladder, at 2:00 a.m., in my pajamas, in a rainstorm, retrieving a soggy cat, off a roof.


Now, you might say that if I’m dumb enough to take a cat on holiday with me, I deserve whatever I get.


But the karma didn’t start with taking a cat on holiday. Or even with him scooting out the door. The karma chain started two years before, when I gave my heart to a ball of black-and-white fur just five weeks old, so small he could curl up in the palm of my hand.


I couldn’t have predicted all the rest of the story from that beginning. But if I hadn’t taken that first step, there wouldn’t be a story at all.


That’s how karma works.


So now let’s look at Jesus.


We are one Sunday away from Holy Week. One week away from Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the back of a borrowed donkey. And all that followed after.


If you read the gospels, if you read them as a whole, you might be surprised to find that the events of that week take up roughly half of each gospel.


During that week, Jesus drove the moneychangers out of the temple. He celebrated the last supper with his friends. He was betrayed and arrested. He was tried – at least four times – was beaten and humiliated, and ultimately crucified.


We usually think of all those events starting with his ride into Jerusalem. I suggest this morning that all of those Holy Week activities were, if not predictable, at least inevitable. The text that Adam read says “he set his face” to go to Jerusalem. That is, he wasn't just thinking about going. He wasn’t thumbing through the travel catalogues to see if Expedia offered any good rates at the Jerusalem Hilton.


He had made-up his mind. He was going to Jerusalem, come hell or high water. Once that decision was made, the die was cast. There was no turning back.


Jesus could have avoided Holy Week. He could have stayed in Galilee, where he didn't threaten any of the powers-that-be. He didn't affect the high priests of the Temple. He didn't affect the Roman legions or the Roman governor stationed in Jerusalem. If Jesus had stayed in the boonies there would have been no arrest and trial, no crucifixion, no resurrection – and probably no Christian church today.


But somehow, he knew that wouldn’t work. So he “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” And set in motion a chain of events. One thing led to another, led to another, led to another.


 I preached on this once, many years ago, while I worked in the United Church offices in Toronto. After that service, the United Church’s world mission supervisor for the Caribbean, originally an East Indian, came to me bubbling with excitement. “Do you know what you've just done?” he asked. “You've just articulated a Christian doctrine of karma.”


I don't believe in karma as something that fate does TO us. I believe in karma as the importance of even little decisions. It doesn't sound like much -- Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem. But once he'd made that decision, he couldn't back out. He rode into Jerusalem. He started making waves.


In short, he made a nuisance of himself.


The Temple authorities could not let him get away with this. He threatened their privilege, their position. On their turf. And so they conspired against him.


You've heard this story every year. But it doesn't sink in because it's broken up into little bits. When you hear the entire story all at once, you begin to realize the extent to which those high priests felt threatened. The extent to which they were willing to go to get rid of Jesus.


And it all started when Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.”


So that’s tracing Jesus’ karma. What about ours?


I think we do the same. Like adopting a cat. Our karma just doesn't have the same dramatic consequences. Let me suggest that we all make simple decisions, every day. Fortunately, most of them don't lead to crucifixion. And yet we never know which acts will have long-term consequences, or karma.


I don’t want to lay a guilt trip on you. I don’t want you to feel paralyzed, feeling that every decision you make, everything you do, has earth-shaking consequences. It doesn’t.


But I think it’s important to recognize that there is karma. You can’t anticipate the consequences of chatting with a stranger, say. Or of remembering someone’s anniversary. But if, as fate unfolds, it does send you down a road you hadn’t expected to travel, you should at least be satisfied that whatever you did was not something you’re ashamed of.


I suggest that you consider every action, every decision, as setting off a chain of consequences. So let’s be sure that whatever activates your karma, it reflects the best in you.



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