THE SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Proper C 8
June 30, 2013
Prayer of the Day for June 16
Heavenly Father, Lord of All,
you call people of every age to walk in your paths
and to herald your kingdom.
Grant us courage to follow where you lead,
go where we are sent,
and bear witness to your love,
that all may know your reign of grace and life.
51When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55But he turned and rebuked them. 56Then they went on to another village.
57As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.
I love all the texts for this morning – they truly are a banquet – but we are going to stay with the Gospel reading this morning. We are beginning a special section in Luke’s Gospel. Matthew and Luke both used the Gospel of Mark as the starting point for their narratives about Jesus. You have probably heard me say before that our best guess is that Matthew and Luke each had access to a collection of sayings of Jesus that weren’t part of a narrative story – and they each took those sayings (along with some other material they had) and wove them into Mark’s narrative.
There is a very important principle at work here, and that is that the teachings of Jesus can’t be divorced from his life – and specifically they can’t be divorced from his death and resurrection. Jesus doesn’t come as a heavenly messenger to give us timeless spiritual truths. He comes as a human being into human history and his life has consequences for the human story. The work of God is not to help us escape history but to redeem it.
When we tell these stories about Jesus we are not trying to communicate some spiritual truth as if it were a quantum of information that exists apart from Jesus. There is a world of difference between the idea that “God is love,” and seeing Jesus’ wounds and hearing him say, “I love you.” The purpose of the text is to bring us into the presence of Jesus so that we are encountered by his message and his person. That’s our challenge as we come together – to let this text speak so that we are confronted by Jesus. In fact, to let all these texts speak so that we are met by the voice of God.
The call to follow
Jesus is talking to us about what it means to follow him. He’s not talking to us about what it means to be a church person. He’s not even talking to us about what it means to be a Christian. He’s talking about what it means to be his student, to be his disciple, to be a follower of his way. (That’s what the first Christians called the faith: they called it “the way”.)
Now we’ve skipped over quite a bit since our reading last Sunday. And that material is important because it helps us recognize what is happening in the narrative today.
Last week we heard how Jesus brought peace to the man living among the tombs. I suggested to you that what was going on there was a clash of two empires: the empire of Rome and the reign of God in Jesus. The people from that town asked Jesus to leave them alone. They were afraid and they asked Jesus to go away. The disciples were also afraid. They had seen Jesus calm the storm. They were in that scary place of awe and confusion when you’re in the presence of something you don’t understand. The disciples were scared but they chose to stay with Jesus.
So, for us, that encounter with Jesus presents us with the dramatic transformative reality of God’s reign and asks us whether we are going to go or stay. Are you going to follow Jesus or not?
Taking up the cross
That experience of the nature of God’s reign and the question whether we are staying or going is rattling through this section. After casting out the legion of demons, Jesus gives his followers the power and authority to do the same thing – and sends them out to do it. When they get back is that marvelous moment when Jesus feeds the 5,000. The reign of God that stills the storm and drives out a legion of demons brings the day when all people are fed on the mountain of God.
Then Jesus asks his followers. “Who do people say that I am?” They answer he is the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed of God. Jesus tells them to keep that thought to themselves – and then says that he will suffer and be killed…and on the third day be raised. Then he says that if you want to follow me, you have to take up the cross every day. If you want to save your life you will lose it. But if you lose it for Jesus’ sake you will find it. “What good is it,” he asks, “if you gain the whole world but lose you own soul?”
After speaking about the cross, Jesus goes up on the mountain where Peter, James and John see him clothed in the radiant glory of God. Notice that James and John are there. On the mountain Moses and Elijah speak with Jesus about his departure – his “exodus”, meaning his death, resurrection and ascension. Then Jesus is left alone and the voice of God tells his followers to “Listen to him.” Here, too, we hear about Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension and we are called to hear, called to be his students.
When they come down from the mountain the other disciples have not been able to cast out a demon from a small boy – which Jesus does, lamenting their unbelief – then he tells them again that he is going to be betrayed. The disciples don’t understand, and then start arguing about which of them is most important – an argument Jesus puts a stop to by placing a small child in the middle and saying the least is the greatest. Again, Jesus is trying to teach God’s way.
This is what brings us to our text this morning that begins with the fateful words “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Jesus has been talking about the cross and he has been talking to us about what it means for us to take up this symbol of what happens to those who challenge Rome’s governance of human life.
Wearing a cross means that you align yourself with God against those empires and ideologies and powers that claim authority over human life, that claim to be the source of salvation, goodness and life, that require our service and submission.[i] When you wear a cross, you are saying to the Roman Empire and all its successors, “Crucify me if you will, I will not be intimidated. I will not stand down. I will not kneel.” Taking up the cross isn’t taking up life’s pain and sorrows; it is showing allegiance to Christ in the face of the powers of this world. (The cross you remember was a punishment reserved for terrorists and rebellious slaves – those who wouldn’t submit to Roman rule, those who proclaimed some other kingdom.)
So in this section and in our text for today Jesus is headed to Jerusalem and he is teaching his followers what it means to be his students.
Redeeming the world, not purging it
What we have today is Jesus’ first lesson after they have begun their journey. If Jesus’ followers don’t hear and understand about the cross they will inevitably think that they are going to Jerusalem to take over. So the first thing Jesus does is that head for Jerusalem through Samaritan territory. (The animosity between Samaritans and Judeans was so significant that people traveling to and from Galilee didn’t take the direct route through Samaria, they went the long way around, going over to the Jordan River and down. This is kind of like driving from San Francisco to Seattle by driving through Idaho rather than taking I-5 through Oregon.
When I lived in Detroit, African-American parents told their children that if they got a flat tire on the freeway driving through the suburb of Livonia they shouldn’t stop. It was better to destroy the tire and their rim than deal with the white police in Livonia. Better yet, they should just avoid the freeway that went through Livonia. It always amazed me to hear this – except that I know white parents told their kids the same thing about black neighborhoods.
Judeans didn’t want to travel through Samaria and the Samaritans didn’t want them. But Jesus is teaching his disciples about the way of the cross so that’s where he takes them. Putting your faith, hope and trust in the reign of God is going to incur some hostility from the world as it is.
Why did the police in Oakland feel it necessary to beat the 99% protesters? Why did the people in power feel so threatened by their peaceful dissent? One of my brothers was there, and the story he tells is amazing.
When anyone rises up to challenge the ruling powers there will be trouble. And it’s odd to think that feeding the hungry should be a challenge to the powers that be – but the message in feeding the poor is that food is to be shared. It carries an implicit challenge to those who build bigger and bigger barns.
So Jesus is teaching us. And our first response is that God should strike those Samaritans down. And you can pick whomever you think are the current opponents of God’s way in the world, but the impulse is there. I personally think that that our church body, the ELCA, is being destroyed by lawyers frightened of lawsuits. And I rather like the joke “What do you call a 100 lawyers at the bottom of the sea? A good start.” But Jesus doesn’t think that’s funny.
Jerusalem will be destroyed in just a few years from Jesus’ time because several different messiahs will rise up in the name of a god who throws lightning bolts. Jesus needs his followers to understand that is not the way of God. Jesus has come to reconcile the human community not purge it.
So the first lesson in following Jesus is: Jesus is going to challenge the ruling powers, but God’s work is to reconcile the human community not purge it.
The dawning reign of God
Now Luke gives us three encounters between Jesus and would-be disciples. The first volunteers to follow Jesus anywhere – and Jesus kind of slams him down saying, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” If you think Jesus is on his way to lay his head down in the palace in Jerusalem, you don’t understand where he’s going.
This is not a gravy train. This is not a triumphal march. The world will tolerate religious people who don’t cause any trouble, who defend the status quo, but start suggesting that God is the patron of the poor and the oppressed, that we have an obligation to join God in God’s transformation of the human community, that feeding the hungry and clothing the naked is not about a little charity but changing the world, and you will have trouble. Jesus is not building a home and a business and trying to pass on an inheritance to his children. He is living the reign of God that doesn’t cast lightning but gathers humanity to the banquet of God.
Conforming the world to God not God to the world
The second person is not a volunteer – it is someone to whom Jesus said, “Follow me.” Jesus has looked him in the eye as he listened to his teaching, picked him out of the crowd and told him to come. But the man begs off saying, “First let me go bury my father.”
Don’t misunderstand this. His father has not just died, nor is he on his deathbed. The man is saying, “Let me first fulfill my family obligations.” “Let me take care of my parents until they are gone, and then I will come and follow you.”[ii]
We totally understand this. We all think our first obligation is to ourselves, our family. And while I am certainly not suggesting that you should abandon your family, we have Jesus in front of us challenging the notion that any social obligation takes precedence over the kingdom of God.
I remember my father saying, “You have to be realistic.” What he meant was that the Christian life needs to conform itself to normal society. Jesus is saying that normal society needs to conform itself to the life of God.
Our first and ultimate allegiance
Jesus and his band are outside the accepted norms of society. They are mendicants in a world where everyone stayed on their land. And they claim that the work of God takes priority over social obligations. Remember Jesus saying his true family “are those who hear the word of God and keep it”?
Jesus’ response, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead,” sounds even more offensive in the first century than in ours. It means either “Let the spiritually dead bury the dead,” or it means what it says, “Let the dry bones of the dead rise up and take care of their own.”
Your obligation to your parents is one of the Ten Commandments! It is one of the most ingrained values of the ancient world. We still regard it as one of life’s highest obligations. But following Jesus comes first. God’s governance of life comes first.
Remember Lot’s wife
All the third many wishes to do is fulfill a minimum obligation to bid his parents farewell. It’s probably more than a kiss at the door. I suspect there are proper customs to be observed – perhaps a banquet, like Elijah, who slaughtered his oxen and roasted them to feed the whole community. But even this Jesus will not allow. Jesus is not a hobby. The kingdom of God is not an avocation; it is our vocation, our calling.
I understand the desire for a religious life that is rich and full and embraces all the goodness of life: home and family and meaningful work, a certain element of luxury, a little travel, a little theater. But here is Jesus and the kingdom of God comes first. “No one who puts their hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
That phrase about looking back reminds us of Lot’s wife. And later in Luke’s Gospel Jesus will warn us saying, “Remember Lot’s Wife.”
Jesus is worthy
Some years ago Deb and I had gone with a group from church to one of those theaters where the organ plays before the movie. We were about halfway through the movie Dr. Zhivago when we heard a commotion in the lobby and then the fire alarm. But the movie was still playing and nobody wanted to leave the theater. After a bit we started to smell smoke – but the movie was still playing. So a number of us stood up and edged over towards the emergency exits, but stayed in the theater to keep watching the show.
Perhaps it’s inevitable in us that we treat Jesus like that fire alarm. We know this is something important. We have a suspicion our lives might depend upon it. But we don’t want to let go of the movie. We don’t want to let go of what the world around us tells us is “the good life.”
Lot lived in a city that was rich and prosperous – but it was built on injustice and abuse of others. It was a Rome, an empire of this world not the world to come. Its riches were hard to leave behind.
So maybe we are all Lot’s wife. Maybe we aren’t worthy of the kingdom. But Jesus is worthy. And he has set his face for Jerusalem. And he bids us come.
[i] This is most obvious when a nation goes to war – through the draft it claims authority over the lives of its citizens. Christians are called to lay your life down for the sake of your neighbor, but that is a different thing than laying your life down for the sake of the state.
[ii] Another possibility for the meaning of this request is related to the 1st century Jewish burial rite. There were two burials: the first happens at the time of death in which they inter the body in the cave like family tomb. The second comes a year later when they gather the bones and inter them in an ossuary, a bone box, inside that tomb. It’s possible the man means, “Let me finish my year until the second burial, and then I will come.” If that is what the man means, then Jesus’ remark means “Let the dead in the tomb do the second burial.” With either explanation the remark of Jesus violates all ordinary custom and decency.
The image that comes to my mind is that this is a person from the elite class like the rich young ruler. He is intrigued by Jesus, moved by his vision, and desires to follow, but is bound by social norms and family obligations.