Proper 8, Year C July 1, 2008
Gospel Luke 9: 51-62
The Rev. Laura Gottardi-Littell
Sermon preached at St. Giles Episcopal Church, Northbrook
and Church of Jesus Christ Reconciler, Chicago
Have you ever felt like arguing with Jesus? Sometime I wrestle with certain passages from Scripture and want to say: “Hey, Jesus, did you really mean that?”
Take today’s gospel passage from Luke.
Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem. He knows what’s going to happen there. He’s facing his own death. He has left everything behind for the sake of the kingdom and now he’s going to leave even his own life.I think knowing what he’s facing must give him a certain edge, and edginess. That’s why he sounds so…cranky here. He must be profoundly afraid and sorrowful, at least on some level. He has been talking with his disciples about how he is going to suffer. So when people come along and want to follow him, he talks to them in the starkest terms imaginable, because of what he is going through and is about to go through. Perhaps on some level he is also talking to himself.
In today’s gospel, three men seek to follow Jesus. Jesus has a radical message for each of them. He pulls no punches.
Jesus tells the first man that foxes have holes to sleep in and birds have nests, but he, Jesus, has no permanent home. There’s no security in being a Messiah. And followers of the Messiah must likewise be willing to give up security. There are real risks and sacrifices.
Jesus asks the second man to follow him. This man is willing but first wants to bury his father. This was a hugely important duty in 1st century Palestine. The family was expected to provide a proper and timely burial. Jesus’ response to this man is again extreme. “Let the dead bury the dead. You concern yourself with telling people about the kingdom.” Jesus most likely means: “Let the spiritually dead bury the physically dead.” Let others who don’t know Jesus carry out the necessary rituals of Jewish law. But if you have the opportunity to be with Jesus, the bread of life, the living water, grab it and run. Leave what is dead and dying behind.
The third man says: “Let me say good-bye to my family first.” And Jesus again makes harsh demands. There’s not time for that. There’s no looking back, when we set out to do God’s work. Anyone who puts a hand on the plow and turns back isn’t fit for the kingdom.
On one level, I really get what Jesus is saying here. I agree with him. But another part of me feels troubled by this gospel, and wants to present another side of the picture. I think we can honestly wrestle with Scripture. Try it on. See where it fits and where it pinches. Wrestle with it as Jacob wrestled with the angel. Like Jacob, we may emerge from our encounter with both a wound and a blessing.
Here’s where I agree and resonate with Jesus’s message in today’s gospel.
Followers of Christ do at times face hard choices. I think about times I’ve had to stand up and identify myself as a Christian. I have family members and friends who are not believers. When making my adult decision to be Christian, I had to say to myself, here’s what I believe and where I’m making my stand, no matter what they think, even if they make fun of me. And you know…nobody laughed. My family and friends are very supportive of my faith journey, even if they’re not all on the same path.
You too may have family and friends who don’t believe as you do. Some may even challenge your beliefs. Sometimes we have say respectfully and politely: “Here’s where I stand.” And let the spiritually dead alone, in order to nourish seeds of faith in our own souls. We may have to separate – or individuate --from certain places and people, at least for a time, to make our own stand. Shake the dust off our sandals for the sake of the kingdom.
Sometimes we have to leave everything, or almost everything, to follow Jesus. Most of my peers in seminary, myself included, left a job, home, or family, or all of the above, in order to go to seminary. Sacrifices, risks, and goodbyes were required, as people gave up security and relationships to follow Christ.
So those are the ways in which I experience Jesus’s words today as truth.
And here are a few reasons why I wrestle with it.
My grandfather left everything behind for the gospel. After being ordained in the Episcopal church at age 26 he said goodbye to his parents and siblings in Delaware and set out for China, to be a missionary. He faced a long boat passage to China, many risks, not much security. A relative begged him not to go, sure he would encounter terrible diseases and dangerous heathens. Despite the risks, my grandfather served well and faithfully in China. He helped build schools and hospitals, brought many people to Christ, and was honored by the Chinese Red Cross for rescuing many widows and orphans. After serving in China for 30 years, he became Bishop of Hawaii.
My grandfather and grandmother had 8 children. Those 8 children didn’t get a lot of attention from their parents, who were very busy sharing the gospel and building up the kingdom. Yes, the kids had good nannies and were educated in fine schools. But they didn’t get a lot of face time with mom and dad. They were left behind for the sake of the kingdom. My grandparents didn’t intend to neglect them, but that was the net effect. And I wonder, did my grandparents read today’s gospel passage and take it literally?
So you see I am wary, for good reason, of Jesus’ call to leave it all behind for the sake of the kingdom.
Sometimes we can’t just cut and run. We can’t leave our families and other responsibilities to follow Jesus. And we shouldn’t. Today’s epistle reading talks about our responsibility to our neighbor. Paul says that through love we are to become slaves to one another. He says the entire law is summed up in one commandment “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And who are our neighbors if not our families?
In today’s gospel, Jesus says we shouldn’t put one hand on the plow and look back. But as both priest and mother of small children, I sometimes wonder which is the plow? My vocation or my family? Aren’t they both ways of building up the kingdom? Aren’t they both sacred responsibilities? Aren’t I yoked to both of them?
But as I wrestle with it, I come to some peace. Because I think Jesus is talking in extremes and enigmas, as he often does, to make a point.
I think we have to look at today’s gospel in light of some of Christ’s other teachings Elsewhere in Scripture, Jesus says we should honor and accept children. He criticizes the Pharisees for not honoring their fathers and mothers. And although Jesus leaves his mother, he comes back to her. He calls out to her from the cross. She becomes one of his disciples.
I think the heart of Jesus’s message today is that we need a spirit-centered life. It’s ABOUT BEING FAITHFUL TO OUR MANY COMMITMENTS IN LIGHT OF THE GOSPEL.
Someone once said to me, “You’ll be a much better mother because you’re a priest, and a much better priest because you have children. “ That’s my hope. It’s not an either/or for many of us, as we seek to follow Jesus. It’s a both/and.
What is the purpose of working for the kingdom? Not to be escapist and isolated, not to desert those around us, but to recognize the kingdom within and around us. To increase it in the here and now. These realities are reflected in Benedictine and Celtic approaches to spirituality, that view the whole of life as spirituality. Chopping potatoes, hugging a child, writing a sermon, planting a garden, saying prayers – God is in all these arenas. We can find God in the balance and complexity of life, in the world of flesh and blood. Especially when we are guided by the spirit.
So maybe I don’t have to choose. Maybe Jesus is saying that a spirit-centered life clarifies and prioritizes our relationships. When God is at the center of our lives, we have more to give, not less. And when God isn’t at the center of our souls, anything we love can become an idol.
So I end my wrestling with today’s passage concluding it’s a both/and. There’s a place for that radical urgency – sometimes we are called to cut and run. To give it all up – or at least some of it up -- for Jesus’s sake. And other times…it’s the better part of valor to follow Jesus by building up the kingdom where we’ve been planted. Sometimes we need to run off in search of the kingdom, and sometimes… we’re called to bring the kingdom home.