The Rev. Sarah Buteux
June 26, 2022
Proper 8, Year C
To view this morning’s service click here. The sermon begins at the 33 minute mark.
When the temperature outside the church exceeds the number of people within it, you know it’s summer here in New England; and I think there is something about summer that begs us to go easy on ourselves.
You want to walk a little more slowly in the summertime, eat a little more lightly, and for goodness’ sake; you definitely want to think a little less deeply about things.
I don’t know about you, but if it gets up above 90 degrees it’s hard for me to think straight at all, and I can already feel the temperature rising. Can you? It may get up to 93 today.
I’m actually amazed we have as many folks here this morning as we do. You could all be home filling your kiddie-pools right now and making popsicles, but instead you have chosen to be here, with me, inside a church with no air-conditioning and beautiful windows that just barely open.
So let me just say that you folks, you folks take the cake. You folks win the prize. You folks are extremely committed and as your pastor I feel at some level like I ought to honor your commitment by not working your poor overheated brains too hard.
So thank goodness we have such a light and easy reading to work through this morning, huh? I mean nothing too complicated here.
Jesus has turned his face to Jerusalem.
He has resigned himself to the fate that awaits him.
He has resolved to go and get right up in the face of the powers that be until they crucify him, and he simply has a few harsh words of guidance for those of us who would follow him on his path to utter ruin.
At least that’s what I got out of it on my first read through. Anyone else read it differently?
It’s just not light and easy, is it? No, it is not. This is a tough reading, no two ways about it; one of those passages that begs us to wrestle with it and wrestle hard.
I mean come on: “Let the dead bury their own dead…”
Jesus…how could you say something like that?
“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
What does that even mean?
William Sloane Coffin famously said: “I take the Bible too seriously to take it literally,” and I’ve got to tell you I’ve been holding on to his rubric as I have read and reread this passage.
These words are harsh, counterintuitive, and potentially harmful if taken completely literally. They are words that challenge me to such an extent that I’m going to come out right now and tell you that I’m not entirely sure what to do with them, and not for nothing, but I follow Jesus professionally. Yeah.
But let’s take a closer look and see if we can’t find some good news in here somewhere. I’ll try to do the majority of the heavy lifting. You just sit back, stay cool, and try to take it in as best as you can. Deal?
Ok. As I said before, our reading begins with Jesus setting his face toward Jerusalem. He is deep in Samaria here in chapter nine of Luke’s gospel – that is deep in enemy territory – and he’s looking for a place to stay the night with his disciples. He sends some messengers on ahead to find lodging, but when the Samaritans hear who he is and where he’s going, they don’t want to have anything to do with him. And honestly, I don’t blame them.
I mean, the very fact that Jesus and his disciples were Jewish would have been enough of a reason to reject them – given that the Jews and the Samaritans didn’t mix as a matter of principle – but when you add to that the fact that this Jesus is on his way to cause trouble in Jerusalem, it’s no wonder that the people of this little town didn’t want to touch him.
I mean, who knows what sort of retribution might rain down on them in the future if it were ever discovered that they had aided this rabble-rouser on his journey South? They tell Jesus to keep on trucking – they’re not buying what he’s selling – and he does. But not before James and John ask Jesus if they can’t command fire to rain down on these folks for their lack of hospitality.
Well, as you can see from the text, Jesus… was less than thrilled by this suggestion. He’s already told his disciples to love their enemies. He’s already instructed them to simply shake the dust off their feet and move on when people reject them, and yet here are two of his closest disciples just itching to go all def con 1 on this little village.
Jesus turns round and rebukes James and John so soundly that his words apparently were not fit to print. And you get the feeling that something about that exchange – his disappointment in them or his anger- puts him in a really foul mood for the rest of the chapter.
Case in point, in his very next exchange a guy runs up to Jesus on the road and begs to follow him. Jesus says: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
Which is basically a fancy way of saying: Dude, I’m homeless. You don’t want any part of this itinerant life. Go back to your nice cushy house and stay there.
It would seem that he’s not all that eager to bring on any new recruits, but then, out of nowhere, he himself calls out to some other random and says, “Hey you. Yeah you. Follow me,” and lo and behold this man is willing; he just wants to bury his father first.
Now let me just say, in all fairness to Jesus, that burying one’s father took a very long time back then. It’s actually quite possible that the father in question here was not even dead yet. But still our savior’s response: “Let the dead bury their own dead…,” sounds remarkably insensitive.
Finally, the last fellow pipes up and says, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me say farewell to those at my home.”
Now that’s a totally reasonable request if you ask me, a reasonable request to which Jesus responds: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Whew. Friends, here at the end of chapter 9 we have a Jesus who is:
– adamantly opposed to harming his enemies but has zero respect for the bonds of family.
– a Jesus who rejects those who want to follow him and invites those who can’t.
– a Jesus who preaches complete detachment but requires absolute commitment.
– a Jesus who seems determined to confound and offend everyone he meets on his way to Jerusalem and beyond.
So what are we to make of all this?
Does it mean that no true follower of Jesus should own a house since the son of man was homeless?
Does this mean that serving God takes precedence over caring for your parents or that it’s okay to abandon your family for the sake of the kingdom?
Does following Jesus give you the right to disregard, dishonor, or desert those you love without so much as a backward glance?
Does loving Jesus mean never having to say you’re sorry?
I don’t know.
Maybe it’s the heat or maybe it’s just because I’m a mother who loves her children, a daughter who loves her parents, and, well…a homeowner, but I’ll be honest, I’m really not sure what to do with all this.
I don’t know precisely where one draws the line between taking Jesus’ words here literally and taking them seriously. I can’t seem to pin down one right universal answer for all people for all time, perhaps because these words were uttered to very specific people during a very specific time of Jesus’ ministry here on earth.
He’s on his way out, after all, and time is of the essence. There was an urgency to his call back then and an earnest need on his part to communicate just what was at stake for any who dared follow him to the cross.
Here in the church we still talk about following the cross, but honestly when we talk about it, it’s as a metaphor, a metaphor for sacrifice and suffering.
For those folks, however, had any of them chosen to follow Jesus that day – to leave their homes and abandon their families without so much as a “goodbye” – they may well have followed Jesus toward a very literal, painful, and final form of execution.
They would have followed with no guarantee of ever coming back at all. And Jesus, to his credit, made that perfectly clear. He didn’t misrepresent the cost. He didn’t soft sell the mission. No indeed, he demanded everything up front. With all his talk of the cross he made it perfectly clear that things were not going to end well.
All of which explains why his words were so harsh and demanding back then, but where does that leave us right now?
I mean, we couldn’t drop everything and follow Jesus to Jerusalem even if we wanted to, and – thanks be to God and two thousand years of Christendom – following Jesus today does not automatically label you as an enemy of the state who ought to be executed… at least not yet.
Though please note that I’m using the phrase, “follower of Jesus” and not the term “Christian” with great intentionality in this moment. I think a passage like this one calls us to pause and faithfully re-examine those places in our lives where following in the way of Jesus still has the potential to be profoundly counter cultural even here in America.
But more and more I am thinking, maybe especially here in America where the word “Christian” is becoming inextricably entwined with the abuse of power, nationalism, gun culture, white supremacy, and an assault on the basic human rights of women, queer folk, and anyone who cares about democracy.
In this moment, there is still a whole lot of overlap between being a follower of Jesus and a good citizen, but that overlap is starting to drift in ways I never thought it would, and I’m wondering what sort of risks and sacrifices will be required of people like us in the days ahead.
I mean, it’s one thing to march or write to our likeminded congresspeople. But how much farther will we be willing to go? How much will we be willing to give to, say, provide options for women seeking out of state abortions? It’s one thing to offer a ride or a guest room. It’s a whole other thing if we’re talking about dealing with state troopers right outside your door.
I’m wondering more and more if there is any way to live consistently into Jesus’ ethic of non-violence as a citizen of the most militarized country on earth. No one’s going to crucify you if you become a war tax resister or protest the militarization of the police or advocate for gun-control, but how do we balance the teachings of Jesus with our response in Ukraine?
Who do we turn to if the crime rate spikes?
How do we balance a spirit of openness and community with security in our schools and churches, our hospitals and town squares, our parks and theaters, in a country where there is more than 1 mass shooting a day?
Imagine committing yourself 100% to taking care of God’s creation in this land of endless consumerism. Or tithing in this empire of capitalism. Or truly keeping the sabbath; by which I mean faithfully taking a full 24 hours off from all other work (including e-mail) and all other commitments (including sports) to rest and worship and delight in the good gifts of God with your family.
No one’s going to crucify you for putting away your smart phone or missing practice, at least not literally, but I know as well as you do that it would not be easy.
Imagine how it would feel to refuse comfort and renounce your privilege as a white person or as a citizen of the most powerful nation on earth? Imagine raising taxes or giving our money away in order to make reparations or cancel debts?
I could go on imagining – imagining all the ways we could follow Jesus into a more just and generous future and just how much that would cost us – but I won’t, because the truth is I can’t tell you where God is calling you today: what values God is calling you to reconsider, what loyalties God would have you rearrange, or what sacrifices God would have you make.
All I can tell you is that there is a cost to following Jesus. There always has been. There always will be. I can’t tell you what the cost will be for you, only that it will cost you something. And in times like these, it may well cost you everything.
My dear friends, the truth even now, is that you have to be extremely committed to follow in the way of Jesus and I’d like to think that your very presence here on this summer morning is a testament to the fact that you are. In which case there is a wee bit of good news in the midst of all this, for you and for me this morning. The good news that we are not alone.
Look around you. This call might be hard and slightly different for each of us, but at least we belong to a church where we can help one other figure this out together.
Friends, I’m not standing up here in front of you because I have all the answers. I’m standing here with you because these are the questions we all take seriously.
I’m standing here with you hoping that together we might support one another as we figure out how to surrender our lives more and more fully to this Jesus who would lay claim to every last inch of our souls.
I standing here with you, longing to be transformed right alongside you, that together with Jesus we might transform the world. Amen.