A Sermon for 26 June 2016
A reading from the gospel of Luke 9:51-62. Listen for God’s word to us.
“When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When 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?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village. As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And 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.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.””
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
Here we in the season after Pentecost – getting ready to settle into the long stretch of Ordinary Time before coming full-circle to return to the start of the church year with Advent sometime around Thanksgiving. And today the lectionary has turned us to the gospel of Luke and to an epistle texts too that teaches us about being church. Galatians is a wonderful example of the kind of living together that gives witness to the already-present kingdom of God: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). The beautiful fruits of spirits attuned to the very Spirit of God. . . . And then we get our gospel text for today. Not so much beautiful fruits, but a knock-ya-off-your feet kinda text.
A turning takes place at this point of the gospel, at least the way it’s recorded in Luke. Jesus now intently has set his face on a journey to Jerusalem. He’s on the move – out of his home region of Galilee for the last time. He is ready to head to Jerusalem to take on all that awaits there. No sooner does he resolutely set off, than he encounters a couple of characters we might know something about. Like: have you ever met an overly eager beaver? “I will follow you wherever you go,” earnestly announces this enthusiast. Always ready to go. Always moved by the impassioned plea. The clip flashes across the television about children starving half way around the world and eager beaver’s all set – bags of canned goods in hand. Ready to pitch in, this eager beaver enthusiast suddenly learns: those children are on the other side of the earth. It’s gonna take a boat, or one expensive plane-ride to get where those children are who need his helping hands. . . . “Foxes have holes,” says Jesus, “and the birds of the air have nests. Me? I don’t know the comforts of a cozy home. Nonetheless, follow me and we’ll see where the journey leads – no matter the inconveniences that come.”
A few steps later another chap is met. “Follow me!” Jesus joyfully beckons. Obviously he cannot see that this son has his hands full. Dad’s been pretty sick lately. It’s been quite a burden. You know how that can be. Aging parents can be a handful. Obligations to fulfill. Oh not that we mind. Dad always was there when we were young. Doing what had to be done – frequently for our own benefit. Sticking with him now, tending through illness even onto death – well, certainly Jesus can understand that. . . . We’re not told in Luke whether this son’s father already has passed or not. According to the custom of the day, the man meeting Jesus may be concerned with one of two ancient commandments of Israel (Green, The Gospel of Luke, 1997, pp. 407-8). It’s possible that his dad’s still alive which, according to law, would bind the son to proper care of him until the end occurs. It’s not just that they didn’t have nursing homes. Rather, such farmed-out care was against Jewish law. The son was responsible to tend his aging parent. Jesus either expects the man to turn from that Jewish law – or possible another. If the father had died already, the law of their ancestors required that the son dutifully care from the time of death until as long as a year after. Burial was a two-step process for Jesus’ people. At the time of death, the body was wrapped to be laid in a tomb – tears were shed as the mourning began. But it wasn’t business as usual one mere week after the funeral – a widow with picked over casseroles the sole sign that something had happened here. A year after the initial burial, someone had to finish the job. Returning to the tomb, the body now decayed, a bone box was taken. A faithful son gathered the remains to be laid to final rest with other deceased ancestors (Green, The Gospel of Luke, 1997, pp. 407-8). Whatever point this son stood within that period of care before and beyond the grave, Jesus has one charge. “Let the dead bury their own dead. But as for you: go. Proclaim the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:60).
I don’t know about you, but I’m not so sure I wanna hear Jesus’ summons to a third. “I’ll follow you Lord. I will. But just give me a moment while I go on back to kiss the loved ones goodbye.” Now we gotta admit: on the journey to Jerusalem, this one might be a pretty decent prospect. This one’s got a lot of commitment. Ready to wave farewell to the folks at home, this person truly is set to sacrifice. Unfortunately, Jesus replies: “No looking back.” As one version of scripture I’ve heard puts it: “If you turn around once your hand is on the plow, we’ll end up with a crooked row of corn.” Leave it – whatever it is back there – that person, or thing, or possession, which keeps us captive in the past. We’re to let it go. With it we’re unfit for God’s kingdom.
These are some rough words rolling off the lips of our Lord. Its summer and it’s been so hot so you’d think he could cut us a little slack. . . . He can’t though. Remember: the gospel of Luke explained at the beginning of our reading for today. Thus far in the gospel, Jesus has been busy teaching, healing, taking in dinner parties, choosing and sending apostles, praying; feeding thousands, restoring life to dead ones, stilling storms – you know all that just another ole’day at the office kinda stuff. Certainly these were moments filled with great passion. But it’s not quite the same intensity as we now get here. “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). Serious focus begins at this point in Jesus’ life. Popularity may be swelling. Perhaps the phone is ringing off the hook with potential preaching engagements. No matter. He’s got no time for distractions now. It’s like with a champion athlete – absolutely intent on reaching the goal. Un-distractible focus is required. . . . As the days draw near for Jesus to be taken up, he sets his face. Soon the streets of Jerusalem will swarm with Passover pilgrims. The lamb must be slain. God’s deliverance re-enacted. . . . Intently focused – no time, nor concern for the fire of judgement to be rained down on Samaritans who won’t receive – Jesus knows his purpose: the road of suffering, rejection, death. He’s intent on it not because he necessarily wants to undergo such pain. Just because he knows such self-giving is the way – the only way that leads to true Life.
Would-be followers must have their Lord’s same self-giving focus. That’s his message to the church in this text today. According to Jesus, even the best of all priorities like physical need, fulfilled duty, family love. Right doctrine, pure standards, beloved traditions. We cannot be distracted – tossed to and fro; this way and that like a wave of the sea driven wherever by the wind (James 1:6). We cannot be distracted from Christ’s primary focus of giving of self for the benefit of others. In word and in deed, that’s how we ensure the kingdom is proclaimed! . . . When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face. Now, now is the time for his followers to do likewise.
In the name of the Life-giving Father, the Life-redeeming Son, and the Life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
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