Let’s consider why sometimes, when Jesus calls, we don’t pick up the phone. In the name of God: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
There may be somebody sitting here this morning who thinks like this: “I’m not a bad person. In fact, I’m a pretty good person.
“I don’t abuse my spouse, children, or anybody else. I don’t shortchange my employer or cheat on my income tax. I’m not a substance abuser and I don’t have a criminal record. I keep my weeds wacked, and I help people in my neighborhood. I get to church pretty often, even on a humid summer Sunday, and I give to charitable causes.
“I’m not a bad person. In fact, I’m a pretty good person. And because I am, Jesus has the sense not to ask me to do anything different than what I’m doing.
“Besides, Jesus must be plenty busy trying to drag home people who have gone astray. Wife beaters. Prostitutes. Drug dealers. White-collar criminals. Derelicts.
Kind of reminds me of a religious conference lunch line with a smorgasbord type of banquet. A note at the beginning of the line states: Take only one apple, remember God is watching you! Later on down the line is another hastily hand written sign by the desserts that states: Take as many as you like, God is busy watching the apples.
“The pretty good life that I live amounts to an insurance policy that Jesus is not going to go poking his head into my business and ask me to do something different than what I’m doing. He may even send me a thank-you note for my good behavior.”
Somebody sitting here this morning may well be thinking like this.
But thinking like this is WRONG. Jesus has the annoying habit of calling people, whether their life is a moral disaster or a moral example. This is because he is interested in something besides improving bad people’s behavior. What interests him is more personal. He wants all people, regardless of their behavior, to become his disciples.
Sometimes this calls for setting aside behavior that is unethical, even criminal. This is the stuff of dramatic conversion stories. The murderer, the drug dealer, the gang leader — all of them come to faith and live a different life. Here Jesus asserts his priority over the worse in human experience. Drop the switchblade. Lift high the cross!
But for other people, answering the call to discipleship means setting aside what is good, or at least what is legal and respectable. The parent, the doctor, the business leader all come to faith and live differently than before. Their old lifestyles have been scrambled. Jesus asserts his priority, not only over the worst in human experience, but over the rest as well. Drop the golf clubs. Lift high the cross!
Today’s Gospel offers us insight on this disconcerting process.
Jesus is interviewing candidates for discipleship. One candidate asks permission to return home and bury his father. The father may be dead already. More likely, the candidate wants to put off discipleship until he has seen has father through old age and into the cemetery.
Strange reply from Jesus: “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” How are we to understand such a curious answer? First, we can eliminate the idea that Jesus is suggesting that the man abandon the funeral arrangements for his Dad who has just passed away. Had Dad just died, the young man would not have had time to be on the road with Jesus anyway – the tradition of the culture (and the practical necessity forced by living in a hot climate) was to proceed to burial within 24 hours after death. Junior was not being instructed to do something to which anyone with an ounce of sensitivity would have objected. Instead, we should understand the excuse as being, “Lord, I will follow you, BUT let me get all family obligations out of the way first.” Even that does not sound especially unreasonable. However, the question arises as to when will all the obligations be “out of the way?” If that man’s family is anything like some of our families, the answer could well be NEVER.
In any case, Jesus does not give permission. Discipleship has priority. There is somebody else to care for this father; somebody else to bury him. The one invited to discipleship must follow.
Another candidate makes a similar, but less dramatic appeal: “Let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Here again, Jesus gives a thumbs-down. This person too needs to hit the discipleship road, and do so immediately.
What Jesus says at this point sounds perplexing. “No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the Kingdom of God.”
But consider: when an animal is pulling the plow, the farmer must watch a fixed point ahead in order to plow a straight line. Looking back when plowing causes the farmer to swerve. The result is a crooked furrow, the mark of an amateur. The furrow remains for the entire season, and makes the farmer look foolish. To look back while on the discipleship road is no less foolish.
Jesus’ answer also draws upon a story with which people of faith would have been familiar: the call of the prophet Elisha.(4) God had told Elijah to anoint this young man as his successor as prophet to the nation of Israel. Elijah journeys to the town of Abel-meholah. He finds his spiritual heir-apparent plowing in the field (and, no doubt, keeping his eyes straight ahead in the process), and lets Elisha know of his divine selection by placing his own cloak, the symbol of the prophetic office, on the young man’s shoulders. Elisha’s response? “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.” Sound familiar? Scripture never says whether Elisha actually did as he had suggested (I suspect he did), but we do learn of the young man’s eventual unswerving loyalty and the incredible power that God gave him for his work. This was a story that Jesus’ audience that day knew well. Elisha had his priorities in order and God blessed in literally miraculous ways.
Jesus respects marriage, speaks out against divorce, pays attention to children. He honors the family — but he does not make an idol out of it. For him, family arrangements stand or fall on whether they promote or hinder discipleship.
Jesus may call us out of the wreckage of our lives. Yet he may also call us out of what we regard as good, the American dream fulfilled. In each case, he’s inviting us into a deeper allegiance to himself.
Jesus wants to break down our addictions, whether to drugs, alcohol, material possessions, success, or respectability. He wants us to find our true freedom in him. It is to this he calls us, invites us. Our way is to follow him–to Jerusalem, to the cross, and beyond.
But whoever we are, it’s easy to come up with excuses. Some excuses sound profoundly moral. But what we call love and duty is sometimes what Jesus knows to be the voice of addiction speaking, our fear of a different future, our refusal to die that we may live.
We may not want to stop our slavery to possessions. After all, if we stop, we may end up thankful to God for simple gifts. If we stop, we may want God more than we want to go shopping. It can unsettle us to follow Christ in a consumer culture.
We may not want to stop our worship of our family. After all, if we stop, we may recognize members of our family as people in their own right, living lives outside our own. If we stop our worship of who we think they are, then we may struggle to love them for who, in fact, they really are. It’s unsettling to follow Christ in a culture that debases the family and yet puts it on a pedestal.
But the most insidious addiction is not to fantasies about the family or to alluring, expensive stuff. The most insidious addiction is to cheap religion, Christianity without a cross.
There have been times when Christianity has focused on the cross to the neglect of the resurrection, on penitence to the neglect of forgiveness, on the need to die to self to the neglect of God’s grace. That’s not the problem now, however. Now the problem, the distortion, is a friendly Jesus with no wounds in his hands, a religion that denies suffering rather than travel through it.
And so in today’s Gospel one candidate for discipleship pipes up and declares: “I will follow you wherever you go, Lord.” Jesus answers him in a funny way. He doesn’t accept or reject him. Instead, he counsels him. “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Jesus talks about accommodations. Wild animals have their places to stay; he does not.
Jesus talks about accommodations because he doesn’t take this candidate’s sweeping statement at face value. This one won’t follow Jesus just anywhere. He will follow Jesus wherever he, the candidate, want to go, some place with comfortable accommodations.
And so Jesus lets him down gently. He knows he and this candidate aren’t following the same road. The candidate wants to go where he wants to go. Jesus wants to go where his Father wants him to go, and soon Jesus will have a place to rest his head–inside a borrowed tomb.
One of my cyber friends suggests that the greatest threat to the gospel is “the good,” not “the evil.” When we recognize “the evil” in our lives, we usually want to get rid of it. However, when we become content with “the good” in our lives, we may fail to follow Jesus and seek what is “the best. “Lord, I will follow, but…
Is it time to BAN THE BUTS from your Christian journey? Yes, they come SO easily. Worship? But Sunday is our family day. Sunday School? But this is the only day I get to catch up on my sleep. Mid-week Bible study? But it’s such a rush after work. Teach? But there are others who could do it just as well. Serve on a board or committee? But I’ve done that before. But, but, but…
The good news is that once the BUT’s are done, a real blessing awaits. I read something by a lady named Jacqueline Townsend called “The Confessions of a Reluctant Steward.” Jacqueline recalls being ambushed on the way out of church. “Will you do flowers?” She writes:
I couldn’t figure any graceful way out of this one. It didn’t seem the right moment to point out that I was flat broke in both the time and talent department. I was trapped. I spoke the word so many dare not say: “Sure.”
So I do flowers. You must understand I am not the artistic type. My idea of a festive centerpiece is matching salt and pepper shakers. Botanical knowledge is out of my realm, although I am able to identify a carnation, thanks to cans from contented cows.
Why couldn’t it have been something easy, like traveling in the belly of a whale? (Jonah and I have a lot in common, but that’s another story.) The worst part was knowing my name would show up in the schedule. People would know I was the bi-weekly mishandler of blooms! On the other hand, it was a little flattering to be asked (someone noticed I was here) and thought capable (maybe I could get a book from the library). I vowed to do my best, at least until I could pawn the task off on someone else. My schedule revealed I could squeeze it in if I gave up ironing. It seemed such a small sacrifice for the church.
As the weeks went by, I found myself looking anew at the world around me. I noticed when the fireweed bloomed. My husband would report, “There’s some wonderful fern down by the creek bank.” We took walks looking for wildflowers. I learned to boldly venture into the cooler at the florist shop in search of lemon leaves and baby’s breath.
Just this week I made the most amazing discovery – I like doing the flowers. It’s not the arrangements themselves; I’m never quite satisfied. Spending time in the silent church, either alone or with my husband, is so refreshing. I peruse the bulletin board and book table, poke around in the sacristy picking out a vase, talk to God, maybe sing a little. Today, for no reason at all I looked in the fridge, just like when I go to my mom’s. It’s a little homecoming every other Saturday. I don’t even miss the ironing.
Today I’ve talked about excuses. Most of us, when Jesus calls, pull out one excuse or another. We have our favorite excuse, our favorite addiction. We may be living an immoral life. We may be addicted to material goodies, or to our private view of family, or to cheap religion — Christianity with no cross.
The grace is that Jesus still calls us! And we can still answer!
What makes people faithful is not utter freedom from excuse-making, complete deliverance from addiction, but instead the lively realization that God remains bigger than their particular bogeymen, and that Jesus inviting them to discipleship is a voice louder and sweeter and more insistent than their most potent excuses.
I have spoken to you in the name of the God who works all the time with excuse makers and addicts of every sort because here on earth there’s nobody else to work with. Amen?