Tuesday, July 13, 2010
July 11, 2010
“I’ve Been To The Mountaintop”
The morning sun had just poked its head over the horizon, when the man regained consciousness.
“Where am I?” he thought to himself, as a flood of familiar odors overcame him.
Wet grass, rotting vegetation, and the pungent aroma of animal waste.
It was then that the man realized that he was face down on the ground, most likely in a drainage ditch at the side of the road.
On the road down from Jerusalem to Jericho.
The man used what little strength he had left to roll himself over.
And as he did he screamed out in pain. It felt like a thousand knives were tearing through his body. Through his shoulder, his chest, and the hip that he must have landed on when he fell.
He tried to open his eyes but they were swollen shut.
His head was pounding, and as he reached up to touch his face he could feel the dried blood caked around his nose and mouth.
“How did I get here?” the man thought.
Did he fall? Was he hit from behind by a runaway cart, or an animal?
He was starting to remember. It was a man, or rather several men.
He recalled that it was approaching dusk as he came around a bend in the road and there they were.
First one then two then three more, leaping out at him from behind a large rock.
The men descended upon him and began pounding on him with their fists.
He instinctively covered his face and turned to get away, but one of his attackers pushed him to the ground and soon they were all kicking him as hard as they could.
What happened next was now a blur.
The last thing the man remembered was being stripped of his clothing and his belongings.
The cloak that his mother had insisted he take to guard against the chill of the dessert nights.
The sandals his wife had woven for him from the tanned leather she had purchased in the market.
The lucky pebble that his youngest child had slipped into his belt pouch the night before he left.
But worst of all, his attackers took the money purse he had hidden beneath his cloak.
Six months worth of wages that he had earned in Jerusalem, working for his cousin selling trinkets in the Temple court. The money was earmarked as the final payment on a fishing boat that he desperately needed to support his family back in Jericho.
And now it was gone.
His friends had warned him about the road down from Jerusalem to Jericho. A twisting, desolate mountain road that was conducive for ambushing.
“The Bloody Pass” is what the locals called it, as the road descends for 17 miles and 4400 feet from the hills of Jerusalem to the valleys of Jericho below.
Perhaps the trip to Jerusalem had lulled the man into a false sense of security. He had not met with any misfortune when he climbed the road six months before. Most likely because the robbers knew that Jerusalem is where people go to earn money and to buy expensive goods. It was foolish to rob travelers on the way up. It made more sense to wait for them to come back down.
As the man lay there motionless, feeling the heat of the morning sun on his face, he heard the distinctive sound of an approaching traveler on the road.
Finally, help had arrived.
The man turned his head and with shear will he forced one of his swollen eyes to open, just in time to see a man dressed in priestly garb cross over to the opposite side of the road.
Perhaps the Priest didn’t see him because he was too far down in the ditch.
The man began to moan softly, but the Priest continued on, never once glancing back.
Maybe the holy man’s hearing was failing him. He WAS advanced in age, but why did he choose to cross over to the other side of the road, right at that moment?
Perhaps he thought the man was dead and he feared becoming unclean if he touched his corpse.
The sun continued to beat down on the man.
An hour had passed before he heard the sound of footsteps on the road once again.
This time he recognized the approaching figure of a Levite, a member of the priestly caste who assisted in the Temple. This time the man did not have the strength to make his presence known, but again he pried open one eye and to his relief he saw the Levite looking right at him.
But that relief quickly turned to horror as the Levite too crossed over to the other side of the road and scurried off leaving the injured man alone once again.
The man could not believe what was happening. The Levite was heading towards Jericho, away from the Temple in Jerusalem. Surely his Temple duties were complete.
The man could understand the PRIEST wanting to remain pure at all times given his duties, but the Levite? Surely he could stop and help an injured man who was obviously still alive, and a fellow Jew at that!
It was then that the man realized that it was NOT obvious that he was a fellow Jew. All of his clothing had been taken; including the prayer shawl he had draped across his shoulders under his cloak.
The Priest and the Levite must have thought he was a clumsy drunkard, or a God-less Pagan, or worse, a Samaritan - One of those blasphemers from up north who dared to claim that they too are children of God, even though they refuse to accept the writings of the prophets, and deny the legitimacy of the Holy Temple of Jerusalem.
These Samaritans even make the ridiculous claim that God resides in the Temple that THEY built on top of Mount Gerizim. Blasphemy! As if God would ever see fit to enter the filthy land of Samaria.
Now the man understood why the Levite and the Priest had passed him by.
He could have been anyone. Who could blame them for not stopping? Perhaps they were afraid that the robbers were still in the area.
Or maybe they thought the man was one of the robbers, posing as bait and just waiting for some unsuspecting fool to stop and offer help.
You can never be too careful on a road like this, the man thought.
Wouldn’t he do the same if he was passing through a bad neighborhood and saw someone in need? Only a fool would let down his guard and risk his life to help a stranger on the road to Jericho.
With a heavy heart, the man resigned himself to his fate.
Hours passed, and with his strength faltering in the noonday sun the man once again lost consciousness.
He was not aware how much time had passed when something made him stir.
Someone’s hand was cradling the back of his head while the other hand lovingly tended to his injuries. First washing the blood off his face with oil and wine and then bandaging the wounds on his body.
He could feel himself being lifted up and he was gently draped across the back of a sturdy animal. Perhaps a donkey or a mule.
The man drifted in and out of consciousness for what seemed like hours before the gentle rocking motion of the animal ceased.
Strong arms lifted him off the animal’s back, and the air cooled around him as he was carried indoors.
The chatter of voices and the scent of a simmering pot of soup made him think that he had brought to an inn. The stranger carried the man up to the second level and placed him on a soft bed, where he promptly fell into a deep sleep.
In the morning as he awoke, he heard a stranger’s voice summon the innkeeper. The next sound he heard was the tinkling of silver coins, and the stranger’s voice saying, “Here are two denari, take care of this man; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.”
With the voices of the stranger and the innkeeper receding into the distance, a young boy entered the room and began to redress the man’s wounds.
“Who was it that saved me?” the man whispered through his parched lips. “Was it the Levite? Or the Priest? Did they summon help? Or did one of them return after gathering supplies to dress my wounds and bring me here?”
“Neither,” said the boy.
“The man who saved you was not a Levite or a Priest, in fact he was not a member of any Jewish sect by the looks of his dress.
But you may ask him yourself. He said he would return once he retrieves the funds to pay for your care. But it may be awhile. He mentioned that he was passing through on his way home… to Samaria.
We don’t know how the man reacted to this news….To the realization that one of his most hated enemies was the one who saved him.
The end of the story is left to our imagination.
But then again, most of details in this version of the Good Samaritan tale that you just heard ARE imagined.
The author of the Gospel of Luke does not tell us who the beaten man is.
He doesn’t tell us how the man reacted to the actions of the Holy men who passed him by, or how he came to accept the help of the Samaritan.
When we hear the tale of the Good Samaritan, we typically enter the story from one of three familiar perspectives:
We have the hypocritical Levite and Priest who place religious legalism over compassion and walk away from the beaten man;
We have the traveling Samaritan, who defies the hateful stereotypes about his people and stops to help a stranger;
And we have the conniving lawyer in the story’s introduction, who prompts the tale by asking Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” when what he is really wants to ask is: “Who is NOT my neighbor.”
Can I continue to hate my enemies AND STILL inherit eternal life?
In sharing the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus teaches the lawyer, and us, two things:
1) We are to love and show mercy to all people, because all people are our neighbors.
2) We should not let our obsession with religious practices or beliefs get in the way of honoring God’s greatest commandment:
To love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, AND to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
This is typically how we interpret the parable of the Good Samaritan.
We are to be like the Good Samaritan and show mercy to all, and we are NOT to be like the Levite and the Priest who failed to do so.
But unfortunately the parable of the Good Samaritan has lost its sting over the last 2000 years.
Most modern day Christians have a vague understanding that the Samaritans and the Jews did not particularly like each other and therefore for the Samaritan to be cast in the role as the righteous and merciful one was quite shocking for those listening to Jesus’ parable.
A first century Jew would be repulsed to hear that they were called to imitate the behavior of a Samaritan. To do so they would really have to dig down deep and fight against a life-long pattern of learned hatred and fear.
But in our time, the word Samaritan has taken on a whole other meaning.
The word has worked its way into our secular culture and has come to describe anyone who stops to help a stranger. In fact, the word no longer needs the qualifying adjective “Good” as the word “Samaritan” itself has come to mean “merciful,” “compassionate,” and “selfless.”
If a first century Jew heard us using the word Samaritan in this manner, he or she would cringe.
For us it would be like redefining the word “Nazi” or “Terrorist” to mean a person of good intentions and good will.
As in, “My car broke down on the highway last night, but thankfully a Good Terrorist stopped to help me.”
To garner the full effect of the parable as Jesus intended it, we need to turn it upside down.
We need to stop putting ourselves in the place of the Levite, the Priest, or the Samaritan by imagining who WE would be reluctant to help, and instead see the story unfold from the perspective of the person needing the help.
It’s time that we looked at the tale of the Good Samaritan from the perspective of the anonymous man in the ditch.
If we were the one lying by the side of the road who would be our Levite and our Priest?
Who do we imagine would NOT stop to help us?
Who do we imagine would be indifferent to our pain or delight in our misfortune?
Who is the last person that we could imagine caring about our well-being?
And now can we picture that person being our Good Samaritan?
We may fully believe that we are capable of extending love and mercy to our enemy, but do we believe that our enemy is capable of extending love and mercy to us?
And if our enemy offers us love and mercy, would we accept it?
Or would we think it was just part of a manipulative plan to harm us?
Just as it was healing for the Jewish people listening to Jesus’ parable to see their enemy as being capable of feeling love and mercy for a stranger, it is healing for us to see our enemy in the same way.
By reversing the perspective of the parable of the Good Samaritan, we can reflect on how the man in the ditch might have felt when he discovered that his only hope for healing was through a Samaritan, from a people he had been taught to fear and hate.
And we may ask ourselves, who are the people in our time that we fear and mistrust?
How might they be the source of our healing?
Martin Luther King Jr. alluded to the parable of the Good Samaritan in his famous “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” speech, given on April 3, 1968 –t he day before he was assassinated, in Memphis, Tennessee.
King noted that the first question that the Levite and the Priest asked was,
"If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?"
But when the Good Samaritan came along, he reversed the question and asked, "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?"
We might extend King’s reversal of perspective by asking yet another question, “If we do not stop to help each other, or accept help from each other, what will happen to us?”
The parable of the Good Samaritan is the story of a man who was lifted up out of a ditch and in the process he caught a glimpse of the view from the mountaintop. He looked over and he saw the Promised Land.
He saw the potential that human kind has to look past their prejudices and their fear, and live out their lives in compassion, mercy and peace.
In telling us this parable, Jesus gives us the opportunity to put ourselves in the ditch.
To look up at the face of our enemy as they reach down to help us; to let go of the hate, fear, or judgment that we feel, and to begin the process of healing.
As we lift each other up, bind each other’s wounds, and continue on the road to Jerusalem, together.
Tuesday, July 6, 2010
July 4, 2010
“Leave Your Baggage Behind”
“Leave Your Baggage Behind”
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
If any of you have traveled by airplane recently you may have witnessed the new travel game that people are playing. It’s called, “How many bags can I carry on the plane and how much stuff can I pack into those bags to avoid paying the $25.00 checked luggage fee?”
On a recent trip I took, the flight attendants announced that all the overhead luggage bins were full before the last group of people had even boarded the plane.
For many people the definition of a “carry-on” has broadened to include 2 rolling suitcases, an overstuffed backpack, a purse that is bigger then a small-child, a slew of shopping bags, and a lap top computer bag that is too big to fit under the seat so it too gets crammed into the overhead bin. This is the reason why I never choose an aisle seat when I fly - because when we land I don’t want to be the one sitting underneath the overstuffed luggage bin when all those items that “may have shifted in flight” come crashing down.
This need to carry all our baggage onto the plane when we travel is predicated by 3 things:
- First, the aforementioned checked luggage fee.
- Next, the invention of rolling suitcases. Because we’re less likely to drag an overstuffed bag through 4 terminals and 32 gates when we have to carry it rather than roll it effortlessly behind us.
- And finally, we’ve managed to convince ourselves that we can’t go away for a week without bringing most of our belongings with us. After all, you never know when we might need a winter coat and a bathing suit on the same trip.
Most air travelers today remind me of Mrs. Howell on Gilligan’s Island, who packed 10 suitcases with 200 changes of clothes for a 3-hour tour.
Some of us do make the effort to travel light, but while I carry only one bag onto the plane, I admit that I tend to pack way more in it than I need. I pack my laptop, my iPod, my iPhone, and the power cords and chargers for all of the above, then I add at least 3 paperback books, a handful of granola bars, my water bottle, a change of clothes just in case they lose the luggage that I checked, and I pack a lunch (because I need more sustenance then a tiny package of peanuts).
I carry all of this because delays are inevitable, and I never know how many hours we’re going to have to wait for the plane to take off, and once we’re in the air I need something to distract me from the fact that we’re all crammed inside a metal tube hurtling through space at 500 mph, 30,000 feet above the ground.
The point is, there are many reasons why we carry too much stuff when we travel:
Because we fear we may end up needing something that we’ve left behind, because taking a 2-hour flight can easily become an all-day event, or because we’ve become so accustomed to being surrounded by the convenience and familiarity of our stuff, that we don’t know how to function without it.
In our gospel reading today we hear Jesus’ now familiar command to the disciples that they must travel light as they journey out to spread the message of the coming of the Kingdom of God.
For those of you who were not here last week, last Sunday we began an 8-week sermon series that follows Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem as depicted in the Gospel of Luke.
Last week we heard Jesus harshly rebuke his followers for their lack of understanding of the true cost of discipleship.
He told them that they must leave all distractions behind, including their livelihood, their community, and their obligations and attachment to their families.
But this is a difficult teaching to understand, as one of you shared with me last week – We want to be a good Christians, but are we really required to leave our families to do so?
As we discussed last week, this command seems unreasonable to us, especially given Jesus’ teachings about love and compassion, and the importance of community.
But as with today’s scripture, we must understand Jesus’ command in context. At the time, Jesus had only 12 disciples, and the task of spreading the word of God to all nations was enormous. He needed followers who were 100% dedicated to the task at hand - Followers who were willing to give their lives completely over to God.
The same holds true for us today - Jesus is calling us to give up whatever it is that distracts us from establishing the Kingdom of God here on earth – a kingdom where justice and peace will reign.
If we concentrate only on our familial obligations and don’t make compassion, love, justice and peace our top priority then these things will never be realized here on earth.
But be rest assured, Jesus is not calling us all to leave our loved ones behind, especially if it is the love from our family that fills us up, and spurs us to go out into the world and return that love to others.
Jesus calls us to leave behind whatever causes us to focus on taking in rather than giving out.
And in our gospel story today Jesus calls us to lighten our load even further.
If we look the text in context, we can see why it was reasonable for Jesus instruct the disciples to travel lightly, with no bag, no money purse, not even an extra pair of sandals. Sent out in pairs, the first leg of the journey had them traveling long distances through the territory of Samaria where possessions would not only weigh them down but would also make them targets for robbery. As Jesus said, they were lambs traveling in the midst of wolves.
But the primary reason why Jesus instructed his disciples to travel lightly was to force them to rely on the hospitality of others.
With no bag to carry supplies and no money to buy food or pay for lodging, the disciples did not have the option of withdrawing on their own at the end of the day.
They had to rely on the kindness of strangers to take them in and feed them, and it was through these trust-building interactions that they hoped to spread God’s message.
They were not to be just another group of prophets shouting their message to strangers on the street, but rather they were to take the time to get to know those who took them in, thus making their message more likely to be heard.
Unlike Jesus’ command to let go of our attachment to our families, it’s much easier for us to understand the need to let go of our attachment to our possessions.
Particularly because in comparison to the rest of the world we have so many possessions, and we understand how we can so easily become distracted by the race to obtain and maintain our possessions. Not to mention the extensive amount of time and money it takes to do so.
But there are other kinds of baggage that Jesus calls us to leave behind – our emotional baggage and our spiritual baggage - baggage that is much heavier to carry and much more likely to keep us from becoming the people that God calls us to be.
In his book, “Traveling Light,” Max Lucado writes:
“Odds are, you have luggage in your hands right now. Somewhere between your first step out of bed this morning and your last step out the door, you picked up some overstuffed bags. You stepped over to the baggage carousel and loaded up. Don’t remember doing so? That’s because you did it without thinking. Don’t remember seeing a baggage terminal? That’s because the carousel is not the one in the airport; it’s the one in your mind. And the bags we grab are not made of leather; they’re made of burdens.
The suitcase of guilt. A sack of discontent.
You drape a duffel bag of weariness on one shoulder and a hanging bag of grief on the other.
Add on a backpack of doubt, an overnight bag of loneliness, and a trunk of fear.
Pretty soon you’re juggling more luggage than a skycap. No wonder you’re so tired at the end of the day. Carrying all that baggage is exhausting."
We carry our emotional baggage for the same reasons why we carry so many possessions when we travel, because we’re afraid to leave them behind, because they distract us from bigger fears that we don’t want to deal with, and because although they are heavy and slow us down, over time they have become comfortable and familiar - and we don’t know how to live without them.
Jesus’ disciples were reluctant to set down their physical and emotional baggage as well.
They would not only have to leave behind their possessions but also their guilt over leaving their loved ones, and their fear of the dangers they might encounter on their journey.
But more importantly, Jesus was calling the disciples to discard their spiritual baggage - The religious beliefs that kept them from fully embracing his message.
Their beliefs over who and what the Messiah was supposed to be.
Their preconceived ideas about who was blessed by God and who was not.
Their understanding of what rituals they needed to perform to EARN God’s love and forgiveness.
Jesus took all that baggage away from the disciples and instead gave them a simple message to share with others:
God loves you, God loves us all, and we are to love God, and each other, as we love ourselves.
This message was so simple the disciples needed no bags to carry it.
They didn’t need to carry a set of scrolls filled with God’s instructions on how to live their lives.
They didn’t need to carry a ceremonial robe, or a set of fancy silver with which to perform elaborate rituals in God’s name.
They didn’t need to carry a membership book where they could list the names of those who were included and those who were excluded from God’s love and grace.
They didn’t need to construct an ornate building to worship God and to use as a hub for attracting others into their fold.
All the disciples had to do was walk into the world with their hands free and carry this simple message in their hearts and on their lips:
God loves you, God loves us all, and we are to love God, and each other, as we love ourselves.
This message was intended to release the people of God from the spiritual burdens they had been carrying for years. But as we will see in the coming weeks, the people they encountered are often reluctant to let go of those burdens.
In the same way, WE are reluctant to discard our spiritual burdens:
The religious baggage that we’ve picked up over the course of our lives.
The beliefs and the practices we learned in our youth, or subscribe to as adults, that have done more to distance us from God than bring us towards God.
The belief that we will never be good enough to please God, and we must live with the guilt for what we’ve done.
The belief that sin has stained us for all eternity, and God’s grace is only offered to a select few.
The belief that we have no power to enact change in the world, and that we can only sit back and pray for our own salvation.
The belief that only those who follow our conception of Jesus, and our interpretation of the Bible will enter the Kingdom of God.
This is baggage that has weighed some of us down for far too long.
And just as it feels good to clean out our closets and throw out what is no longer useful, imagine how freeing it will feel to pear down our spiritual beliefs to the simple message that Jesus gave his disciples to carry:
God loves you. God loves us all, and we are to love God, and each other, as we love ourselves.
The cost of discipleship is high.
Many of us have been carrying our burden-laden baggage for so long, the handles have left permanent marks on the palms of our hands.
It seems counterintuitive to not want to rid ourselves of what has weighed us down for so long - but letting go is not easy.
We often feel if we leave these familiar burdens behind we will lose a part of ourselves, a part of what makes us who we are.
Our fear, our guilt, our uncertainty over what’s going to happen next, our beliefs that have kept us sheltered and safe.
But this is what Jesus calls us to do - To set it all down at his feet.
Realistically, we may not be able to do it all at once, but we can work intentionally at letting go of one burden at a time, and to trust our family, our friends and God to help us to do so.
With each burden that we release, we come closer to understanding what it means to feel God’s love and what it means to pour out that love to others, as we step onto the road to Jerusalem with a newfound lightness in our hands, in our minds, and in our heart.
June 27, 2010
“The Journey Begins”
“The Journey Begins”
On this first Sunday of the summer of 2010, I hope you’ve come prepared for an adventure.
For the next 8 weeks we’re going to be walking with Jesus on the road to Jerusalem.
I hope your bags are packed, your passport is up-to-date, and you’ve lathered on plenty of sunscreen.
With only a robe on our back and sandals on our feet we will spend every Sunday from now through August 15th walking the dusty roads of Palestine by day and laying our heads wherever we can at night.
Jesus has set his eyes on Jerusalem and called out “Follow Me!” to all who will listen.
And today, we will choose whether to answer that call.
From now through the end of October, the New Testament scripture readings that are a part of the Sunday lectionary follow Jesus’ Journey from Galilee to Jerusalem.
The Gospel of Luke devotes 10 chapters to this journey – from the end of chapter 9 to the middle of chapter 19.
In the next 8 weeks we will cover only a portion of this journey.
But in the time that we have left before Cindy returns at the end of August, I thought it would be fun to present the first half of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem in the form of good old-fashioned summer serial.
Not just to prod you to keep coming back week after week to find out what happens next, although that would be nice, but to also get us all thinking seriously about what it means to answer Jesus’ call.
We may liken this journey to traveling to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia where for the price of an admissions ticket we’re give the opportunity to step back in time - tagging along after men and women dressed in period costumes, listening in on their conversations and seeing the world through their eyes. But instead of 18th century America, we will be traveling to 1st century Palestine.
And the admission is free.
Luke sets the stage for our journey in the opening verse of today’s scripture reading, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem.”
Now before we begin our journey there are a few things that we need know.
The journey to Jerusalem that Luke describes in chapters 9 through 19 is not presented in any particular chronological or geographical order.
In fact, if we plot the journey on a map it doesn’t seem to make much sense.
If we looked at a map of Palestine in New Testament times, we’d see Galilee to the north, Samaria in the middle, and Judea, where Jerusalem is located, to the south.
On the first leg of the journey Jesus travels from Galilee to Samaria, but in the very next chapter he is in Bethany, a city in Judea, which is located a few miles SOUTH of Jerusalem, in chapter 13 Jesus is back in Galilee where he started, in chapter 17 he is headed through Samaria once again, in chapter 18 he is in Jericho, a city in Judea that lies to the northeast of Jerusalem, and in chapter 19 he finally arrives in Jerusalem.
In modern terms, this would be like embarking on a journey from South Carolina to Orlando Florida, by traveling through Georgia, then driving past Orlando to Miami, then driving all the back up to South Carolina, back through Georgia, and then over to Daytona Beach on the east coat of Florida, before finally arriving in Orlando.
The point is - Luke’s presentation of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem is not a geographical or chronological journey.
Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem, and ten chapters later that’s where he ends up.
But our focus is not on the destination but on the journey itself.
Often we learn more by zigzagging our way to our destination than we do by following a straight line from point A to point B. It’s often the unplanned side trips which take us miles out of our way that end up being the highlights of our journey.
It is in walking these dusty roads with Jesus that we learn how to be disciples.
He will guide us to wherever he thinks we need to go, to learn what we need to learn. Even if it means turning the car around and taking us all the way back to square one. We will get to Jerusalem when we’re ready to accept what is going to take place there - When we’re ready to speak the words, “I will follow you wherever you go,” and actually mean it.
In the scripture reading that begins our journey this morning, we encounter three newly minted disciples who shout out to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go!” and we are standing right there with them. We are eager to please and we have no idea what it is we’re getting ourselves into. But before we even leave the comfort of our homes Jesus issues three warnings about the conditions that we will face along the way, and the level of commitment that is necessary to see it through to the end.
Don’t expect to stay in four-star hotels, or even one-star dives in the sketchy part of town, because although the birds have nests, and the foxes have holes, the son of man has nowhere to lay his head. Like Jesus, the message we have to share about God’s inclusive love is not one that most people are willing to hear. We will have plenty of doors slammed in our face, and we will spend many a night sleeping in a ditch at the side of the road. This is not a life of power and fame that we are committing to, but rather one of destitution and rejection.
Let the dead bury the dead, because as disciples of Jesus we are no longer walking among the dead. We have been resurrected and given new life. There is no time to waste tending to mundane tasks like burying the dead. People die every day, and there will always be someone else to bury. There will always be some other task that we must complete before committing to the road of discipleship. Let those who remain attached to their old lives stay behind and tend to the dead. We are called to preach the coming of the Kingdom of God to ensure that one day death itself will be no more.
Do not put your hand to the plow and then look back, for those who turn away from their work end up plowing a crooked furrow. We must keep our eyes ahead and watch where we’re going. We must detach ourselves from whatever it is that we’ve left behind, as it is only a distraction: Our home, our family, the responsibilities and obligations that have kept us rooted in place. We must let go of all of them to be a true disciple of Christ.
Now after hearing these harsh warnings many of us may be inclined to respond like the three hopeful disciples, by saying “thanks but no thanks” and returning to our homes, our families and our obligations, while doing our best to be good Christians in our spare time.
After all, the requests that these potential disciples made of Jesus were not unreasonable.
They were willing to follow Jesus; they just needed to tie up a few loose ends at home first.
Didn’t Jesus preach about love and compassion? Shouldn’t he understand why one should be allowed to bury one’s father? Or say goodbye to one’s family?
Doesn’t God command us to honor our mother and our father?
Isn’t it selfish to walk away from those who love us to go on a religious quest that may result in our death?
What kind of person does such a thing?
I remember thinking the same thing recently, after reading a travelogue called “Worldwalk” written by American journalist Steven Newman.
In the mid 1980’s, Newman became the first person to walk around the world. In his book he documented what turned out to be a 4-year journey across the United States, Europe, northern Africa, southern Asia, and Australia.
Newman felt called to embark on his unprecedented walk because he had a desire to learn more about the world and the people whom he hoped to write about, but he also felt called to do the walk as spiritual journey.
While the book is a fascinating read, what troubled me about Newman’s decision to strike out on this journey is that his father was seriously ill at the time and was not expected to live the 3-4 years that the journey would take. And yet, on a cold April morning in 1983, Steven Newman strapped on his backpack said goodbye to his family and friends and walked away from his home. He looked back only once to notice the frail form of his father wiping away tears as he peered down at his son from an upstairs bedroom window.
Newman spoke of the pain and sadness that gripped his insides as he walked away. He knew that it was most likely the last time that he would see his father alive, and that his mother would be left alone to deal with her grief on her own. But he walked away all the same.
We may think that Newman’s decision to leave his family and walk around the world was based on purely selfish motives. If he was leaving home to follow some controversial religious guru we might judge him all the more harshly.
So what would be running through our minds if we were living in first century Palestine, standing with one foot on our family’s property and the other on the road to Jerusalem?
Before us stands a man named Jesus, a religious guru touting controversial beliefs, beliefs that will most likely get him killed. And yet there he stands looking us straight in the eye as he gestures to us saying, “Follow me.”
What would we do?
We’ve already watched him rebuke three men who had agreed to follow him, simply because they had other ideas about was expected of them as disciples.
Would he do the same to us if we turned away for just a minute to say goodbye to our families?
If we said we would catch up to him in the next town because we needed to take time to bury a loved one?
If we hesitated to respond because we didn’t like the idea of not having a warm bed to sleep in every night?
The cost of discipleship is something we hear a lot about in church.
But how many of us know what that means in modern terms?
If it was hard for those in first century Palestine to walk away from what little they had, how much harder is it for those of us living in 21st century America?
Are we expected to give up our homes, our families, and all of our worldly possessions to be true followers of Christ? Are we all supposed to live like Mother Theresa?
Many scholars believe that Jesus did not intend for his words to be taken literally in this text.
He was using hyperbole to make his point, as he did many times before. Jesus loved to teach using parables, an exaggerated form of storytelling that was intended to get peoples attention - To break them out of their rutted way of thinking, to help them to imagine a new way of living in the world and to focus their attention on what they needed to leave behind to better serve God.
Jesus’ objective in this text is not to tear his disciples away from their families, but rather to stress the importance of getting the word out about the coming of the Kingdom of God, and the role that we’re expected to play in bringing it about.
At this point Jesus had only 12 fully committed disciples, and if he could get some of the more casual followers to make the same commitment then he could get the word out that much faster.
But before accepting these casual observers into his fold he had to determine whether they were up for the challenge. Would they agree to walk with him and then choose to go AWOL because they didn’t like the living conditions, or they had an obligation to attend to back home, or they simply missed their families?
Jesus’ words may seem harsh, but if we were about to set out on a journey that would take us far from home through potentially hostile territory, wouldn’t we want to know ahead of time what we were getting ourselves into?
Admittedly committing oneself to following Jesus in 21st century America is much less fraught with danger then making the same commitment in 1st century Palestine.
Or is it?
Would you feel safe walking into a war zone with a sign that read, “Love your enemies as yourself?”
Would you feel justified interrupting an execution by saying “You have heard it said, an eye for an eye, but I tell you, we are called to practice forgiveness, not revenge?”
Would you be willing to not just serve up meals at Dorothy Day Hospitality House but to take it a step further by inviting a homeless person to stay in your guest bedroom, or your family room, or any of the other rooms we have in our homes that are primarily used to store our stuff?
These are harsh questions, and truthfully, most of us would struggle to answer yes to any of them. But when we consider Jesus’ teachings, this is what the cost of discipleship looks like in our time.
Whether we stand in 1st century Palestine or 21st century America, with one foot in our front yard and the other on the road to Jerusalem, the commitment that Jesus asks of us is the same.
I would suggest that we spend this week thinking about how far we are willing to go on this journey. Next Sunday we will place both feet on the road to Jerusalem, as Jesus commissions 70 of us to join him as disciples. It is then we will receive further instructions on what we should carry with us and how we are to react when we encounter hostility rather than hospitality.
And next Sunday, which is also the 4th of July, as we celebrate the birth of our country and the courage and commitment shown by both the earliest settlers and the waves of immigrants that followed, let us remember that every journey begins with the decision to take one step forward.
Jesus has called out to us with the words “Follow Me.”
Before we say yes to his call and continue on to the next leg of the journey, we should consider what it is we need to leave behind to ensure that our eyes remain set on the road to Jerusalem.