Seminary is death to a person’s sense of humor. All we have left by the time three years are over are jokes about the church; mostly puns; none of which are actually funny. What we did have, however, was the ability to commiserate. One thing we noted was how often a huge group of us would end up preaching on the same Sunday’s at our internship sites. As it turns out most of time the lectionary readings for that Sunday were among the hardest to swallow. We joked that if the seminarian was preaching, it meant the rector didn’t know what to do with the lessons so he or she would “let the seminarian preach.” It is interesting that Keith isn’t even here today as I am left to deal with Jesus telling people that to follow him they will be homeless, they can’t wait to bury their parents, and to look back means to give up the kingdom of God. As he worked out a schedule for this wedding he’s doing in Rhode Island, I wonder if he looked at the readings and thought, “July 1, that’s it, we’ll let Steve preach on July 1.”
[see I told you seminary was death to a sense of humor] I joke about Keith leaving me with this passage, but it is really hard to deal with. I did everything in my power to avoid working on this sermon. I made coffee, I made phone calls, I sorted through books, I made more phone calls, anything to not deal with what seem like really harsh words by Jesus. I knew all along, however, that you would not stand for it if I just ignored the gospel lesson today; I knew breakfast and coffee hour would be full of tough questions on why I skirted these tough words; so let’s look at them together right now because here Jesus gives us some insight into what it means to follow his way. Last week he told the twelve that they would have to take up their cross daily, today he expands his message on the cost of discipleship to other would be followers.
Verses 57 and 58; “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.’” Over and over again in the gospels we see stories like this one. A person comes to Jesus excited to follow him wherever he will go, and it seems like Jesus takes a pin and pops their excitement bubble without regard for their feelings. “I will follow you wherever you go,” the man says. Jesus replies essentially saying, “have you counted the cost?” To really follow Jesus is to be homeless at best. Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that “when Christ calls a man to follow him, he bids that man to come and die.” The cost of discipleship is everything, even our homes and our lives. We may not be called to a physical death for our faith, like Bonhoeffer suffered at the hand of the Nazis, but we are called to die to our self and to our sin and to seek only the dream of God. We may not be called to leave our homes behind like the man who came to Jesus, but we are called to use our resources, our gifts of time, talent, and treasure to the glory of God.
Barbara Brown Taylor once said that if a man in the church loses his job, the pastor may well call this person to offer sympathy and prayer. But suppose that a pastor one day got wind of the fact that a certain member of his congregation had gotten a big promotion at work along with significantly more pay. And suppose the pastor then called this person and said, “Charlie, I’ve heard your news and so was wondering if it would be OK if I came by sometime to pray with you about this. I’m concerned about the temptations this new venture may throw your way as well as what it may do to your ability to serve here at church. So I’d like to pray for God’s strength for you in the face of this new success.” Probably we’d be taken aback. But as Brown Taylor notes, that is only because we do cordon off parts of our lives from the total claims Jesus makes on us. We act as though we are our own after all and so why would the church have anything to say to us so long as life is chugging along smoothly? If we ask that, however, we reveal that we, too, quietly resist the same self-denying sacrifice that seems so offensive to some outside the church. It looks as though the only way we will ever see this self-denial as a source of comfort is if we die and are reborn. We need to kill off ordinary ways of defining value and bring to life a whole new set of values. The place to start is by admitting that without God, we are lost in sin’s wilderness and unable to find our own way out. Once we know that, we are wide open to the call of the one who hopefully says, “Follow me.”
Verses 59 and 60; “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.’” This is by far the hardest part to hear. Jesus is supposed to be a sympathetic, caring man; he wept at the tomb of Lazarus, he knows the pain of losing a loved one. Why on earth would he be so harsh toward this grieving man? It just seems impossible to think of a savior who would act this way. Perhaps, however, it is precisely this radicalness that we should pay attention to, these two verses are so hard to understand that we have to pay attention to them; hyperbole or not.
Fred Craddock, a noted preaching scholar, recently delivered a sermon on “The Gospel as Hyperbole.” In this message he pointed out that the gospel is loaded with statements that are, on the face of them, ridiculous. We’re told to remove the logpole from our own eyes before criticizing others. We’re told that if we have even a smidge of faith, we can move mountains into the sea. We’re told a shepherd would abandon 99 sheep in favor of searching for just one that wandered off. We’re told that if everything Jesus did were written down, the whole world could not contain the books that would be written. We’re told stories like the one about a man who was forgiven a debt of a million gezillion dollars who then turned right around and about choked another man to death for the 50 cents he owed him. Ridiculous. Over the top. Who can take such hyperbole seriously?
But as Craddock went on to point out, it’s all a little less ridiculous once we come to realize that the kingdom of God Jesus came to announce—and whose arrival and presence he calls others and us to likewise announce—really does contain the cosmic power for salvation unto all people and all creatures. If the kingdom of God is anything close to what we think it is, we really cannot overstate its power or beauty. We cannot exaggerate enough to convey the punch of this kingdom and of the God of all grace who through our Lord Jesus Christ has saved us from darkness into light. Even to the point of angering us, Jesus calls us to a radical lifestyle that is focused on God alone. Not all will be called to be away serving God instead of burying their father, but we will all at some time be called to live outside of our comfort zone in the service of the kingdom; that is what Jesus says to us in these very difficult verses.
Verses 61 and 62; “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.’” Here again we have a man who is volunteering to follow Jesus, and Jesus turns him away. Why would Jesus continuously turn people off to him? Why are these stories saved for us to read and explain to people not in the church? Why are they here for preacher to stumble over as they try to faithfully interpret them to a congregation of believers who don’t like this image of Jesus? Once again we have the story of someone who wants to follow Jesus on his own terms. Growing up in Amish country, I marveled at the seemingly endless rows of corn and tobacco that grew in perfectly straight lines on farms with no electricity and only mules to pull the plow. Jesus speaks a truth that is eternal; you cannot plow a straight line while looking backwards. We are called not to be backward looking follows of Christ, but instead to move forward, to move ahead, to grow in faith.
These six verses are among the hardest in the New Testament. They are off putting. They make us uncomfortable. They are just plain ugly. But we must not ignore them for their ugliness. It is in our discomfort that we find meaning. Jesus didn’t call his followers to a life of comfort, and he doesn’t call us to one either. We are called to die to self, to be homeless, to be out of our comfort zones, and to look ahead – all in an attempt to live life God’s way; not on our own terms. Amen.