Rev. Sarah Buteux
June 30, 2013
1 Kings 19:19-21, Luke 9:51-62


“Don’t look back.  You’re not going that way.”


When the temperature outside the church exceeds the number of people within it, you know summer is upon us here in New England; and I think there is something about summer that begs us to go easy on ourselves. For instance, you want to walk a little more slowly when it’s hot outside, 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 heat and humidity like we’ve had these past few days makes it hard for me to think straight at all. 


I’m actually amazed that we have as many folks here this morning as we do. It’s cooled off some since the beginning of the week, but if you’ve got so much as a kiddie-pool in your back yard that you could be soaking your feet in right now, and yet have chosen to be here with us instead enjoying the traditional air-conditioning installed by our pilgrim forebears known as… windows; you’re either a little bit crazy or extremely dedicated. 


Knowing you all as well as I do, I’m going to go with both, and I want you to know - as your pastor - that your slightly unhinged level of faithfulness has not gone unnoticed. That is, I want you to know that I see your attendance here this morning as a gift; a gift I feel at some level I should reciprocate by not working your poor overheated little 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? 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…”


How could Jesus say something like that; especially to someone who had lost his father?


“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 these words of Jesus. These words are harsh, counterintuitive, and potentially harmful if taken completely literally – they are harsh, counterintuitive, and potentially harmful words from start to finish - 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 yet I believe at the same time that they are the words of my savior, and so I trust that deep within them there is something life giving, good news for you and for me, if we can just hang in there long enough to figure out what is. So let’s take a closer look and see what we see. I’ll try to do the majority of the heavy lifting here.  You just sit back, stay cool, and try to take it in as best as you can. OK? You are good folks.


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 and abetted 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 to command them to rain down fire 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 - James and John - just itching to go all def con 1 on this little village. Jesus turns round and rebukes them, soundly I would imagine, 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 him on the road and begs to follow. 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, “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; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God,” still seems remarkably insensitive.


Finally, the last fellow, echoing the words of Elisha when he was called by Elijah, pipes up and says, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me say farewell to those at my home.”


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 and yet seems to have 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?


 Does loving Jesus mean never having to say you’re sorry?


I don’t know; not entirely, not for sure or for certain. Maybe its because it has been so hot or maybe it’s just because I’m a mother who loves her children and a daughter who loves her parents, that I’m really not sure what to do with these words.


I don’t know precisely where one draws the line between taking Jesus’ admonitions 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 that day to follow Jesus - to leave their parents and abandon their families without so much as a “goodbye” - they would have followed Jesus toward a very literal, painful, and final form of execution; followed with no guarantee of ever coming back. And Jesus, to his credit, made that perfectly clear. He didn’t misrepresent the cost. He demanded everything up front. He didn’t soft sell the mission. No, indeed with all his talk of the cross he made it perfectly clear 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? 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 does not automatically label you as an enemy of the state who ought to be executed. There is a whole lot of overlap now between being a good Christian and a good citizen in this day and age; at least there is here in the United States of America. I know I have many of colleagues who would disagree with me on that, but here’s the thing, no one’s going to crucify you, at least not literally, for following in the way of Jesus.


That being said, 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 the United States of America; maybe especially here in the United States of America.


For example, imagine with me for a moment, just imagine what it would be like to truly practice keeping the Sabbath in these parts.  I’m not talking about just going to church every Sunday, but faithfully taking a day off, a full 24 hours, from all your other work (including e-mail) and all your 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 that, at least not literally, but I know as well as you that it would not be easy.


Imagine following Jesus’ practice of non-violence not just as an individual, but as a citizen of the most militarized country on earth. Again, no one’s going to crucify you, but you start to talk seriously about what it would take to maintain that ethic of non-violence across the board and I can tell you from personal experience, that conversation gets uncomfortable really fast.


Imagine committing yourself 100% to taking care of God’s creation in this land of endless consumerism, what it would mean to tithe in this empire of capitalism, how it would feel to refuse comfort and renounce your privilege as a citizen of the most powerful nation on earth the better to comfort and empower not just those on the margins of our society, but those who are marginalized around the world.


I could go on imagining – imagining all the crazy ways we could follow Jesus - but I won’t, because the truth is I can’t tell you where God is calling you today: what values he is calling you to reconsider, what loyalties he would have you rearrange, or what sacrifices he 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… be…it will cost you something. It may well cost you everything.


My dear friends, the truth even now, is that you have to be either a little bit crazy or extremely dedicated to follow this messiah. Thanks be to God, (as I said before) your very presence here this morning is a testament to the fact that you might well be both, and if that is the case then I do have some good news for you this morning.


I am here to share the good news that though this call might be hard and slightly different for each of us, the path it calls us to follow is not one we need travel alone.  Which is to say that I’m not standing up here telling you what to do because I’ve got this all figured out and I’m hoping you’ll get it too. I’m standing here right beside you, hoping that together we might support one another as we surrender our lives more and more fully to a savior who would lay claim to every last inch of our souls. I stand with you, longing to be transformed by this Christ, that together with Jesus we might transform and heal every last inch of this great big broken world he loves so much.


Friends, we serve a savior who demands an absolute commitment, no matter where that commitment might lead. May God grant us the courage to make that commitment…together.


Let us pray: O Lord, living into the life you hold out to us requires that we leave our old life behind, for living into the life you hold out to us requires that we allow you to re- shape all our values and priorities. O Lord, living into the life you hold out to us requires that we set our hand to the plow and not look back, and yet just like all the people in the reading we heard today, there is always a good reason to put off doing the hard things we know you are calling us to; calling us to us as clearly as the very voice of Jesus called to those folks on that fateful day way back then. And so we pray, O Lord, we pray that you would grant us not just ears to hear and eyes to see, but hearts that are brave and willing to follow you wherever you might lead. Grant us the love and the strength to support one another along the way, to steady those who falter, to reach out and lift up those who stumble, the strength to walk together toward your blessed kingdom and become the people you are calling us to be.  Amen.