June 27th, 2010


Sermon: “Can’t Live With ‘Em”

Luke 9:51-62



I once had a drawing of Jesus laughing in my office.  It used to hang in the hallway down toward the Sunday school rooms, but someone decided that it frightened the children.  I did not, and do not, understand this response because in general we like to picture Jesus in that sort of mood.  Laughing.  At Wednesday Eucharist, someone asked, about this text, “why were they following Jesus?”  It’s a good question, and I suppose that the same attractiveness we find, grace, hope, love, were the same attractions the first disciples found in him.

This isn’t, of course, a complete picture.  I once saw a photograph of a stained glass window in an ancient medieval, European, church, depicted Jesus as he is sometimes shown, with a lily in one ear (signifying grace), and a sword in the other ear (signifying judgment).  Martin Luther once told of a nightmare where he saw Jesus with a sword in both ears. 

Do I need to tell you this is not an attractive image?  Usually, people come to the church because of the attractiveness of the gospel; it is primarily a message of freedom, of grace, and of unconditional love.  It isn’t that attractive to suggest to ‘newbie’s’ that if you decide to sign-on decisions must be made.

A friend recently told me about a worship experience at another church.  Their nephew’s child was being ‘dedicated.’ That is for folks who believe that you must have some conscious role in the decision about baptism for the sacrament to work.  During the service, which went over 2 hours by the way, the pastor informed the congregation that they need not pay attention to the Old Testament, because Jesus has eliminated its importance to us.  This is a popular position among some Christians, especially those who prefer to do ‘whatever they want’ in their Christian life; but it is particularly popular among those who see God as judgmental in the Old Testament; they like to lop off those first 39 books of the bible.  Help make the faith palatable, you see. Other congregations install coffee bar’s in the narthex, free wi-fi in the parlor, preachers in Hawaiian shirts; focusing on the attractiveness, not the strangeness of the gospel.

In this text from Luke’s gospel, we are shown a side of Jesus that is not popular.  And why this view of our Savior is not decidedly popular is because of his interaction with those who would follow him.  He points out that life itself is about the preeminence of certain values.

This story begins where last week ended, near the Samaritan city of Gergesa. You may or may not know that there is a ‘racial’ conflict between Israelites and Samaritans.  The people of Israel consider the Samaritans ‘mongrels’ because of their relationship with the Assyrians. Despite both claiming fidelity to the Torah, there was always friction.  ‘Those people’ are here rejecting Jesus’ message.  No wonder the disciples are quick to ask for a lightning strike.  The Jesus we recognize tells them, ‘come on fellas, you know I don’t work that way.’

But the most difficult portion of this text for me is the part when Jesus tells a man, who only wants a brief reprieve to bury his father, to “let the dead bury the dead.” 

I am trying to picture myself, say, packing for the mission trip to Boston in October.  The telephone rings and one of the new members of the congregation is on the other end.  They had signed up for the trip, but their father has died and the funeral is scheduled during the trip.  “I cannot go,” they tell me, “I need to bury my Father.”  There is none of the empathetic listening I learned in Clinical Pastoral Education, no expression of sorrow on my part, I simply say, “Let the dead bury the dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

I do not need to marshal the richness of my imagination to picture the person on the other end of the phone.  Nor do I anticipate that they’ll be asking me to conduct the funeral.

For Jesus, and those who hear, this is no idle comment.  In Judaism, and in Christianity, it has been of utmost important for the offspring to bury a parent.  It was an important responsibility, taking precedence over many other obligations, even other obligations dictated in the Mosaic Law.  This is not an unusual request, “Let me go and bury my father.”  Every business allows a policy for bereavement, “Let me go and bury my father.”  Even for a few days, people set aside many responsibilities to attend to this task.   No one in the early church, surely, would have created a saying like this and attributed it to Jesus.  It is too much a confrontation to the tradition and sensibilities of the church for someone to have dreamed this up.  So, this response must be authentic, “Let the dead bury the dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

What must he mean?  Does he mean that there is no value in a funeral?  Does he mean that those who attend to these responsibilities are spiritually dead?  Or does it mean that our commitment to discipleship should take precedence over these kinds of responsibilities? 

I once heard a pastor tell about a young family who was blessed with their 3rd child.  The other two were older and just getting into all those activities that come with children in elementary school.  They wanted to have this new child baptized, and so Pastor Fred suggested a date.  The father stuttered a bit and then said that the date wouldn’t work because Johnnie had t-ball and Susie had field hockey practice that morning.  Pastor Fred suggested another date.  The same conflict arose.  Fred said, “every Sunday morning these children have some activity?”  “Yes,” replied the father.  Fred paused and told the man, “well then, we’ve got a decision to make then don’t we?”[1]

 “The most difficult choices in life are not primarily between good and evil, but the most difficult choices in life are between what is good and what is best.”[2]  And home and children and family and jobs:  these are all good; they are absolutely wonderful; but they are not the best.  The best is Jesus.  The best is the love of God.  This is not an either or question.  It is a ‘cart and horse’ question, isn’t it?

As it is, for the 99.998% of current followers of Jesus with places to live, kids, pets, and aging parents to care for, this lesson raises serious questions about the importance following Jesus has in our lives. Just exactly what is it that we will do – or do without – in order to follow Jesus?

There are always those times, for those of us who do not live a cloistered life, when we must make decisions about the primary focus in our life.  It is a question about our practice of the faith. I am not suggesting that the answers are easy to arrive at; or having decided, that they are easily understood by the world.  Priorities are always made, whether we realize it or not, we do choose.  Jesus simply, harshly perhaps, demands that having made the decision for him that we live with it.  I think it means that we let this one commitment direct everything else.


[1] “Craddock Stories” Mike Graves, Richard Ward, eds.

[2] Caird, George, “The Gospel of Luke” Penguin, 1964.