Sermon for 6th Sunday after Pentecost. Roosevelt Island, Chapel of the Good Shepherd, June 30, 2013
“Let the dead bury their own dead, but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
That’s harsh—the guy just wanted to bury his own father…
It may help to see where we are in the Gospel—the lesson starts: “when the days drew near for him to be taken up, Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem.” In other words, he has decided to make that journey to Jerusalem which was going to result in the drama of his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. His proclamation of the kingdom and his sacrifice of all are intertwined, you don’t have the one without the other.
I would not attribute Jesus’ responses to these people to a bad mood, although he would certainly be entitled under the circumstances, but the disciples, and prospective disciples and others really did not understand what was involved. Jesus’ journey was not a first century equivalent of a Grateful Dead concert tour, it was not fun and games and sleeping under the stars. So someone says, “I’ll follow you wherever you go.”
… “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but this Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.”
You can’t just follow along, like it’s a lark, or like Jesus is your new favorite rock star. It costs something to be Jesus’ disciple; in fact the cost may be to lose everything. There’s no doubt that it cost Jesus everything. When the church talks about the first disciples, it remembers virtually all the early apostles as martyrs—martyr is a Greek word that means witness—but the experience of the church was that those who were faithful in witnessing to the truth accepted the consequences of that witness, even the death we now call martyrdom.
So when Jesus says “let the dead bury their own dead,” he is not dismissing the value of family or of social obligations. Quite the contrary—the invitation to follow him carries the risk of losing many things which we rightly hold most dear. But following Jesus is the choice for abundant life, a life of joy. Our joy is a life of freedom without fear.
This paradox is something I would have had a hard time explaining, or at least explaining in a convincing way, when I was a young priest, thirty or more years ago. At that time, there were plenty of things that I was afraid of losing, and which I wasn’t prepared to give up. I won’t get too personal, or go into too much detail at this, our first meeting, but I will say that I did not have to make any heroic decisions to give up those things—I lost them all over a relatively brief period of time. After a somewhat less brief period, I received a great gift, which is that I no longer fear death, and while I appreciate the difficulty of loss, I don’t really fear that either. Over a lifetime we lose many things. But no matter what we lose, even if we lose faith, the love of God in Christ Jesus is still here for us. Following Jesus is serious business, but it brings freedom: “For freedom Christ has set us free,” says St. Paul in our lesson from his letter to the Galatians. “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”
Of all people in the history of the world, Jesus is the free-est. At the same time, in that very freedom he has taken responsibility for all of us as our servant, our protector, our model and our savior. He leads us into the Kingdom (or the Realm, if you prefer) of God where, as servants of one another we have perfect freedom. But this abundant life requires living.
I love the image at the end of the Gospel lesson: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” I grew up in farm country in the far west, and when you are plowing a furrow, it should be straight so that the field is used efficiently, and if you don’t watch the point at the end of the row and go straight toward it, your furrow will wander all over. It’s a bit like texting while driving. You might paraphrase it: ‘Anyone who starts driving on the Long Island Expressway and looks down to text, isn’t fit for the kingdom of God’ (as likely as they are to meet their maker).
Following Jesus is not an accidental process; it requires constant attention, constant love, and constant generosity. And there is nothing we can lose that can separate us from his love.