Year C, Pentecost 6
People often struggle with this passage from the Gospel of Luke. Jesus seems a little insensitive. He’s not quite as insensitive as the disciples who want to command fire to come down from heaven and consume an entire city because they were inhospitable, but still insensitive. In this story, he had three people who wanted to follow him. The first person said that he would follow him wherever he went. Jesus did not say no, but his response was less than affirming. He said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” The second person wanted to follow Jesus but wanted to bury his father first. Jesus replied, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the Kingdom of God.” The third agreed to follow Jesus but wanted to say goodbye to his loved ones first. To that Jesus essentially replied, “You can’t follow me when you are constantly looking back. When proclaiming the Kingdom of God, you have to look forward.”
The response that troubles most people is to the man who wants to bury his father. Anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one knows how important the grieving process is. And even if we set aside the emotional needs, what about the very practical needs? Someone has to make the necessary arrangements for a funeral. It makes perfect sense that it would be the son who would do that. Why would Jesus be so unreasonable as to not let someone bury his father?
In order to answer that question, we need to take a couple steps back to the beginning of the reading. “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” It seems like a benign enough sentence; but it was anything but that. Remember what happened in Jerusalem: that is where Jesus was crucified. For the author of Luke, this sentence marked a turning point for Jesus. If it was a movie, the music would have changed and the screen would have darkened. There would be a close up of Jesus’ face and things might switch to slow motion, because slow motion always adds drama. This was Jesus’ walk to his death. It is when things got very serious. When the first man said that he would follow Jesus wherever he was going, Jesus knew that he had no idea what he was talking about. Even the disciples who had been following him all along did not understand where this journey would lead them.
For Jesus, it wasn’t just that things got more serious at this point– there was an urgency to his actions. He could not wait for people to say good bye. He could not wait for people to make funeral arrangements. His task was to follow the will of his father. Nothing else mattered in comparison. Jesus understood the importance of his mission, the urgency of his journey, but it must have been difficult for him to convince others of that. Even when he started talking to his disciples about his death, they did not really understand it. They did not understand it until he was arrested.
About five years ago, I was able to take a month long sabbatical. I had been studying something called the Emerging Church for several years at that point. It is essentially a movement in modern Christianity to revitalize the church and find new ways of being the church. What I learned was that the roots of this emerging church were in England. The Church of England had begun working on initiatives like this decades before and had even started funding the process long before the Episcopal Church even acknowledged that there was a need. I was able to visit places in England that had been engaged in this kind of work. They had an entire facility devoted to all kinds of church revitalization.
I sat down with one of the leaders of the organization as he described all of the things they were doing. At one point I said, “I don’t understand why you are so far ahead of the American Church in this conversation.” He said, “We hit rock bottom before you did. The church over here has been in decline far longer than the church in America. You just aren’t desperate enough yet. However, it looks like you are getting there.” This past year at General Convention, the church dedicated millions of dollars to exploring new ways for the church to grow and thrive in this day and age (essentially engaging in the very same things the Church of England has been doing for the last 10-20 years). It would appear that we finally got desperate enough.
Sometimes that is what it takes for there to be change in the life of a person or an institution. There needs to be a sense of urgency and desperation. We have to be prepared to make our faith and even our church a priority in our lives. You can see it in the history of St. John’s as well. It was not until the church was in ruins after the Civil War when people discovered a renewed energy for the church. The church had been in decline since the American Revolution, but it was only after the Civil War when people got serious. The need was obvious as the building was complete rubble. Our building is not in ruins, but our church is facing hard times in more ways than one. There needs to be an infusion of energy and hope for it to have chance to make it to year 500, or even 420. We can’t assume that someone else will do it, someone with more time and more money. It is dependent on each one of us to make following Jesus our priority.
Unlike Jesus, we are not marching to our death, but we should still be marching somewhere, with that same determination that Jesus had. There comes a point in our lives when we have to decide what our priorities are—what really matters in our lives. What we will see time and time again is that how we spend our time, points to our priorities.
We don’t need to look very hard to know that the need in our lives and in our world for disciples of Jesus is urgent and desperate. In our baptism we have been saved, but it is up to us become disciples, to live into that call. There is no better time than now to commit to follow Jesus.