Sermon – Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Encinitas, CA. June 26, 2016 – Text: Luke 9:51-62
51When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.54When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55But he turned and rebuked them. 56Then they went on to another village.
57As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58And 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.” 59To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Our reading from Luke’s gospel today is a narrative of change – of the old falling away, and new ways of being coming into existence.
It’s also a narrative of persistence – of staying the course, minding one’s path ahead.
In the first paragraph, when Jesus and his followers come into a Samaritan village, he shifts the image of God from what is expected. Samaritans and Jews, as we’ve heard, didn’t get along, and so they were not received. James and John figure this is an excellent time to see about invoking some divine retribution. But Jesus will have no part of it. This is a new day, and Jesus is the new covenant that God makes with God’s people. The vengeful response is no longer in the playbook. Over the next two Sundays, we will hear Jesus outline a different way of engaging with those who don’t like you. We’ll also hear Jesus describe a person who in his society was “othered” but who was the true neighbor.
And so they continue the journey to Jerusalem. A journey that began when Jesus “set his face” to go to Jerusalem, “when the days drew near for him to be taken up.” Interesting how this is not a reference to anything like Passover or any other kind of holiday. Instead, Jesus sees his destiny before him. The lyrics of the song we use during Lent, “Jerusalem, My Destiny” express it well: “Though I cannot see the end for me, I cannot turn away.” Jesus sees the end, but he cannot turn away. The Greek in our text for “set his face” reflects a Hebraic image of “fixedness of purpose.”
Through the journey Jesus is teaching about the challenges that this will hold – what WWII-era Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “the cost of discipleship.” Jesus is being gut-level honest with those following him, letting them know that they likely won’t be welcomed.
But he also is reminding them that this journey is one that requires concentration and attention. Distractions, being only partway-in, and devoting more time to getting out of the work than to getting it done are what pull the journey off-track. The allegory Jesus uses is a plow.
I saw an interesting reflection of that allegory this week. The old spiritual “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize, Hold On” was sung during the civil rights movement, but that song began in the era of slavery with slightly different words: “Keep your Hand on the Plow, Hold On.” The call is to keep focused on the goal, on the mission before you. Distraction and abandonment could, in that era, lead quite literally to death. There is a subtle reference to the subterfuge of the Underground Railroad as well: keep your hand on the plow, that provides a cover. The oppressor will think all is well. Hold on. You will make your escape.
You may have seen some of the footage of the sit-in in the US House of Representatives earlier this week. Disgusted with the lack of a bill or a vote on some of the less volatile aspects of the gun control discussion, House Democrats staged a sit-in and pledged to continue until such time as a bill is voted upon.
Here’s the thing. This sit-in was led by Representative John Lewis of Georgia, who is in the foreground. Representative Lewis is a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement, who worked and marched with Dr. King and endured beatings, police dogs, fire hoses, and a host of other abuses. But his hand has remained on the plow all these years. His eye is on the prize, which in this instance is substantive action to address the epidemic of gun violence in the US.
When I think of someone “setting his face to go to Jerusalem” in our day, I think of John Lewis. He knows this journey will be difficult, and that there will be consequences for him politically and maybe even personally. But that is not the point. People are dying needlessly, and thus Representative Lewis knows that he must set his face for this particular Jerusalem.
If you look at his face, you can see it. The decades of patience and persistence. The concern for others of God’s beloved children. And above all, the conviction that non-violent resistance is how the status quo can be upended.
However, I think it’s important to realize that Representative Lewis has by no means abandoned the past.
He has not “let the dead bury the dead.”
No, John Lewis has remembered and honored the past. He has drawn from its lessons and lived into its implications. His experience as one who sat in then, and who sits in now, tells us that he does not live IN the past, but rather lives FORWARD FROM the past.
In 1965, John Lewis’ face was set for Jerusalem. In 1965, that Jerusalem was Montgomery. In 1965, he put his hand on the plow and he has not removed it.
I have heard many people wrestle with this text, trying to figure out if Jesus is telling them to literally let the dead bury the dead. (Not sure how that works.) I’ve heard people yank this text sideways into a social justice talk about homelessness. And sadly, I’ve heard this text used as a weapon to guilt people into sets of rules meant to force their hand onto a plow and keep it there.
But I see different things.
I see a world where the living bury the dead, and in so doing, proclaim the kingdom of God. It’s a “both/and” dichotomy, not an “either/or” dichotomy. The action of burying the dead proclaims the kingdom of God because when we bury the dead, we proclaim not only the cross, but resurrection.
Karoline Lewis, preaching professor at Luther Seminary and to whom I am indebted for inspiration, writes of an epiphany she had with this text when she imagined it from Jesus’ point of view.
Suddenly, she said, she began to realize that perhaps what Jesus is saying here is that every moment counts since God made the decision to become one of us. Even seconds matter to God – not for the sake of our service alone, but for the sake of our being in the kingdom God imagines. Every moment matters because every one of us counts.
In a both/and kind of world, a realization that every moment counts is profound. And I think that realization may also remind us how easy it is for us to step away, saying “well, it’s not quite the right time” or “I need to get my act together first.”
That’s an aspect of thinking in terms of scarcity.
Jesus urges us instead to operate from the mindset of “let’s see what happens”.
That is thinking (and acting) in terms of abundance.
When I wrote about prayer for my blog last week, I mentioned that the structure of our corporate prayer is one that calls upon God for God’s action, but includes wording that reminds us that we are to act as well. This too is thinking and acting in terms of abundance, living fully into the people God has called us to be.
If every moment counts, then we must ask ourselves:
*Am I waiting for someone else to call for righteousness? Or will I step into the moment and proclaim God’s promise of justice?
*Am I waiting to follow someone else’s lead in standing up for those in the margins? Or will I proclaim that God’s love is for everyone?
*Am I figuring that someone else will handle the environmental stuff? Or am I living in a way that respects, honors, and restores God’s creation, and helps others to do the same?
*Am I standing at the Red Sea, waiting for God to do something? Or am I standing at the font, dipping my fingers into these living waters and reminding myself of my baptism that calls me to love of neighbor?
If every moment counts,
Then how do we measure a life?
In what increments will you measure your life? Because every moment counts, says Jesus.
You count. You matter. And God counts on you.
How will you measure your life?