Sermon on Luke 9:51-62 for Pentecost +6, June 26, 2016
When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. When 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?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And 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.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
You can go to the store for fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy food, because to you plan to eat right, and then you come to the check-out line. There they are, all the tempting candy bars, right there at eye level, within easy reach. You feel the impulse to make an exception, just this once.
Even at one of my favorite fruit and vegetable markets they put chocolate turtle candies right there at the register. The store manager knows you have that impulse. They call the little items they put near the cash register, “impulse items.” Impulses are powerful. Impulse control is hard.
We have to teach our children impulse control; it is not natural. It can be learned, but not without discipline. Impulses feel so natural, and therefore, so right. We hear ourselves making up excuses why indulging our impulses will be OK, for us, since we are exceptions to the rule.
But impulses can lead to very bad, destructive outcomes. It is not just a matter of diet. We have all kinds of impulses: from verbal impulses to self-asserting actions. And impulses that we act on can lead to everything from poor health to ruined relationships.
Some impulses are natural, like the desire to eat something sweet, or salty. It is just an appetite. Other impulses are learned. We grow up in a culture with its own values and perspectives which we absorb through the process of socialization. The values and perspectives that we are socialized to accept become completely internalized to the point that they feel unquestionably natural.
For example, we feel a sense of respect for our flag. A flag is just a multi-colored cloth. But a flag is, for us, a symbol of our nation, our people, our history. When we see it, we feel something deep. We feel loyalty and identity, perhaps gratitude. It feels completely natural. And, we do not feel that for anyone elses flag. Our natural feeling is not at all natural, like breathing is natural. We learned it.
Learning in Families
I want us to focus on a specific set of impulses today, and the implications of acting on them as people of faith. They are the impulses we learn as we grow up in our families and the cultures that our families live in.
The texts that we read from Luke’s gospel are going to challenge us to examine our impulses and ask which of them are helpful, and which do we, as people who seek to follow Jesus, need to find the strength to have impulse control to resist.
Families are important to us today, but they are different from families in Jesus’ day. We feel natural in a home with just parents and children. That would have seemed odd, if not morally bad in Jesus’ day, unless perhaps your parents had died. The extended, multi-generational family was the expected norm.
And although we get a strong sense of identity from our families, nevertheless, we feel totally free to have careers different from our fathers’, to move away from where our parents raised us, to marry whom we choose. We do not carry around a multi-generational family reputation anymore. All of that was different in Jesus day.
So, when Jesus says things that are critical of the family, things that relativize its central role, or that minimize obligations to family, they sounded even more radical in his day than they do in ours. But they do indeed sound radical in ours.
A man wants to follow Jesus, but wants first to be there for his aging parents, until they die – and Jesus has a problem with that? What’s up with that?
It is hard not to hear rudeness in his voice when he says to the poor guy:
“Let the dead bury their own dead”
Why would he say that? I love Marcus Borg’s comment. Jesus was saying that:
“there is a way of living that amounts to living in the land of the dead. [but] it is possible to leave the land of the dead.”
— Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary (p. 197).
Are there ways of living that I have assumed are natural but that are actually deadening me to something important? Are there ways of looking at the world and being in the world that I inherited from my family and the culture we live in that have produced impulses that are life-taking rather than life affirming?
If there are, then, because of socialization, they are going to feel 100% natural and normal. Am I willing to be open and vulnerable to having them critiqued? This is where it can get hard to follow Jesus. But also where it is crucial.
The Tough Part of Following Jesus
There are some things about learning to follow Jesus that feel instantly wonderful. Learning Jesus’ way of knowing God, as loving and forgiving, like the perfect Father who sets you free from guilt and shame and loves you into the family, even after you have been the prodigal child – that is liberating. It feels great.
But, following Jesus has a non-nonsense tough side. There are commitments that may prove uncomfortable. It is like the third lap in a four lap race; there are times when it is hard. It is like not having anyplace to get a good night’s rest. Jesus is does not back down from the hard part:
“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
But come, follow anyway. Yes it will get difficult, but you do not get to enjoy the harvest without getting out there in the dirt, in the sun, with a plow in your hand for hours at a time.
“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
And again, this was his response to someone who wanted to go back home for some goodbyes to the family. But maybe the family was pulling in a direction away from the kingdom of God. Can families do that? How could family ties keep a person tied down to a place that would prevent them from following Jesus on the road of the kingdom of God?
The People We Feel Free to Hate
Now we come to the story about the journey through the Samaritan village. Jesus sent some disciples ahead to make arrangements – maybe for lodging or meals – and they got resistance. Samaritans did not want to have Jews around. The disciples get offended:
“they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”
Here it is in plain sight, like a day-old dead armadillo in the middle of the road. The ugly specter of ethnic animosity is sitting there without any sense of sheepishness. Samaritans hated Jews, and Jews are ready to return the favor.
They wanted to call down curses! Can you imagine suggesting that to Jesus? What were they thinking? It would be like asking Gandhi to shoot someone. Asking the one who said, “turn the other cheek” and “blessed are the meek” and “forgive us as we forgive” – to get into the cursing business?!
This suggestion produced one of the strongest responses Jesus ever made:
“But he turned and rebuked them.”
They simply found another village to go to.
Why So Ready to Despise?
Let us ask ourselves the question: why were James and John not embarrassed by their own angry, vengeful, violent impulses? Why were they not ashamed to actually suggest a violent response to Jesus?
I suggest it is because it felt so natural. It felt unquestionable. They absorbed it growing up. It came with mother’s milk. It came from their families. You can just hear their thinking:
“Of course Jews hate Samaritans! They are ethnically contaminated. They are religiously heretical. They are in our space, on our land. They are dirty and uneducated. What planet are you from that you don’t get it?”
The impulse to despise people who are different from us, feels natural. It feels normal. It feels completely justified. And it is completely wrong.
This is no small matter. In Croatia, I lived within a half an hour’s drive, in more than one direction, from mass graves, dug by people who called themselves Christians, filled with the bodies of other people who called themselves Christians. Why? Because some were Serbs and others were Croats.
There is no toddler who can distinguish between Serbs and Croats. There are some minor language differences. There are denominational differences between Orthodox and Catholic Christians, but they too are minor, but children do not know or care about those.
But by the time the children are in high school, they know whom to hate. They have been taught. And it feels normal. And it was taught at the breakfast table and reinforced by the conversations at the dinner table. In other words, it came from their own dear families.
“there is a way of living that amounts to living in the land of the dead. [but] it is possible to leave the land of the dead.” — Borg, again. (p. 197).
We all know what the feeling of disgust is. We all have things that disgust us. Some smells are automatically disgusting. Some sights are disgusting. Seeing some behaviors disgusts us. Some of these disgust emotions are actually natural. Others have been taught to us by our cultures, by our families.
We feel disgust impulsively. Just the way Jews do when they see Samaritans. Just they way Serbs and Croats were taught to feel towards each other in many families (not all! thank God!).
I’m using Serbs and Croats as an illustration, partly because they are neutral for us, so we do not get our defenses up thinking about their conflict, and partly because, as you know, I lived in the war zone that was the aftermath of their civil war.
But neither Serbs nor Croats produce a disgust response in us. We have no impulses to despise them.
But let us ask the question today: who are the people we find disgusting? Who are the people that we feel the impulse to despise?
Muslims? Arabs? Hispanics? African Americans? Gay people?
It is totally uncomfortable talking about this, is it not? And we get tired of talking about it. I hear people say that they are tired of talking about racial tensions. Haven’t we beaten that issue to a pulp?
Bringing it up again is like being exhausted with no place to lay your head and get some sleep. It is a fun as being out in the field, in the sun, with a plow in your hand. Well, foxes have holes, but that solves nothing. We need to keep our hands to the hot, dirty, difficult summer plow.
Yes, it is hard to keep the conversation about these issues going. But the only ones calling for them to stop are the ones in the positions of power. Black people do not think the race issue is settled in America. Muslim Americans do not feel accepted by large segments of our people. And how should Hispanics feel in this present climate?
This is serious. Jesus’ strongest rebuke came from people who felt totally natural and justified in their animosity. But the road forks right here. One direction is following Jesus. The other direction is to go back to the way the family always did things. One way leads to life. The other way is the land of the dead. It is a fork in the road: we have to choose.
The Way of Life
The good news here is that Jesus’ way does really lead to life. It is the path of warm welcome and embrace of the other, the stranger, the one who is different. Jesus’ path leads to a table where people from East and West and North and South sit together, enjoying the rich banquet food of the kingdom. Does it take a huge leap of faith to believe that? Then the invitation “follow me” is an invitation to take that leap.
It will be, perhaps, uncomfortable, at least at first. It will feel awkward. It will feel like it goes against tradition, and against family. It may be exhausting before it feels rewarding. Can we keep our hands to the plow anyway?
So, the questions we have before us, are simply these?
Who are the people that I find the impulse in me to despise? Who are the ones who disgust me?
And, as a follower of Jesus, what do I fell called to do about that?