Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
June 30, 2019
Elijah went straight out and found Elisha son of Shaphat in a field where there were twelve pairs of yoked oxen at work plowing; Elisha was in charge of the twelfth pair. Elijah went up to him and threw his cloak over him.
Elisha deserted the oxen, ran after Elijah, and said, “Please! Let me kiss my father and mother good-bye—then I’ll follow you.”
“Go ahead,” said Elijah, “but don’t forget what I’ve just done to you.”
So Elisha left; he took his yoke of oxen and butchered them. He made a fire with the plow and tackle and then boiled the meat—a true farewell meal for the family. Then he left and followed Elijah, becoming his right-hand man.
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 plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’
This morning’s Gospel reading features some challenging sayings of Jesus that very well might make us throw up our hands and say, “Well, I guess I’m just not meant to be a disciple”:
‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ But who among us would walk away from burying a parent in order to follow Jesus?
Or ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’ Up until the advent of GPS-controlled automated tractors, farmers had to train their eyes on a fixed point at the far end of the field in order to keep their furrows straight as they plowed. But who among us can keep such singular focus, never turning our heads away to attend to family, or health, or work, so that we might do nothing but preach the Gospel?
The temptation with texts like these is indeed to dismiss them; the bar feels too high, and so we decide, perhaps subconsciously, that Jesus is speaking to someone else – the disciples, maybe, or people who feel called to religious consecration as monks or nuns. We might as well turn the page and move onto something easier… like “forgive not seven times but seventy times seven” or “sell all your possessions and give the proceeds to the poor.”
I picked some extreme examples there, but the point is that there’s a lot of the Gospels that gets tossed aside when we assume that Jesus is talking to people who are holier than we are. I’d like to invite us to instead wrestle with these sayings and see what they might yield for us with our not especially rarefied lives bound up in ordinary commitments and obligations.
To start us off, it helps to think of Jesus’ words as three mini-parables: little observations about what is truly involved in becoming a follower of Jesus.
First we have someone who comes to Jesus asking to be a disciple: “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replies with a rather evocative reminder that it’s a lot harder than it might seem: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Human One has nowhere to lay his head.” To become a disciple means to be homeless, with no permanent abode, learning to rely entirely on God’s providence as you travel from town to town teaching and healing. If that sounds a bit romantic and carefree, just think about how most of us feel when we discover we’ve left our toothbrush at home on a trip – let alone when an airline has lost our bags.
Second, we have Jesus issuing the invitation to someone to become a disciple: “Follow me.” But the potential follower responds, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” I think all of us would agree that this person’s priorities are in the right place: attending to the funeral details of a deceased parent is almost as important in our tradition as it is in Judaism, where it has long been seen as a fulfillment of the commandment to “Honor thy mother and father.” So Jesus’ response – “let the dead bury their own dead” – seems particularly unfeeling.
But Jewish burial happened, by custom, within one day of death. Any of you who have lost a loved one know that the first twenty-four hours after someone has passed are filled with logistical concerns about memorial services, funeral homes, obituaries, etc. – not to mention grief that can sometimes feel all-consuming, even paralyzing. No self-respecting Israelite with a just-deceased parent would have been traipsing after an itinerant rabbi, wandering from village to village soaking up his philosophical witticisms.
So scholars have concluded that the man in question wasn’t talking about completing funeral rights for an already-dead father, but rather that he was speaking symbolically about caring for his father until the end of the parent’s life – a commonplace obligation in a culture that put a high value on filial piety. The death of an aged but still well parent could be two months away – or two years, or two decades – who knows?
Jesus replies that if this man delays responding to this invitation to new life, he will remain stuck in his old ways – dead to what truly matters: “Let the spiritually dead – those who have no interest in my message – take care of the endless obligations and expectations we so easily become entrenched in; as for you, who feel called to become spiritually alive: don’t put it off – go proclaim the kingdom of God!” Or, as the Message translation puts it: “First things first. Your business is life, not death. And life is urgent: Announce God’s kingdom!”
So following Jesus requires a willingness to forgo our usual comforts coupled with a radical amount of trust that God will meet our needs; and it requires we rearrange our priorities so that we are pouring our energy into the places where God is alive and at work instead of into the customs, habits, and cultural priorities that can insulate us against new life.
Third and last, someone offers to follow Jesus – but. This person is eager to become a disciple with just one small caveat – that they first say goodbye to their loved ones. Again, Jesus’ reply seems particularly harsh; instead of recognizing the blessed ties that bind us to our families, he tells his would-be disciple that such a backward glance will steer him wrong before he’s even gotten started. What is Jesus so worried about, anyway? After all, Elijah’s disciple, Elisha, got permission to have a huge farewell party complete with a feast of two boiled oxen before he left to follow the prophet.
I think Jesus knows that most of us aren’t as steely-minded as Elisha appears to have been; it is incredibly hard to walk away from relationships and people that matter to you. As the famous Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon said, “O young [people], when you are thinking of leaving the world, be afraid of these farewells! They have been the ruin of hundreds of hopeful people. They have been almost persuaded; but they have gone to their old companions just to give them the last kiss, and the last shake of the hand, and we have not seen anything more of them.”
So we have a would-be disciple whose enthusiasm has blinded them to the cost of discipleship; a would-be disciple who’d love to follow Jesus, but it’s just not practical right now; and a would-be disciple on the verge of committing, but whose resolve wavers at the thought of all they would need to leave behind.
Which would-be disciple are you? In which little episode do you recognize yourself?
And more to the point about not letting the all-or-nothing rhetoric scare us off from embracing Jesus’ challenging invitation, how can his real talk here help us let go of these obstacles that prevent us from truly following in Jesus’ way? How can these mini parables help us go all in, embracing God’s claim on our lives whether we decide to become homeless for the Gospel or stay right where we are?
First, trust God. Trust that no matter what predicament you find yourself, what harrowing journey, God will provide for you along the way and find ways to give you life wherever you end up.
Some of you have heard me talk about when I began the process of looking for my first full-time call (Spoiler: it was Park Avenue). It was a nerve-wracking process involving a nation-wide search and in-depth interviews with people I’d never met, and it required me to be willing to trade the stability of a good job, a wonderful community, and our very first home for a whole set of unknowns. Would the right church find me? What if I didn’t get my profile turned in at just the right time for whoever God was calling me to serve? What if I didn’t check the right boxes and ended up somewhere far from family, with cultural values completely foreign to mine and terrible weather? Somewhere like…North Dakota?
A pastor friend of mine who had recently done his own search process and ended up in a similarly foreign land – Dallas, Texas – where he was now thriving asked me just the right question: “Do you think God can’t find a way to connect you with the place where God wants you, Leah? Do you think that’s too hard for God?”
My friend was inviting me to trust God radically to provide on the very journey God had invited me to take. And when I resolved to do just that – with frequent, sometimes daily pep talks to myself to keep on task – it did indeed land me right where I was supposed to be.
Second, make life your business, not death. Feed what brings more light and healing into the world, not what deadens and distorts.
Sometimes what is life-giving and what is death-dealing is big and dramatic. In Tara Westover’s best-selling memoir Educated, the author describes the traumatic process of separating herself from parents and siblings whose insular lifestyle and paranoid, abusive behavior had stunted her spirit. She went from having never been allowed to read anything except the Bible and the Constitution to earning a PhD at Cambridge and a fellowship at Harvard; but more importantly, and more difficult, she slowly came to realize that her worth as a person trumped her father’s malignant desire to be in control.
Other times choosing life over death is much less obvious; we may not even realize when our habits and routines have dulled us to God’s whispered invitations. I’ve found that when I trade a constant stream of “no”s and “don’t touch that”s and “don’t squeeze your brother so hard”s for a litany of “yes”es and praise for what she has done right, my child blossoms. Retraining my brain to look for the positive first has been surprisingly hard, but choosing life in this way has a huge impact because it tells my child that I want to celebrate what is good in her rather than constantly highlighting her missteps.
I think this is why Luke uses familial obligations as the stumbling block for would-be disciple number two; it makes us question whether the very things we’re most enmeshed in, that we have the hardest time imagining ourselves leaving behind or changing about ourselves, might actually be things that are slowly causing us to harden or decay.
Third, keep your eyes on God. We all face hard choices, difficult journeys, disappointments; situations where we are tempted to take the easy way out, to give up, or to let our challenges make us bitter. Are we able to instead scan our surroundings for how God is supporting us, present with us, providing for us in the thick of it? And when things are going well, are we able to constantly ask ourselves what God wants us to focus on today, here, now? Amidst a modern life full of distractions clamoring for our attention, are we able to let the stuff that threatens to drag us away from what matters slide effortlessly behind us like a plowed furrow?
I want to say a word about keeping our eyes on God in truly horrific circumstances. It’s understandably easy to look away, to turn to despair and resentment instead of looking to a God who, for example, appears to be okay with letting little children languish without basic necessities, living like prisoners of war in detention camps on the border of the richest country in the world. Keeping our eyes on God at times like this doesn’t mean we Pollyanna-ishly tune out headlines that turn our stomachs and pretend all is well; it means that we instead lock gazes with the One who put on flesh in order to gather precious, cast aside children into very human arms, and we find a way to embody the divine love those children so fiercely deserve. And we let all the obstacles to caring and to acting slip behind us like furrowed ground so that those sweet babies will be able to keep their eyes on God, too. Because sometimes looking for God in a hellish situation means bringing God their ourselves.
Maybe you’re on the edge of saying yes to God in some way – living into a new season in your life, leaving behind a destructive habit or behavior, taking on a commitment or a cause that scares the pants off you but somehow won’t leave you alone.
Maybe you’re like sweet little Shelby – at the very beginning of learning what it means to love God and be loved by God, of opening your heart – or opening your heart back up – to communion with this Divine being who somehow loves you exactly as you are and who calls you to live into the breath-taking freedom that comes with such profound acceptance.
Maybe you’re looking for a way to make a difference, to spread light in this dark world, no matter how daunting the task.
Wherever you are, Jesus’ words today remind us of the only things we need to follow in the way:
Remember that your business is life, not death.
Keep your eyes on the One who is the author of our days and the architect of our hearts, the One who came to be with us so that we might be empowered to go all in on what matters.