A sermon for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost
2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Luke 9:51-62
In the movie, “Sister Act,” Whoopi Goldberg’s plays a gangster’s girlfriend on the run from the mob. She finds safe haven at a convent, where she puts on the habit of a nun and begins teaching music in the parochial school. Of course she upsets the system, but in the end she brings something new to everyone when she takes the bad choir and turns it into a group of real singers. One of the highlights of their singing is an old popular tune sung with a twist. “I Will Follow Him” is a love song, and I would say a very young person’s love song, full of destiny and devotion. There isn’t an ocean too deep, a mountain so high it can keep the young singer from following her love. In the movie, it becomes a song of dedication and commitment to Jesus, the one they will love from now until forever, forever, forever.
Imagine you hear that a man has come to town, preaching a message of forgiveness and love. Imagine you are so taken by what he is saying that you want to leave home and follow him. Imagine, even, that he tells you to follow him! Luke tells us that as Jesus began his last, long journey to Jerusalem, he met people along the way who wanted to do just that; he even met people he invited to come with him. It must have been a little like falling in love, a sudden flash of wanting to be with someone who could have been little more than a stranger.
Over and over it happens. Peter, Andrew, James and John leave their boats. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna and many other women provided resources for him. The people he healed wanted to follow him. But Jesus has some idea of the challenges ahead. He has set his face toward Jerusalem and death. And so he discourages those who want to come along; he even discourages those he encourages. This is no walk in the woods, no picnic in the park, no cruise around the bay. The end is coming, and the rest of Luke’s gospel tells the story of the steps Jesus takes on the road to crucifixion.
When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. (Luke 9:51 )
Although the first words of this passage make it sound as if the road is short to Jerusalem, in literary terms we are still ten chapters away: many towns, many dinner tables and much teaching lie between this introduction to the journey and its completion later. This story comes soon after Jesus speaks to the disciples about his death, and Luke is setting up a framework—all that comes in this next section is not only part of Jesus’ physical journey to the city of Jerusalem, but also his spiritual journey to the New Jerusalem, to God’s new kingdom, to the destination God calls him to reach. We know it is not just his death to which he travels, although something about the phrase “setting his face” suggests stoicism in the face of ultimate danger and suffering. Perhaps he did not know himself just what lay ahead; that is an argument scholars are still having almost 2000 years later.
We read that Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem; he steeled himself to meet whatever might lie ahead. But the journey on which he sets out is meandering, to put it mildly. If you were to draw it out on a map, it would be hard to make the case the Jesus was traveling straight to his destiny. It’s not just about going forward; it’s about going deeper. Imagine setting out from Sanford to Alfred, then taking a route that included Shapleigh and Cornish and Waterboro and Gorham and Buxton, in no particular order. You wouldn’t get to your destination quickly, but there would be time along the journey to share and to learn and to mature. But first you have to decide if it’s a journey you want to undertake.
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." (Luke 9:57-58)
#1 Son leaves for New York this morning, where he will be subletting an apartment with some friends and working on a play for the next six weeks. He has to find a job after he gets there to supplement the money he earned working at a theatre festival the past three weeks. I expect he will be eating a lot of ramen noodles. While we might happily send our young people out to build a career by roughing it at first, how would we feel if they took off after a prophet? Would we worry that a cult had captivated them? In college I knew a girl who was seduced by a cult. They insisted that she get a job and took all the money she earned; meanwhile, she began to flunk out of school, because between the cult activities and the work at a pizza place, there was no time to study. No one warned her about the potential outcome of her commitment. But Jesus is right out front about it. “This is not a campaign internship, friend. You will not be traveling on a luxury bus, or flying on a plane, or networking at cocktail parties. Foxes have holes, and birds have their nests, but we may not be welcome anywhere.” I wonder if that person followed him? I wonder if we would?
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." (Luke 9:59-60)
Of all the hard things Jesus is thought to have said, that’s probably the hardest one. Let the dead bury the dead. What does he mean? It might be easy to brush off this story and say that if it’s a journey deeper, perhaps Jesus had no need for inexperienced help at this point on the way. These cautions and hard demands don’t need to apply to us, do they? Why, even Elijah and Elisha had a chance to part from one another. Jesus wants something so much more drastic. It must have been because he knew what was coming, right?
Or maybe it really is just that hard to be a disciple. Really.
Maybe it is just that hard to follow him.
But suppose we consider another possibility. Suppose this man’s father is not dead; suppose he is not even ill. Suppose the man is saying, “I am responsible for my parents as long as they are living; when I have finished caring for them, then I want to follow you.” That’s different, isn’t it? We can all make the case that we have too much responsibility in our regular lives to be able to address our spiritual lives, to be the selves that God calls us to be.
The United Church of Christ, 50 years old, asks the same questions of its members. What began as an attempt to draw denominations together, to all be one, has grown to age 50 in a world increasingly fragmented over issues, a world in which some Christians look at others and don’t want to be associated with them. And that goes both ways. How many of us would lay down those controversies and start walking down a dusty path to what looked like doom? I’m not sure I could. The UCC calls on us to let our light shine, but I’m not sure we know what that light needs to look like.
Our traditional view of the church tends to be of a building where we go to “hatch, match and dispatch.” We want to know the church is there for a baptism or a wedding or a funeral, but I’m not sure we want it to engage in acts of proclamation and prophecy. What would it mean for the church to follow Jesus without stopping to bury the dead? Will we insist on gaslight when the rest of the world has moved to low energy fluorescent bulbs? Is there a mountain too high, an ocean too deep, to keep us away?
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." (Luke 9:61-62)
This country grew from a desire to do things in a new way. The founders strode forward bravely, inventing a free nation unlike anything the world had ever seen. They never turned away from the goal they had set for themselves; they never looked back. Along the way, fearless men and women have agitated to bring us to next steps on the journey: ending slavery, bringing women and people of color to at least legal equality. As James Russell Lowell wrote in the hymn, “Once to Every Man and Nation,”
New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.
There is always another step to take along the way.
Jesus asks us to take that step without looking back, to avoid being held in the way things have always been. What, if anything, are we willing to give up and leave behind?
Don’t be deluded. It is no easy path to choose to follow Jesus. But it is the path to wholeness, to illumination, to salvation. Thanks be to God, he left us bread for the journey. This morning we go to the table he spreads before us. In the bread and the cup, may we find the courage to follow him, to love him from now until forever, forever, forever. Amen.