A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 26 June 2022 [Proper 8]:
2 Kings2:1-2, 6-14; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62
How did you hear Jesus in his encounter with the three men who asked to be included in the Lord’s band of disciples? How did that scene strike you? Did you sense that Jesus was going a bit out of his way to run them off? Frankly, our Lord sounds a bit cranky to me; but God literally knows that Jesus has things to be cranky about.
My own reaction to today’s gospel lesson is to ask what is so disqualifying about wanting to follow Jesus but first to say “goodbye” to family or to bury a father? But – cranky or not --that is what Jesus seems to do in this lesson. Clearly, as Luke conveys, Jesus is running his last lap with a focused intensity, as he sets his face for the goal line of Jerusalem’s cross. This is not a light thing, to say the least; but what about discouraging the three potential recruits? What’s the message. –to them and to us?
The message (in part) is as stark as it is true: namely, discipleship (following Jesus) is a matter of priorities, with the implication that if following Jesus does not override everything else in your life, then don’t bother applying. First things first. The uniqueness of Jesus is that he is “all in” in terms of living life on God’s terms; but in this strict context and comparison to Jesus, who among us is all in? I know that I am not, and that confession makes me very uneasy.
I was a new rector in a large parish church; and as some parishioners are wont to do at the beginning of a new priest’s tenure, a member of that parish made a formal appointment to see me in my church office. I learned long ago from my sponsoring priest that the first parishioners to get in line to speak with the new rector usually want to get their personal oar in the new water. So it was with this first pastoral appointment.
Len was someone I had noticed from the beginning. He was … formidable. An ex-Marine, a retired Lt. Colonel, a jet fighter pilot, he could hardly go unnoticed; nor as it turned out did he wish to be unnoticed. His presenting look involved a steely, scrutinizing gaze, the effect of which was to keep the one gazed-upon on alert. As such, he could be intimidating; or at least he tried to be.
Despite all this I was still delighted to have this time together to talk; and in its own way it was Len’s way of letting me know who he was, what he was about, and where he was. At the very least, this was emotionally honest. After a very brief chit-chat, he got down to business, handing me a revised copy of his detailed funeral plans. It was serious business to be sure, and I appreciated being apprised of what the acknowledgement of his death would entail and what he expected of me as his new priest. It was also clear that he had orchestrated the funeral details, and I was to follow through without question.
We talked a bit about what lay behind his intent and the commanding tone he expressed, which caused him suddenly to say something with an unexpected frankness. As if he were laying his cards down on the table, he shifted his body forward and looked straight at me and said: “There are three things that matter most to me: My family; my job; and then God.” I kept silent for a moment, mulling quickly in my mind what was being revealed to me, when he brought our meeting to a terse conclusion. “Not many people would tell you that, but I just did.”
In his own way he had given me a gift. Len just informed me of what was most important to him in his life; and I (his new priest) got the message: “God” came in third. Len was not “all in”; but neither was I to be exact. Yet, I’d like to believe that I was still trying and that that made some kind of difference in our respective positions.
“All In”. I know that I could be accused of letting myself off the discipleship hook by insisting that following Jesus is not such a binary, yes/no situation. I do take some comfort in the fact that even among the original Twelve there was waffling and wobbling and at times outright running away; and yet, those frail men – and women – were nonetheless accounted as worthy to shoulder what Jesus embodied and demonstrated. Clearly, I do believe that there is the latitude of grace and mercy in following Jesus and of necessarily being graded on a curve.
In this light I need to say that only Jesus is “All In”. This is the meaning and impact of the phrase “he set his face to go to Jerusalem”. It indicates that Jesus’ trusting, loving obedience to the Father involved a total commitment to God and to embodying the God-life. For the fact is that Jesus would rather die than break Communion with the Father. While we are not exactly there with him in that unfailingly deep commitment, Jesus is still our goal. Jesus is still our model. Jesus is still “the pioneer and perfector” of the faith, “the way, the truth, and the life”. And a big part of faithful discipleship is keeping our eyes on his prize and doing our best continually to walk in his steps.
A colleague recently told the story of the time when he worked on a farm for a summer. The day finally came when the farm’s foreman allowed him to run the tractor and plow the field. It was a big deal for my friend. Who wouldn’t thrill at riding a real Tonka Toy? But doing so also entailed a big responsibility. The plowed rows had to be straight, and that turned out to be more difficult than it seemed. The key to plowing straight rows, he was advised, was not to pay too much attention to what was directly in front of the tractor but to keep his eye on the far edge of the field and keep that as his driving goal. The same is true, it seems to me, when it comes to following Jesus and steering our way forward toward him.
So, what about the interaction between Jesus and those three seekers? Even if they were not ready to be “All In” or even if they weren’t mature enough to count the cost of discipleship before jumping in, is the message of this gospel scene simply a matter of a stark “yes/no”, an “all or nothing”? As I say, at the very real risk of letting myself off the sharp discipleship hook, I want to suggest a way that follows Jesus even in our wobbling and hedging.
“I love you, but…” How do you hear that proclamation? Psychologists tell us that when a good thing is proclaimed and couched with the negative conjunction, what is heard is the negative. “I love you, but…” comes across as “I don’t really love you.” So it was, I think, when the three men approach Jesus, requesting membership in his movement. To Jesus’ invitation to “follow me”, each man in his own way said, “Yes, but…” – “first let me kiss my mother ‘goodbye’” or “but first allow me to bury my father.” These are all conditional responses; and as such miss the mark that Jesus provides with his invitaton.
Perhaps it is not possible this side of the Kingdom’s arrival for us to offer anything but a conditional response. Yet, realizing this and then acknowledging this reality is (I believe) a first step forward. Specifically, I am suggesting what on the surface appears to be a small detail but in effect makes an important difference. Rather than say, “Yes, but …”, what if we were instead to say, “Yes, and …”? Being rooted in my new awareness of you, Jesus, let my first action be to bury my father.” Burying one’s father (by the way) is something the Torah Law requires of a son.
“Yes, and …” It doesn’t release me or you from the urgency or the priority of following Jesus to God. It simply stands as a reminder to ask that if our commitment is to family and job, what of God and God’s life, what beyond our own resources do we have to give to our loved ones and even to our jobs? If what we have to give of ourselves is not rooted in God’s life, then what kind of life and love do we have to offer? Wobble. Wobble.
“All In”. Jesus is “All In” for us; and as we keep our eyes on him and steer ourselves toward him, gradually through our wobbling we can learn to plow a straight row, in which the Lord can plant fruitful seed. Amen.