Let this sermon bury the dead (or something like that)

I’m preaching this Sunday. This Sunday’s texts from 1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; and, Luke 9:51-62 bring up images of call, service, and freedom. And the Soup Dragons (kind of). And Monty Python. And some personal wrestling about taking leave from my ministry here a two months ago to say goodbye to my father and tend to my father’s funeral.

1 Kings 19
In the first reading the prophet Elijah is called by God to anoint a new prophet and a new king. Change is underfoot.

A new prophet? I can’t help but wonder if God here is firing Elijah for his slaughter of the prophets of Baal, and his subsequent hiding from King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Just before today’s part of the story, Elijah had a dramatic standoff with the prophets of Baal, and after the standoff he kills them all. That, predictably, angered the King who, though called to be faithful to the God of Israel, had sponsored these prophets of a Canaanite God.

[For some folks from New Joy the following commentary might ring familiar. I preached a sermon on this last fall, or last summer, I think.]

So Elijah runs and hides in a mountain cave. God follows him and asks, not once but twice, “What are you doing here?” I can’t help but hear God asking this question with the annoyed – or even angry – tone of a parent finding a child in the wrong place at the wrong time. After twice reciting his response about being passionate for the LORD, that everybody else has abandoned God, and that he is alone in being faithful, God fires him. “Anoint Elisha from Abel-meholah, Shaphat’s son, to succeed you as prophet” (1 Kings 19:16). You’re done, Elijah.

Elijah then goes to Elisha and throws his mantle on him, a sign that prophetic leadership has transferred from Elijah to Elisha. Elisha understands what has happened, how is life is about to change, and asks to return home to bid farewell to his family. Elijah blesses him to do so. Slaughtering his animals as a sign that his old life has come to an end, Elisha takes up the mantle and follows Elijah in this new calling.

Luke 9:51-62
This Elijah/Elisha story contrasts somewhat with Luke 9:51-62, where Jesus rebukes his disciples who, taking a page from Elijah’s playbook, want to send fire from heaven to destroy a community of people who would not welcome Jesus. Yet where Elijah got it wrong with his treatment of the prophets of Baal, he gives much more leeway than Jesus does in blessing his disciple to bid his family a proper farewell before starting the new gig.

This Gospel passage takes place “as the time approached when Jesus was to be taken into heaven,” marking – as the 1 Kings reading does – a shift. Change is underfoot.

In preparation for “[being] taken into heaven,” Jesus journeys to Jerusalem. Along this road he will run into people whose interactions with Jesus reveal insights about his mission and Kingdom. A village of Samaritans rejects Jesus, but also three would-be followers and disciples seek to follow him. Jesus has no interest in quarreling with the Samaritans (though the disciples clearly want to reign fire and fury on them), and he simply passes them by. But to each of the three would-be followers Jesus does not extend the warm, “Come, follow me” invitation he uses when calling his twelve disciples earlier in his ministry. Instead, he offers caution and harsh words about the path he walks.

“Wherever you go, Lord, I will follow.”
“Follow me? Even wild animals have places to rest, but not me. Not my followers. This ain’t going to be an easy road to trod. At all.”

“Hey you. Follow me.”
“Coming, Jesus. Just first, let me go back and bury my father.”
“That’s not how this works. Let the dead bury the dead. But you, go proclaim the Kingdom of God.”

“Jesus, I will follow you, just as soon as I say goodbye to my parents. I’ll be right back.”
“Really? The Kingdom’s ahead of you. There’s no room for looking back in God’s Kingdom.”

Ouch.

What do we make of Jesus’ harsh words, after he rebuked the harsh designs of his disciples against the Samaritans? Do we take him at face value that one cannot follow Jesus and bury a parent or bid farewell to them? Well, yes and no.

Jesus speaks in hyperbole, after all. Faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. If you cause someone else to sin, tie a stone around your neck and throw yourself into a lake. These are not precise prescriptions, step-by-step instructions for Christian living. Instead, these are colorful exaggerations intended to make a point, but not to prescribe specific behavior or clearly define the life of faith.

So too here. When Jesus tells the would-be follower to let the dead bury the dead, he is warning that the call to discipleship demands our attention and our lives. Plus, its a call to new life. Death – and burial of the dead – has no ultimate place in this Kingdom.

[Interpretations that the man’s father wasn’t actually dead yet – but that instead this excuse to “go and bury my father” was simply a way to delay the answer to Christ’s call – feel good, and serve to make Jesus’ words less harsh. But I just don’t see that interpretation supported in the text. Luke could have told us that the man’s story was hogwash … but he doesn’t. I think such readings of the text are meant to make us feel better about a Jesus who is, frankly, sometimes offensive and often demanding.]

And when Jesus scolds the would-be disciple who wants to bid farewell to his family, Jesus reveals the dramatic calling of the Kingdom – that God’s Kingdom could even come between us and our own flesh and blood. Choosing between God and the Devil is (relatively) easy, after all. But choosing between God and family? Well, that’s harder.

Two months ago I took leave from my ministry to go home, say goodbye to my father, and tend to his funeral. To no small extent I am the man in the Gospel saying to Jesus, “Yes, I’ll follow, but first let me ….” And I’m so glad I took that time. Jesus is Lord, I am not, and in those two weeks the Kingdom of God did not fail to come because I went home to grieve. Certainly, as with the would-be disciple whom Jesus declared not fit for the Kingdom because he wanted to first say goodbye to his family, I am not fit for the Kingdom. But that’s the point. I am not fit for the Kingdom. Neither are you. None of us are. If we were, we wouldn’t need Jesus, his mercy, and his grace in the first place.

So what do we do with Jesus’ words? Are we to neglect funerals for the Kingdom, or abandon our family when we hear the call? No. At least, not because of what Jesus says in these verses. As hyperbole, these sayings serve a function not of literal instruction but of moral and theological emphasis. We cannot adhere to them strictly – to try to do so would be idiotic. Instead, these sayings instead serve as a kind of law. Martin Luther talked about the law being so hard to fulfill that it drove us to our knees to seek forgiveness and mercy from God. We cannot give Jesus and his Kingdom the kind of loyalty and attention it demands. At least, I know I can’t. Jesus’ words in this passage are exaggerated yet true – they can be both at the same time – showing us the all-encompassing claims of the Kingdom and, in so doing, revealing to us our own lack of fitness for God’s Kingdom.

So where does that leave us?

Galatians 5:1, 13-25
That leaves us to the reading from Galatians. In this passage we hear Saint Paul’s powerful description of Christian freedom. “You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love” (Galatians 5:13).

In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus frees us from the power of sin. This is the heart of the Gospel. But what is the purpose of that freedom? To go to heaven? Sure. But, what about before then? Too often as Americans we think of freedom only in terms of what we’re free from. Free from tyranny. Free from debt. Free from oppression. But free … for what? Too often we answer that this freedom is for ourselves.

Saint Paul writes in Galatians 5 that we are freed from the power of sin for the purpose of serving our neighbor. Martin Luther echoed Saint Paul when he wrote, “A Christian is a free Lord, servant to none. The Christian is a dutiful servant, subject to all” (The Freedom of a Christian). Many historians interpret Luther as among the first freedom fighters, setting in motion efforts to topple hierarchies and rulers in Europe and the Americas, and ultimately the individualistic ethos that characterizes the West. That’s too simplistic, and certainly wasn’t Luther’s intent. For Luther, and for Saint Paul, freedom is not (something we use) for ourselves, but (something we use) for others.

We are free from having to fulfill the law to please God.
We are free from having to climb the ladder of righteousness into heaven.
We are free from having to prove ourselves worthy of God’s mercy.
We are free from having to live perfect lives to earn ourselves a seat in God’s Kingdom.
We are free from all this, for the purposes of loving and serving our neighbor.

Freed from having to prove ourselves, live perfectly, demonstrate our worthiness, we instead pour that energy and effort into our neighbor. We don’t have to earn the free gift our Lord gives; instead, we are free to use that gift for the sake of others. All of Christian living is a call to humility, to service, to sacrifice, to putting the needs of others before our own (Philippians 2:4). Being a Christian is about following Christ in service to our neighbors.

Hence, when Jesus rebukes his disciples for wanting to send fire down from heaven, he rebukes them for having their interests, their anger, their desires first and foremost in mind. No! We serve others. And serving others begins with not killing them (duh!), and letting them be even if and when they reject us. But it goes much beyond that, too.

When the would-be disciples come to Jesus and ask to follow, Jesus reminds them just how hard it is to put the needs of others before the needs of their family and themselves. These echo what Saint Paul writes in Philippians 2, that we are called to put the needs of others before our own. Or again, in Galatians 6, that when we bear the burdens of others we fulfill the law of Christ. Christian living and identity is entirely wrapped up in the care and welfare of our neighbors – a life that is free for the sake of the world.

Looking Ahead: the Church as tenant in God’s mission field

Looking Ahead to Sunday's readings and the Good News of God I will strive to speak that day, I am wrestling with how we understand the relationship between of God's mission and the church's mission. Stewardship themes also come through strong, especially in the Gospel.

Appointed readings:

Isaiah 5:1–7
Psalm 80:7–15
Philippians 3:4b–14
Matthew 21:33–46

(full text of readings here)

In particular, I am struck by the words of Jesus in Matthew 21:43:

The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.

Jesus speaks these words after telling the chief priests and the elders a parable about tenants of a vineyard who had been entrusted with tending the vineyard and producing a crop for the landowner. When the landowner sends servants to collect the produce, the servants are killed or beaten or otherwise rejected. The landowner sends more servants, to the same end. Finally, he sends his son, who is treated in the same manner. Jesus asks what will happen to the tenants when the owner comes, and the chief priests and elders replay that the owner will put them to death and lease the vineyard to others who will give the owner the produce at harvest time.

A few things to note here:
For one, it is clear that we are talking about tenants working in the owner's field. Are we willing to view ourselves as tenants working in God's field? We cling so tightly to notions of ownership – of our land, our homes, our clothing, our cars, our money, our gadgets – yet we can too easily forget that all that we have comes from God.

And if we are tenants, entrusted with land and work (as in the parable) or with goods and money and house and time and energy, how are we called to use these things? What does the owner – God – intend for us to use these resources?

And if we are not using these resources according to how God intends them to be used, today's Gospel reminds us that responsibility for their sacred use can be taken from us and given to another. "The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom." God's kingdom is not dependent upon us. It is God's work that extends beyond us and our churches, and God is glad to give the work of building his kingdom to whomever proves willing and able to carry out the work.

Another thing. In the parable Jesus does not imply that the grapes in the vineyard were neglected or in any manner unworthy. For all we know, the tenants might have done a good job growing the grapes, and for this reason would rather keep the valuable harvest for themselves rather than share with the owner. The problem is that those responsible for delivering the crop to its rightful owner have no interest in doing so. How do we seek to keep for ourselves what we rightly owe to offer to God?

In the Isaiah text, we see God's disappointment that his beloved vineyard is not yielding the intended fruit, and he withdraws his care for the field and allows it to go to waste. As in the above parable about tenants, it seems in this reading that no single field is indespensible to God's mission. God will sow seed and harvest fruit wherever there is good soil.

In the Psalm, the psalmist pleads with God to restore the vineyard … a follow-up, of sorts, to the Isaiah reading, reminding God of what he has done in the vineyard, and asking him not to let it go to waste.

The Philippians reading is great, but isn't speaking with me in concert with the theme set up in the other readings. 

In fact, as good as the Isaiah text is, if you wanted to go with the stewardship theme – in advance of the traditional November stewardship Sunday(s) – a text such as Deuteronomy 26 or Leviticus 2 could be helpful to set up a discussion of the proper use of that with which we have been entrusted by God. So too with the Psalm. Psalm 24 could be good for such a theme.

Blessings to all who are preparing and delivering sermons this week!

Now is the Time

Lectionary 33 (25th Sunday after Pentecost), Year C
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19
Sunday, November 14, 2010

Grace to you and peace, from the one who is, who was, and who is to come.  Amen.

Growing up with the last name of Duckworth,
    and having all sort of nicknames based on the root “Duck” –
    Ducky, Duckman, Duckhead, Duckface, Ducker, Duckaramma, Ducker Doodles –
    I take special interest in all things Duck.
And so at the end of certain political cycles my Duck feathers get ruffled, so to speak,
    as we hear about the fate of “lame duck” politicians.   
There is nothing “lame” about ducks, that you very much.

Read More

The Kingdom of God is Like a 10K Race

The following is a parable that was revealed to me while watching runners – including my dear wife, Jessicah – finish a 10K race on Saturday.  I'm pretty sure it was one of those parables that either got lost in translation or didn't make the final cut for the synoptic gospels, perhaps due to its high hokeyness quotient  😉

Then he said to his disciples, "The Kingdom of God is like a 10 kilometer race. Not one of those big charity races with thousands of runners in a big town or city, but a grassroots run in a county park with only a few hundred racers.  It's a race with many participants but few spectators, and when the fastest runners finish, there is nobody to cheer them on.  But when the slowest among them cross the finish line, there are scores cheering them on, for the faster runners had already finished, and were standing nearby the finish line, welcoming their fellow runners home."

Then the disciples asked him, "What does this mean?"  And he answered them, "Do you not yet understand? In a race the first receive the least amount of praise, since nobody but the race staff are there to cheer him on.  And what joy is there when a 21 year-old stud cruises to a first place finish in a community run?  We all expect young studs to win the race!

"But the last runner receives the greatest praise.  For when an overweight 54 year-old with achy joints sweats through the race, crossing the finish line in last place after running 6.2 miles without stopping to walk even once, the whole gathered crowd of racers who had already finished the race, cooled down, stretched, and begun replenishing their system with sponsor-provided food and drink, will put down their Gatorades and bananas to cheer on this last place finisher.  The cheers will be much louder, and words of encouragement much more plentiful, and admiration much greater for this last runner than they were for the first.  For they all know that the last place runner spent more time suffering on the course, and overcame more challenges, than any other runner in the race.

"And so it is in the Kingdom of God.  The angels and heavenly hosts will hoot and holler more loudly for those who stumble and straggle into the Kingdom than for those who sprint in hardly breaking a sweat.  For this world honors with heaps of praise the best and fastest among you; yet in the Kingdom of God, it is the least among you who are celebrated the most."

The Blessed and Holy Task of Being God’s People (Lectionary 14, Year C)

Lectionary 14 (Sixth Sunday after Pentecost)
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
July 4th, 2010

Grace to you and peace, from the one who is, who was, and who is to come.  Amen.

I went back home to Philadelphia last week for five days with my kids.
I went to a baseball game to see my beloved Phillies play – they lost
    and to an amusement park designed for young children in Lancaster County.
I stayed a few days at my brother’s house and a few at my in-laws’ house,
    drove through my old neighborhood,
    and even ate a street vendor cheesesteak on the back lawn of Independence Hall
        while my kids blew bubbles and ran around on ground
        where Founding Fathers surely held conversations
            about tyranny, freedom, and self-determination.
It was a great trip.
But despite reliving some old memories and creating some new ones,
    the trip was also tinged with a bit of sadness.

Read More

We look for the resurrection of the dead

We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.  Amen.
– Nicene Creed

Yes, Jesus was raised from the dead.  The stone was rolled away, and our risen Jesus appeared, variously, to the women, to two of his followers on the road to Emmaus, and to his disciples.  To a doubting Thomas, Jesus revealed his wounds.  Jesus ate fish to prove he wasn’t a ghost, yet he also appeared among his disciples, even though the doors of their room were locked.  The resurrection of Jesus.  This is what we celebrate in the season of Easter.

We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

But it is more than an amazing act of God.  Jesus’ resurrection is a conquest of sin and death to reveal the awesome and life-giving power of God.  Indeed, the resurrection of Christ shows us God’s intention for all of creation.  The resurrection of Jesus is not a one-time thing, an isolated anomaly in the spiritual fabric time and space.  No!  The resurrection of Jesus is not a once-and-done event, but a debut, a first-of-many.

We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

St Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.  For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at this coming those who belong to Christ.

Christ is the first fruits, his resurrection is the first act in a holy drama that has yet to end.  But this much we know – what has come to Jesus in the resurrection is promised to us.  For at St Paul writes in Romans 6:

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

What is so great about Easter is that it its story of our Lord’s resurrection we see a reflection, a telling of another story – the story of what God promises to do in and for us.  Just as the stone was rolled away from Jesus tomb, so too will God’s angels roll the stones away from our tombs, breath new life into us, and make all things new.  Death will be no more.

We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

Indeed, the hope of early Christians was not a hope for a spiritual heaven, a disembodied world of ghostly apparitions floating in the clouds. The hope of the early church, of the first generations of Christians, was a hope in a new flesh-and-blood life, a life like Jesus’ resurrected life, a life of death defeated and sin conquered, a life where that which breaks us down is itself broken down, and a New Creation springs forth in joy, love, and peace.

We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

And since our hope is set on a renewed flesh-and-blood reality, our Lord sends us, not looking to the heavens, but looking to the world, for it is in the world where God’s promises will be fulfilled.

We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

So may we be Easter people in these days –
People who look for the dead to be raised. 
People who look for the new world to come to this world. 
People who look for God to live and dwell among us. 
People who look for our Lord to appear to us in the breaking of bread. 
People who, with doubting Thomas, proclaim the presence of God in the midst of wounds and deathly scars. 
People who look to the cross and all its misery … and see hope.

We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

[Reposted from my column in the April 2010 edition of my congregation's newsletter]