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St Paul's ChurchSermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, Connecticut
The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost – June 27, 2010

May the music of life lead us into the dance of thanksgiving, the hopes of the struggling world be held in the heart of God, and our lives be gathered into all truth as we follow the Christ. Amen.

This is the kind of Gospel reading that makes one wonder if Thomas Jefferson didn’t have the right idea when he removed from his Bible every passage that was unpleasant or disturbing. If anyone who has been turned off by religion decided to show up this morning to give it another try, this passage might be the deal breaker.

But before we just dismiss this as Jesus having a bad day, let’s consider the context: Jesus is now on his way to Jerusalem—his ultimate destination where he will suffer humiliation, violent abuse, and death. The disciples and he stop at a Samaritan village—people who were despised by the Jews— where they were denied hospitality and that alone for someone like Jesus who lived radical hospitality by his example must have been very discouraging and hurtful. So Jesus was not in the best of moods.  

As they continue on the journey, he invites people along the way to join him in his ministry and they all think it’s a great idea but offer excuses why they can’t do it immediately. We all know what it means to live life by excuse. What teacher hasn’t heard: “The dog ate my homework”?  Excuses—we know them; we use them.

They are explanations, often rationalizations, for our behavior or omissions. Even in the business world where people are actually paid to do tasks, excuses are a dime a dozen. A business consultant surveyed over 100 executives to find out what excuses they hear the most from their employees. Heading the list was, predictably: “It’s not my fault.”

But the excuses offered by the people Jesus encounters seem to be very sound, rational justifications for not following him right then and there—well, at least until after burying a father and saying goodbye to family. Yet Jesus has a rather harsh, unsympathetic reaction to these folks and that is probably very off-putting for most of us who have attachments to either our family of origin or family of choice.  

And, come on now, how can the dead bury the dead?  Really. What are we to make of this uncomfortable encounter we get this morning?

I’m reticent to say what Jesus really meant here but perhaps this is a strong dose of Gospel hyperbole—great exaggeration—to make a point to those who do live life by excuse. Jesus is conveying a strong sense of urgency about the need to be going about building the Kingdom of God in the world. Accepting the call to do that implies a radical commitment.  

The real urgency is about something called “transformation”—what Paul describes in his letter to the Galatians as “living by the spirit.” It is the willingness to have a makeover from a way of life enslaved by things like jealousy, idolatry, anger, factions, and dissensions to a life liberated by love, joy, peace, patience, and gentleness.

The reason for the sense of urgency we hear in the Gospel became clearer for me when I read the front page story in Tuesday’s Norwalk Hour about two Norwalk middle school students who were arrested for threatening to kill a classmate after the principal found an 8-inch knife in one of their lockers. Police say they are charged with threatening, carrying a dangerous weapon and conspiracy. When asked why he wanted to harm his classmate, the 13 year-old said “Because I hate him.” 

Now I get why Jesus used such exaggeration in his dealing with those he called to follow him. There is—and has always been—a profusion of enmity, hatred, violence, and oppression in the world and it is only through transformation at the very core of our being that we can think less about how we can get what we want, get ahead of the next person in line, win the most toys—and turn our attention to those who are so deeply in need of reconciliation, healing, and safety. That kind of transformation is needed in individual lives, in families, in board rooms, in churches, in congress, and in every place where people are tempted to bite and devour one another.

Paul tells us that this transformative thinking and living is what constitutes freedom—not being enslaved to the expectations and mores of a world that regards the way of life Jesus offers as utterly foolish and ridiculous in order to march to the rhythm of a different drummer.

Transformation implies change and we all know how much we like that. But isn’t God all about creativity; isn’t creation all about wonder; isn’t the gospel all about the unexpected; and isn’t our mission as a people of faith all about improvising to the tune of hope, personified in the dance to which we are invited by Jesus of Nazareth.

It’s risky. It’s difficult, but it’s deep into the life of God.

So today we hear a Gospel that seems to imply great rigidity and restriction around one’s readiness to follow Jesus as a disciple. Jesus confronts the issue of life by excuse. We’ve heard it; we’ve seen it; we know it. Yet Paul asks us to consider it from a different perspective—a life of freedom.

Freedom: a construct about which I heard one of the most amazing revelations this week: “The only thing we have any freedom about is where we put our attention.” Where we put our attention. That’s a good question for us to ponder when we leave here this morning and step back into the world that awaits us. There’s important work to be done out there and Jesus seems to think it’s pretty urgent. What about you?

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