Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – June 30, 2013
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. 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. For anyone who has already been turned off by religion and is on the fence, this Gospel passage could be a deal breaker.
Jesus is now on his way to Jerusalem—his ultimate destination where he will suffer humiliation, violent physical 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. Later the Samaritans will actually play a huge piece in his ministry of radical invitation and hospitality.
A couple of people come up to Jesus, wanting to be part of his movement, only they have a few commitments to take care of before they join him in his march to Jerusalem. One has to bury his deceased father. The other must bid farewell to his folks at home. And Jesus will have none of it. With a brusque, “let the dead bury the dead,” Jesus moves on, apparently without them. Excuses: we know them; we hear them; we use them. They are explanations, often rationalizations, for our behavior or omissions. Some people live life by excuse.
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 the obligation to bury a father and say 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 or whose life is fairly cluttered with responsibilities.
I’m reticent to say what Jesus really meant here and to merely dismiss it as “Jesus got out of the wrong side of the bed,” and perhaps this is just 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.
This ain’t a fun passage to preach on. It is a tough text from which to extract lemonade from the lemons. We might subtitle this it “Unpleasant Moments with Jesus.”
But I do get why Jesus used such overemphasis 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, and turn our attention to those who are so deeply in need of reconciliation, healing, and liberation. That kind of transformation is needed in individual lives, in families, in board rooms, in churches, in congress, in the Supreme Court and in every place where people are tempted to be and do less than one who is made in the very image of God.
As we prepare to celebrate our national holiday of freedom and independence, many across our land rejoice in the decision of the supreme court allowing federal recognition of same-sex marriage and yet there are those who grieve this decision. The same can be said for the court’s decision around the potential for voter discrimination. For Jesus, there is always a sense of Gospel urgency whenever the rights of any human being or minority group are denied based on color, creed, gender, orientation, ethnicity or class.
Today we hear a Gospel that seems to imply on the one hand great urgency to build God’s Kingdom and 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. Hard words on a steamy summer morning. No wonder many turned away. And yet we are here this morning despite all the reasons we might easily conjure up for turning away—including the humidity.
Taking the Gospel seriously is difficult, risky business. Like preaching this text, the work it implies ain’t easy. We may not always be ready or willing or able to go that extra mile or more. Becoming a disciple of Jesus may be a life-long process. Yet we have shown up today and we have opened our minds to what Jesus has to say. My guess is that he is pleased about that—and continues to be as long as the possibility of radical commitment remains on the table. So our journey continues.