Foxholes, Funerals, and Farewells

by David Baer, March 1, 2017

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Text: Luke 9:51-62

Can you think of the last time you traveled on an airplane, or by train or bus, or went on a cruise? Think of a trip you took where someone else had to bring you to your destination. There’s so much you have to do to get yourself ready to leave—packing, checking reservations, maybe closing up your house, if it’s going to be empty. But there comes a moment when you simply turn yourself over to those who are responsible for getting you where you want to be, when you put yourself in someone else’s hands, and at that point the journey you’re on becomes an inevitable, inexorable progression from here to there. When the plane takes off, you’re no longer in control, and in a few hours’ time, like it or not, you’re going to be in Seattle or Houston or Paris.

That’s the kind of trip I think of when I hear in our gospel lesson today that Jesus has set his face to go to Jerusalem. It’s a decisive break with his ministry of wandering and teaching and healing in the Galilee region. He has a goal, a destination, and from this moment on everything he does is going to contribute to getting him there, to where he needs to be.

We sometimes talk about the Lenten season as though it’s a journey. But that raises the question of just where we’re being led, and how it is we’re supposed to get there. Jesus is beginning a journey toward Jerusalem, and so are we. It’s a journey that leads to the cross but, thanks be to God!, doesn’t end there. So tonight let’s open ourselves to Jesus’ encounters with people he meets along the way. Let’s see if we can hear in those encounters an invitation to examine ourselves—what does it take to get us on the way with Jesus, to start out or to re-start a stalled journey?

The first people Jesus encounters aren’t interested in going with him to Jerusalem. In fact, they’re Samaritans, and so for them Jerusalem, the center of religious life for Jews, is the beating heart of a corrupt and hostile faith tradition. So they not only don’t want to go with Jesus, but they even refuse him hospitality, because his destination is a place they would never want to go. So what do you do when people try to thwart your journey? Do you meet hostility with hostility, as James and John suggest? Let’s ask God to vaporize their town! they say. But Jesus scolds them and simply moves on. Because the journey is too important. When you’re on a journey with Jesus, it’s more important to get where you’re going than it is to prove to the naysayers that you’re right and they’re wrong.

In our Lenten journey, Jesus’ example with the Samaritans is an invitation to examine the ways we get caught up in petty disputes. Do we meet others’ hostility with hostility? Or do we conserve our energy for following Jesus, for continuing on the journey to where it is we need to be? If you find yourself bracing for a fight, ask yourself whether this is a battle that’s necessary to continue on your way—because some battles are necessary. When Jesus marches into Jerusalem in Palm Sunday, he’s picking a fight, but it’s a necessary fight. The fight James and John are asking for, on the other hand, is not a necessary fight. What unnecessary struggles do you find yourself in? Can you find a way to disengage and move on?

After moving on from the Samaritans, Jesus encounters three would-be disciples. One of them Jesus invites, but the other two are volunteers. And we don’t know if any of them finally decides to come along on the journey. All we know is that in each case there’s an obstacle to be overcome.

“Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have their nests,” says Jesus, “but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” When you’re on a journey with Jesus, there’s no fixed point where you get to hang out. One resting place gives way to the next and the next as you move toward your destination. Jesus warns those who journey with him to be ready always to pick up and move, not to get too comfortable in any one place.

In our Lenten journey, Jesus’ words are a warning to examine the places in our lives where we’ve gotten stuck, where attachments and familiarity are preventing us from moving on to a new waypoint, closer to the destination. Where do you need to let go of old habits, old possessions, old ways of seeing your life and your relationships?

When one recruit pleads with Jesus to let him go and bury his father, Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” This would have been scandalous to a people accustomed to obeying the fifth commandment to honor father and mother. The final duty of a child to a parent was to honor the parent’s memory and show care for the parent’s remains. But to be called on a journey with Jesus means you’re called for the sake of God’s kingdom, for the sake of something new being birthed into the world, that like a newborn requires committed care and attention. You wouldn’t abandon a newborn, not even to bury the dead. For Jesus, the call to proclaim God’s kingdom is that urgent, that overriding.

Jesus’ words here are an invitation to us, in our Lenten journey, to give attention to the new beginnings and new possibilities God’s kingdom is bringing into our lives. Are we investing enough of ourselves in the new thing God is trying to do through us, or are we caught up in other worthwhile obligations and interests and relationships to such an extent that we close ourselves off to God’s newness?

Finally, the last volunteer asks for time to say goodbye to his family. “No one who sets his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God,” Jesus says. If you’re not looking toward the destination, how can you see where you’re going?

Jesus’ words invite us to examine ourselves to find out where it is God is leading us, and whether we’re oriented toward, or away from, that destination. Is our face set toward Jerusalem? Are we oriented, as Jesus is, toward giving our lives away out of love? Or are we trying to set out on a journey without looking where it is we’re going?

Follow me, says Jesus. And that’s hard, for all the reasons we’ve just heard. But it’s also simple. Going with Jesus is as simple as getting into an airplane or onto a train. It means yielding control, giving ourselves over to someone else who knows how to get there. And with Jesus we’re in the hands of someone who has been on the cross, who has been through the grave and out the other side. Whatever causes us pain or fear, Jesus has already endured and conquered it. We can follow him to the cross—we can love a costly, sacrificial love for God and our neighbors—because we’re in his hands.

I invite you therefore, in the name of Christ, to observe this season of Lent through self-examination and penitence, prayer and fasting, reading and meditating on the Word of God, and works of love and witness.

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