“No Ordinary Altar Call”
1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21
Luke 9 51-62
When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village. As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
The time had come, as Jesus knew it would.
Today we reach the pivot point of Jesus’ ministry in the gospel of Luke. Jesus is on the road with his disciples and he has made the final turn toward Jerusalem. Jesus told his disciples this time was coming, but they are still unclear on what the turn toward Jerusalem signifies. Only Jesus knows what lies ahead for the disciples and for him. Jesus’ suffering and death. The cross. But Jesus is resolute. Unwavering. Determined.
Luke tells us that Jesus meets immediate resistance when he and the disciples come to the village of the Samaritans, but doesn’t really tell us why the Samaritans don’t want Jesus there. Jesus has been on decent terms with the Samaritans, so their response to Jesus is somewhat odd. Jesus’ behavior is also strange. It seems Jesus is barely noticing the Samaritans because his mind is already headed somewhere else. Maybe the Samaritans are reacting to the fact that Jesus is headed toward a place they cannot stand. The Samaritans are not fond of Jerusalem or the Jewish people. And at the moment, the Samaritans are not too fond of Jesus and his disciples either.
The ground is shifting in this text. The stakes have suddenly ratcheted up a couple hundred notches. The rules of engagement are changing and people around Jesus are beginning to feel a little less certain about the road ahead.
In the face of rejection, James and John decide to call down fire from heaven to wipe the Samaritans out, reminiscent of Elijah calling down fire on the prophets of Ba’al. But Jesus isn’t Elijah. Jesus does not meet the Samaritan’s rejection with violence or even an argument. In fact, Jesus silences the disciples because he knows that this scuffle with the Samaritans is nothing compared to what is to come. There is more — and more awful — rejection on the horizon. And Jesus will not meet rejection with vengeance, but will go willingly into hostility and meet violence as Jesus always does – with love and forgiveness. The only people rebuked are Jesus’ disciples, not the inhospitable Samaritans.
So Jesus and his disciples pick up and move on to another village. And while they are on their way, three potential recruits sidle up next to them.
The first one says, “Hey, Jesus, sign me up…I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus says to him, “Are you sure? Are you sure you’re ready for this kind of life? After all, foxes have holes and birds have nests, but as for me, I have nothing like a permanent home. In fact, if you follow me, you will almost certainly live the life of a nomad, never knowing where you’ll end up day by day. Are you sure you’re ready for that?”
Jesus meets another person on the road and this time Jesus invites the man to join them. “Follow me,” Jesus says. And the man says, “Sure, I will follow you. But I’ve got to go bury my father first. After that, I’m all yours, Jesus.” And Jesus’ response is just horrible, isn’t it? “Let the dead bury the dead. Forget about what has already passed. I’m inviting you to proclaim the kingdom of God. That’s what matters now. The kingdom of God can’t wait.”
Finally, another man comes along and says he very excited about following Jesus, but first he’s got to say goodbye to his family. And again, Jesus says that circling back to unfinished business is not an option for those who wish to follow him. If you want to plow a field, you have to plow a field with your eyes open and your face looking forward and both hands on the plow. If you are serious about following Jesus, you have to seriously let go of everything you valued in your past. All that matters is what’s in front of you and where Jesus is headed. Your past is past and the time for moving forward is now.
This is tough talk. Jesus cuts us no slack. This is not exactly a problem text, but it is a problematic Jesus we’ve got on our hands this morning. This is a Jesus who isn’t interested in stalling tactics or excuses, even really good excuses like keeping a roof over our heads or honoring our family responsibilities or following our sacred traditions. This is the kind of Jesus talk that helps us begin to sort of understand why the Samaritans and a lot of other people don’t want Jesus around.
It’s no wonder that every time I’ve heard this text preached, the pastor tries to smooth out the sharp edges of Jesus’ demands so Jesus doesn’t seem so…well…demanding. But I wonder if Jesus doesn’t mean exactly what he says here and we need to take what he says seriously instead of trying to wiggle out of it. If Jesus really means what he says here, is this a Jesus we are willing to follow? The kind of Jesus who tells us we can’t depend on a comfortable place to live? The kind of Jesus who says following him is more important that keeping traditions of proper burial? The sort of Jesus who won’t even let us go back to say goodbye to our old lives? Are we willing to suffer the rejection that comes from being a disciple of Jesus? Are we willing to follow this Jesus all the way to Jerusalem? Even all the way to the cross?
All of these nagging questions have led me to the uncomfortable realization that if Jesus were running a Billy Graham crusade, he wouldn’t be the kind of evangelist who ends the service by begging people to come forward and give their lives to him. Don’t get me wrong; I am sure Jesus’ preaching would be amazing. I’m sure the music would be incredible. But if Jesus were running a revival service, I sort of think he would be up front telling people, “Are you sure you’re ready to sign up for this? Have you really thought this through? Because you are really in for a rude awakening if you imagine your life is be any easier if you follow me. In fact, it will probably get harder.”
At the end of a Jesus revival, I think the number of disciples Jesus would pick up would probably be around the number he attracts in this passage today. Which, if you’ve noticed, is exactly 0. If we take this passage from Luke remotely seriously, I think we can come to the conclusion that Jesus would be a total failure as an evangelist, at least when it comes to number of people who decide to stick with him after the alter call.
On the other hand, given who we are and what we drag in with us when we run into Jesus on a normal day — our excuses, our weakness, and the generally awful human condition so apparent in this world – it could be that this demanding Jesus is exactly the Savior we need. Because Jesus comes into the muck and disorder of human existence and isn’t the least bit bothered in seeing it for what it is, and seeing us for who we are. God had the utter audacity to show up as one of us, and Jesus, the incarnate Lord knows exactly what we’re up to. There’s no place left to hide and that is very good news, whether it feels good or not.
One of the most significant problems we have as modern day Christians is that we want to be, I think, entirely non-offensive. Heaven forbid we demand too much of ourselves or each other. I have met very few pastors who don’t have a hidden or not-so-hidden need to be liked. I have met very few church people who would respond positively to the kind of challenge Jesus throws down in this text. I think all of us do a fair amount of trying to shape Jesus according to our needs and our wants and our preferences, instead of allowing Jesus to shape us.
But Luke challenges us to consider what it is that is preventing us from truly following Jesus. To do the kind of soul-searching that, frankly, gives me a big fat headache because every excuse Jesus rejects in this text is an excuse I have given in one form or another at various times of my life. And so have you.
But isn’t it important that we honor our commitments to love and support our families? Jesus really makes it sound like an all or nothing proposition, and that is where I get stuck. Yet, I don’t want to smooth out the sharp edges of this text, or try to romanticize the hard work of following Jesus.
Perhaps the choice isn’t between following Jesus and honoring our other responsibilities. Perhaps what Jesus wants to do is reshape our lives. What difference does Jesus make for us?
What would our lives look like if our commitment to Jesus shaped how we handled our financial and material possessions? What would our lives look like if the love of Christ were reflected in all of our relationships with our families, our husbands, wives, parents, children and even with people who are not our kin? What would our lives look like if Jesus truly were the center of our identity and everything we did flowed out of that? What would change in our lives if we truly went “all in” with Jesus?
Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem and invites us to move with him with nothing to take with us but a cross. When everything gets stripped away, when the stakes get high, when the road ahead is anything but certain – that is when we need to be certain who we are and to whom we belong. When we are facing moments of great stress, when we feel most acutely the sense that the ground is shifting and our false identities are crumbling.
When the woman who has built her identity around being the “good mother” – what happens when she finds out her child is addicted to drugs or suffering from mental illness? If her identity has been built around being the perfect mother to a perfect child, who is she when that identity is blown to bits?
When the man who has built his identity around being the “good provider” – what happens when loses his job and finds himself unable to financially care for his family? If his identity has been defined by his work, who is he when there is no job to go to?
If we take away the identity of career or family or what you own – strip away all of that – who are you? It’s a critical question to ask, because that is the person Jesus wants to know. That’s the person Jesus wants as a follower. That’s the person – that essential you – who was claimed in baptism. That is your true self. That is who you are. A child of God, the person loved deeply by God, not for what you do or do not do. You are a child of God who is loved simply because you are.
Richard Rohr is a priest and spiritual director who has written a lot about the true self and the false self. For Rohr, the false self is created by all of the culture’s expectations of who we are. The false self is our body image, our job, our car, our education, our success, our failure, and so on.The false self is constantly needy, fragile, dissatisfied with who it is and always reinventing itself. The false self is a branch cut off from the vine. It is a single grain of wheat. The false self is an illusion, yet it hard to give up. The false self has a million excuses for remaining false. Rohr says that giving up our false self and living into our true self – our identity in Christ — feels like dying and, in a way, it is. That is Paul’s metaphor for our baptism after all. It is the dying of our old, false selves and taking on a new, true identity in Christ.
The true self, on the other hand, is who we are in Christ and who Christ is in us. Our true self is satisfied and content with the person God has created us to be. Our true self that is connected to the vine and connected to others. Rohr writes: “In ordinary language, the true self is held together by the glue of…love. ‘For God is love and anyone who lives in love lives in God, and God lives in him’ (1 John 4:16).” The true self is the essence of freedom; it binds us to one another and to Jesus in a way that doesn’t feel the least bit like a heavy burden or onerous responsibility. It is a freedom releases us to live into God’s purposes for us.
How much of the ballast of our false selves do we drag around that we do not need and would be better left behind? “Let the dead bury their dead” sounds less like a cold response and more like a genuine invitation to new life as a follower of Jesus, the one who promised us an easy yoke and a light burden.
So here we are. We are standing on a dusty road with Jesus. He is headed to Jerusalem and he has invited us to follow him. And if we follow, we will head into a deeper understanding of who we have been created to be. Beyond our violence, prejudice, disgust, guilt and shame. Beyond the false categories that life has piled onto us. Beyond every excuse our panicky brains can conjure. If we follow, Jesus promises we will lose our lives, but we will find new life that cannot ever end and is in fact, eternal. We can believe that promise. We can make that promise as the center of our lives.
Thanks be to God. Amen.