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The Art of Leaving

July 1, 2013

“The Art of Leaving” Luke 9:51-62; 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14 © 6.30.13 Ordinary 13C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Sometimes what Jesus says is hard to understand, and we sit puzzled at what he means, frustrated that he doesn’t speak in simple language. On other occasions, his meaning is all too clear, and we want to laugh out loud at his absurd expectations of disciples.

The gospel reading for the morning has some of both kinds of teaching. For example, we have to wonder about Jesus’ statement in response to the first would-be follower that he has “nowhere to lay his head.” Recently a sculptor did a controversial piece in which our Lord is depicted as sleeping in his cloak on a park bench, since he has no place else to go. The artist based his work on the morning’s text, saying it tells us Jesus was homeless.

But Matthew and Mark both note that Jesus had a home in Capernaum, so he wasn’t always a wanderer, a nomad, which is the sense we get from the morning’s reading. Something else must be going on.

And indeed it is. Jesus has been stung by the Samaritans’ rejection of him, their refusal to grant hospitality. We don’t know why this is exactly. Maybe they don’t like his focus on Mt. Zion and Jerusalem, rather than their holy place on Mt. Gerizim. Could be they don’t want to give shelter to a man with a death wish, even for a night. Or perhaps they wanted him to stay with them for awhile, but he is so focused on his mission that he won’t take time for a real visit. He merely wants to get food and lodging, then move on in the morning. So the Samaritans are offended.

At least for the night before, then, Jesus and his disciples indeed had nowhere to lay their heads. But our Lord means also that he has now given up his settled home and family life in Capernaum because he has now only one mission: to go to Jerusalem. Whatever he had before, he put behind him for the sake of what lay ahead. And Jesus was no fool. He was well aware that you don’t confront the most powerful empire in the world and the most entrenched religious establishment and hope to live to tell about it. Whatever he had that provided security and happiness and a settled life had to go, and did, by our Lord’s choice.

So this saying has to be read and heard in light of Jesus’ impending death at the hands of the religious leaders in collaboration with their conquerors. As those who live on this side of Good Friday, we also know Jesus has nowhere to lay his head when he lies down in death. He will be buried in a borrowed tomb. No family plot, no tombstone commemorating his life, no flowers placed on Decoration Day. A nomad now till the end, dependent on the kindness of strangers and friends.

The second saying might make us wonder about Jesus’ compassion and his respect for the traditions of his own people. I should mention here that in our Lord’s defense, some commentators say that the man’s father was still very much alive and healthy, and the excuse about burying his father was a delaying tactic, putting Jesus off till some unknown future date.

But since we don’t know, let’s assume the man’s father was indeed dead. Burial of the dead took precedence over every other religious duty. It was so important that even priests, who were usually not permitted to touch a dead body, could do so for a close relative. And interment of one’s father was the utmost expression of a son’s devotion. An ancient wisdom teacher had commanded: “My child, let your tears fall for the dead, and as one in great pain begin the lament. Lay out the body with due ceremony, and do not neglect the burial. Let your weeping be bitter and your wailing fervent; make your mourning worthy of the departed… (Sirach 38:16,17).

Plus in those days burial had to take place on the same day as the death. This was then an urgent practical task as well as a religious obligation. The would-be follower could hardly put off his father’s burial to go with Jesus to Jerusalem until everything was done there, then tend to his father’s funeral as would be possible today.

Jesus responds to the potential disciple with a dismissive comment which meant “Let those who are spiritually dead bury the physically dead. You’ve got more important work to do.” We wonder if our Lord was so callous with deaths in his own family. If Joseph had died, as tradition says, would Jesus not even have gone to the funeral? But again, we have to read this text as the statement of one who has “set his face” to go to Jerusalem, a man whose end awaits him soon.

The final saying takes us back to the Old Testament story of the call of Elisha. You remember that Elisha was Elijah’s successor. He was plowing with 12 oxen when Elijah called him to follow him. Elisha asked if he could go home and say goodbye to his family. He was allowed to do so, then slaughtered the oxen and gave the meat to the people of his town.

Jesus won’t even allow the would-be follower to go home. That seems awfully harsh. Wouldn’t his family be worried that he had been kidnapped or killed or that he had gotten fed up with them and wanted to get away for good? Once again, though, our Lord looks only forward, toward Jerusalem. Like a plowman or maybe somebody with a walk-behind mower, he has his eye on a fixed point in the distance. Looking back will get him off course just like looking over your shoulder when you’re trying to mow or plow. Your rows will look terrible. For Jesus the stakes were much higher than a well-done field or yard. He had to accomplish his mission, keeping at the work until it was done.

No doubt we could all agree that Jesus’ teaching is demanding, surprising, maddening, even impossible to follow. And its stringent call is a little hard to take here in the hazy, lazy days of summer when we’d like to relax. But here the text is before us, placed during this season in the infinite wisdom of the lectionary planners. What are we to do with it? What specifically does it have to do with us?

Let me suggest that all these little vignettes can be tied together by our Lord’s insistence that we leave home. Yes, he is speaking in hyperbole and exaggeration, as was the custom of the day, but still he means to be taken seriously. As one writer has put it, “There comes a time when you leave the comforts of home, let go of the doorpost, and move into uncharted waters” (Michael Rogness; see end note).

“Home” here is not the place of nurture and love or the central institution of society, but the symbol of being settled, secure, and stable. It stands for predictability and sameness. Jesus’ would-be disciples cited family obligations like funerals or saying goodbye or the desire for a hot meal and a comfortable bed as reasons for not following him. But Jesus sees them as shields against taking responsibility for one’s own life and making a whole-hearted commitment to him that trumps everything else. “Home” becomes the word for any idol to which we cling, any of our efforts to avoid choosing for ourselves what we will be and do. It’s the place where the past is more important than the future, where we are always looking back.

You may have seen the romantic comedy with Matthew McConaughey and Sarah Jessica Parker from a few years ago. He plays a man with a successful business and plenty of money to move out on his own, but he still lives at home in his old room. His parents are healthy, so he’s not staying put in order to care for them. No, it’s for convenience. His mama cooks his meals and irons his clothes. He doesn’t have to worry about upkeep or any of the headaches of having his own place.

His folks get tired of his being 30-something and not having left the nest. So they hire Parker, who specializes in cases like McConaughey. She calls his problem a “failure to launch.” Her goal is to get the young man to be completely responsible for his life.

What Jesus calls us to do, whatever age we are, is to launch, to leave the nest, and commit to a mature faith that goes with him wherever he may lead. This is a faith that puts hand to the plow and faces forward, not back. Or in our terms, we don’t keep looking in the rearview mirror.

I have to admit that’s where I have spent most of my life, both because I was reared that way and because I am one of the most risk-averse people I know. I like things comfortable and sure and settled. That’s why I was attracted to fundamentalism for so long.

I had left home physically before I ever left it theologically. I believed all the doctrines that told me God literally spoke every word of the Bible and that the men who wrote it were merely his scribes. So because God couldn’t make a mistake, there were no errors or mistakes or contradictions in the Bible. And because God was infallible, his Word must be to; it was, as I learned, “the only infallible rule of faith and practice.”

But then came the day in 1977 that I realized I could live there no longer. I had to go out on the road with Jesus, the Word of God, with no certain place to lay my head. I had to stop worshipping the Bible and give that devotion to Jesus. Then the most marvelous thing happened. I found that, far from feeling the Bible was less important, far from losing respect for it, I actually found that it took on fresh meaning. I started reading the scriptures in a fresh light, with new tools and a more imaginative approach. As I would read much later, it’s precisely when we don’t believe in the Bible that we believe the Bible (Shirley Guthrie).

I had to leave behind all my theological training and my parents’ and sister’s and preacher’s viewpoints and say how things seemed to me. And I ultimately realized something important that I still practice imperfectly: without such leaving, without saying “I” to the pressure of others to say “we,” without saying “goodbye,” we will never really have the capacity to say “hello.” But when we can put the past behind us, we can enter relationships as free agents. We will be proactively involved with the needs and views of others as our own person. That’s known as “self-differentiation.” The best gift we can give ourselves, our loved ones, and God is to know who we are, at whatever stage of life we are in. That way our relationships are not compulsive or co-dependent. Our faith is not merely inherited or assumed, but genuinely, personally owned. Our eyes are not forever looking in the rearview with regret and guilt and longing, but facing forward to new possibilities. As the great preacher Fred Craddock once said, those who have chosen Christ over the best of human relationships have discovered something remarkable. Freed now from possessing and worshipping family or religion or cultural norms, they have gained the distance necessary to love family, to have a true encounter with God, to affirm their culture (adapted from Luke: 144).

At the risk of movie overload in one sermon, let me cite another one, this time a favorite. City Slickers is a classic comedy with Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern, and Bruno Kirby. Each man lives in the city and is 39 years old, but has his own set of problems. Crystal has decided that he will never be any better at his job, never be more handsome or in better health. He imagines he’s coming down with all sorts of ailments. Depressed and defeated, he’s a poor worker, a bad father and husband, and boring friend. Kirby and Stern convince him to go with them on a cattle drive at a dude ranch. Crystal’s wife insists that he go, so he can “find his smile.”

Crystal is totally unprepared for the new situation in which he must learn to ride a horse, rope a steer, round up strays, and even deliver calves. This is a journey across a wilderness, with unknown challenges. Out on the trail, Jack Palance as the boss tells Crystal in a rather earthy way that the secret of life is one thing, and when you discover that, nothing else matters. The irony is that when Crystal finds his one thing, the rest of his experiences do not become meaningless. Instead, they take on new significance. He commits to doing everything better. A depressed and bored man just about to enter middle age had to leave his family and go into a strange, new world in order to find the will and the way to love the world he knew.

Discipleship with Jesus is going out into that wilderness with a trail boss who insists that the secret of life is one thing. It has a name: the kingdom of God. But each of us throughout life must determine what the kingdom is for us. Is it becoming comfortable with uncertainty, no place to lay our heads? Will it be getting accustomed to not having all the answers? How about refusing to reduce faith to a list of do’s and don’ts or to grant our freedom and authority to someone else instead of making our own choices?

In each new situation we are called and privileged to try to determine what God may want of us. It’s not so much a science as it is an art. This sort of discipleship is a fundamental change in our lives, one that leads us to say: “Whatever others may ask of me, whatever else I may be, I belong body and soul to Jesus Christ. He is the one center and focus of my life. I walk with him face forward toward the kingdom.”

So, where to, Jesus?


End note:


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