Sunday Sermon: Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

As usual, a sermon never quite reads the way it “preaches” for a variety of reasons.  With that in mind, here is my general manuscript for the message I preached this morning.

In 1962, a recording company executive heard about a new band coming on the British scene. He had serious doubts at the possibility of their success and said, “We don’t think the Beatles will do anything in their market. Guitar groups are on their way out.” Thomas G. Watson was the chairman of the board of IBM in 1943. With all the confidence in the world he once said, “I think there is a world market for about five computers.” A man named Lee DeForest invented the cathode ray tube in 1926, and when asked about the possibilities for that invention he remarked, “Theoretically, television may be feasible, but I consider it an impossibility – a development which we should waste little time dreaming about.”

Each one of these men looked at their current situation and assumed that was pretty much the end of the story. In a way, I can’t blame them. Their read of the data, their read of the situation, simply didn’t seem to suggest any other possibilities. World history is full of dreamers and scoffers. We know stories of countless optimists who dream about an unknown future and see possibility when the situation seems to call for skepticism, and we know countless pessimists who feel that we shouldn’t waste our time with dreams, visions, or thoughts about the future. To make matters even more complicated most of us are not fully one or the other! Most of us have no difficulty moving from one extreme to the other!

The story we find in Genesis 37 is one of the most important parts of the story of Joseph, one of the greatest dreamers of all time. Joseph’s history is enough to make a good soap opera. His father Jacob worked for his future father-in-law for seven years to win the hand of Rachel in marriage. After all that time, he was tricked into marrying her older sister Leah. And even though he ended up married to both Leah and Rachel, Leah was the wife who gave birth to six sons before Rachel ever became pregnant. Joseph was the firstborn of the beloved wife Rachel. Eventually, Jacob fathered twelve sons in all, and as you might imagine there was just a little bit of sibling rivalry between Joseph and his brothers. After all, Jacob doted on him. The coat of many colors we’ve heard about over the years was a symbolic mark of distinction and favoritism that generated all kinds of jealousy.

It certainly didn’t help matters that Joseph was a dreamer who couldn’t keep his dreams quiet. In between the verses we’ve heard read this morning, Joseph tells of a dream he has in which he and the family are out in the wheat fields. His wheat sheath stands up and all the others gather around and bow down to it. Of course, they are all a little outraged. “Do you mean to tell us we’re all going to end up bowing down to YOU?” Not understanding diplomacy or tact, Joseph says, “Well I had another dream too. In that one, the sun, moon, and eleven stars are all bowing down to me.” At this point, they’d all had enough and went off into the sheep pasture, probably to get away from Joseph and all of his annoying dreams.

Jacob, who may not have been the sharpest tool in the shed, sent his youngest out check on his eleven brothers wearing his fancy “I’m-better-than-all-of-you” coat. Well when they see him off in the distance, they are not happy. You can almost see the brothers seething with jealously and hatred as they see him coming off in the distance. So, they plot to kill him. By God’s grace, somewhat more reasonable minds prevailed and Reuben the oldest brother says, “Maybe we shouldn’t kill him outright, let’s just throw him in this pit here,” thinking he might rescue him later on. So they strip off his coat to trick their father, and throw him into the pit. But like any good angry mob, things kept spiraling and they decided on a different plan. They ended up selling Joseph to a foreign caravan of traders on camels heading to Egypt. And the last thing we see in this passage is Joseph heading off to Egypt.

Now this is the point where I hope you’re thinking, “OK, so Joseph is an annoying little brother with big dreams and he gets thrown into a pit and sold to foreign traders and hauled off into Egypt. How inspiring!!” I hope you just might be wondering why that is where the story stops this Sunday. I believe that it’s an important place to stop reading because it shows us something profound. Even the most optimistic, hope-filled, forward-thinking dreamers sometimes end up in a pit. It doesn’t matter who you are or how bright and cheery you are, there are simply times in your life when everything seems to crash in on you. I know this happens to you, because it happens to me! You lose loved ones, things get complicated in your family or in relationships, things change at work or at church, financial problems develop, you deal with unexpected losses, someone swerves into a parking space in front of you at Wal-Mart (ok, maybe that’s not so bad), but there are a hundred things that can begin to test even the most optimistic hope-filled people in the world. These things happen to the pessimists among us too! The only difference between an optimist and a pessimist is that the pessimist assumes the worst before the fact so they don’t have to face risking disappointment! Trust me, I come from a long line of pessimists and the pessimists’ motto is, “If I assume the worst, anything positive is icing on the cake.” No matter if you’re an optimist or a pessimist, there are simply times when you think the pit, the struggle, and the bad news is the end of the story. I imagine Joseph felt that way as he was tied to the back of a camel and led down into Egypt.

In 1993, the Buffalo Bills of the National Football League were in a pit. They were playing the Houston Oilers in the AFC wildcard game. Midway through the 3rd quarter, they were down 35-3. They were in the pit. It would have been easy for them to give up. They could have looked up at the scoreboard and looked around at the long faces and said, “Well, this is the end of the story. We’re bound to lose.” But that wasn’t what they did. They realized that the end of the story hadn’t happened yet. They were just in the middle of the story. Frank Reich, the backup quarterback who was playing in place of their injured starter had been in tight spots before. He had led the Maryland Terrapins to one of the greatest comebacks in college football against the Miami Hurricane, so he knew that it wasn’t over until it was over. He confidently led the Buffalo Bills up and down the field never giving up. At the end of overtime, the scoreboard read 41-38 as the Bills upset the Oilers in one of the greatest upsets in NFL history.

Joseph could have looked at the scoreboard and seen brothers 35, Joseph 0. He could have thought about his ripped up coat and the long trek to Egypt and said, “It’s over.” But he didn’t. He was a dreamer. He knew that by God’s grace, this was just the middle of the story. Those of you who know the story realize what ended up happening. Even though things got even worse in Egypt, Joseph eventually became the right hand man of the Pharoah in Egypt, overseeing all the grain production in the entire land. Using his gifts for dreaming and vision, he stored up grain before a long famine and eventually even ended up saving his own brothers and family. By God’s grace, Joseph’s story was transformed from despair to victory.

An interesting map is on display in the British Museum in London. It’s an old mariner’s chart, drawn in 1525, outlining the North American coastline and adjacent waters. The cartographer made some intriguing notations on areas of the map that represented regions not yet explored. He wrote: “Here be giants,” “Here be fiery scorpions,” and “Here be dragons.” Eventually, the map came into the possession of Sir John Franklin, a British explorer in the early 1800s. Scratching out the fearful inscriptions, he wrote these words across the map: “Here is God.”

Like Joseph in the pit, we don’t know what the future holds. But like Joseph we do know the one who holds the future. We know the Giver of all good dreams, we know the One who provides our vision, and we know that in whatever future we all move into, God is already there. As Corrie Ten Boom once said, “Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.” No matter where you are or what you’re facing, you’re just in the middle of your story. You may look into the unknown future and say, “there be giants,” “there be dragons,” or “there be pits,” but by trusting in the One who holds that future you can look straight into the unknown and say, “There is God.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

A Few Thoughts on John 11:1-16

Lazarus is deathly ill. Mary and Martha expect Jesus to turn around and hotfoot it back to Bethany. The disciples, on the other hand, seem to be concerned about all the angry folks with rocks waiting back over the horizon. Amazingly, Jesus doesn’t meet either of their expectations. First he waits, upsetting Mary and Martha. Then he returns, upsetting the disciples.

In all of this, I love Thomas’ response. Even though he was just as scared as everyone else about what would happen back in Bethany, he has a classic line. “Well…let’s go. We might as well die with him.” If you follow Jesus, you really don’t know where it will lead. He has this strange way of failing to meet our expectations, only to transcend them in the very next moment. And the only way we can follow him is like Thomas, scratching our heads, shaking our heads, and then following him come what may.

Sure, there will be times when we get tired. Thomas eventually got frustrated enough that he said, “How in the world are we supposed to follow you if we don’t know where you’re going?! (v. 14:5)” But Thomas was the one who loved Jesus so much that he just had to know Jesus had really risen.

I suspect Thomas’ advice to disciples would be this: just follow him. Don’t lag too far behind. Don’t worry too much about your questions. Don’t hold too tightly to your expectations. Just follow him. That’s enough. You’ll see.

Searching the Lectionary

LectionarySo…does anyone know why I’ve received so many hits for a lectionary passage the week after it appears in the lectionary? I’ve had several hits from people searching for Luke 14:1, 7-14.

The same thing happened the last time I posted a sermon based on a passage from the lectionary, and it always happens a week late. Anyone else have the same experience? Any clue as to why this happens? Are there folks out there who preach a week behind so they can get fresh stuff from blogs etc? 😉

Sunday Sermon: Luke 14:1, 7-14 – God’s Table Etiquette

In recent years many people have criticized the decline of etiquette and manners in our world. To many, it seems that society has grown accustomed to things that would have been considered incredibly rude only a decade or so before. My Grandma was always in charge of patrolling this area for my family. Even though Grandma and Grandpa didn’t have much in the way of material things, this was by no means an excuse to be uncivilized! There would be no elbows on the table, the forks were always on the left, and you most certainly did not come inside the house without taking off your hat or cap! So this morning, in memory of my Grandma Pauline, I want to give you a little reminder of some important Table Manners. So, here are ten simple table manners from Emily Post’s daughter Lizzie, who has updated them just a bit for this generation: 1.) Chew with your mouth shut. 2.) Avoid slurping, smacking, blowing your nose, or other gross noises. (If necessary, excuse yourself to take care of whatever it is you need to take care of.) 3.) Don’t use your utensils like a shovel or as if you’ve just stabbed the food you’re about to eat. 4.) Don’t pick your teeth at the table. 5.) Remember to use your napkin at all times (contrary to popular belief, this is not the reason shirt sleeves were invented – that addition is from Grandma). 6.) Wait until you’re done chewing to sip or swallow a drink. (The exception is if you’re choking.) 7.) Cut only one piece of food at a time. 8.) Avoid slouching and don’t place your elbows on the table while eating (though it is okay to prop your elbows on the table while conversing between courses.) 9.) Instead of reaching across the table for something, ask for it to be passed to you. 10.) Always say ‘excuse me’ whenever you leave the table.

We won’t take a poll on how many of those you all follow, because today I want to talk about a different kind of table etiquette – a kind that comes from a significantly higher authority than Emily Post’s daughter! Someone once said that in the book of Luke you always find Jesus coming to a meal, at a meal, or leaving a meal, and that is true in this passage. Jesus had been invited to the home of one of the leading Pharisees, but it wasn’t just your average social occasion. The passage shares the real reason for the invitation – they were watching Jesus closely.

This group of Pharisees and religious scholars probably wanted to give Jesus a very thorough test, but in a surprising twist, the only observations made at the table came from Jesus himself, as he began to comment on their table manners. You see, the religious and social culture of that day had very strict and well-developed list of social rules for eating together, and there were an incredible number of do’s and don’ts. The ways you interacted in these settings were very much tied to your social standing and your place in society. The place you sat at the table was incredibly important and determined your social rank, so we may not be surprised to find that as they sat down to eat, there was a great deal of jockeying for position.

Lest you think we’re above this kind of behavior, and social ranking has nothing to do with your seating, just think about your last family Thanksgiving or Christmas gathering. Maybe your family has a “kids table” that still has thirty and forty year olds sitting at it?! At Nanci’s family gatherings, those of us who are the younger adults in the family had to wait until we had enough kids to populate the kids table with grandkids in order to get to sit with the adults! In my family, my Dad sat in the same spot at the table for as long as I can remember! And even though we might think these kinds of things don’t really matter in our day and age, it was a little bit awkward the first Thanksgiving after my Dad’s death, because no one else had ever sat in that place.

Jesus noticed how the people put a great deal of effort as they jostled for position at the table, so he began to teach through a parable. He told the people gathering around the table the best way to go about choosing a seat. “If you’re invited to a banquet, don’t simply sit in the place of honor. You just might not be the most honored person there, and it will be incredibly humiliating when your host asks you to give up your seat and you have to traipse back down to the children’s table…” Instead, Jesus says, “Sit at the least honorable place, so that your host can invite you to the higher place. Then you’ll receive a great honor.”

Now what happened next is the most surprising, because Jesus doesn’t stop with what may have been accepted as reasonable and practical advice. Instead he challenged the very notion of what honor and privilege were all about as he turned to look at the host and challenged the practical wisdom and etiquette of the day.

Meals like this one were not just occasions to gather, eat, and talk; they were occasions to build your own reputation and connections. Gifts, such as an invitation to a meal, weren’t free but were tied to obligations to those who accepted the invitation. If you gave out an invitation, you expected to receive one in return. In a way, these dinner invitations were a lot like political rallies. You’re invited to attend, but there are expectations that are tied to the invitation. But Jesus turned this on its head when he said, “When you have a big meal, don’t invite all the people you’d normally think of inviting, just because they can invite you in return and pay you back. Instead, when you throw a party, invite the poor, cripples, lame, and blind because they can’t repay you. And in the end, you’ll receive your reward, not from them, but at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Jesus gave them, and he gives us, a completely different kind of table etiquette. In those days, common wisdom and social etiquette said jockey for position. Jesus said God’s etiquette calls for something completely different – all who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted. In those days, common wisdom and social etiquette was to invite those who can give in return. Jesus said that God’s etiquette reminds us to invite the very least: the poor, lame, and blind. And when we show generosity to those who can never give in return, Jesus says that we’ll find out something incredible. You won’t be repaid in the usual way, but you’ll be repaid by the very God who created every man, woman, and child. God himself will be the one who gives in return for those who are unable in the resurrection of the righteous.

Jesus shows us that God’s table etiquette operates with an entirely different way of looking at the world, and I believe that is directly connected today with our celebration of Holy Communion today. At God’s table, everyone is welcome. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, able or disabled, young or old, white, black, Asian, or Hispanic. As we kneel at Christ’s table today, we are shoulder to shoulder and elbow to elbow with people from all walks of life. Because around Christ’s table, we are all one receiving the very same grace, love, and forgiveness that only God can give. Kneeling at the feet of Jesus Christ, we are all loved, we are all cared for, and we have all been offered the same gift of forgiveness and Salvation. As we prepare our hearts and minds for communion today, let us pray that God will give us the grace to practice the kind of etiquette we learn at God’s table outside these walls in our daily lives – that’s the kind of etiquette that will truly be rewarded…

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

 

 

Hebrews 11 – Perseverance Personified

Hebrews 11:1 is a fascinating verse, but there is hardly a consensus on how it should be translated. For example:

  • NRSV – Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
  • NIV – Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.
  • NKJV- Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

With a little help from various commentators and a peek at the Greek, here is the rendering (because it’s darn sure not a translation) I’d like to offer: Faith is the reality of everything we’re looking forward to – the very witness of what remains unseen. Somehow, faith is the very reality of the end to which things are heading – faith itself, is the witness to what remains unseen. After my little paraphrase, I thought I’d look up Eugene Peterson’s as well. Here’s the rendering in

  • The Message The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see.

As I read this, it drew me to think about examples of those, like Abraham in Hebrews 11, who pressed on in spite of a lack of clarity – those who lived faithfully in spite of the dim vision we have of the unseen reality of God. Thinking as a good Methodist, John Wesley was definitely one who came to mind. I found a reference to Wesley’s perseverance here.

Problem is, I like to check stuff like this and the words they said were in Wesley’s Journal were nowhere to be found. Trust me, I checked the PDF version at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library! It is there in Spirit, but you’ve gotta do a little work. Here’s what I found (with a little editing such as adding the months, even though I didn’t track down the years):

Sunday, May 7th: I preached at St. Lawrence’s in the morning, and afterward at St. Katherine Cree’s Church. I was enabled to speak strong words at both; and was therefore the less surprised at being informed that I was not to preach any more in either of those churches.

Sunday, May 14th: I preached in the morning at St. Ann’s, Aldersgate; and in the afternoon at the Savoy Chapel, free salvation by faith in the blood of Christ. I was quickly apprised that at St. Ann’s, likewise, I am to preach no more.

Friday, May 19th: I preached at St. John’s, Wapping at three and at St. Bennett’s, Paul’s Wharf, in the evening. At these churches, likewise, I am to preach no more.

Friday, November 3rd: I preached at St. Antholin’s; Sunday, 5, in the morning, at St. Botolph’s, Bishopsgate; in the afternoon, at Islington; and in the evening, to such a congregation as I never saw before, at St. Clement’s, in the Strand. As this was the first time of my preaching here, I suppose it is to be the last.

Friday, March 10.—I rode once more to Pensford at the earnest request of serious people. The place where they desired me to preach was a little green spot near the town. But I had no sooner begun than a great company of rabble, hired (as we afterwards found) for that purpose, came furiously upon us, bringing a bull, which they had been baiting, and now strove to drive in among the people. But the beast was wiser than his drivers and continually ran either on one side of us or the other, while we quietly sang praise to God and prayed for about an hour.

Then in Wesley’s 85th year of life, with a history of many successes and perhaps far more apparent failures, he writes these words near the end of his journal:

Saturday, August 22. I crossed over to Redruth and at six preached to a huge multitude, as usual, from the steps of the market house. The Word seemed to sink deep into every heart. I know not that ever I spent such a week in Cornwall before.

Sunday, August 23.–l preached there again in the morning and in the evening at the amphitheater, I suppose, for the last time. My voice cannot now command the still increasing multitude. It was supposed they were now more than five and twenty thousand.

In the end, like Abraham, Wesley didn’t see the invisible and heavenly country (Hebrews 11:16) that he desired, yet he pressed on in faith. That’s the kind of faith that is the very witness of that which remains unseen. May we all live so faithfully!

Sunday Sermon – Luke 12:13-21 – Rich in the Eyes of God

Eustace Conway is the subject of a book called The Last American Man written by Elizabeth Gilbert.  Gilbert describes his life as a modern mountain man who still lives like our ancestors lived in the early frontiers of our nation.   She tells about his extraordinary adventures such as walking the 2,000 mile Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia living almost exclusively off of what he could hunt and eat along the way and his legendary journey on horseback across the United States.  Out of a passion for this way of life, he now operates a camp for children and adults in a 1,000 acre sanctuary he calls Turtle Island in the hills of North Carolina.  One of the things he cares deeply about is trying to help people, especially grade school children, understand their connection with the natural world.  At one of his speaking engagements, he asked fifty sixth graders to talk about the meaning of the word “sacred.” No one seemed to know what this meant, and so Eustace asked them to write down a list of what was valuable to them.  He remembers only one out of fifty having a real idea of sacredness.  After reading paper after paper filled with things like money, new cars, and telephones, one boy in the class said “life.”  Eustace later wrote in his journal, “Only one small soul in the class was on the right track away from greed as a motivator, and thank goodness for him…”

Unfortunately, greed is a powerful motivator in our society.  In order to understand what a powerful motivator it is, you only need to look at the number of states who sponsor lotteries as a sure-fire way to make money off of their people!  If we just had a little more, then things would be better.  Our advertising companies realize this and if you just watch a few commercials this afternoon, you’ll realize how much your life is lacking and how much better it would be with just a few more strategically purchased products!

Even though Jesus lived in a time with far fewer resources and considerably fewer choices of things to buy, he still faced many of the very same issues.  In fact, a significant portion of Jesus message dealt with serious issues of wealth and possessions, even though at times we tend to shy away from the things he had to say.  Or maybe even worse, we try to explain them away to make them easier to take!  Luke’s twelfth chapter is packed with Jesus’ teaching about wealth and possessions.  When we first see Jesus in this chapter, he is surrounded by a crowd of people so thick they are stepping on each other’s toes.  A few moments before our passage, he had just been talking about the ways his followers could expect hardship and maybe even martyrdom if they kept following him faithfully.

So it seems totally random when a man steps out of the crowd to ask him about inheritance law!  To be fair, this man wasn’t totally out of line because Jesus was a teacher – a Rabbi – and one thing Rabbis were able to do was understand the complicated legal issues surrounding the Law of Moses and apply them to everyday life.  Since Mosaic Law described the ins and outs of inheritance, rabbis were often consulted on these issues.  So, this stranger from the crowd simply wanted a quick ruling on a legal dispute with his brother – hopefully in his favor!  But as Jesus does so often, he bypasses the question the man was asking on the surface and gets to the root of what he is really asking inside. He uses this as a teaching moment for his disciples and undoubtedly for the crowd gathered closely around.  “Take care!” Jesus says, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”  The common wisdom, then and now, seems to suggest that life does consist in an abundance of possessions. But Jesus reminds us that this is not the kind of script our life is supposed to have.  To say it as simply as possible, there is much more to life than having lots of stuff.

And then, to take things deeper, Jesus tells parable.  There was once a very wealthy man whose crops had such a good year that he couldn’t even store the harvest.  So he said to himself, “I’ll tear down the barns I have, build bigger ones, and store up all my grains and goods.  That’ll be perfect!  I’ll say to myself, self you’re doing just fine.  In fact, after you build those big new barns and fill them up with the harvest, you’ve got it made for the next several years – so sit back relax, eat, drink, and be merry.”  He thought he had it made…but there was one variable he hadn’t figured into the equation…  God came to him that very night with very strong words, “You fool!  This is the very night you’re going to die!  Now who’s going to get all of the stuff you’ll have in storage?!”  Jesus then says, “That’s the way it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich in the things of God.”

Our first reaction might be to come to the guys’ defense here (or maybe it’s to defend ourselves!)  We’d like to be there so we could say to Jesus, “It’s not like he’s doing anything other than simply practicing good business sense!  He isn’t stealing from others, is he?!”  But Jesus’ words are a clue to what he’s saying at a deeper level.  The word fool is not a word that’s used lightly in Scripture – in fact it’s only used two times in the gospel of Luke – compare that to nearly 70 times in Proverbs.  The foolish person is always talked about in contrast to the person who exercises the very wisdom of God.  In Scripture, the word fool refers to those people who live their lives as if God does not exist.  Jesus parable reminds us that we’ll never get the formula for our lives right unless God is at the very center.  Jesus didn’t believe that wealth or possessions were evil in and of themselves and neither are the people who have them; Jesus simply knew that wealth and possessions offer us a great temptation to put our faith and trust in them rather than in God.  That’s what was wrong with this farmer – he calculated his life without including God in the equation.  Richard Foster describes the temptation this way, “…[when] we lack a Divine Center our need for security [leads] us to an insane attachment to things.”  That’s why there are warnings throughout Scripture.  Psalm 62:10 says, “if riches increase, do not set your heart on them.” Proverbs 11:28 reminds us that, “Those who trust in their riches will wither, but the righteous will flourish like green leaves.”  There is much more to life than having lots of stuff.

A minister preached a sermon along these lines and tried to emphasize everything, including our possessions, belong to the Lord. An old farmer skeptically sat in the congregation, listening to but not agreeing with the sermon. That afternoon he invited the preacher to Sunday dinner with him and his family. After dinner they walked outside, the farmer made a point of showing the preacher around his house, barns, tool shed, and pointed to his beautifully kept farm. Then he asked the preacher half jokingly, “Pastor, I worked all my life on this land. Do you mean to tell me that it’s not my land, that it’s the Lord’s land?” The minister reflected for a moment and then quietly said to the farmer, “…ask me that same question in a hundred years.”  The story is a good illustration of the old phrase, “you can’t take it with you.”  Martin Luther, the great Reformer, put it this way, “I have held many things in my hands and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God’s hands – that, I still possess.”

Just like that old farmer, the only things we can take with us are those things that we place in God’s hands.  Our faith and trust in God, the good we do for our neighbor in the name of Christ, the devotion we have to God, the sacrifices we make for the sake of God’s Kingdom, and the time spend carefully and quietly listening to God’s Holy Spirit.  These are the things are sacred, these are the things that last, these are the things that make you rich in the eyes of God.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Sell Your House, Reconsider your Burial Plan, and Keep Plowing

This Sunday’s lectionary passage is from Luke 9:51-62. My favorite commentary on the Gospel of Luke is by Dr. Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, in the NICNT. Just about everything I have written here borrows implicitly and explicitly from Dr. Green’s work.

51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53 but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54 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?” 55 But he turned and rebuked them. 56 Then they went on to another village. 57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 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.” 59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60 But Jesus1 said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Green thinks the focus in this passage is that God’s purposes are so important they relativize all other commitments and considerations. There is no doubt that we have to realize that this orientation will likely engender some hostility. When Jesus “sets his face” toward Jerusalem, the phrase suggests a sure and certain determination and resolve that cannot be waylaid by any distraction. Jesus has been spreading his Kingdom message in the bush-leagues of Galilee, but now he has his sights set on the “big show.” How will the radical character of his message play on that stage?

So the disciples are sent, like latter day “John the Baptists” to prepare the way of the Lord, fully participating in the mission and purposes of God in spite of their lack of full understanding. Interestingly, they are sent to Samaria, with all of the cultural tensions between the Jewish and Samaritan cultures. The Samaritan villagers, however, will not accept Jesus for whatever reason. Why might this be? It makes me think that there is no privileged place (insider or outsider) from which to hear and respond to the Gospel.

In Luke 9:5, Jesus had told his disciples how to respond to rejection, “Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” Yet here, the disciples have different plans asking Jesus if they could command fire to come down and burn up the Samaritans. They had seen this movie before, after all, when Elisha called down fire to burn up the representatives of Ahaziah, King of…you guessed it…Samaria! Interestingly enough, the disciples who wanted to bring down lightening and thunder, were James and John – two of the disciples closest to Jesus – two of those who were allowed to see Jesus Transfigured on the mountain. They still need a few more miles under their belt on the journey to catch up with what Jesus is doing. How many more miles do we need to go to understand that same message?

Finally, they get a volunteer. Yet, even at this show of enthusiasm, Jesus made this person fully aware that calling of God was pretty tied up in rejection – relying on the hospitality of strangers. He reminds her that even animals have a place to live, but we’re out under the stars most nights. I will refrain from any well-worn United Methodist humor about parsonages at this point.

Jesus then calls another, “Follow me.” This person replies, “I have to go back and take care of my father until he is respectfully buried.” Perhaps this isn’t a weekend funeral, as we’ve often suspected, but a request to fulfill the family obligations required by normal conventions. To this request, Jesus, whom they refer to as “Lord,” exposes the way that their language fails to match up with their willingness to prioritize his role in their life.

He responds, “Let the dead bury their dead,” which many assume to mean, “Let the spiritually dead bury the physically dead.” Yet, Dr. Green believes this might just refer to the bipartite funeral practices in which the corpse was placed in a sealed tomb, followed by a second burial after a twelve month decomposition period after which the remains would be placed in an ossuary (bone box). On this reading, Jesus was saying “Let the corpses rebury the bones…” or something similar. On any reading, this showed a diminished priority for certain customs as they were subsumed under the authority and priority of Jesus’ mission and work in God’s Kingdom.

If you commit, Jesus suggests, you had better well be committed for good. Put your hand to the plow and don’t look back. The fuel for this kind of commitment is the strong call of God. Anything less simply won’t sustain a full day’s work, let alone a lifetime of changing seasons, rough weather, and failed crops. You need to know you’re a farmer for good, or you’ll be in the city selling insurance by the end of the week.