The Rev Cynthia K R Banks; The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost—PR 7—Year C; II Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Psalm 72:1-2, 11-20; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62
Okay, time for a little trivia, and this will date you. Who remembers Schoolhouse Rock—that great TV show that first aired in the ’70’s that taught us so many important things that we needed to know about the world? I mean, who can forget the classic “I’m just a bill, yes I’m only a bill, and I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill”—how many of you learned the legislative process from that little tune? Or “Three is a Magic Number.” Or the absolutely iconic, “Conjunction Junction, what’s your function? Hooking up words and phrases and clauses” that told the story of “and,” “but,” and “or.” The conjunction—that great grammatical connector that joins two things together. Except in the case of “but” which is the great negator of whatever went before. For example, your partner, or child, or friend, or boss has done something that has hurt you, and they say, “I am sorry, but…”—how’s that apology feeling with that “but” in there? “But” is pretty much equivalent to “not so much,” “I’m sorry…not so much, not really.” Who’s been on the receiving end of that kind of apology? Who’s got that t-shirt?
As we were doing a slow meditative reading of this passage in the Friday morning class, the prevalence of the conjunction “but” in today’s gospel leaped out at me. A lot of power for a little three-letter word. When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And in Luke’s gospel, it is clear that Jerusalem equals the cross. And [Jesus] 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…but they did not receive him. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus actually thinks highly of Samaritans, which was pretty unusual because most Jews despised the Samaritans with their mixed lineage. Jesus probably expected to receive hospitality from the Samaritans. Why didn’t they receive him? It wasn’t because they weren’t good at hospitality; it was because his face was set toward Jerusalem. Their “but” had to do with their fear of the future. Jerusalem was not a happy place for Samaritans—they weren’t especially welcome in Jerusalem—the Jerusalem community had always looked down their noses at the Samaritans and their quasi-pagan, syncretistic worship. They also may have had a keen intuition of what happens to people like Jesus when they challenge the priestly elite, and they were none too eager to suffer the same fate. Again, their “but” wasn’t because they were inhospitable; their “but” was because they were afraid. Afraid of the future; afraid to be persecuted.
Enter James and John. 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?” Not quite the response we expected from transformed followers of our Lord. That’s just a wee-bit dualistic; just a tad tribal. But [Jesus] turned and rebuked them. There’s that conjunction again. Jesus completely negates the fiery desire of his disciples to zap those whom they perceived had dissed Jesus; it is the disciples who earn the rebuke, not the Samaritans. Sometimes, a “but” is good and necessary to offer. Sometimes, an impulse, desire, or action needs to be checked and rebuked.
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.” There it is again—“but.” Someone, in their exhuberance, professes that they will follow Jesus wherever he goes. “Really, really,” Jesus seems to say—“foxes have a home, birds have a home; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. Nowhere. There is no there there. There is no being with me there, if you can’t be with me here. There is no home out there; there is only home, here, on the journey, on the way, always on the way. Can you handle that much flux? We’re talking tents, not 30-year mortgages on a fixed piece of real estate.”
To another [Jesus] 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.” Three “but’s” in that little exchange. This would-be follower negates Jesus’ invitation by clinging to what is no more. This is pastorally difficult for me. I believe in the importance of burying bodies and saying our goodbyes. On this count, Jesus would flunk pastoral care. However, if I take a step back and ask, “How often do we not leap forward into Jesus’ invitation to new life because we cannot release what has died?”—well, then, I can begin to see what Jesus is after here. It’s like those otherworldly men said to the women at the tomb in Luke 24, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Jesus is clear, this would-be follower has to release what is dead so that he or she can be free to proclaim the kingdom, the presence of God that lives and moves and has its being right here, right now.
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.” Here we have an explicit “but” and an implicit one. This would-be follower professes a willingness to follow Jesus, but—which negates that willingness—“I’ve got to go do this first; I have to go and say my goodbyes.” And with an unspoken “but” Jesus responds with that rather cryptic, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Pretty stark. Pretty direct. Pretty demanding, and even harsh. But think about it. If you have a hand to the plow, and you look back, you can’t see the ground in front of you that you are trying to work.
Though Jesus’ pastoral care skills are sorely lacking in the diplomacy department today, I think he is trying to shake the complacency and cavalier approach to discipleship contained in the profession of all of these would-be followers. Dietrich Bonhoeffer addressed such approaches to discipleship in The Cost of Discipleship—he called it “cheap grace.” Remember, Bonhoeffer was during WWII, laid it on the line in the German Confessing Church, and eventually ended up in prison. Bonhoeffer said, “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” Bonhoeffer knew the cost of discipleship—it cost him his life.
I think Jesus is trying to shake these would-be disciples out of all the sideshows and into Presence, Presence in the midst of something that will always be in perpetual motion. If you are looking back, you can’t be present to what is right in front of you. If you are racing forward, you can’t be present to what is. If you are clinging to the dead, you can’t be present to what is alive. If you are clinging to stability, then you will never know what it means to be at rest, even while the ground is shifting beneath your feet, and even, as Bonhoeffer knew so well, when you are on the way to Jerusalem.
So, in our conjunction junction, in that place where Jesus is longing to join together with us, where do we assert our “but’s”? What specific shape and form do they take? When Jesus says to us, “Follow me,” how do we deflect, delay, decline, negate the invitation? What keeps us from being fully present, with him, to what is, right here, right now, on our never-ending journeys to Jerusalem? Where do we long for the stability of fixed and unchanging, when what is being offered to us is a tent on a journey? To what are we clinging, that keeps us from saying an unequivocal “yes!” to Jesus? What to-do’s on our infinite “to-do” list are getting in our way of simply getting on with living our life as a disciple of Jesus? How can we work more toward an “and” life with Jesus, instead of negating all Jesus’ attempts to join us where we are and avoiding all his attempts to bring us to where he is?
“Conjunction junction, what’s your function?” Is it to leap with our Lord with a “yes!” or just to keep kicking the can of our commitment on down the road? Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
June 30, 2013