The EPISCOPAL CHURCH of ST. JAMES the LESS
Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost
So, it was three years ago almost to the day that I stood up here for the first time, June 26, 2016. Just curious, I looked back at my calendar from three years ago. Here were some of the things on it: Dinner at Barbara and John Palmer’s. (Who are Barbara and John Palmer?) No, I didn’t really write that, but I was thinking it at the time. They were so kind as to invite my family to dinner in those first days here, as did Patrick and Deidre Wynne.
This was sobering. My first week: Monday June 20 (first day), 7:30 pm wedding meeting; Tuesday June 21, 7:30 - 9:30 pm vestry meeting; Wednesday June 22, 7-9 pm finance meeting; Friday June 24, 7 pm wedding rehearsal; Saturday June 25, 1:30 pm wedding; Sunday June 26, first Sunday in Scarsdale. You definitely didn’t ease me into the job!
journey to Jerusalem that lasts all the way from now through the summer and up to Advent. We’ll be reading these stories for a while. But it seemed to me kind of significant that the story for today was about embarking on something new.
This time around I feel like I can be more candid than I was then about what it’s like to start something new; about our inner resistance to it, and the strength it takes to overcome that resistance, make a change, and then keep on going forward, into the future. I was there three years ago, but I know we’ve all been there, once, maybe many more times in our lives.
We meet in this Gospel lesson three people along the way. They’re a contrast to Jesus’ resolve – he “sets his face” toward Jerusalem, an expression that means He’s ready for this. He’s on his way. No looking back. They’re also a contrast to the resolve Elisha showed in our Old Testament lesson when he cut up his plough, burned it, and followed his new teacher and mentor Elijah, just like that. For that matter, they’re a contrast to the resolute disciples, who drop everything, their nets, their livelihoods, their families, to follow Jesus. For these three in today’s Gospel reading, it’s different.
The first person to approach Jesus says “I will follow you wherever you go.” To which Jesus replies, “Foxes have holes, birds of the air have nests, but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” In other words, this is going to be a trying journey. If you follow me, I can’t guarantee comfort. You might experience just the opposite: no rest, no shelter, a lot of disorientation, displacement and discomfort. We don’t know what happens to that would-be follower, but he seems to just disappear.
Jesus actually calls out to the next person in the story. “Follow me” he says. And the reply is “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” To which Jesus says “Let the dead bury their own dead.” There was a time when this expression was fairly familiar to your average person, back when our culture was more biblically literate. Let the dead bury their own dead. It’s harsh.
Karl Marx loved this expression, atheist though he was. He used it many times, in speeches and in writing. He thought it was about making a radical break from the past. Creating something new: leave the dead, the past, behind, where it belongs. The world needs something unlike what we’ve tried before. I read somewhere else that a World War II soldier included this saying among his things, like his dog tags, that would be found should he die on the battlefield. He meant it for his friends, to let them know it was OK to move on without him after he died, and to go on living their lives without guilt or sorrow over him. Let the dead bury their own dead.
We don’t hear this much any more, but as an admonishment not to be pulled too much by the past that you can’t move into the future, it really works. Jesus’ listener in this passage, though, can’t hear it. He too (as far as we know), disappears.
The third person in our reading comes bounding up and says “ I will follow you, Lord,” but then he adds to that “but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” We’re meant to think of Elisha and Elijah in the Old Testament passage we just read. Remember how I once said the Bible is hyperlinked? One passage, links to another, and to another, and on and on. Elijah let Elisha go home and say goodbye. Surely this was a reasonable request for this person to make. But Jesus responds: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Making a change is demanding. It’s hard. Jesus’ honesty about this is hard to argue with if you’ve been through it before. When I was three months into my time here, that would have been in September/October, I had a recurring dream at night. My prior church (this is for real) was nestled between the Hudson River and the Metro North tracks, where there was a station. The tracks and the river were each about a stone’s throw in either direction. I had a recurring dream that I had left a baby on the New Hamburg train platform, and only after 3 months going about my life did I remember it (or him, or her).
In my waking life, I was trying very hard to embrace my new life, not to worry about or be pulled backward emotionally by my prior church and all the people I’d gotten to know and love over ten years there. And yet our dreams sometimes take on the emotions we can’t deal with during the day. It went on for seven more months, this dream, until the new priest there, an incredible person, took over. The church was my abandoned baby, and I could only stop dreaming about it when I knew some other mother had taken it to her breast.
I guess this is simply to say, the pull of the past on me that first year was significant, and it was everything I could do to keep my hand on the plow and not look back and so mess up the furrow I was making. And that’s an experience familiar to all of us. Whether it’s a move, a divorce, a death – the three most stressful things in life – whether it’s a new direction taken, a job change, a crisis of faith or a serious health setback. These three characters in today’s Gospel lesson ring familiar. Jesus’ advice to them, which they can’t hear but hopefully we can, is Keep Moving Forward. The future waits, and even though getting there may involve pain and discomfort, once you do get there you’ll realize why the journey was so worth setting out on. Amen.