Sunday, August 12, 2012

Plowing Ahead - a Sermon about Change and Loss

Luke 9:57 - 62
As Jesus and his disciples traveled along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and the birds in the sky have nests, but the Human One has no place to lay his head.” Then Jesus said to someone else, “Follow me.” That man replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead. But you go and spread the news of God’s rule.” Someone else said to Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say good-bye to those in my house.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for God’s Empire.”
If you are like me, you are a bit bothered and weary of all the things going on around you. These past 40 years we have been living in probably the greatest period of change of all time.... Everything is changing. Change is coming at us faster and faster. All this change and the speed of change disturbs us.

If you are like me, you are always dealing with more than one big thing at a time. I and my family members and friends are getting older. Perhaps you come here this morning mourning or thinking about the death of a loved one or a friend. Change is a constant.

Many people come to church for fellowship and peace in a world of loneliness and change. And here we are reminded that Jesus says, “Follow me.” What would it mean to follow Jesus? How would we live? We the teachings of Jesus, but I suspect that we take them for granted.

Jesus blessed all those who are not blessed in the world as we know it: the poor, those who mourn, the peacemakers. Jesus asked us to be perfect – not in behavior but in love. He told us not just to refrain from murder, but don’t even be angry. He told us not only to not commit adultery, but not to even think about it. He gave us an extreme law against vengeance: If anyone strikes you, turn the other cheek too. He said if anyone asks you to carry a load for a mile, carry it for two, and don’t just love those who love you, but Love your enemies. And he told us to give without thought of whether anyone thanks you, to pray simply. Jesus tells us: Where your treasure is there your heart will be also. You cannot serve god and wealth. And he says don’t worry be happy! Don’t worry about tomorrow, but strive for the Kingdom or Empire of God.

This is a very quick summary of Jesus’ teachings. These teachings are powerful. They have the power to transform us, to make us want to follow him. Yet they are impossible to follow. And yet we are drawn to Jesus and to the ideals he puts before us.

Someone said “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus said “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but this mother’s son has nowhere to sleep.” This is a reference to the fact that Jesus didn’t have a home. Actually, he did have a home in Capernaum when he began his ministry. But at some point he abandoned that home, perhaps because he purposely became an itinerant teacher, or perhaps because the romans had a warrant out for his arrest and he had become an outlaw. That’s a different way of thinking of Jesus. So, if we are going to follow him, it might mean we will find ourselves to be as rootless as he was.

And then someone says, “I’ll follow you, but first I need to go home and grieve with my family for the death of my father. We have to bury him. Wow. Can you imagine your boss at your work not giving you time off when your Father dies? Jesus isn’t going to let his disciple go tend to this important highly emotional family matter.

This was a matter of religious law. A good Jew was required to sit shivah at the death of his father. As I understand them, the Jews have many excellent rituals to follow when someone in the family dies: Sit on a 3 legged stool to cry and pray. You are not supposed to be comfortable. It should not be easy for you to get up. Recite the Kaddish.

Kaddish means “holy.” This is a prayer that is mostly praises to God. It reminds the one praying about what and who is truly important. It is very much like Lord’s prayer, or rather the Lord’s Prayer is very like the Kaddish. It is said every day for 11 months after someone’s passing and then once a year on the anniversary of the death. Although the Kaddish contains no reference to death, it has become the prayer for mourners to say. One explanation is that it is an expression of acceptance of Divine judgment and justice when a person may easily become bitter and reject God. Kaddish is a way for children to show respect and concern for their parents even after they have died. It is also said for a child or spouse.

A friend of mine, also a presbyterian minister, learned this summer that his 25 year old son had died by his own hand. This was a total shock with no warning to anyone in the family that anything was wrong. A vital, beloved son and brother, dead and gone from the world.

Back to the Jewish Kaddish: By the letter of the law, a suicide does not receive the mourning rites including Kaddish. But there is a major exception. The library of interpretation of Jewish law forgives anyone who was not mentally stable before committing suicide. The rabbis asked: “And how can one who committed suicide be considered mentally stable?” Thus, it is possible to say Kaddish for those who committed suicide. I knew a Catholic priest who used this same logic to give a full requiem mass and burial in the Catholic cemetery to a man who killed himself, all in contradiction to Canon Law. These are examples of what Jesus meant when he said that the law was made for us not us for the law.

Jake’s parents are agonizing over their loss and how Jake’s life was shortened. I have been thinking a lot about this. He should have had a full life we think. But was not Jesus’ life shortened by his death? Did Jesus who died at 33 or George Gershwin who died at 39 not have a full life? What difference is it how long someone lives? I think more and more about my own death as it comes closer. Will I accomplish something so significant that I deserve to live past my current age of 68?

Wasn’t Jesus’ life complete? Wasn’t Jake’s life complete? We can imagine other things they could have done, but they did not and could not. Their lives were as long or as short as they were. They lived their time and no more, as we all will. What we have of Jesus or Jake is who and what they were. Jake seems to have had integrity in his life. He seems to have given and received love; his life was good. By all accounts Jake like Jesus lived fully and lived well. We have heard this truth before: It is not how long we live but how well. I say all of this knowing that it does not and can not ease the pain.

Each person’s life is complete and whole. Everything in religion is about wholeness and making whole. The root of the word religion may be “binding or bringing together” that which is separated. The big word salvation can be understood as wholeness.

Another would be disciple of Jesus said: “I will follow you but I have to go home to say goodbye and settle things with my family.” If Jesus would not let the man go home to bury and mourn his father, can we imagine he would have any sympathy here? Following Jesus is about commitment to those impossible things Jesus taught. It is about commitment to the Kingdom or Empire of God, which is above family, religion, nation, and everything else. We should not think that following Jesus is an easy thing. As a matter of fact, you and I can’t do it.

Luke ends this story by having Jesus say finally, “No one who puts a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for God’s empire.” We are all unfit. And we are all of us twisted and made fearful by all of the change we have seen and are experiencing. Still we must have that ideal of the Kingdom or Empire of God before us. We must look forward and press on.

There used to be lots of books about discipleship. There aren’t so many today. Books on spirituality have taken their place. Books on holy practices such as prayer and meditation and walking labyrinths have displaced discipleship, or the direct following and learning from Jesus. We do look to religion for help in finding rest for our spirits and peace for our souls.

There is a paradox here: Religion must give us peace so that we can accept and eventually welcome change, but religion must also drive change. Without the impossible teachings of Jesus and his vision of the Kingdom of heaven on earth there would be no future. God’s Kingdom and life itself is always about accepting and seeking something new.