“Out of Control”
June 26, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt
Anybody listen to this scripture text and think, “wow, Jesus is a bit cranky!”? Really, I can’t bury my father? And I can’t even say good bye to my friends and family? Can I at least leave a note? Jesus seems quite unreasonable, given the would be followers’ requests. Is it really so much to ask to want to get your affairs in order before following Jesus out into who knows what? With our story today, Jesus says, yes.
Following Jesus requires not only willingness, but first priority. Faithfulness is not faithfulness without follow through. What Jesus is asking is not for them to just take on a new extracurricular activity, but to take on an entire new way of life. What he is ultimately asking them to give up is control. Giving up control can be a very scary thing. We are taught to be self-reliant, to make well reasoned, thought out decisions.
Each would-be disciples’ responses are met with Jesus’ counter-cultural control-arresting admonitions. First is the one who says“I will follow you wherever you go.” To him Jesus says, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
Housing security is one of our most basic needs. Your safety and physical well being are directly tied into your ability to have a roof over your head at night. If you have a consistent place to sleep each night, chances are your rent or mortgage, along with utilities and property taxes are your highest expense each month. And we pay those bills because of how highly we value the security and consistency of having a place to call our own, a place where we can live as we please.
Jesus, however, is calling the disciples to set aside control in this very basic aspect of human life, and to take on a nomadic existence, not knowing where they will end each day, or how they will get their meals. If you have experienced housing insecurity perhaps you understand what a seemingly impossible task to which Jesus is calling the disciples to willingly undertake.
In Jesus’ example he lifts up foxes and birds as having a home, while asking the disciples to go without, which would mean that they have less control in their lives than animals. This is a bold and frightening thing.
Canadian sculptor Timothy P. Schmalz has generated some interesting conversation and some controversy through his statue of a homeless Jesus. He has made over 30 of these statues at this point, the first in Toronto and then in cities across the United States, including Denver, Phoenix, Chicago, Austin, Buffalo, and D.C., as well as around the world in Belfast, Dublin,Longton, and the Vatican. Through the statue Schmalz has said that he’s trying to generate conversation about Matthew 25, and how we care for Jesus through caring for those in need.
As far back as Psalm 127 and David in 2 Samuel 7, followers of God have been concerned with making a home for God, but over and over again God has insisted that God’s presence is not to be contained. While we may never be exactly comfortable with the idea of God as homeless, we can come to trust that Christ is at work in and through experiences of our unrest and lack of control.
A second would-be disciple asks Jesus, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” And to him Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
Rituals surrounding death have a long and deep history, involving social, physiological, and sacred purpose. Jewish burial customs of this time included a tearing of garments, constant watch of the body before it was buried, hiring of paid mourners, very specific body preparation, and then a week long mourning period for the family called Shiva.
It’s also important to note that the body was supposed to be buried on the same day in which the person had died. So this man was likely being called upon to leave and follow Jesus on the very same day as his father’s death. Asking this man to leave those family responsibilities and personal desires to process grief seems like a cruel thing. Why would Jesus ask that of him?
While grieving the death of a family member can be deeply personal there are also quite a bit of logistics to go alongside it. By asking this man to leave at this time Jesus speaks to man within his grief and stress and frees him from the work surrounding this death so that he may experience new life. In doing so there are decisions that he will have no say in, possessions he will not inherit. Jesus is asking him to willing give up control of his family’s situation so he may be able to take his place in the family of God.
The third potential disciple, tries to bargain with Jesus. He says, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus is not one to negotiate, saying to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
I’ve never personally plowed a field, but understand that doing so, particularly with a mule and plow as would’ve likely been the method at that point, requires much concentration. Often mules will be outfitted with blinders to keep them headed straight. If the farmer looks to the side, or worse, turns around, chances are the mule and the plow will swerve, messing up the work that has been done, slowing down the process and creating more work.
Jesus saw this man’s request to say goodbye as a sign of reluctance, a lack of focus for the work that laid ahead. There’s a possibility too that in turning back and saying goodbye to those in his home they might try and talk him out of it. They might give him reason to never make it back to Jesus, never begin to pursue Jesus’ mission. Jesus was asking for unconditional surrender of control. No, “First I’ll do this and then I’ll follow you,” would work for following Jesus.
Each of these acts, nomadic living, operating outside of societal burial customs, and focusing on God’s kingdom, require renouncing the control that they thought they had, and placing their trust in Jesus’ ministry and mission. Each act requires faith.
Presbyterian minister, Carol Howard Merritt, writes, “In these three responses, Jesus…calls out to those in this time who will follow him and be his disciples. To follow Christ means a reordering of life that includes the possibility that one may never settle down. To follow Christ entails understanding oneself in relation to Jesus, even when experiencing disorientation in one’s own family and confusion in one’s sense of self. To follow Christ requires a single-minded resolve that looks forward to the work ahead and is cognizant of the risk that accompanies discipleship.”
Does Jesus seem cranky in his responses? Perhaps, but Jesus’ eyes were set to Jerusalem, set to the place where crucifixion awaited him. He was running out of time and nothing but resolute faith through action would do. May we relinquish our control so we may follow Jesus with the focus he requires. Amen.