Texts for Preaching: Luke 9:51-62 and
“Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” by Wendell Berry
For most of my time in Buffalo,
Kevin was the secretary at the church I served.
I associate today’s Gospel with Kevin,
but not because he would ever tell anyone
to let the dead bury the dead.
Rather, it is because
I once called in from the tail-end of vacation
and didn’t know what the gospel was
for the coming Sunday.
I didn’t have a computer, or bible,
or any other way of knowing.
So I asked Kevin to read it to me over the phone.
He did, the whole thing.
The grim tone of Luke’s gospel
left both of us speechless.
Kevin was the first to break the silence
when he said,
“Jesus must not have been a morning person.”
I think Luke wants us to see Jesus
as a homeless mendicant
who embraced poverty as a way of life,
That is not my take on Jesus.
Don’t get me wrong, I recognize it is arrogant of me
to suggest I know Jesus better than Luke,
but look, neither one of us actually knew Jesus
and there are in fact dozens of views of Jesus
emanating from that time in history.
Many of those views contradict one another.
So, you and I get to choose our Jesus too,
and it does not have to line up exactly
with Luke’s Jesus.
I like Mark’s Jesus better than Luke’s,
but that’s just me.
Lots of people really like John’s Jesus…for some reason.
Luke’s Jesus has a militant quality about him:
“No one that puts their hand to the plow,”
Luke has Jesus snarl,
“and looks back,
is fit for the kingdom of God.”
What we see in all the different versions of Jesus
are echoes of the ancient Jewish primal narrative
to which Jesus and Christianity are rooted.
Judaism was, almost from day one,
torn apart by dueling influences:
the purists and the prophets.
Jesus was a prophet,
and even the otherwise discordant Gospel authors
agree with that labeling.
often referred to by Old Testament scholars
as the priestly caste,
see the world as a set of God-given rules:
keep those rules and all is well.
Break those rules and all is lost.
When the rules are broken,
there are other rules for repairing the fracture.
Every offense had a prescription for repair
and every prescription had a secondary solution.
It was a tightly constructed world
built like Lego’s with a hierarchy of rules.
This vein of purity running through Judaism
is not unique;
we are all familiar with Christian traditions
that seem to rest upon a spider web of intricate prescriptions for making God happy –
as if God thinks our job is to make God happy.
Every religion has a purity tradition within it,
and often, the purity tradition is the one
that finds its way into power and control.
Worship traditions for example,
are absolutely rampant with liturgy-Nazis
that want to bind everyone
to their way of worshipping –
as if God is heart-broken by our expressing
gratitude some other way.
The prophetic tradition on the other hand,
sees the world differently from the purity tradition.
Instead of an intricate web of prescriptions
for making God happy,
the prophetic vision
looks out at the human landscape
and measures faithfulness by whether or not
the web of relationships
leads to equity and justice.
God is happy, they believe,
when the bounty of the earth
and services of society
are distributed well.
But it should also be said,
the prophetic tradition has caught the purity virus
more than once throughout history,
and within the Bible as well.
John the Baptist, for example,
while also a prophet like Jesus,
was utterly convinced that righteousness
was connected to purity.
John’s whole thing was purity,
but his claim to fame was an attempt
to break-up the monopoly
wielded by the temple over the purity system.
Baptism, for example, was his ingenious way
of dismantling the temple’s control
over who was morally clean and not clean
and as such, it was a prophetic witness
against an unjust system.
But the place where John and Jesus agreed
with one another
was that those in power were corrupt and unjust.
The thing about Jesus we need to remember,
is that he was a peasant.
He was impoverished by circumstance
not by choice.
He was an outsider to begin with,
but even so, he had a home –
an actual house and a business.
We are told in the earliest Gospel, Mark,
that he had a house in Capernaum,
which is where he lived and worked
when he wasn’t preaching.
At the same time,
and we are not told how,
Jesus had some wealthy friends
who funded his public ministry.
Lazarus, Martha and Mary, and others not named
or hard to identify because of too many names,
provided money and food
that supplemented whatever he was able to collect
with the various sermons he preached –
and I bet he did pretty well with preaching donations.
My point is that Jesus
was not some homeless beggar.
He was an organizer.
He was strategic.
He was a reformer with an agenda and goals.
He was notorious for breaking purity rules.
Two thousand years later,
a high percentage of the stories
we still tell about him
are related to how he violated the rules for purity.
So thinking about a peasant
who rose to become popular,
at least among the poor
in the villages of rural Galilee,
it is hard to imagine Jesus barking
such hard demands
as we heard from Luke today.
This is the guy who ate dinner
with treasonous tax collectors,
people who were collaborators with Rome
and also enriched themselves
by over-taxing poor people.
So Jesus turning around from those scoundrels
and rebuking a would-be follower
for wanting to say good bye
to his her parents,
just seems like a harsh disconnect
from that other Jesus.
That’s why I think what we heard today
is heavily filtered
through Luke’s editorial bias.
But of course, Mark, Matthew,
and John filter him too,
which is really the bigger point here.
I have said it before:
Jesus is a huge drive-in movie screen.
He is a massive canvass
upon which we project our own desires;
our own beliefs; our own hopes.
Whether it is Luke’s projection of a militant healer,
my projection of a reform-minded organizer,
or Paul’s projection of an eternal Christ figure,
none of us get to know the ORIGINAL Jesus.
History, especially ancient history,
is buried beneath a veil we can never
truly, or finally pierce.
But even if that were not the case,
someone like Jesus was surely
more like Wendell Berry’s Mad Farmer
than a reveal-it-all, tell-everything
“As soon as the generals and politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
I suspect Herod and Pilate,
when they finally got to interrogate Jesus,
were pretty sure he was out of his mind.
“Leave (your mind) as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.”
Surely, “let the dead bury the dead”
and “if your eye offends you pluck it out”
were false trails rather than
some insane penchant for purity.
Death is the trickiest of false trails
when you know doggone well
that what you have taught
and what you have done
and what you have practiced
will outlive you by a mile.
can sound like some kind of Harry Potter
but all we have to do to know that it is true,
is bring to mind just one person in our lives
who was especially good at teaching us to love –
most likely, it was someone
who loved us really well.
They are living on in us,
and probably in some of the other people
they loved too.
Whether they knew it or not,
in how they lived and how they loved
they practiced resurrection.
Communities do that too,
the ones that love really well.
It is never about how well we keep the rules
or how precisely we make the secret handshake
or which physicist we embrace
or how we fold the flag –
it is about how well we love.
And it isn’t even how MANY we love
or how BIG of a foot print we leave behind
as a community or as an individual.
It is possible that in loving one person
or a few people –
at just the right time
and in just the right way –
we change the course of history;
and so our lives
and our love
echo further and further into the distance
whether or not anyone
even remembers our names.
You see, when we remember
that practicing resurrection is ego-less,
then whether we are remembered by name
or simply that our love keeps rippling forward in time
beyond the years we breathe,
it does not matter.
You and I,
the lives we lead
and the love we give,
are mere microbes in that two inches of humus
accumulated slowly over a thousand years
beneath the giants.
In the thirsty bladder of our ego
such an accumulation does not seem sufficient,
in fact, it horrifies us
with our potential insignificance.
But that is exactly
how to practice resurrection.
well loved, at a time.