Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This morning’s Gospel reading is a tough one. Jesus says some pretty disquieting things in the Gospels, but what we read today might strike us as the most offensive thing in the bible. A man who wishes to become a disciple asks “Lord, let me first go and bury my father [and then I will follow].” And how does Jesus respond? “Leave the dead to bury their own dead.” Another wishes only to say goodbye to his family before setting out, and Jesus responds “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.” Jesus seems to be contradicting even his own prophetic heritage- you’ll remember from today’s Old Testament lesson that Elijah permitted Elisha to literally “put his hand to the plow and look back”, to take his oxen back home and say goodbye to his own family before following the prophet.

How do we deal with this hard teaching of Jesus? I don’t know entirely, and I’m starting to wish that I’d chosen to preach on the Epistle! Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel are shocking. This is the Jesus whom so many equate with “family values”, whatever people who use that phrase mean by it, and Jesus’ words here seem diametrically opposed to those values.

I think we do violence to Jesus’ teaching if we opt to spiritualize it entirely. That’s a trick we’ve probably seen before in another context. Often a preacher, when given Jesus’ teaching about money (namely, his command to give it all away), will turn the whole thing into a spiritual exercise, saying “well, you don’t have to give all your money away, just don’t place all your trust in the wealth you have. Be ready to lose it if it comes to that.” Certainly, the meaning of Jesus’ teaching in that matter is complex, but there’s something more to it than how we’re supposed to feel about money. We are supposed to do something.

It’s much the same with regard to Jesus’ teaching about family. He’s not just saying, “be ready to lose your loved ones in the normal course of events (as they die or move away or whatever) without losing your faith.” It’s not an entirely spiritual teaching, even if we wish it were because the spiritual meaning is so much more comfortable than a meaning with any practical implications.

But, then again, we can’t come to terms with an entirely literal reading of the teaching either. There is a chance that Jesus meant exactly what he literally said, but that would go against the expectation of the rest of scripture and of the Church’s historical teaching, namely that commitment to one’s family is not only “okay”, but is enjoined on us as a holy obligation.

So, it seems to me, there is something more complex in Jesus’ words than either the simple literal meaning or the entirely spiritualized meaning.

Perhaps, and this is just a hunch (albeit a hunch with some theological training backing it up), Jesus is warning his interlocutors and all of us, his prospective disciples today, against making excuses. Specifically, I think he may be warning us against making our commitments to family an excuse for not doing his work.

Now, before I seem to say something too scandalous, let me explain what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that there aren’t family obligations which affect how we approach our own ministries in the church and in the world. I’m not saying that missing a Sunday from time to time to be with a sick loved one is going to get us in trouble. I’m not saying that becoming a little less active in some role or another because you’ve got young children or teenagers is wrong. I’m not saying that family commitments shouldn’t figure in to how we discern what God is calling us to do and be. Quite to the contrary, family obligations are obligations given to us from God, and fulfilling those obligations is an important way to do God’s work.

What I do think we learn from reflection on the Gospel, though, is that sometimes misunderstanding the nature of those obligations can keep us from doing that to which we are called. In other words, we can convince ourselves that there is a barrier which doesn’t exist between our desire to serve and our ability. For example, I heard a number of anecdotes when I was in seminary from some of my older classmates. This is changing nowadays, but a decade-and-a-half ago very few young people went straight from college to seminary. I was the only one in my class who had done, and it took some effort to convince my bishop that I didn’t have to go have a career in some other field and enter the ordained ministry in middle age, as had been the ordinary pattern for the previous half-century or so. Anyway, many of these classmates of mine had felt a call to the priesthood for years, but believed it to be absolutely unfeasible because of their children’s need for stability. So, many waited until all the kids were out of the house and in college fifteen or twenty years later and then realized that they could have moved earlier, the kids could have been in a good school and had friends and probably would have loved going to seminary with mom or dad, particularly in New York City where we were.

Of course, this wouldn’t be the case in every family’s situation, but what I’m saying is that we’ve got to reflect on rather than dismiss the possibility of some sort of ministry out of hand. We might find that our family obligations preclude volunteering to serve at the mission, or serve on vestry, or whatever. Or, we might find that we can fit it in or, better yet, involve our family. The point is that individual situations with regard to family or work or any other commitment will open up new avenues for ministry and close others. It’s our responsibility to avoid making excuses and consider how precisely we might be able to follow, what that can look like for each of us in the context of his or her own life. Scale back involvement in one area if you need to, ramp it up in others if you’re able. We’ve just got to do the hard work of thinking about it and praying about it first. If we do that, we might be surprised what we can accomplish for the sake of the Gospel.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.