Three strange sayings


The second part of this morning’s gospel reading contains three strange, widely misinterpreted, sayings.[1]

In response to someone promising to follow Jesus wherever he goes, Jesus replies, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." This saying is not a glorification of being houseless nor, contrary to John Wesley, an argument for clergy to move frequently.

A twelve-year-old boy’s father assigned him some yard work. The boy hired his six-year-old brother to do the work for him. He told the six-year-old that his father had paid him a dollar to do the work, and if the six-year-old would do the job, he would let him hold the dollar until suppertime. The little kid worked hard all afternoon and got the job done. The big brother, true to the bargain, gave him the dollar, saying "You can hold this until suppertime; then you have to give it back."

The father, a wealthy banker who worked seven days a week, came home late that afternoon. He spotted his youngest son with the dollar.

"Where did you get that?" he asked.

"My brother let me hold it since I did his work in the yard."

"You're holding it?"

"Yes, he said I have to give it back at suppertime."

"That's crazy," the father said. "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. You worked hard all afternoon and just get to hold your money?"

The boy looked at his father and said, "But, isn't that what you're doing too?"

The child was right. All we get to do is hold our money and other possessions for a while.[2] We are temporarily God's stewards of our possessions; possessions are important only for what we do with them.

Jesus invited another person to follow him. The person replied, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." Jesus responded, "Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God."

Burying the dead is a religious duty. After Jesus’ crucifixion, some of his followers hurriedly buried his body and then they returned on Easter morning to finish their ministrations. Jesus obviously is speaking metaphorically, not literally.

Benedictine monasteries attach special importance to serving one another at mealtime: "servers … bring the food … the monks are encouraged … not to ask for anything they need, but always to look out for a neighbor’s needs. (… in a famous story, a monk as he eats his soup notices that a mouse has dropped into his bowl. What is he to do? He is to pay attention to his neighbors' needs, not his own. So, he … [calls a] server and [says], 'My neighbor hasn't got a mouse.')"[3]

Psychological and biological research teaches us that self-love is inescapable. Yet healthy relationships look to the well-being of the other person even as we love ourselves; healthy relationships are future oriented rather than clinging to a broken past or an impossibly romanticized version of the past. Let bygones be bygones; let the dead bury the dead.

Another of Jesus’ followers said, "I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say goodbye to my family." Jesus said to him, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God." Jesus is not anti-family; he intends us to hear this saying, like the previous two, metaphorically rather than literally.

Remember Peter. He looked back, regretting his decision to follow Jesus. He denied Jesus not once but three times.[4] Yet, Matthew’s gospel reports Jesus had said to Peter – whose name means rock – you are the rock on which I will build my church.[5] Similarly, at the height of Roman persecution of Christians, the Church defined apostasy – abandoning the faith – as the unforgivable sin. Roman ferocity, however, caused apostasy to become so widespread that few Christians remained. Those survivors eventually relented and allowed apostates, after an arduous repentance, to return to the Church.

Eugene Peterson, whose Bible translation The Message was a bestseller a couple of decades ago, rightly and wisely described the Christian life as a long obedience in the same direction Malcolm Gladwell in his bestseller, Outliers, promoted the idea that ten thousand hours are required to master any art, skill or discipline.[6] Thus, for example, if you spend two hours a week on Sundays cultivating your spiritual life, and another two hours during the week, you will require fifty years to accumulate ten thousand hours of practice. Our spiritual lives suffer because we rarely acknowledge our lack of commitment and practice; we live superficially rather than delving deeply into the mystery of God.

A Persian proverb first observes that a person comes into the world crying while all around people are smiling, then encourages people to so live that they go out of this world smiling while all around them people are crying. Be good stewards of your possessions, holding them lightly in trust for their true owner, God; love so deeply that your relationships fill others with life and hope; commit yourself so completely to God that your death finds you smiling and others crying. Amen.

Sermon preached in the Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI

Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 30, 2019



[1] Vv. 57-62 of Luke 9:51-62.
[2] Jamie Buckingham, Parables (Lake Mary, Florida: Creation House, 1991). Adapted.
[3] David Steindl-Rast, The Music of Silence: Entering the Sacred Space of Monastic Experience (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), pp. 79-80.
[4] Matthew 26:69-75.
[5] Matthew 16:18.
[6] Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2008).

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