On January 28, 2008, my father passed away from injuries related to a car accident that he and my mother were in. For a week, my mother told me not to come back to Saginaw from Gettysburg; things weren’t that bad. The second semester of my first year of Seminary was approaching, and they didn’t want anything to take me away from my work.
My mother called on a Friday afternoon, (after being urged to do so by family and friends) to tell me that Dad wasn’t doing well, and to get home. I told her I was looking into booking a flight. I got into my car and drove through a 3 state snowstorm. I got into Saginaw at 4 a.m., and went to the hospital. I talked with my Dad. He responded by squeezing my hand. I told him I loved him. He squeezed my hand as hard as I ever remember it being squeezed.
I stayed in Saginaw for about three weeks before returning to Gettysburg, and that was how far I was behind in the semester. I felt my mother was able to handle living on her own. I had talked with friends and family who would help her deal with all of the paperwork, insurance claims, transfers, etc. that come about when someone dies. I took copies of a lot of stuff back with me so that I could look at the same forms she was looking at when I would call her every evening.
It was right before I went back, and from some conversations over the phone with people who I asked to check on her, that I started to get an odd feeling. Some people were cold and distant. I later found out that some of my aunts and uncles, as well as several friends, felt that I was turning my back on my mother, and had turned my back on my parents to go to seminary and purse a calling in the ministry.
After catching up and completing that semester, I spent the summer doing my required chaplaincy at the Hershey Medical Center, a huge hospital about an hour away from Gettysburg. I didn’t want to do it that summer. Spending 400 hours in a hospital less than six months after my dad died seemed too painful. However, the people on candidacy committee back in Michigan strongly encouraged me to do so. Your candidacy committee has the ultimate say in if you can be ordained. So rather than being in Saginaw for the summer, I saw patients who came into the hospital for cardiac issues, or who had been admitted through the trauma unit.
In the fall, members of the candidacy committee came out to Gettysburg. That was the normal event for second year seminary students in the ELCA. Members of the candidacy committee visit you at your seminary, interview you and check on your progress.
When I met with them, they asked how I was doing. I told them.
I shared how difficult my chaplaincy was. I shared how not being back in Saginaw for the summer was tough on my mother.
Then I heard part of today’s Gospel lesson that has haunted me ever since.
To another (Jesus) said, "Follow me." But he said, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." But Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God."
I was asked how I thought that passage applied to my situation. I wanted to reach across the table and punch the pastor who asked the question in the mouth. Instead, I stammered that I was torn between my responsibilities back in Saginaw, and the responsibilities of the call I had to ministry. After 45 minutes of discussion about my first year in the candidacy process, we took a break. I left the room while the committee talked with my advisor.
My classmates had set up a schedule of when we would have these meetings, and if possible, people would be outside of the meeting rooms, in prayer, but to be supportive before the meeting and during breaks. For me, they were more like the corner men in a boxing match. They had to patch me up and get me ready to go back in there. I have never been closer to abandoning what I feel I have been called by God to do than I was waiting to go back in that meeting. I give thanks for the people who were there to encourage me to go back in.
I was stunned to find I was approved to continue in my studies, because I was positive I had crashed and burned. The committee felt I needed to better articulate my answers to some questions. I wasn’t surprised there because I don’t think I could have articulated my name after hearing that verse.
After the meeting, I asked my friends, I asked my advisor – what did they mean by that verse? I was told it was actually affirming my call, that our call to follow Christ means that we leave other responsibilities. I never really agreed with that understanding. Maybe it was hitting too close to a fresh wound for me.
Then this text shows up for today.
I leave tomorrow to return to Saginaw to bring back the belongings of mine, of my father and of my mother that are still in storage. I close a chapter of my life in Saginaw with this trip.
Last Sunday was also my father’s birthday.
So this text feels like it has ripped open a wound and poured a mixture of salt and lemon juice into it.
And I still do not get this text.
It begins with Jesus setting his face to go to Jerusalem. This is “coded” language from the Old Testament that he was going to a city on a mission from God. Setting your face to a town is what prophets would do when God called them to go to a city and speak to the people.
His advance messengers tell the people of a Samaritan village that Jesus is coming, and is on his way to Jerusalem. Because the Samaritans believe their mountain, Mount Gerizim, is the true home for the Jewish people, not Jerusalem, they reject Jesus and his followers. So they go to another village.
Along the way three people talk to Jesus about becoming a follower of him. The first is warned that following Jesus means you will not have a regular place to stay. The third is warned to focus on what is ahead, not what is behind, or else you will go off course. The second, the only one whom Jesus calls to follow, is told to let the dead bury the dead.
So I have studied this lesson, and besides realizing I should have started my vacation today, and not tomorrow so this lesson wouldn’t be my responsibility, here is what I think I have learned.
This is a key point in Luke’s telling of Christ’s ministry. By setting his face to Jerusalem, Jesus is now on a resolute and unswerving course for the cross. He wants his followers to be just as focused. He warns prospective new followers that this will not be easy. You will be challenged and tested. You will be pulled in different directions, with competing loyalties.
The postponements that two followers bring up: burial and farewells are very easy to understand. To take time to do these things were considered normal within the Jewish tradition of Jesus time. His rejection of these is unusual.
But for Jesus, who has set his face to Jerusalem, who has begun his road to the cross, the kingdom of God, the breaking into our hearts and lives of the Reign of God comes first. It MUST be first. It demands and commands the highest priority.
Scholars say the rebukes that Jesus gives seem to disregard the Fourth Commandment to “Honor your father and mother.” But it doesn’t. It reasserts the First Commandment, “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me.”
To the three would-be followers, and by the way – we do not know whether they followed Jesus or not, Jesus is providing a version of the warning label or caution heard on commercials for medication. “Warning: Following Jesus may cause a lack of a permanent home. Some followers have reported an inability to attend family events, and feelings of separation from family and friends. Do not attempt to be a follower if you will have second thoughts.”
Jesus does not want people to follow him when they are ready.
Jesus calls people to follow him when he knows they are ready.
And that is uncomfortable for us. It was uncomfortable for the three would-be followers 2,000 years ago. It was uncomfortable for me almost five years ago. It is uncomfortable now.
It is uncomfortable because what we are being called to walk away from are good things, things that are right and proper to do. Things that we should be able to do.
But these harsh messages remind us that we are called – called to serve, called to go, called to follow, called to be Christ in the world. Not when we have time, not when we can, but when we are needed, when we are called.
We are called to do things not on our schedule, but on God’s schedule because we have been claimed by God, not because of what we do, but because of what God has done for us. So our call to serve isn’t to earn forgiveness, but in response to that grace. God is calling us and presenting opportunities.
While we may not answer every time God calls, God keeps calling. When we don’t follow because of pain or problems, God is with us and caring for us. No matter how we feel.