6th Sunday after Pentecost
Texts: Luke 9:51-62;
1 Kings 19:14-21; Gal. 5:1, 13-25
TRAVELOGUE OF A JOURNEY INTO DEATH
Summertime is a time for traveling. We’ve taken our trip, going to Cincinnati and Kentucky with family. Have you taken yours yet? Is your time of travel still ahead this summer? Was it, or will it be some place exotic, out of the ordinary? Might you be able to put together a travelogue for us?
Get some images of traveling in mind. For today’s gospel lesson gives us a smorgasbord of rich images, but there is one image that is carried throughout, that of a journey. From beginning to end, it is clear that Jesus and the disciples are on the road to Jerusalem. So it might be kind of fun to approach this as a travelogue, and you can think of me as your travelogue host today! Obviously, I didn’t bring any real slides with me. But that’s O.K., since Luke’s account is so rich in images. Let your imagination be the screen, and we’ll let Luke’s text project the images.
Let’s begin with a quick overview, to get the flavor of a journey. First slide, please: This is Jesus setting out on his momentous journey to Jerusalem. It’s a dusty Galilean road, and there’s a look of solemn determination on his face. Do you see it?
O.K., second slide. That group of folks that Jesus is sending out, is one group of what you might call the Hospitality Committee. It was standard procedure on these road trips to send out some folks ahead into the towns, to get ready for Jesus’ visit there. One of these groups didn’t get to do their job because Jesus decided to skip a Samaritan village along the way.
Next slide: Ooh! Is Jesus ever mad! I’m not sure I’ve seen him quite that mad. And the disciples are looking pretty sheepish, aren’t they? Yes, since the Samaritans were traditional enemies of the Jews, they had assumed that, when Jesus skipped the town, he might want God to rain down some fire and brimstone of them. Here you see Jesus’ response; he angrily rebukes them for their prejudice against Samaritans.
Next slide: ah, yes. The man standing there with Jesus, with his tongue hanging out and the look of utter shock on his face, is one of the would-be followers that Jesus encountered on his journey to the cross. I think it’s the one who needed to go bury his father first, and Jesus told him to “let the dead bury their own dead.” You can probably understand why he was so shocked by that comment.
In fact, it would probably be a good place to pause for a moment, to understand something very important about this journey of Jesus. Would-be followers like the man in this last slide did not know or understand Jesus’ destination when they came up to him and asked to follow along on this journey. But Jesus’ responses to them indicated the serious nature of his trip. This was not going to be a pleasure cruise! In fact, this is essentially about a journey into death. Wow! That sounds depressing! Do you want to go on? I mean, who wants to endure a travelogue of a journey into death!?
Well, ordinarily you wouldn’t. But let us keep in mind at the start that this travelogue is about no ordinary traveler. Luke reminds us of that with his very first words: “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up…” “Taken up.” I don’t think we have a good picture of that, because these are Luke’s words for the Ascension of Jesus into heaven, when he was again seated at the right hand of God’s power of life. But use your imaginations, because its an important picture to try to get in your mind’s eye. For, yes, this journey to Jerusalem is a journey into death, but it is taken by one who has come from God, and who brings God’s effervescent power of life with him. Through his lifting up on the cross, he will return to God’s right hand. So this traveler is one who comes with the power to not only endure death but to conquer it! Now do you still want to go along? What a trip, heh?!
Next on our itinerary, then: let’s go to the last slide. Hmm. A farmer behind his oxen with plow in hand. What’s this slide doing here? Oh yes, Jesus words to another would-be follower on the road. As Jesus looked out at this farmer he told the man, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the dominion of God.” (1) Those of you who know something about farming, this may bring to mind the image of a different kind of journey: the farmer’s more common journey across his or her field. In this slide, do you see the farmer’s intense gaze at the field ahead of him, trying to plow a straight line. Even modern farmers on their tractors need to pick out a tree as they get started, line themselves up and plow a straight line. The farmer needs to keep his or her gaze steadily forward. When you plow, you are turning over the earth, turning over resistance to the coming seed, burying that resistance and incorporating it into the soil. But you must keep focused on what is in front. You’re not looking behind at what the plow is doing.
This is a great image for Jesus’ journey, isn’t it? It’s about having the right kind of vision, about keeping your eyes forward and looking ahead. It’s about looking into the future, into God’s future. Remember who our traveler is. Jesus came from God’s eternity, outside of time, and inside of time he was able to keep his eyes focused on God’s promised future. Jesus looked ahead and captured a vision of God’s reign at work in this world. He looked ahead and saw God’s dominion overturning sin and the death it brings to people. He looked ahead and saw this world finally becoming open to God, people touched by God’s reign of life in the midst of this world of death. Yes, like a farmer, Jesus had a tree he had to line himself up with, a tree on a hill outside Jerusalem on which he would hang. But that’s how Jesus would turn over the evil resistance, burying it in a tomb. And Jesus himself became the seed that blossomed into the firstfruits of a greater harvest to come: his resurrection and ascension make possible a greater bringing to life, a whole new heaven and a whole new earth. It reminds me of an old Monty Python line, “And now for something completely different!” That’s the vision of God’s future that he keeps his steady gaze upon.
Sorry, I don’t have any slides of that. It would be nice, wouldn’t it? But we need to keep in mind that the journey Jesus came to lead us on ultimately goes beyond our experience, and perhaps even beyond our imagination. I think that’s what happened at the middle part of our travelogue. Remember the slide of the man with his tongue hanging out? He had told Jesus that he would be following him as soon as he buried his father — to which Jesus replied, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the dominion of God.” You see, if we don’t allow for the fact that Jesus’ journey is also beyond our experience and imagination, his response is rather troubling, right? It’s certainly not a line I’ve ever used at the funeral home! Wow! That’s a slide that’s easy to get in mind, if I did, right? It might be a headline reading, “Pastor Gets Quick Ouster after Funeral Home Blunder!” How could Jesus say something like that? Well, notice more carefully what Jesus says, “Let the dead bury the dead.” It’s evident that Jesus is not referring to really dead people, for they can’t bury anyone, busy as they are with their own decomposition. (2) Rather, he is saying something more like, “Let the spiritually dead bury the dead. Don’t you keep trapped in this world that lives toward death. I have come into this world of death to show you how to live towards life, the true power of life. Instead of burying the dead, I invite you to help build a dominion based on life, God’s life.”
So, is this where our travelogue ends, because Jesus ultimately comes to show us a power of life that is beyond our experience? Not quite. It might be difficult to imagine this world ahead of us that is so completely different. But we can at least begin to imagine this new world by understanding what definitely won’t be part of it from this world. Jesus also revealed to us the powers behind so much of the death in this world, which are a part of our experience. There’s a strong hint of it in today’s travelogue. Let’s go back to that slide of Jesus bawling out the disciples. Remember? They had wished death and destruction from God on those Samaritan villagers. They were playing the inside/outsider game which is at the heart of the powers of death. You know that game, right? I’m in the group of insiders, and those people are the outsiders, so it’s O.K. to wish all kinds of death and destruction on them. Or at least it’s O.K. to ignore them in their suffering. This game usually works best if god is somehow mixed up in it. God is seen as being on the side of the insiders. But Jesus came to really mess that game up. He came to reveal to us a God is always and ever on the side of life, not death and destruction. What’s worse Jesus himself ended up being an outsider, one declared a blasphemer by his own people, and a insurrectionist by the Romans. He was going to Jerusalem to show the disciples that God is on the side of the outsiders, people like these Samaritans that they wanted dead.
Yes, the insider/outsider game would be a whole other travelogue, a terribly depressing one at that. All those games of drawing lines between insiders and outsiders that we have played: good guys-bad guys, young-old, rich-poor, black-white, men-women, gay-straight, Jewish-Christian, Christian-heathen, smart-dumb, pretty-ugly, healthy-sick — “Enough!” says Jesus. “I’ve come to lead you on a different journey, where the destination is life to the fullest. But we only get there by ceasing to play those insider/outsider games of death.”
It’s important to come to see ourselves on that journey. How does that travelogue look for us here at Emmaus, or here in Racine? Can we stop playing all those insider outsider games? What does it look like? Our Lord is preparing a banquet for us even now. Do we see that he means for us to invite everyone? He feeds us for the journey. Where will that journey take us? What will our travelogue look like? Next slide, please…
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, July 15-16, 1995
1. The farming imagery over the next several paragraphs are based in part on the sermon “A Ploughman’s Journey,” by Christopher G. Milarch, published in Augsburg Sermons 3: Gospels, Series C [Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1994], pages 157-161.
2. This insight is courtesy of James Alison from a yet-to-be published manuscript [which was eventually published as Raising Abel, p. 87].