Proper 8 (June 26-July 2)
Texts: Luke 9:51-62;
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
A CRACK IN THE CONTAINER
Pouring together glasses of blue and yellow colored water into an empty vase, making green. With children you can talk about the meaning of two or more lives coming together in covenant (like the Mosaic image used at Art Camp a week ago, or the practice these days of pouring sand together at weddings instead of the unity candle).
When we do a pouring together like this — whether it’s with different colored water, or colored sand like in many contemporary weddings — what catches our focus? Isn’t it the water or the sand? Do we even notice the container much?
I start with this object lesson today to make a point out of switching our focus, because I think that’s what we need to do to understand the bewildering actions and words of Jesus in today’s Gospel Reading. Especially confusing is that bit of a would-be follower of Jesus who first needs to go bury his father who’s just died. Jesus, who’s supposed to be the model of comfort and love, says to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” What’s up with that?!
I think we can only begin to fully understand what’s going on in this passage if we shift our usual focus. What is our usual focus? Quite naturally, our own experience as individuals. So let’s remember the object lesson. The water, or sand, or whatever we use, represent the coming together of individual lives, the sharing of common experiences as individuals. But let’s shift our focus from our own individual stream of experiences to the container. We do have a container for experiences. What might that be? Our bodies, especially our brains, would be one answer. Our experiences as individuals are tied to individual bodies, with our brains as the center of thoughts and feelings. But there’s another kind of container into which our experiences are lived that often is invisible to us.
I’d like for us today to think of this container [holding up one of the empty glasses] as human cultures and institutions. Just like with this object lesson and our focus on the contents, we hardly ever notice the container of culture. But think for a moment of how essential it is. There is no experience we have which isn’t somehow shaped by our culture, and the institutions that shape us in our culture. Do you know this as a “glass” without the language that gives it to you as a glass? An infant sees the object, but it doesn’t see a glass until it learns the language and the word. Everything we think, feel, and do is shaped by our culture, our container.
So let’s spend just a few moments shifting our focus to the container. First, what are some of the institutions that shape us in a culture? [invite answers]
Next, what are some of the elements of our culture? The things that shape and give us our experiences? [invite answers]
Think, then, of the import of this. Most of us live our lives trying to measure up to some idea of being successful. What gives us that very idea? Culture. Like I said: There is no experience we have which isn’t somehow shaped by our culture, and the institutions that shape us in our culture.
But now imagine that there is a crack in the container. We might call it Sin, but it takes the same kind of shift in focus. Generally, when we talk about sin, we usually talk in terms of individual sins, of misdeeds and missteps made by individuals, right? But what if the most important Sin, the one sometimes signaled by a capital S, is a crack in the container that’s been there since the beginning of human culture.
I think that’s what the first half of our Gospel shows us, the crack in the container. Because no matter how much goodness our cultures and institutions give us, there is one fatal flaw: Culture is always done on the basis of being over against someone else. Culture always divides between us and them. Jesus skips going to a Samaritian town, not because he doesn’t like Samaritans — no, in fact, in just two weeks we will see him use a Samaritan as a model of goodness, the so-called Good Samaritan. Jesus skips going to this Samaritan town simply because he has had a change in itinerary. It’s time to head to Jerusalem, where the crack in our culture will be exposed for every place and time, because the fundamental institutions of Jesus’ time and place will get it wrong and murder him. But first it gets exposed right on the spot through Jesus’ disciples. They have been brought up in a container where Jews hate Samaritans, so they are right on cue with their hatred. Jewish culture is among the greatest containers ever — one of, if not the most, enduring, great cultures — but there’s a crack in the container.
We can see this, too, in the reading from St. Paul. When he speaks of “life in the flesh” vs. “life in the Spirit,” he is talking about two different containers — the cracked container that shapes us in the world and the new container from God. A better translation than “flesh” would be “worldly.” Paul is talking about our culture being of the world or of the Spirit. Being raised in a worldly container, no matter how good and important that is, there is a crack such that the bad stuff always starts leaking out. We have our favorite individual sins to focus on like, fornication, impurity, licentiousness, drunkenness, carousing. But notice the long list of sins that have to do with the Sin, the crack in the container of pitting us against each other in all the us vs. them‘s: enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy. This is because even when we are able to live mostly with love and peace with those we consider us, we live with enmity and dissension toward them. There’s a crack in the container.
There is one other huge clue which says that Paul has in mind the crack in the container — when he says, “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.” “The law” is Paul talking about the old container, the one with a crack in it. The Good News in Jesus Christ is that he has come to repair the container of human culture and give us a new one in which to live, which St. Paul calls simply life in the Spirit. It bears the fruits of being able to live as one humanity, through things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. How did this come about? Through what Jesus set his face to do on that road to Jerusalem. It comes through Jesus exposing the crack by his willingness to become one of them. It wasn’t good enough to simply teach us the way of love, joy, peace, etc. He had to expose the crack and repair it by coming into history, into the cultures of his day — Jewish, Roman, Greek, Samaritan — and become an outsider to all of them. He had to let their fundamental institutions declare him a criminal, in order to expose the crack in the container of the law and forgive it.
And when his disciples became witness to this moment in history of the cross and resurrection, they remembered why his ministry leading up to that had seemed so wacky, too. He was constantly hanging out with marginalized and fringe people. He seemed to favor them. And so they realized that his way of living with a focus on those whom our cultures marginalize is the way of reforming and repairing the crack in our cultures. It is why his message is such Good News to the poor and the outcast (recall Jesus’ Inaugural Sermon in Luke 4).
But I mentioned at the outset that focusing on the container is the only way we can understand the strange words of Jesus in today’s Gospel Reading, so let’s finish by taking a quick look at the second part of today’s Gospel, on page 5 of your bulletins:
“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” That is not quite literally true. Jesus stayed with people in various places; he often had places to lay his head. And I assume he always had a home with Mary his mother. But metaphorically he had no home in our human cultures, our cracked containers. He was bringing a new home into the world, a new container, the culture of God, the “kingdom of God.”
“Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Again, it isn’t literally true, since the dead can’t bury anyone. Jesus is talking about the crack in the container ultimately leading to death. The point of being us and them is that us tries to stay alive, but sooner or later it’s at the expense of the them dying. Often times, we even find ways of hastening the death of them. Even if it’s only a matter of neglect of them dying, we participate in death by not striving to make everyone us and trying to ensure that all live. We live in cultures of death. Jesus is inviting us to live in a container that is wholly and completely about life, about everyone living abundantly. He isn’t talking about literally not burying one’s father. He’s talking about the priority of living into God’s container, God’s kingdom.
“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Jesus has put his hand on the plow. He has set his face to go to Jerusalem, the place he will expose the crack in the container and begin to heal it, offering us a container made new. In a world, a container, cracked with death, he will let himself be made one of them, in order to begin making us all into a new kind of us, namely, an all-inclusive us for which there is no longer a them. The world’s container is still cracked; we still have a million ways of playing us vs. them. In fact, it seems to be getting worse right now. So the world desperately needs followers of Jesus who will expose the crack by taking the risk of crossing boundaries to be with them.
It’s admittedly hard, so we can’t look back now. I’m told that to plow a field with straight lines in those days meant always looking ahead and never back. A common technique was to focus on an object on the other side of the field — like a tree. Following Jesus into the new container of God’s kingdom means keeping our eyes focused on the tree [motioning to the altar cross]. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, June 29-30, 2013