Luke 9: 51-62
I read this text just before the Summer Solstice when the daylight hours reached their greatest fullness and began to turn toward the longest night. I read this text just as Jesus’ time in Galilee came to an end and he began to turn toward Jerusalem – he set his face. We can feel the pivot in the natural season and in the text of Jesus’ life. We are at a hinge time.
The church as institution is at a hinge time – it pivots toward a new, old way of being. Diana Butler Bass in her recent book Christianity after Religion addresses the turning away of many people from institutional religion. But the turning away is not the end of the story. Because many of these people are also turning toward spirit and meaning and mystery. She calls it another Great Awakening. After naming many things that it will not be about she says this,
“It has to be about what gives us balance. And I am convinced that just as it is in my body, also in the body politic. There is a gyroscopic mechanism that would incline us to seek balance, and that is why it is likely that a great awakening is going to happen. In each of the great awakenings [in religion] there has been a perceived sense of out of balance, out of kilter, insecurity, change beyond our capacity to cope. I think we are a prime suspect for a great awakening because we surely meet that requirement.
We are at a hinge time in our life as a congregation too. You can see from the bulletin we are preparing to hear the Rennovations Committee bring their report on tender bids to the meeting called. The time is coming. Do we recognize the hinge on which or on whom we swing to open to that time?
Can we see it in today’s rather irritating reading from Luke’s Gospel? Are your teeth set on edge by this reading, first by the inhospitable behaviour of the Samaritans. Then by the unhelpful suggestion of the two followers. Then by the three puzzling mini-encounters of Jesus and potential followers. What is happening here? If it weren’t begun by the solemn, foreboding tenor of those words, “Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem” we might find these words laughable.
What can be found here for us and for all creation? The first clue might be set in those words of portent, “Jesus set his face”. Jesus has turned, on the hinge of his days, toward death. Much as it does in any of us when we are faced with that fact, an urgency arises within Jesus around those he loves, those things that are most vital, most meaningful for him and for us. Turned on the road toward Jerusalem, the light beyond the cross casts a shadow before him. It casts a sheltering shadow of God’s intense longing for our wholeness over the open landscape. The expression of that urgency is intensified through the humanity of Jesus.
Urgency emanates from this passage. It’s full of energy, piquant hot spicy words and actions intended to shake us up right along with the Samaritans, the two who want to play with fire and those other three with whom Jesus speaks. His first destabilizing action is to take a short cut. Probably much to the disgust of his disciples Jesus doesn’t skirt around Samaria on his way to Jerusalem the way observant Jews usually did. He heads straight through it. Already he’s made his followers jittery. No wonder they want the security of being able to flex their muscle with a few flaming jolts from on high. They want to show the Samaritans who’s right here. They’re in the entourage of a strong prophet, right up there with Elijah. They’re his main men. But they don’t get to use violence to assert themselves in the name of the one they follow. Jesus refuses retaliation. That conventional way of response won’t do on this journey.
The Samaritans are set on edge too. Who do these pesky bunch of people think they are tramping up to the tents of those they’ve scorned and avoided in the past. Pretty big-feeling they must be, just arriving large as life, no shame about them, asking for handouts. What’s this itinerant rabbi doing in these parts anyway? For now things don’t become more comfortable. From inhospitable reception, to childish pyrotechnic longings to three baffling conversations. No one can get it right in this text. We’re all shook up.
And that might invite us somewhere, if we let it. Often when we’re shook up, uneasy, disturbed we look for a way to firm up the boundaries, batten down the hatches, tot up the figures, nail down a direction, make a few rules. But here we’re faced with Jesus right on the road beside us and every time we try to make camp, every time we pound in a tent peg on one end he’s rooting it up at the other.
I will follow you, we say. And Jesus rather than be grateful, tells us that foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests; but he has nowhere to lay his head. Follow me, he says, but when we say we have to go to a family funeral first, he dismisses us, with some ridiculous words about letting the dead bury their dead. I will follow you we say again, after I say goodbye to the ones I left at home. But he says No turning back.
Would it help us to know or to remember that these edgy little responses of Jesus are a common form of rhetoric in his oral culture. We hear their like still today. Faint heart never won fair lady, even though sometimes faint heart does. Would it help to know that they’re called hyperbolic proverbs. They’re exaggerations meant to do just what they have done, shake us up, shake us down, shake things out. Because Jesus wants us to learn to see things from a different perspective, to know that really the only security is in relationship with God who tells our story in a particular way, who orients us in love.
So, those proverbs. Jesus has nowhere to lay his head. We know he does. He’s laid it down in lots of places, not least of which is his friends’ place, Mary and Martha and Lazarus. He could probably stay with them as long as he wanted. He just wants to impress upon anyone that follows him that even home, that place where relationship and belief are nurtured and nurture, can be at certain moments, distraction.
And let the dead bury their dead. Well, we know that’s not going to happen. So sometimes we say this means the spiritually dead should bury the physically dead. But does that make anymore sense, is it anymore inviting? No, again it’s exaggeration. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t attend to our mourning or honour our families. Rather we can’t be distracted from our future by our past. And don’t look back. Not many of us have been out plowing with oxen recently but if we did and if we looked back the furrow we were digging would probably end up crooked. So, sometimes, some people who find themselves looking back can head off in a very unhelpful direction. They might miss what’s right in front of them, the Kingdom, the realm, the livingness of God.
Jesus is that urgent for us to experience it, that livingness, he tosses this trio of proverbs out one after the other. We can just see him there getting all worked up, walking the long road, using his hands, getting in their faces. We hear him trying in his most striking rhetorical style to make the point in a way that can be remembered, because its hard to forget a line like let the dead bury their dead.
Jesus is creating disequilibrium so that people from that place people can reach out for the true balance, he’s heading round the curves on two wheels, riding the bicycle with no hands, showing them how to travel with nothing but the invitation to a great cosmic love in their pockets. He’s the one that opens the door to wholeness, the one who keeps them from spinning off into chaos or shrinking down into isolation, he’s the hinge, the axel, the linchpin, the centre pole on the carousel.
Jesus in conversation with but never contained by the way things are or the way they used to be.
If we get past the irritation with these proverbs we hear the urgency of Jesus longing to give us life. He has set his face toward Jerusalem and time grows short for his physical presence with those on the road with him. He is bursting with his message. Under these proverbs is an invitation, a somewhat scary invitation, to place at the center of life none of the conventional structures that have oriented us but rather relationship with this one who calls our name. This is what we do in church, “we name, honour and orient ourselves around this mystery” (Bell, 156). Then we live our lives as echoes of the call we have heard to passion and compassion.
I began to prepare at a hinge time, a time when the longest day turned on its axis and faced toward the longest night. I read this hinge text when the One who holds our story turns toward Jerusalem and sets out. Always we are on a journey, the gate of our lives swings open over and over to admit the next question, the next challenge, the next love, the next loss, the next wonder. Always we are on a journey and the gate that opens into the next place is swung on the hinge of love.