Some Reasons Aren’t Reasonable
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, October 13, 2019
Reading: Luke 9:57-62
It was 1892 in the State of Louisiana when a young man called Homer Plessy decided to get onto a streetcar. He knew that, in so doing, he was challenging a law, the Streetcar Act that had been formed in 1890. Plessy was there doing this because a group of Creole professionals felt that the Streetcar Act was unconstitutional. The Streetcar Act dictated that those of colour and those who are white must travel on separate streetcars.
Plessy was a fascinating character. Genetically he was seven-eighths white and one-eighth black. He was testing the law when he got on a white streetcar. He was arrested and charged with contravening the law of the separate Streetcar Act.
Then emerged a challenge; those who had asked Plessy to do this wanted to challenge the law that would not allow him, a seven-eighth white and one-eighth coloured person, to be on a white streetcar, under the 14th Amendment. It appeared before Judge Ferguson who supported the Act rather than those who challenged it. He concluded that, just because someone was separate did not mean they were reverting back to slavery.
It went before the Supreme Court of the United States of America. and on a ruling of seven to one, it supported Ferguson’s decision – the law stood – and put in place the notion that there can be a world in which there is separate but equal. In other words, racial segregation is enshrined but it does not mean that it is a return to slavery.
Of course, the whole notion of separate but equal was really an anathema to those who, had fought for the freedom of slaves during the Civil War. It did not take into account the decisions of the period of the reconstruction or listen to the likes of Frederick Douglass and others. It was turning the clock backwards. What is amazing is that that law, separate but equal, lasted on the books until the 1950s in Brown versus Board of Education, which deemed that separate but equal did not in fact, mean equal at all.
The decision that was made in Plessy versus Ferguson determined that it was not going to comply with the direction the country was going but reverse it. As one legal scholar said, “There was a half-mindedness about the Supreme Court at that time and there was not a true commitment to the freedom of slaves in the full sense.”
Ironically, as a result of separate but equal, South Africa’s apartheid laws came into place in the early 20th century. It was an aberration because there was a lack of commitment to the freedom of slaves and a decision to make racial segregation remain part of the law in Plessy versus Ferguson. That half-heartedness, that lack of commitment has often been the case in even bigger matters. In today’s passage from the Gospel of Luke, we have Jesus encountering that same half-heartedness, that same total lack of commitment, and a desire to go backward rather than forward.
It seems to me that the passage speaks with such clarity as we are in a time of thanksgiving, because it makes us realize that true commitment to things requires a profound sense of thanksgiving to God. There is no turning back, and no return to what was. There is the faithful decision to follow in Christ’s footsteps. This story is really three conversations with three individuals, all of whom come to Jesus and say that they want to be disciples. They want to follow Him.
To really understand the impact of this, you have to look at what happened immediately preceding the conversations. In the Gospel of Luke, we realize that Jesus sent out disciples to proclaim the Kingdom. He turned five loaves of bread and two fish into enough to feed 5,000, experienced the transfiguration on the mountaintop, and demonstrated his healing powers on a young boy in need.
He was also facing opposition for all of this. There were those who criticized Him. We are told that Jesus was actually on his way from Samaria to Jerusalem at this time. He knew that, in passing through Samaria, he was going through a place that was filled with people who, in the eyes of those in Jerusalem, were a pariah. He was also going to Jerusalem knowing that the cross awaited Him. He knew what would befall him.
These three individuals come up to him in this context. The first is what I call the impulsive one. This man comes up to Jesus – and we’re assuming it’s a young man; it may not have been –and says, “Jesus, I'll follow you wherever you want me to go. I'll go there.” On the surface, you’d think such a commitment was laudable wouldn’t you? But Jesus, rather than warmly embracing this decision and this wonderful credo, says something very strange. He says, “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” Well, that’s a strange thing to say. I've read things that are critical of Jesus for this, because he really wasn’t receiving the affirmation and the support that this young man was giving him. But was Jesus really turning him down? No. At no point in this text does Jesus say, “You can't follow me.” He is simply saying that you must understand the cost of following me, that as the Son of man I do not have a place to lay my head. It wasn’t strictly true. Jesus clearly had a place to stay at Peter’s home in Bethany. He could have stayed at Matthew’s home in Jerusalem, so there were places where he could lay his head.
But Jesus knew that he was on a journey. He is on the road to Samaria of all places, on his way to Jerusalem. He is, as Desmond Tutu said, “The Lord of the universe who was a vagrant in creation.” In other words, there was no natural place for him to be, no natural place where he was to be received. Jesus was on the mission of the Kingdom of God and, in so doing, had no real place to lay his head. So he is saying to this young man who really is full of enthusiasm that you need to count the cost. You need to understand that, if you are going to follow me, it requires commitment, not half-heartedness.
Yesterday I voted and as I was doing so, I was thinking of a couple of things. One of them was an article I had read that said that many people, maybe as many as 30 percent make their decision right there in the booth itself. It staggers political scientists that people will be so impulsive. They have not really thought things through. They get there and they decide on the spot where they’re going to place their X. They haven’t weighed up the pros and the cons, the costs and the liabilities and the benefits; they’ve just decided on impulse.
That’s exactly what this man was doing with Jesus. He was acting on impulse and Jesus was just getting him to stop and think about what it means to follow him. It’s like somebody on a diet. I heard a minister from Rochester, New York comment on this text, and he said, “You know, it’s like people who make the emotional decision that they’re going to have a diet. They look in the mirror the first day and think, ‘I need to go on a diet.’ So, they throw themselves into the diet and they make sure that they eat all the right foods, and they are fanatical about their diet. Everything seems to go well because they go back and look in the mirror after another couple of weeks and they look better, they’ve actually lost some weight and they’re full of joy. But a month later or two later, not much is changing in the mirror, but they’re still having stomach pains from hunger. They’re fed up of lettuce and bananas and think, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ So many diets fail within the first few months because often it’s impulsive and doesn’t have any real staying power.” This is what Jesus was worried about with this impulsive disciple. I think Jesus was right.
The second one comes along though, and this is much more problematic. This man says, “You know I will follow you, but first I've got to go and bury my father. I've got to go and bury the dead.” Well, on the surface, that sounds like a very reasonable thing to do. You go and you bury the dead, ‘then I'll follow you’; seems to make sense. Of course, as we know, in Judaism you bury before the next sundown; there is not a lot of time. You get on and you do it. This sense of reluctance to follow Jesus because he’s got to go and do all this doesn’t sound very good. But there’s something else, a deep rabbinic tradition, that says: “Before a young man decides to study the law, he must be willing to leave his father’s funeral.” This is fascinating because what the rabbis are saying is that the commitment to become a true scholar of the law supersedes any other commitment that you might make. It doesn’t mean you leave your father’s funeral. It means that you put the study of the law first.
Jesus would be aware of this tradition and in speaking to this want-to-be disciple who had found himself in this position where he wanted to follow Jesus in Samaria, he just says to him, “Let the dead bury the dead.” In other words, make your commitment to me and to the cause of the Kingdom of God absolute.
There’s also a sense that Jesus is facing a crisis. He knew there was not time. This was what they call in Greek kairos, an emergency. He needed disciples who were going to follow him NOW. Jesus knew that if he were to say to this very eager, sincere person, “Okay, you can put other things above me” that the whole impetus of the movement for the Kingdom to Jerusalem would be stalled. He knew this was a good enough reason to jettison things.
We all are like that man. We all have reasonable things that we need to do that we put ahead of our commitments to God. We have many reasons that we can come up with not to be faithful. They are plentiful, but they are often, while reasonable, not faithful.
I get a magazine called Ministry. It tells the story of a husband and wife who on a Sunday morning got up and, as was their custom, get ready to go to church. The wife, having dressed beautifully and ready, sees that her husband is still sitting on the couch reading the paper, drinking coffee and unshaven.
She says to him, “Darling, don’t you think you should get ready to go to church with me?”
He said, “I'm not going.”
She says, “What are your reasons for not going?”
And he says, “The first reason is that I find the congregation to be very cold. Second, I don’t think they actually like me. And third, I just don’t want to go.”
She looked him straight in the eye and said, “I think you’re wrong. I have three reasons for saying so. The first is that I find the congregation to be very warm and welcoming. Secondly, they like you. They like you very much indeed. And thirdly, you’re the minister and you’ve got to get there no matter what you’re doing.” You didn’t see that one coming did you?
We all have our reasons. Trust me, I'd like to have seen the rugby this morning. I really would, even if Scotland did lose and I'm sad. But you know we all have our reasons for not following. I don’t just mean church attendance, that’s the tip of an iceberg. I'm talking about a life of true and sincere commitment to the things of God. Let’s not trivialize this. Jesus is saying to this diffident, want-to-be disciple that you’ve got to make up your mind who you’re really following.
The third one’s a strange one. He says, “Before I follow you, I want to go back and talk to my family.” Well, that’s a strange thing; sounds to me like a delaying tactic. He is not resolute is he? He has no real desire to follow Jesus. He’s going to go back home. Some of you will remember that I used this text a few weeks ago in the Rear-view Mirror sermon. Jesus says to this man, “Once you have decided to start ploughing, you can't go looking back.” You can't go back to your family. You can't go back to a previous time. You’ve got to keep moving forward because if you’re ploughing a field and you’re looking back, you will not be ploughing in a straight line and will ruin the crop. Jesus is very clear. This man wanted to look into his rear-view mirror. Jesus says, “No, you’ve got to proclaim the Kingdom of God now.” You’ve got to make a decision, and the rear-view mirror is not going to be helpful in making that decision.
He’s also saying something else. I like this because an African preacher, who now lives in Canada brought it up not long ago with me. He said, “One of the things about this passage that we often overlook is that one of the reasons why Jesus didn’t want him to go back to his family and check it out is, that by following Jesus he is joining a family of faith, that in following Christ there is this sense of belonging and this sense that you’re in a family that is greater than yourselves.”
Two things this last week really reinforced that with me. The first one was last Sunday after church when we had a family circle baptism. I know that every time we have a baptism I say it, but there was just something about this that hit me. When we take a child in our arms and baptize them, we baptize them into the household of God; they belong now to Christ and to the church of the Kingdom. I tell the parent every time, “When I give you this baptismal certificate, this baptismal certificate is like a passport, and this passport is something that your child can use for the rest of their days. Wherever they may go in the world within the Christian community, they belong. Oh, they might belong to one country or another country, but superseding that, they belong to Christ and His church and His people.”
My African friend said, “This is one of the big differences between Western societies and African societies. Western societies only read this text on the basis of the personal, willful individual and not in the notion of the group, the people, the community.” What Jesus was saying to this young man was, “Don’t go turning back to your family. You’re in a family when you follow me.”
The second thing that struck was in a letter that I received a couple of weeks ago. It shook me to my core, actually. It was a letter inviting us as a church and me personally to support a ministry in British Columbia, issued by a friend of a church called St. Mary and St. Paul, which was a church that was founded 147 years ago as a mission church in the Lytton Reserve, the Indigenous reserve.
In it they were talking about the fact they wanted to celebrate the 150th anniversary, and how there had been so many challenges over the years. But the fact of the matter is, as I dug into it more, I realized that that church in Lytton Reserve is in the middle of one of those reserves that has not had proper clean water for years and years. They can't even host church dinners there because of the water problem. I'm thinking of this, and I'm thinking these are our people. I don’t just mean our people as Canadians. I mean our people who belong to this church in that reserve. They’re family. They’re not distant and disparate. They’re family. And when you realize that they’re family, you realize that the commitment to them is all the more important. That is why it should be very much at the forefront of our concern in our country.
So, we have an impulsive man, “I'll go wherever you want to go”. We have a diffident man, “I've got to go and bury my father.” We have an irresolute man, “I've got to go back to my family.” But there is a fourth conversation taking place here, and that fourth conversation is with us. This isn't just about three disciples. It’s about commitment to the things that really matter.
We live in this country in a great land where we can vote and have freedoms. I couldn’t help but think, when I went to the polls yesterday, how many years ago a whole race of people being disenfranchised on a voting day in Cape Town. It matters. It’s important. It’s a gift, and to God we should be thankful. I also believe that, while we live in this great and this glorious land, we have a commitment that supersedes all others, and that is our commitment to Christ Himself. I love what C. S. Lewis wrote about this, and I leave you with it to ponder this magnificent Thanksgiving Day.
Christ says, ‘Give me all. I don’t want so much of your time, so much of your money and so much of your work. I want you. I don’t come to torment your natural self but to remove it. No half measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there. I want to have the whole tree. I don’t want to drill your tooth or crown it or stop it. I want to take it out. Hand over your whole self. The desires that you think are innocent as well as the ones that you think are wicked, the whole outfit. I will give you a new self. In fact, I'll even give you my self. My own will shall become your own will if you will follow me.
This thanksgiving, for all that Christ has given us, we should say, amen.