Sunday, June 26, 2016

6 Pentecost

June 26, 2016

1 Kings 19.15-16,19-21; Galatians 5.1,13-25; .Luke 9:51-62

+ This past Wednesday, we did something here at St. Stephen’s that we just do, as a congregation. We gathered for our regular Wednesday night Eucharist. We shared scripture. We prayed for those who need our prayers.  We blessed Holly and Michael Eklund on the anniversary of their marriage.  We offered incense.  We shared the Body and Blood of Jesus.  And then, at the end of our liturgy, we buried in our memorial garden another abandoned urn.

This one was a bit different than Adolf Scott in November.  We actually knew who this person was.  We knew a name, and dates. We knew where this person lived and of which she died. We know she had a family. And yet, we did what we are called to do here. We buried her with dignity. And just as importantly, we welcomed her into our midst. She became one of us.

Although others might abandon such things, we will always remember her.  She will be included in our prayers on the anniversary of her death and on in our All Saints octave. This is what we do.

We did something—and will no doubt continue to do this—even despite what we heard in our Gospel reading for today.  We hear Jesus say, Let the dead bury their own dead. If we did that, we would not be doing what we did on Wednesday night.  In fact, we probably wouldn’t be doing any funerals. And the funeral industry would be having a bit of trouble.  

It’s  an unusual statement.   It almost boggles the mind when you think about it. And yet….there is beautiful poetry in that phrase. We hear this saying of Jesus referenced occasionally in our secular society.  It conveys a sense of resignation and putting behind oneself insignificant aspects of our lives.

Still, it is a strange image to wrap our minds around. Let the dead bury their own dead. What could Jesus possibly mean by this reference?

Well, actually, Jesus would actually not have any issues with what we did on Wednesday, or with any of our funeral customs. Because, this statement from him, as always, has a deeper meaning—and really only starts to make sense when we put it in the context of his time and who his followers were.  When we find this man talking about having to go and bury his father, and Jesus’ response of “let the dead bury their own dead,” we might instantly think that Jesus is being callous.   It would seem, at least from our modern perspective, that this man is mourning, having just lost his father.

The fact is, his father actually probably died a year or more before.   What happened in that culture is that when a person died, they were anointed, wrapped in a cloth shroud and placed in a tomb. There would have been an actually formal burial rite at that times.  And of course, Jesus himself would later be buried exactly like this.

This initial tomb bury was actually a temporary interment.  They were probably placed on a shelf near the entrance of the tomb.  About a year or so after their death, the family gathered again at which time the tomb was re-opened.  By that time, the body would, of course,  have been reduced to bones.  The bones would then be collected, placed in a small stone box and buried with the other relatives, probably further back in the tomb.  

A remnant of this tradition still exists in Judaism, when, on the first anniversary of the death of a loved one, the family often gathers to unveil the gravestone in the cemetery.  Which I think a very cool tradition personally. 

We actually oftentimes do have a similar tradition. More and more, we find that often, there is a cremation and a memorial service within the week of death, but the burial or disposition of the remains takes place much later. Sort of like the burial we did on Wednesday night.

So, when we encounter this man in today’s Gospel, we are not necessarily finding a man mourning his recently deceased father.  What we are actually finding is a man who is waiting to go to the tomb where his father’s bones now lie so he can bury the bones.  When we see it from this perspective, we can understand why Jesus makes such a seemingly strange comment—and we realize it isn’t quite the callous comment we thought it was.  

As far as Jesus is concerned, the father has been buried.  Whatever this man does is merely an excuse to not go out and proclaim the kingdom of God, as Jesus commands him to do.

Now to be fair to the man, he could just be making an excuse, which really under any other circumstances, would have been a perfectly valid excuse.  Or he could really have felt that his duty as his father’s son took precedence over this calling from Jesus.  It doesn’t seem as though he doesn’t want to follow Jesus or proclaim the Kingdom.  He doesn’t flat-out say no.  He simply says, not now.  In a sense, he is given the choice between the dead and dried bones of his father or the living Jesus who stands before him.

Jesus’ response, which may sound strange to our modern, Western ears, is actually a very clear statement to this man.  He is saying, in a sense: “You are attached to these bones.  Don’t worry about bones.  Break your attachment, follow me, proclaim the goodness and love of God and you will have life.  Follow me TODAY.  NOW”

How many times have we been in the same place in our lives?  How many times have we looked for excuses to get out of following Jesus, at least right now?  We all have our own “bones” that we feel we must bury before we can go and proclaim the Kingdom of God in our midst by following Jesus.  We all have our own attachments that we simply cannot break so we can go forward unhindered to follow and to serve.

And they’re easy to find.  It’s easy to be led astray by attachments—to let these attachments fill our lives and give us a false sense of fulfillment.  It is easy for us to despair when the bad things of life happen to us.

But the fact is, even when awful things happen, even then, we need to realize, it is not the end.   Despite these bad things, the kingdom of God still needs to be proclaimed. Now.  And not later. Not after everything has been restored. Not when everything is good and right in the world.  Not when the elections are over, or the weather is cooler. Not after we have calmed down.

The Kingdom needs to be proclaimed NOW.  Now.  Even in the midst of chaos.  Even when those crappy things happen, we still need to follow Jesus.  Right now.  Right here.

Our faith in God, our following of Jesus and our striving to love and serve others doesn’t change just because we have setbacks.  Rather, when the setbacks arise, we need to deal with them and move on.   But if those setbacks become an excuse not to follow Jesus, then they too become a case for  letting these dead bury their own dead.

So, in a sense, we find ourselves confronted with that very important question: what are we, in our own lives, attached to?  What are the “bones” of our life?  What are the attachments in our life that cause us to look for excuses for not following Jesus and serving others?  For not loving, fully and completely.  What things in our lives prevent us  from proclaiming the Kingdom of God?

Whatever they might be, just let them be.  Let the dead bury their own dead.  Let’s not become attached to the dead objects of our lives that keep us from serving our living God.  Let’s  not allow those dead things to lead us astray and prevent us from living and loving fully.  Let us not become bogged down with all the attachments we have in this life as we are called to follow Jesus.  Let us not let them become the yoke of slavery we hear Paul discussing in his letter to the Galatians. Rather, let us take this yoke, break it and burn it as Elisha did, as an offering to our living God. 

But let us remember that this is not some sweet, nice, gentle suggestion from Jesus.   It is a command from him.

“Let the dead bury their own dead. But as for you, go, and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

We proclaim the kingdom, as we all know, by loving God and loving each other. You can’t proclaim the kingdom—you can’t love—when you are busy obsessing about the dead, loveless things of your life.  

We who are following Jesus have all put our hands to the plow.  We put our hands to that plow when were baptized, when we set out on that path of following Jesus. Now, with our hands on that plow, let us not look back.  Let us not be led astray by the attachments we have in this life that lead us wandering about aimlessly. But, let us focus. Let us look forward.  Let us push on. Let us proclaim by word and example the love we have for God and one another.   And when we do, we are doing exactly what Jesus commands us to do.

Now is the time.   Let us proclaim that Kingdom and making it a reality in our midst. Now. Amen.

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