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Counting the Cost of Coming and Going

Sermon Preached at St Mary's, Acton, 1/07/2007
Revd Sue Groom, Director of Deanery Licensed Ministers

Proper 8
Readings: 1 Kings 19; Galatians 5; Luke 9:51-62

In the gospels there are two words which Jesus speaks regularly. One is ‘come’ and the other is ‘go’. It is no use coming unless you go and it is no use going unless you come.

But you also need to count the cost of coming and going.

We hear this morning that Jesus himself is going to Jerusalem, he has set his face in that direction. This is his exodus, not a triumphant one like that led by Moses out of Egypt, this exodus will consist of rejection and suffering a painful death on a cross.

Jesus sends messengers to go ahead of him into a Samaritan village. But the people there do not say, ‘come’, Jesus is not welcome, he is rejected. Two of his apostles, James and John, also known as the ‘sons of thunder’, want him to imitate the great prophet Elijah and call down fire from heaven to destroy those who resist him. But Jesus is not Elijah and he rebukes his disciples. Jesus is not on a triumphant march, sweeping all resistance aside. Jesus is on a journey of love and grace, of love and grace so immense that people will be surprised and shocked.

As they go along the road, someone comes to Jesus and declares, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ Surely that’s good news. But Jesus does not welcome with open arms, instead he responds with a challenge to count the cost, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ Does this person really understand what following Jesus means? Jesus is going to Jerusalem, to further rejection, suffering and death. To a first century Jew, the Son of Man, as Jesus is referred to here, was a wonderful figure mentioned by the prophet Daniel. According to Daniel, the Son of Man would have dominion, glory and kingdom with all peoples and all nations serving him. The idea of following a rejected, suffering Son of Man would be a nasty shock to a first century Jew.

But there may be even more to it than that... Jesus may be talking in code. The fox was a symbol for foreigners, for the political enemies of Israel. You may know that Jesus calls Herod Antipas, ‘that fox’. He may be saying here: ‘If you want power and influence join the birds who feather their own nests. Follow the fox who manages his own affairs with considerable cunning. For, in spite of your expectations, the Son of Man is powerless and alone.’ This Son of Man is suffering and rejected. Do you really want to follow him? Luke doesn’t tell us how the eager volunteer reacted to this challenge. We can only complete the conversation with our own response. Do you really want to follow Jesus?

To another person Jesus says, ‘come, follow me.’ But this one hesitates, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ If his father has just died, then what is he doing out by the roadside, why isn’t he keeping vigil over his father’s body? Why isn’t he at home in mourning? But there may be more to it than that. His father may still be alive and well. The phrase, ‘to bury one’s father’, is a traditional idiom for the duty of the son to remain at home to care for his parents until they have died and been laid respectfully to rest. This person is postponing following Jesus for the foreseeable future. He is making excuses. We too have community and family expectations, peer pressures. We too make excuses. But Jesus shows little sympathy with these. He responds, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ He is insistent and emphatic, ‘When you come and follow me, your absolute priority is to go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Seek first the kingdom of God.

Another eager volunteer proclaims, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at home.’ He too sets conditions. He will come and follow Jesus after he has gone home. Surely he will be allowed to go home and say goodbye to his family first. Elisha, when he was called to follow Elijah, asked for time to go and kiss his parents goodbye. His request was granted and he even took time to butcher and cook a pair of oxen. But there may be more to it than that. In the Middle East traditionally the authority of the father is supreme so it is only to be expected that the young man wants to ask for his parents’ approval and blessing before going to follow Jesus. But Jesus claims an even higher authority than that of the man’s father. In the circumstances this is completely outrageous and utterly shocking. Jesus says to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’ As Jesus has set his face to go to Jerusalem and will not be distracted on the way, so his followers are expected not to be distracted from their call to come and follow him.

I’ve never tried to plough a furrow but I can imagine what might happen if I was going in a straight line and decided to turn around to check how I’d done: there would be a wiggle in the line behind me. It’s like when I’m cycling along and I turn to look over my shoulder, I inevitably wobble. Or like when we’re singing a hymn, if we look back at the last line to check whether we sang the right words, we’ll lose our place in the current one. If you’re on a journey you need a map which tells you where to go next, not one which tells you where you’ve come from. Once you have decided to come and follow Jesus keep your eyes firmly fixed on him.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed in a concentration camp for resisting Hitler, wrote this:

‘When Christ calls someone, he bids them come and die. It may be a death of that like the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time – death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old person at his call. Jesus’ summons to the rich young man was calling him to die, because only the person who is dead to their own will can follow Christ. In fact every command of Jesus is a call to die, with all our affections and lusts. But we do not want to die, and therefore Jesus Christ and his call are necessarily our death as well as our life.’

Jesus calls each one of us to follow him. But it isn’t easy to come to Jesus and to go and proclaim the kingdom. There is always a cost. The Christian journey isn’t a sprint either, it’s a marathon. There are mountains to climb with tremendous views from their summit and deep valleys with tough terrain to traverse. We Christians need to be persistent, to remain firm in our focus on Christ, for he is the one who goes before us and knows the way. He is our light and our guide. He is the way, the truth and the life.

When Mary was ordained a priest yesterday, the bishop said these words, ‘You cannot bear the weight of this calling in your own strength, but only by the grace and power of God. Pray therefore that your heart may daily be enlarged and your understanding of the Scriptures enlightened. Pray earnestly for the gift of the Holy Spirit.’

Mary will soon invite us to come and receive the body and blood of Christ. We do so in order to receive his grace and power to go and proclaim his kingdom. It is no use coming unless you go and it is no use going unless you come. In the name of Christ. Amen.

Acknowledgements and Bibliography
As with any sermon, various ideas come together over a period of time and it isn't always possible to retrace my steps to every source of inspiration. I am particularly indebted here, however, to Kenneth E Bailey's Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes (Eerdmans, 1983) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison (SCM, 2001). I will gladly acknowledge any other sources if brought to my attention. Thank you.

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