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Just in case you missed it...

I want to begin this morning by reading something, which I would love to take credit for, but I must confess that it was taken from the newsletter of a church in North Carolina.

The newsletter article reads:

To make it possible for everyone to attend Sunday School and church next Sunday, we will have a special “No Excuse Sunday”.

  • Cots will be placed in the foyer for those who say, “Sunday is my only day to sleep in.”

  • Visine will be available for those whose eyes are red from watching too much television or staying out too late on Saturday night.

  • Blankets will be furnished for those who complain that the church is too cold; and fans will be available for those who claim it is too hot.

  • We will have hearing aids for those who claim the preacher speaks too softly; and ear muffs for those who say the preacher is too loud.

  • Score cards will be provided for those who wish to keep track of all the hypocrites present.

  • We have arranged for some relatives to be in attendance for those who like to visit family on Sundays.

  • Frozen dinners can be reserved for those who cannot possibly manage to go to church and cook dinner on the same day.

  • One section of the church will be planted with trees and grass for those who like to see God in nature; and a putting green will be installed near the baptismal font for those who find God on the golf course. Please call ahead for a tee time.

  • Finally, the sanctuary will be decorated with both Christmas poinsettias and Easter lilies for those who have never seen the church without them.

“No Excuse Sunday”. You won’t find it listed among the many liturgical celebrations in the church calendar, but based on this morning’s Gospel it would not be inappropriate for today to carry that label. For that is what this Gospel lesson is about: the would-be followers of Christ and their excuses.

As Jesus and his disciples pass through Samaria on their way to Jerusalem, three individuals offer to follow Jesus – and each is rebuffed. These three incidents reveal how carefully Jesus was sifting through those who volunteered to become his followers and how deeply he appreciated the fact that he was passing through this region for the last time.

The first of the three individuals was being swept along by his emotions, perhaps influenced by the size of the crowd, possibly impressed by the thought of how much fun and how great a privilege it would be to join such a joyous, enthusiastic, happy company. Caught up in the excitement of the moment, there was no consideration of the pain and sacrifice which such a commitment would involve. Quick decisions, thoughtlessness, and rash behavior are not part of the true commitment to Christ, so Jesus turns the eager follower away, pointing out the tenuousness of his own situation: “even the animals have homes, but the Son of God has nowhere to lay his head.” Of course, Jesus is eager to have people join him and openly declare their loyalty and discipleship, but he would have us join with our eyes fully open, have us recognize and accept the possible high cost before we commit.

A second person is invited to follow Jesus, but he quickly offers an excuse to delay: “first, let me bury my father.” It seems a natural request, the duty of a loving son. And Jesus’ reply seems overly harsh and severe: “leave the dead to bury the dead.” But it seems that Jesus saw that this would-be disciple was turning a sacred duty into a selfish excuse. In Jesus’ response we hear that no tie, however close and tender, is sufficient excuse for refusing the invitation to follow Christ. Jesus was passing this way but once – and prompt obedience was absolutely necessary. Those who had not heard the Lord’s voice and were spiritually dead could be left to provide the father’s burial. An even more sacred task was being offered – to proclaim the Good News of salvation and life to those who were living, those who could respond.

In the case of the third possible disciple, there was no rash acceptance – he had counted the cost. And it was not his intention to make any excuses – he was definite and sincere in his commitment to become a true follower . . . just, well . . . his plan was to become one a bit later. He was not convinced that this was the best time to leave his family and friends. Just let him return home long enough to sort things out, get his affairs in order, and bid everyone a proper farewell. So, he too is rebuked - as Jesus tells him: “set your hand to the plow and work with total concentration, or do not begin the task at all.” Even slight hesitation, it seems, indicates that the glory and honor of Christ’s call is not appreciated or valued as it should be, or the individual may have other priorities, or is still weighing the costs of the sacrifice involved.

All of these individuals, these would-be disciples offered good excuses: rational, well-thought-out, sensible, even compassionate. Yet each was rebuffed and left standing by the side of the road as Jesus moved past.

Of what are they guilty, we ask? Not weighing the full costs of discipleship . . . not realizing the priority of the various sacred tasks to which we may be called . . . not accepting the urgency of the task to proclaim the Gospel . . .

Each individual is left standing, condemned only of indecision – but as Jesus makes clear, there is no place for indecision or misplaced priorities among those who are to be heirs of the Kingdom of God.

In contrast to the three volunteers, when we are told that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem,” we are given an example of true discipleship. Jesus “set his face toward Jerusalem” and there was no turning back. He knew what awaited him in the capital city – death. But still, he made it his destination. And traveling toward Jerusalem to fulfill the will of God, Jesus leads his disciples through Samaria, an area that for centuries was hostile toward Jews. But it was the most direct route – and so, through the dangerous territory they went. Encountering those who would not receive him in the Samaritan towns and villages, he instructs his disciples to keep on moving, not waste their time on those who refused to listen. There’s no time for revenge or retribution, or demands of apology, or even discussion of past actions and slights. Just get on with the sacred task given to them! Excuses and disappointments are not to deter them. So Jesus leads them onward with determination, with purpose, with resolution and commitment and urgency. Knowing full well what lies ahead, Jesus still “sets his face toward Jerusalem.” No excuses. No second thoughts. In his words and actions, Jesus shows all would-be followers: “if you want to come after me, then you are welcome; but be prepared and count the cost before you begin.”

To follow Jesus requires single-minded focus and total commitment. To follow Jesus requires our full attention on whom we are following. No excuses. No looking back.

The monk and author, Thomas Merton, once wrote: “It has never been either practical or useful to leave all things and follow Christ. And yet, it is spiritually prudent and necessary.”

Put another way – less lofty, perhaps, but equally compelling: “If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”

Or, as Charles Wesley once wrote: “We may as well try to hide a city as to hide a Christian. It is the purpose of God that every Christian should be in open view. We are to give light to all that are in the house.”

Perhaps the reason we all laugh so hard at the church newsletter with its proposal for “No Excuse Sunday” is that the truth is too painful to face head-on.

Perhaps we laugh because our excuses are really nothing more than that – downright laughable.

Perhaps we laugh to divert the pain of being left standing at the side of the road as Jesus passes us by with “his face set on Jerusalem.”

Perhaps . . . .


Proper 8/C

2 Kgs 2:1-2,6-14; Ps 30; Gal 5:1,13-25; Lk 9:51-62

30 June 2019

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