The end of May and the start of June are good times for preachers, because that is when the media are flooded with quotations from graduation speeches that may be handy throughout the following months. For instance, The Huffington Post cited a commencement speech given at Kenyon College in Ohio.
“Author John Green admitted to Kenyon College graduates that he’s supposed to tell them adulthood isn’t so bad. He refused.
‘It is so bad,’ Green said in a commencement speech on May 21, in Gambier, Ohio. ‘If anything, it is far worse than I could even have imagined. I mean, have you ever been to a homeowners’ association meeting? Each of you in the Class of 2016 is wondrous and precious and rare life in a vast and almost entirely dead universe — imagine devoting two hours of your bright but brief flicker of consciousness to a debate over whether the maximum allowable length of grass in your neighborhood’s front lawns should be 4 inches or 6.’”
He did qualify his observation, though.
“And if you can remember that conversations about grass length and the weather are really conversations about how we are going to get through, and how we are going to get through together, they become not just bearable but almost kind of transcendent.”
I actually tried to keep this in mind two weeks ago as I sat through a 2 ½ hour HOA meeting myself, of which at least an hour was devoted to snow removal issues. It wasn’t easy.
That’s one reason I appreciate what Jesus told his disciples about being disciples. It is worthwhile but it is not always easy, and one of the main difficulties is that the people who are close to you may not always get what you’re doing or why. If you listen to what he says to people who either offer to follow him or whom he calls to follow him (both show up in this passage), he tells them that following will prevent them from having what we might call a normal life.
The first one is told that he may never have a chance to settle down and attend HOA meetings.
“Someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’” [Luke 9:58]
The next encounters seem harsher yet, even abrasive.
“To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’” [Luke 9:59-62]
I sort of want to explain this away, to say Jesus must not have meant it quite the way it sounds. After all, isn’t loyalty to family a key part of simple human decency? I’m just talking loyalty here, not even mentioning the real and deep love that should be part of the relationship beyond that.
The reason I can’t do that is that Jesus himself displayed a different kind of family values from the very start, where the awareness of belonging to God is greater than any other.
“Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’ He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ But they did not understand what he said to them.” [Luke 2:41-50]
When he was older, he did something similar. Again, Luke tells us,
“Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. And he was told, ‘Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.’ But he said to them, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.’” [Luke 8:19-21]
So, no, I cannot say that when Jesus told his followers or potential followers that they should put the demands of family further down the list that he didn’t mean it.
If others say the same thing, we don’t really question it. One of my cousins wrote this on Facebook this week:
“I just got 4 letters in the mail from my son who's at basic training. Weird I can't just call him or text him to see if he's ok. Now I have his address I can at least write to him. Family if you'd like his address just send me a personal message & I'll get it to you!”
We accept that military training is going to involve practices that are designed to create group cohesion and to develop focus that may mean putting the people back home out of mind for awhile in some situations. The same may be true of Christian service in some circumstances.
If you are visiting people in prison, you need to be aware of your surroundings. One time I was leading a Bible study at a correctional facility in Philadelphia when one of the inmates jumped up and lunged at another, grabbing his shirt pocket. With his other hand, he reached into it and a puff of smoke rose up as he pulled out a lit cigarette, which he stubbed out on the floor. What if it had turned out to have been, as I thought at first, the beginning of a prison fight?
If you are tending the sick, you probably cannot function well if the only thing on your mind is, “I hope I don’t catch something and take it home.” Years ago, before we understood that HIV is not transmitted by casual contact, I saw someone try to minister to a man with AIDS by standing in the doorway of his room and praying for him from there, afraid even to stand by his bedside. The grace of God did not carry across to him very well.
If you are going to speak about the difficult work of rectifying historical injustices, you cannot become defensive about admitting that your own ancestors benefited directly from wrongdoing, and that the advantages they accrued have carried along through the years in the various forms of privilege that folks like me (and maybe you) take for granted. That is letting the dead bury the dead.
Jesus is honest with us. Discipleship has its costs, and they may be more than we are aware of until the moment is upon us. I like to think of it, in some ways, like getting onto a roller coaster. You get into the car, knowing that it is, after all, a roller coaster. It’s only as you get toward the top of that first drop, however, that you have that unmistakable awareness that this may have been more than you bargained for. A second later you are plunging down the other side, held in only by the safety bar, and thinking about what a mistake you have made. Then you begin to whip around and bounce and you are screaming, but the screams turn from “Oh, no!” into “Whoo-hoo!” and when you glide into the final curve and then get out with shaky legs you start wondering if the line is too long to give it another go.