“Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
Given this coming Sunday’s Gospel, it strikes me that there is profound irony in the fact that for the first time in four years I am a day late in getting my post up because I have been about the business of ‘burying the dead.’ Indeed, the words of Jesus have been playing as a kind of background soundtrack in my mind over these last days as I have struggled with where I needed to be and when. Oh, I have had cause to wonder at the meaning of Jesus’ words for my life today. For while many of us can recall pivotal moments when we have turned to follow Jesus with all that this means, it seems to me that it is also so that we do this with our choices every day.
So let me give you a window into these last days and then let me offer some possible ways of thinking about Jesus’ words before us now.
Early last week the word came that Norma, a beloved family friend of more than fifty years, had died. I live close enough to the town where I grew up that such news almost always presents the opportunity to return and to be present to and for and with those who grieve. This was one time when I felt a real need to be there for Norma’s gifts to me and many were so very grace and faith filled. For many years I have acknowledged my gratitude for her kindness to me and for the ways her walk of faith served as model and guide for my own.
So it was early on Tuesday morning I heard that she had died. Later that day I heard the funeral had been set for the following Saturday. On Wednesday I was asked if I would speak at her funeral.
I knew where I felt I needed to be, and yet, there was this. Our Annual Synod Assembly would still be in session then. Perhaps there are years when one would not miss much if they were to miss out on being part of the last day of this annual business meeting of the larger church. However, this was not one of those years, for with the retirement of our bishop, we would be discerning the call of the one who would follow in his stead. And as if this were not enough, I was quite certain that some of my closest friends would be in the mix of our collective deliberation over this call. (It turns out I was right on target as to how that played out.)
So, right or wrong, the words of Jesus kept rumbling around in the back of my mind.
- What does it mean to let the dead bury their own dead?
- Was my decision to return home to share in the grief of these precious people doing that?
- Or was it more likely that there was a way in which either choice would be following Jesus and proclaiming the kingdom of God and it was simply up to me to decide in the best way I could?
In the end, it was with no hesitation that I agreed to attend Norma’s funeral and to speak. It was an honor to be able share who she had been for me and for many. And I knew it would give me the chance to show kindness to her very precious family. (Although it became evident that others knew I had made a choice as well when I leaned over to speak to Wally, Norma’s husband of 62 years. He scowled at me and told me I should be at our Synod Assembly. Respectfully, I told him I was right where I needed to be. And this was so.)
So I tell you the truth now when I say that I do not entirely know what to do with Jesus’ words about ‘letting the dead bury their own dead.’
On the one hand I am almost tempted to say that he is telling some kind of joke — or at the very least, speaking in metaphor for literally speaking, those who are actually dead certainly cannot bury others who are dead. Indeed, Jesus is clearly speaking to something basic in one man’s priorities and motivation when he tells him that to go and bury his father is to turn his back on another call. Oh yes, Jesus is talking here about making monumental choices. He is speaking to the essential truth that the choice to follow him means precluding other options — even those which are rooted in our most fundamental familial obligations.
So here is part of my struggle today. In both my personal life and in my ministry it has always been so that I have made time and space for the funerals — for ‘burying the dead.’ I have done so because these are occasions when I have always felt called to follow Jesus in ways of kindness and caring and proclaiming powerful promises of hope. For as long as I can remember I have had a real clarity about that. In my estimation, this is all the more important in a culture which habitually and perpetually tends to deny and even run from death and grief and loss. To me, these do not seem to be occasions when the ‘dead are burying the dead,’ but when those living in faith and hope are doing so. This way of thinking is so much a part of me that I find myself concluding that it surely could be dangerous, or at least profoundly irresponsible, to receive these words of Jesus as some kind of black and white expectation of you and I who follow him. For surely one of the places we must be called to ‘proclaim the kingdom of God’ is when and where people are hurting the most. On the other hand? The choices he points to now must always contribute to our deliberation — and not only one time, but again and again and again. Oh yes, we hear today that this very important conversation acknowledges that the choice to follow Jesus does mean that some things one might normally do automatically may simply not get done. Some things will not happen if this does. We hear today that this choice may well take priority over what others in the culture would say is most important. Indeed, it is altogether likely that faithful choices will defy the expectations of this world now.
Oh yes, the words of Jesus push us to wonder at whether our choices are about remaining with or joining the ‘dead’ — however that may be defined — or about moving ahead with the life of the Gospel for the sake of the world. The outcome of this ongoing conversation may likely look a little different for each of us. As for me, I have found that that this not about making only a one time choice. Rather, it means wrestling with such choices almost every day. Or several times a day. Like I did again just last week. And yesterday. And just this morning. And as I likely will again tomorrow.
- What do you think Jesus is saying when he says to “let the dead bury their own dead?” How do you understand him?
- When in your life have you found yourself making precisely this choice? For you is it a question you struggle with often, even every day?
- Can you think of times when you have given yourself over to ‘burying the dead’ in a way that was less than faithful in terms of your walk with Jesus? What did that look like for you? Did you know it at the time or only as you looked back on it?
- Can you offer a time or times when you chose to leave ‘burying the dead’ behind and chose instead to be about “proclaiming the kingdom of God?” What did that look like for you?