Every time this Gospel text rolls around, I find myself annoyed by it for what Jesus has to say today makes no sense to me at all. I mean, truly, what is this business about the dead burying their own dead? And then I remembered…
It was the summer before I was to begin my seminary internship. For the last couple of years I had been blessed with a wonderful part-time job working for the American Lutheran Church Women out of the office of the old American Lutheran Church in downtown Minneapolis. During those years before the merger which formed the ELCA, the women of the church decided to preserve their history for future generations and I was hired to serve as the project manager.
I loved the work. I loved digging into church archives, interviewing leaders about their experience, organizing time lines, and searching for old photographs. I loved being part of something that mattered. And I loved the people I worked with. Indeed, from that vantage point I was able to experience first hand the deep call lived out by people at all ‘levels’ and expressions of the church.
So as I said, it was the summer before I was to begin my seminary internship. I was anxious — more anxious even than that early day in June two years before when I drove myself to St. Paul and moved into the dorm. I knew what school looked like. I had already done that for sixteen years. I also knew what church life looked like for I had been part of the faith community since birth. Only, as I have perhaps shared before, life in the congregation where I grew up had not always been easy and I was more than a little nervous about this next step in my life where I would be trying on what it would be to be a leader in such a setting. In addition, unlike many today, I had no experience of women pastors whatsoever and so much of what lay before me felt especially unknown.
At the same time, the church at that level was going through a transition of its own. All around us those who had no intention of moving to Chicago with the new churchwide expression of the church, were making changes. My immediate supervisor, in fact, was leaving for other work and I learned that someone had suggested I be considered for the position Only I also heard that our director, Bonnie Jensen, had replied, “‘No. Janet has other things she needs to be about now.”
I can remember being a little peeved about that. I can recall wishing I had been allowed to make that decision myself. Deep down, though, I knew then as I know now that had I decided to stay there and finish out that work — assuming I would have even been given the opportunity— my motivation would have been all wrong. I would have been acting out of fear and not hope and as the wise person who never even engaged me in so much as a conversation about that option knew, it could have derailed my call for years to come. No, technically, it was not ‘the dead burying their own dead,’ but it was people putting an end to something. It was to make way for something new, yes, but my part would have only been to put an end to something without any other future in sight.
Now not everything went smoothly after that. My internship like so many others had its share of bumps. I found myself lonely and uncertain and questioning through a good part of it. When it felt darkest I can remember writing a letter (back when letter writing was more common) to Bonnie, sensing she would understand. One late night she called me up. She let me talk. And then she said three words which I have never forgotten. She said simply, “God values you.” It was all I needed to hear.
Oh yes, it is so that there is a great deal I do not understand in this week’s Gospel lesson. It makes me twitch more than a little to think of the poor man who was told that if he wished to follow Jesus he needed to leave right away — leaving others to bury his father. It’s hard to see what harm would be done by someone simply going home to say good-bye. And yet, like my old boss, Jesus knew that there are times when we must simply move forward. His face was ‘set towards Jerusalem.’ The city where he would share a last meal with his disciples. Where one would betray and another would deny and others would flee in fear and horror. Where he would die an unspeakable death to remind us all of just how much God values us. Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem and you and I are called to do the same as we follow him. And once we have heard that call in all ways that matter there is no turning back. Not for anything. Not even those very good things which meant so much before. There is no turning back.
Of course it is so that the import of this may not always seem as clear in our life of faith as it was so long ago for a 25 year old seminary student about to go on her internship. To be sure, in the day to day none of us have the hindsight that I now have looking back on that summer which turned out to be a turning point in my life. So perhaps we would do well to presume that every day is a day, like Jesus, when we are urged to ‘set our faces towards Jerusalem.’ Every single day we must have our ears, our eyes, our hearts open to answer Jesus’ call, knowing that there is no turning back. Not now and not ever. And what wondrous days those promise to be as we hear and realize anew how much God values us each one. What wondrous days these are as we follow Jesus by passing this truth along so others might hear it, too.
- What do you think Jesus means when he says the dead should bury their own dead? How have you experienced this to be true in your life?
- Can you think of times when such a clear choice was placed before you? How did you experience Jesus’ call in those times?