The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Plymouth Congregational Church
Fort Collins, Colorado
Would you join me in prayer? O God who walks with us on the many paths of life, I pray that the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts may be good and pleasing in your sight. Amen.
One of the greatest gifts of ministry with Plymouth over the past years has been the participatory planning of the All-Church Retreat. While many of our ministry teams require only distant supervision or occasional guidance (usually only in the event of a crisis), it has been part of the full-time associate minister role for me to walk through the joyful creation of this annual event as a member of the planning team.
One of the saddest parts of leaving Plymouth before September, when the All-Church Retreat will take place this year, is not having the chance to attend this event. I always name it as my very favorite moment of ministry here every year. And this year, friends, let me just say that the team is planning the coolest, most intergenerational, artist-filled weekend of going deeper in faith and Spirit together down at La Foret. We even have an internationally known rock balancing artist contacted to come for our program!
What is it, though, about the All-Church Retreat that has made it, repeatedly, the highlight of my year of ministry, year after year? What makes it special and even restorative for our work together as church? Why would anyone choose to spend a year planning an event for church to gather in old cabins, to worship in the outdoors, to be dirty, to not get much sleep, and to be homesick? We have a perfectly good church building. We have perfectly good beds here at home. We have perfectly great hiking in Lory State Park. Why would one do that on purpose—especially as it requires driving South on I-25 during a Friday rush hour?
Here is why: for me, the All-Church Retreat (like the All-Church Picnic) is a Sacrament of the Plymouth Church Year. It is a Sacrament that disrupts the systems and the “normal” of our lives together. The manners in which we do community and worship and fellowship is challenged and set (for me) on a new pathway every year from the retreat onward. The All-Church Retreat is where I have my ministry New Year Eve. It reminds that the church isn’t contained by walls or magic words… but by people, their stories shared around a campfire, and the attentive listening to the Spirit. On the hikes and the pathways of the retreat, norms are challenged and new ways of being in community emerge.
Like the All-Church Retreat, leaving our comfort zones and upsetting norms is also the subject of our Scripture passage this morning from the Gospel According to Luke. It is a passage that on the surface appears to be Jesus in a really foul mood. On the surface it is a text that makes us cringe at times of change and transition, but under that surface is a call to go deeper into Christian love together especially at times of new pathways and journey.
In today’s passage, Jesus encounters some “wanna be” disciples. While our reading today is often thought of as one conversation, if we break it apart, there are actually three distinct and potentially very different people auditioning to be disciples before Jesus. Since there is no time marker between them, each could have been a very distinct conversation and context. This is like an American Idol for auditioning Disciples, except Jesus is a tougher audience and judge than even Simon Cowell.
Within the context of the Gospel of Luke, at this point in the story, Jesus is transitioning from B-List (regional) Prophet (sort of the type who might play Las Vegas) to an A-List Celerity. Jesus is becoming the Jesus Christ Superstar we imagine in theater and movies. We catch-up with Jesus today right in the moment when he is really building up his ministry, and people are paying attention. Joiners are circling. Do you know what the word “joiner” means? Joiners are the opposite of covenant-makers. These are the folks who attach themselves to the next best celebrity and then leave just as easily for the next best thing. Jesus is auditioning disciples not joiners for the difficult work of walking together in the woodland and forests of Spiritual Community.
Let us hear the text again listening for all three audition tapes in this episode of Disciples Idol:
57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 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.” 59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60 But Jesus[a] said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Here are three people all presenting themselves to Jesus to be followers, and now the story never tells us is they actually decided to continue following Jesus or not, but it does show us three of the reasons Jesus warns them about the realities becoming part of Christian Community. Jesus offers three reasons that covenant is a difficult pathway—and note it is different for each one of them. There is no blanket response. It is individualized for each person.
To the first, Jesus tells him that one of the risks of following is discomfort and housing insecurity. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” There is likely to be times of severe discomfort on the Jesus Journey. There is the risk of restless and even sleepless nights and solidarity with those on the margins. The first trail warning is that this isn’t a comfortable walk or life. Discomfort is part of the Jesus Journey.
The second, once he receives the direct invitation to follow Jesus, suddenly pivots and comes up with the excuse of needing to go home for a previously (conveniently) unscheduled funeral. Biblical Scholars agree that this second one is the example of the false excuse for real commitment. There isn’t really a funeral to plan or attend or he wouldn’t have been there listening to Jesus in the first place. Funerals happen that quickly in the ancient world, and still today in Jewish tradition. Have any of you ever worked in the HR field? This is the, “I need to go to my grandmother’s funeral,” excused absence claim.
Even so, Jesus says that sometimes the dead will need to bury the dead. There are many valid interpretations of this, but one interpretation is that a risk of following Christ is that some things, even important things (like funerals) will never be completed. The bereavement process is a journey and not a destination. The second trail warning is that Christian life on the path less traveled doesn’t always have a sense of completion or perfect closure. Nothing final will ever feel complete, and we have to find acceptance with that.
The third trail warning is a hard one today. The person simply asks to say goodbye to friends and family before leaving. This one I feel deeply right now, and Jesus’ response pains me. Facing leaving home and not feeling like there is enough time to say goodbye to every one of you individually, Jesus’ reply seems strange or hurtful. “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
This is when we realize what Jesus is doing… everyone is welcome to be a follower, but the challenge is different for each. Jesus is working in the genre of the impossible. In the ancient world, a plow wasn’t like today’s modern GPS operated tractors made by John Deer and International Harvester. They were messy and propelled by donkeys. No matter how good of a farmer you were (even an Iowan) would have to look back and check their rows. It was part of the process.
Everyone looks back. Jesus has set-up an impossible paradigm. The third warning has the implication that none is able to do this perfectly without Grace. Jesus is using hyperbole to welcome an imperfect world and people to a new way. The third trail warning is that nobody will live up to this work. No human is fully able to let go of the past. Nobody is perfect, and none can do this Jesus Journey alone…at least not in perfection.
To each joiner, to each auditioner Jesus faces them with their own fear. It is like, for those of you who are Harry Potter fans, like a Boggart. To some that is imperfection, to others it is discomfort, and to yet others it is the incomplete.
“I will follow you wherever you go,” they say. Jesus replies, “Yes, yes, but you need to know that this whole Christianity thing is hard (hard for different people in different ways)—it means admitting to our imperfections and lack of straight lines, it means knowing that some things will be left undone and even incomplete, and that it can be uncomfortable and even sleepless at times… even away from La Foret.
[Pause 4 seconds]
This time of saying goodbye and moving feels kind of like this story rolled all into one process—incomplete, imperfect, and uncomfortable. It is all part of the larger vision of following Jesus on the road.
Let me close by adding one more observation about this passage. Verse 57 starts with this phase: “As they were going along the road…” What do you notice that is strange about this. The journey is already in motion. All three are already his followers—they never needed to audition to be followers in the first place, so Jesus challenges them with their own sense of what following means.
These and others are already in journey with Jesus. The choice is made, but the challenges remain. The word translated in our NRSV translation as “the road” comes from the Greek word Hodos. It can mean a physical way or road, but almost as often it means a course of conduct, or a way or manner of thinking (entrenched systems). As they were going along the way, as they were settling into a manner of thinking, as the systems solidified into a course of conduct… Jesus changes the direction. The hodos or the norms and familiar faces shift and the hodos ways of their lives change. Jesus offers a hodos challenging statement to each person who presents her or himself for discipleship. Going deeper in faith means understanding ourselves and accepting new pathways when presented with them for the sake of going deeper together and becoming better individuals.
I leave you now with a poem that inspired my sermon “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. I come from a literary analysis background, so when I am in times of change and stress I lean deeper not into history and facts but words and meaning.
Those who study this poem indicate that while it has a melancholy overtone, in the end there is a joy that there is no wrong way or path…all lead to a Providential Hope in God’s Realm and the interconnectedness of all Creation.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh [deep breath and pause]
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.
Psalms 42 & 43
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Blaise Pascal in the 17th c. wrote, “There was once in [us] a true happiness of which there now remains…only the mark and empty trace, which [we] in vain [try] to fill from all [our] surroundings…but these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself" [Pascal, Pensees, VII, 425, in The Great Books, vol. 33, p. 244].
How often have we, each of us, gone through a period in life feeling that something essential is missing and that there has to be something more to life. How often have we searched for that something more, only to try and fill up that God-shaped hole with something that is inadequate and not life-giving? The Psalmist was able to see what was really at stake here, saying that our hearts yearn for relationship with God in the same way that a thirsty deer longs for the cool, clear water of a rushing stream.
In one of his most recent books, UCC minister and biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann describes the countercultural nature of the Psalms. In fact, he goes beyond culture to describe what he calls the “Counter-World of the Psalms.” Brueggemann writes, “The psalms voice and mediate to us a counter-world that is at least in tension with our other, closely held world and in fact is often at direct odds with that closely held world. As a result, we yearn for a counter-world that is characterized by trust and assurance, because we know very often that our closely held world is not the best of all possible worlds. We are eager for a new, improved world that is occupied by the Good Shepherd, that yields help from the hills, and that attests a reliable refuge and strength. That is why we continually line out these particular cadences again and again. That is why we want to hear them at the hospital and at the graveside and in the many venues where our closely held world is known to be thin and inadequate. We want something more and something other than our closely held world can possibly yield" [Walter Brueggemann, From Whom No Secrets Are Hid, (Louisville: WJK, 2014) p. 9].
As we envision this counter-world, we hear the echoes of one who knew the psalms well, and we hear of his proclamation of a new realm, a new way of being, a new paradigm for how human life is organized and lived. We hear the strains of Jesus proclaiming the kingdom of God, which is what the world would be like if we lived in accordance with God’s intention.
Brueggemann sets up seven characteristics of “Our Closely Held World,” and I would ask you to remember that it is our closely held world. And I would ask you to consider these seven characteristics when you recall the political rhetoric you read in the news every day:
1) Anxiety rooted in scarcity: “We worry that if the goodies and power are shared more widely, there will not be as much for us" [Brueggemann, p. 10]. Anxiety leads people to want to build walls instead of bridges.
2) Greed: which “requires fatiguing overwork, endless 24/7 connection, and insatiable multitasking, all in an effort to get ahead or in an effort to stay even and not to fall hopelessly behind" [Brueggemann, p. 11].
3) Self-sufficiency: When Ezekiel quotes Pharaoh’s claim that “My Nile is my own: I made it for myself,” (Ezek. 29.3) or when we describe ourselves as “self-made men and women” we engage in the hubris of self-sufficiency.
4) Denial: We believe the promises of Madison Avenue, even though “our closely held world cannot keep its promises of safety, prosperity, and happiness" [Brueggemann, p. 12]. We are willing to say that the emperor has wonderful new clothes, even though we know better.
5) Despair: “Because we cannot fully master and sustain such denial and from time to time gasp before the truth that our world is not working, we end in despair.” Have you given in to despair in recent years?
6) Amnesia: We think, “It is all too much. And so, as a result, we are all too happy to press the delete button labeled amnesia” [Brueggemann, p. 13]. Whether we need to forget the images of Auschwitz or Hiroshima or Columbine or children in detention centers on our border…we hit the delete key.
7) A Normless World: “The outcome of our narcissistic amnesia is a normless world, because without God and without tradition and without common good, everything is possible” [Brueggemann, p. 14]. The dystopian world projected in George Orwell’s 1984 and in so many recent films is possible.
I know that Brueggemann paints a horrific picture: Our “closely held world” is a frightening reality that we see on the news every day. But it doesn’t have to stay that way. A world beyond the death-dealing dystopian future is possible, and it is echoed by the psalmist. We long for a different realm, one that affirms the goodness of life and of God’s creation. We long for the promised kingdom of God, what Brueggemann calls the Counter World of the Psalms:
1) Instead of anxiety, we can rely on God’s Trustful Fidelity: The psalmist cries out: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” God’s fidelity, God’s covenant faithfulness, can “grant us courage for the facing of this hour.”
2) Instead of a greed, the psalmist proclaims a World of Abundance. “The ground for such an abundance that refuses greed is the glad doxological affirmation that God is the creator who has blessed and funded the earth so that it is a gift that keeps on giving. The doxological assumption is that when God’s creatures practice justice, God’s earth responds with new gifts" [Brueggemann, p. 17].
3) Instead of the delusion of being self-sufficient, we can acknowledge our Ultimate Dependence on God. We can see the miraculous nature of creation and life and know that we did nothing to create it, but that we are stewards responsible for preserving it.
4) Instead of denial, the psalmist embraces Abrasive Truth Telling. Whether “speaking the truth in love” or announcing an inconvenient truth, the psalmist calls out injustice and falsehood. “The entire genre of lament, complaint, and protest constitutes a refusal of denial” [Brueggemann, p. 20]. And truth-telling requires courage.
5) Despair – the hallmark of our times – can be overcome by A World of Hope. This is the world the poet portrays by repeating this refrain in Psalm 42 and Psalm 43: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” (42.11 and 43.5) “Hope in God! Hope in God! Which is to say: ‘Do not hope in self. Do not hope in progress Do not hope for luck.’” [Brueggemann, p. 23]. Hope is the great refusal to accept the shadowy culture of despair.
6) Lively Remembering sets aside cultural amnesia about the goodness and presence of God. The refrain of Psalm 136 echoes back the history of all that God has done: “for his steadfast love endures forever.” If we don’t take time for awe, that is to reflect and remember what God has done in the glory of creation, we lapse into amnesia.
7) The psalmist’s antidote to a Normless World is Normed Fidelity – our faithfulness to God through Torah, not meaning simply “the Law,” but as Brueggemann claims, the entire legacy of norming that is elastic, dynamic, fluid, and summoning….It is the Torah that yields identity and perfect freedom. It is indeed a gift to come down where we ought to be" [Brueggemann, p. 25-26].
Some would have us feel as though we are powerless to change the world, to change the course of our nation’s history, and to change ourselves. This is not so. We don’t have to slip into war with Iran, to launch global trade wars, to round up productive members of society as if they were animals, to accept gun violence as normative. And it isn’t because we are brighter or wealthier or have more followers on Facebook. We aren’t that self-sufficient!
Another world is possible. The Counter-World of the Psalmist, the kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus, the world of hope. Remember the words of Paul, dear friends of God, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” We can learn to fill the God-shaped hole not just in ourselves, but in the culture and fabric of this nation. Amen.
© 2019 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
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