Discipleship Made Hard | 30 June 2013


Text: Luke 9:51-62

As I get my bearings here, we’re sticking with the lectionary as a faithful guide to keep us in the flow of the wider church.  There is a strong theme of discipleship in today’s gospel reading.

I want to start by reading a poem, one that some of you may very well be familiar with.  It’s a poem by Julia Kasdorf, and it’s called Green Market, New York.  By way of brief introduction, Julia Kasdorf could be called the matriarch of Mennonite poetry, and this poem is the first poem that appeared in her first book of poetry, which was titled Sleeping Preacher, published in 1992.  The fact that the matriarch of Mennonite poetry is still mid-career and published her first book just a little over 20 years ago already tells us something about Mennonites’ wary historic relationship to the arts.  She has said that the poem’s location at the beginning makes it serve as something of a thesis for that book, which might also make it something of a poetic thesis for the contemporary North American Mennonite experience.

Here it is:

Green Market, NY

The first day of false spring, I hit the street,
buoyant, my coat open.  I could keep walking
and leave that job without cleaning my desk.
At Union Square the country people slouch
by crates of last fall’s potatoes.
An Amish lady tends her table of pies.
I ask where her farm is.  “Upstate,” she says,
“but we moved from P.A. where the land is better,
and the growing season’s longer by a month.”
I ask where in P.A.  “Towns you wouldn’t know,
around Mifflinburg, around Belleville.”
And I tell her I was born there.
“Now who would your grandparents be?”
“Thomas and Vesta Peachey.”
“Well, I was a Peachey,” she says,
and she grins like she sees the whole farm
on my face.  “What a place your folks had,
down Locust Grove.  Do you know my father,
the Harness shop on the Front Mountain Road?”
I do.  And then we can’t think what to say
that Valley so far from the traffic on Broadway.
I choose a pie while she eyes my short hair
then looks square on my face.  She knows
I know better than to pay six dollars for this.
“Do you live in the city?” she asks, “do you like it?”
I say no.  And that was no lie, Emma Peachey.
I don’t like New York, but sometimes these streets
hold me as hard as we’re held by rich earth.
I have not forgotten that Bible verse:
Whoever puts his hand to the plow and looks back
is not fit for the kingdom of God.

I love this poem.  It describes an experience so particular as to have universal appeal.  You don’t have to have grown up on a farm in Pennsylvania, or grown up Mennonite, to get what’s going on here.  I love the urban street scene of a secularized and citified woman encountering the visitor from the countryside who is both foreigner and family.  I love that line which the poet says to herself and to us “I don’t like New York, but sometimes these streets hold me as hard as we’re held by rich earth.”  I also love what to me was a surprise ending: the urbanized poet pondering the romantic, rural, and religious path not taken, quoting scripture, invoking a plow in the field, of all things.  Might this life that she is living and has no intention of leaving, also, be a part of the kingdom of God?

That last line from the poem, “whoever puts one’s hand to the plow and looks back is not fit for the kingdom of God,” is also the last line from the gospel reading.  The first time I heard this poem I went to my Bible and wrote Julia Kasdorf in the margin by Luke 9:62.

The line comes at the end of a series of interactions Jesus has about the nature of discipleship.  What it means, and doesn’t mean, to heed that simple but life-altering invitation he gave to so many, “Follow me.”

I want to end up back at this poem, and that final line, but first I want to back up to the beginning of the gospel passage and look at some other things going on here.

Luke 9:51 is a pivot point in Luke’s gospel.  Up until here Jesus has been traveling around the northern region of Galilee, teaching and healing, and the author, Luke, has most likely been using an older gospel, Mark, as a primary source to shape his basic outline.  But now something very different begins to happen.  Luke 9:51 says, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”  Rather than wondering the countryside, with no particular end destination in view, Luke now alerts us that Jesus has his sight set on Jerusalem, and everything that happens from this point on happens on the road, on the way, to that holy city of his people.  It’s a ten chapter chunk in the middle of Luke, and contains material unique to Luke’s gospel.  The parable of Good Samaritan and the parable of the Prodigal Son are two of the most beloved passages in that span, contained only in Luke.  Every once in a while, as things keep unfolding, Luke will remind his readers, that Jesus and those following him are on their way to Jerusalem.

But the journey gets off to a rough start.  They want to stay in a village of the Samaritans, and hearing that these travelers are headed to Jerusalem, a rival city to their holy city of Samaria, the Samaritans will not have them.  Jesus’ disciples know their Hebrew Bibles, know that there was a time when Elijah the prophet had a run in with the king of Samaria, and when the king sent messengers after Elijah, the prophet had called down fire from heaven, which had consumed these Samarians.  So, with biblical precedent in mind, they come to Jesus and ask, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven to consumer them?”  Their conflict resolution strategy does not even warrant an argument from Jesus.  Luke says, “He turned and rebuked them.  Then they went on to another village.”  This mission, this path that Jesus is on, will not use violence as a way of achieving its purposes.

This transitions us into the next part of the journey, starting in verse 57: “As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’”

Aside from having some inhospitable Samaritan neighbors and misguided disciples, Jesus seems to have a lot going for him here.  Within the span of six verses, Jesus encounters three people who wish to be his followers.  This is good.  This is a positive sign.  People have seen and heard what he is doing and want to join the movement.

But Jesus had somehow failed to read the books about church growth and how to gently and warmly welcome new potential members into the fold.  Jesus’ growth strategy here looks something like this.  1. promote voluntary homelessness 2.  counsel against providing a proper burial for a parent, and 3. discourage from giving a farewell to family members one is leaving.  This is not a way to appeal to a wide audience.

One is tempted to tone down these difficult invitations of Jesus, explain them away as not really meaning what they appear to mean.  Another temptation from the other direction might be to hold them as applying to all people in all situations at all times, sweeping statements about what it means to be a top tier true follower of Jesus.  Better to put ourselves in conversation with these statements of Jesus, and wrestle with them in all their difficulty and particularity.

To that first eager potential follower, Jesus speaks of foxes, birds, and voluntary displacement.  “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Human One, the Son of Man, has nowhere to lay his head.”  In this exchange and the exchange with the other two potential followers, we don’t get any comeback line from the inquiring disciple to be.  I wonder what Jesus would have said, if this person had come back at him and said, “But Master, I have small children.”  I don’t know.  We’re also not told in any of the exchanges whether the person decides to follow or not.

In the next chapter we do get a little more of a clue about the housing situation of this traveling group.  When they enter villages, much like they did in Samaria, they are looking for safe houses, places where people will take them in.  So Jesus isn’t so much encouraging homelessness as he is encouraging utter dependence on the hospitality of others.  These followers of Jesus are putting themselves at the mercy of the kindness and welcome of those they meet along the way.

In our transition from Cincinnati to Columbus we’ve had an interesting situation that relates to this.  In the final weeks of our time in Cincinnati there was a homeless woman that we had become friends with in our neighborhood who had been on the streets a while and was looking for a place to stay temporarily.  She came and stayed with us, even as we were packing up our house, getting ready to be temporarily unsettled in our housing situation.  Now we’re the dependent ones, relying on family to shelter us until we get into our Columbus house in a few weeks.  Being on both sides of this, I have to say that it feels more like the Christian thing to do to be the one offering shelter, than the one needing shelter.  But here Jesus counsels his followers to prepare for times of receiving this basic need from others who you may or may not know.  It can be humbling to need the generosity of others to get by.

Of the three exchanges, the second one seems to me to be the harshest on Jesus’ part.  It is different from the other two in that rather than it being the other person who initiates the conversation, volunteering themselves as a disciple; here it is Jesus who speaks first.  Verse 59: “To another he said, follow me.”  Was the person expecting this?  Are they caught off guard?  Had they even been contemplating this possibility?  In response, the reason the person states for not being able to immediately follow feels not like an excuse, but a legitimate, even compassionate cultural and family obligation.  “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”  “Let the dead bury their own dead,” Jesus replies.  “As for you, go and proclaim the Kingdom of God.”

For a devout Jew, burying the dead was a duty and basic responsibility of living a righteous life.  Why the ban from Jesus on this action?  Is Jesus trying to free him from the excessive power that family and clan and custom played at the time, opening up his life to treating all people like his father in this new universal family of the kingdom of God?  Does this path to Jerusalem, knowing that his own death is immanent, give Jesus such a sense of urgency that even the most valued and essential acts of normal human life must be set aside for the good of this Kingdom that he is proclaiming?  After he is killed in Jerusalem, even Jesus himself will need to be buried, as Joseph of Arimathea, who Luke calls a good and righteous man, will ask Pilate for Jesus’ body, will carefully wrap the body in linen cloth, and lay it in a tomb, all according to custom.  Those faithful women, who kept vigil by him at his hour of death also visit the tomb with spices to continue the burial process.  And it is they who became the first witnesses of resurrection.

In reading this second exchange with contemporary eyes, at a time when family structure is more fragmented and the bond and duties between generations less clear, I would like to think that Jesus’ issue with the person’s response is not that he wants to tend to his dying father, but that he had responded by saying, that he wanted to follow Jesus, but first he had to care for this parent.  I would like to imagine Jesus saying, If you think you must first care for your dying parent before you can follow me, then you cannot be my follower.  But if you come to realize that in the very act of caring, tending to mundane needs of your aging parent, holding vigil over their weakening body;  if you realize that in this very action you are already following me, then you will be my disciple.  There is no “first I must do this.”  It is sometimes a matter of following Christ in the midst of what you are already doing.  This can be the more difficult path.  It could very well put you in the privileged position of being on the first to glimpse resurrection.

Julia Kasdorf once commented about the writing of the Green Market, NY poem, regarding those words of Jesus in the exchange with the third potential disciple: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”  In her comments, she said this: “When I first wrote this, I had no idea why it ended as it did with that Bible verse.  The poem enacts a conversation which actually happened, pretty much as it is reported, between a contemporary, urban Anabaptist and a figure who embodies and represents the traditional, rural community.   But what about the last lines that got written later, far beyond the actual exchange at the market? Certainly I recognize the passive aggressive rhetorical strategy of hurling a Bible verse at someone in order to close a conversation or curtail conflict…Although it intuitively seemed right, I didn’t understand the poem’s ending until well after the book was published.”

These comments make me love the poem all the more because they point to something rather remarkable not only about poetry, but about the life of discipleship.  The poet, and any artist, when she is at her best, is a channel, this vessel through which the words of her poetry come to be incarnated on the page.  The words come not quite from her, but more from beyond her and through her and sometimes, like in Green Market, NY, the poet receives words that she does not yet understand.  They intuitively fit, but how?  Where did they come from?  Rather than reject the words, as foreigners who don’t belong, the poet yields to the words, mulls them over in her mind, eventually allowing them their place in the poem, not yet knowing what they mean but trusting their meaning will reveal itself over time.

Rather than making easy, or explaining away these and all the many difficult words of Jesus, the life of discipleship asks us to hold them close and let them work their way into our consciousness, not yet knowing what they mean for us, but trusting that, over time, they will make themselves known.  They become known in the living of them, and the path which we can barely see opens up in front of us just enough at a time as we follow.

“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Human One has nowhere to lay his head.”

“Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”