Note: I preached a version of this sermon on June 29-30, 2019 (the Third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 8C) at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda.
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
One of my all-time favorite books is the novel Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. It’s written in the voice of an ailing Congregational minister recording family history for a young son he fathered late in life. The main character says:
“I don’t know how many times people have asked me what death is like, sometimes when they were only an hour or two from finding out for themselves. Even when I was a very young man, people as old as I am now would ask me, hold on to my hands and look into my eyes with their old milky eyes, as if they knew I knew and they were going to make me tell them. I used to say it was like going home. We have no home in this world, I used to say, and then I’d walk back up the road to this old place and myself a pot of coffee and a fried-egg sandwich and listen to the radio, when I got one, in the dark as often as not.”
We’ve been going through one of those times in a church where the deaths and the funerals come in quick succession. Jack Fisk, who was a member here for many years and who in his lucid moments would tell me about his years as a military pilot; Ed Friz, who used to sit right in the row behind me; Randy Johnson, who was organizing property projects constantly until right before he died, gone within a few days of each other.
I don’t mention this to get anyone to pity them or to spark any second-hand grief. Everyone dies, all of us will die, and the sooner we face that fact directly, the sooner we can hear God speaking to us beyond death. They had no home in this world. They had beautiful places to live, but no home. None of us does. And now they’ve gone home, as all of us will someday have the chance to do.
We spend our lives in this world trying to find a home. Trying to make a home. We rent a place or buy a place or we stay with friends. We bring our bag of belongings to a church basement. We get on a plane to go from a refugee camp to a new country that’s been willing to receive us. We decorate. We personalize. Even detained immigrant children will try to give some beauty to their surroundings. A foster care expert I was talking to this week told me that experienced parents know how to make their house smell like fresh cookies when a child arrives, so they’ll feel safe. Experienced parents know not to decorate a foster child’s room in advance, so that the child can choose her own color or character for her bedspread.
We even stretch this idea, this feeling of “home” to cover whole communities and nations. We tell ourselves that this is a place for certain kinds of people and not for others. Because we want it to feel familiar, secure, normal. Like home.
But in the end there is no home. We have no home in this world, only the fleeting experience of home.
Today, on the way to Jerusalem, Jesus encounters three potential disciples. He stops first at a village of Samaritans, but they won’t receive him because he is going toward Jerusalem—Samaritans had a different place of worship. His disciples ask Jesus if the town should be punished with fire, and Jesus rebukes them.
But then he meets three people. The first one asks to be a disciple. This is not usually how it works in the Gospels. Jesus takes the initiative in calling disciples. This man does not wait for an invitation, but offers to follow Jesus wherever Jesus goes. And Jesus says, “foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
The second person is called by Jesus: Follow me. But this one has a task to finish. Let me bury my father first, he says. Jesus tells him, “let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
A third person comes up and offers to follow Jesus, but with a condition: I will follow you, but first let me say farewell to those in my home. Jesus tells him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
This is a terrible and climactic moment in the Gospel. Jesus is warning people who want to follow him. He’s warning them that the comforts and duties of home will not be available to them if they decide to follow. Having a place to lay your head is good, but the Son of Man has nowhere to do it. Burying a parent is not only good, it is a sacred duty. But someone else will have to see to it if you are going to proclaim the kingdom of God. Saying goodbye to your household, or your guests, is good. It is a basic responsibility of hospitality, of opening your home to another. It is rude to leave guests in our world, it’s worse to leave a household. These were terrible violations in Jesus’ world. But whoever puts his hand to the plow and then looks at the things behind him will never be fit for the kingdom of God.
These are hard words. For my money, they’re the hardest words in the Gospels. They’re so hard because they are all about home—about our never-ending and never-successful and quintessentially human search for home. Home is where we lay our head, safely and reliably. Home is where our ancestors are buried. Home is where we welcome guests and make families and show them honor. Home is where the smell of fresh cookies welcomes us, where Ed sits right behind you Sunday after Sunday, where Randy is making sure the carpets get steam-cleaned.
And Jesus is telling his hearers today that they have to be willing to part with all of it for the sake of the kingdom of God.
It’s a hard word.
But Jesus never tells anyone about what they will lose without also showing them what they will gain. Jesus exchanges the illusion of home in one settled place for a true home on the way. Jesus exchanges the solemn duty toward the dead for a new duty toward those who are being called into life in God’s kingdom. Jesus tells his listeners to reject the backward pull of our homes in this world and to accept the forward motion of the Kingdom of God.
And this does not mean that each of us is being called individually through these words to abandon our homes, abandon our family obligations, and abandon our guests. But these words are a warning and a blessing. A warning because we do not, in the end, have a home in this world. Home is a feeling, an experience, not a place. If we hold it too tight, if we’re too afraid to lose it, we’ll never really possess it.
And it’s a blessing because it is Jesus’s hard way of offering us something better. There is no lasting home in this world, but there is home in the kingdom of God, which we experience here and now by faith and love, by Word and Sacrament and justice and charity; and in the age to come with all of our being, by eyes and ears and hands and feet. There is no bond that finally holds us in this world, but in the kingdom of God we are bound to every life and every molecule God created in love. There are guests in this world, but in the kingdom of God we are all guests, and God is our host, and nothing we’ve had to walk away from here will be lost forever. We seek home, and love, and life; we do everything to save home, and love, and life; we can’t keep home, and love and life in this world. But in the kingdom of God there is home, and love, and life forever. Amen.