The Fox, the Funeral, and the Furrow
Our text is primarily about those who would be pastors coming as it does right before Jesus sends out the first 70 pastors. Nevertheless our text addresses the conundrums all followers of Jesus face namely the fox, the funeral, and the furrow.
Following Jesus means being crazier than a fox. Jesus says His followers have a less permanent earthly home than foxes do. Why does Jesus pair foxes and birds to make His point? These two animals emphasize it. Birds build multiple nests and "foxes have about 30 dens in 600 acres of land" (http://www.edu.pe.ca/southernkings/fox.htm). You have to be crazier than fox to follow Jesus into an earthly homelessness. And Jesus is upfront about this; along with Lynn Anderson, He never promises you a rose garden.
In fact He promises you thorns. What would you expect from a Man whose only earthly crown was of thorns? What would you expect from the Savior who was prophesied to be a Man of Sorrows and acquainted with grief? What would you expect from a Man whose entire life is summarized in the Apostles' Creed by the word "suffered?" What would you expect from the God who commanded you last week to pick up your cross before following Him?
Do you hear the poetry in Jesus' words to the first would-be follower? "A rhythm of three beats per line results when the most important words are emphasized in speaking" "Foxes holes have/ birds of the sky nests; / but the Son of Man has not/ where the head to lay" (Tannehill, 171). There's poetry to the life of the Christian and the rhythm is suffering. Hebrews 11:37-39 catches the rhythm: "They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreatedThey wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground."
You have to be crazier than a fox which always has earthly homes nearby for shelter to follow Jesus who promises no earthly home, and following Him means having a new perspective on funerals. It's debatable whether the man's father is dead or the would-be follower wishes to put off following Jesus until his father dies. What is not debatable is that now is the time to follow, and not even the excuse of a funeral is to interfere.
You're familiar with The Venite. That's Psalm 95 set to a chant tone, but it's not all of Psalm 95. We end with "For He is our God: and we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand." Psalm 95 ends with "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts." Now is the day of your salvation; now is the day to repent of putting family, friends, even funerals before the things of your salvation.
Jesus emphasizes the now-ness of it by His memorable play on words "Let the dead bury their own dead" because we will accept an emotion in place of an action. You might have noticed this in marriage. Every time you've had the feeling to do something nice out of the blue for your spouse and didn't do it the good emotion you had became the substitute for the action. The more that happens the less and less likely you are to act the next time. The man in our text wants to follow Jesus as commanded, but he doesn't want to act now. Jesus won't let him get by with the fine emotion of wanting to do what is right; He slaps him hard with the memorable word play - leave the dead to bury the dead.
This is a slap all right, but it also means followers of Jesus aren't dead. How could they be? Did not the One we follow swallow Death? Was not He the death of Death itself? Sure Jesus looked easily swallowable on the cross hanging there helpless, covered by the world's sins. Sure He looked like just one more sinful human that had no right to life because He was guilty as sin. But those were the world's guilts, your guilts, covering Him. Jesus had not one of His own. Guiltless was Jesus of any sin in deed, in word, even in thought. And He hangs there helpless before Death's open jaws not because He is has to but because He wants to.
Jesus wants Death to take Him, to swallow Him because while Death can swallow humanity, flesh and blood, sin and guilt, it can't swallow Divinity. In the womb of Mary the sinless, holy, divine Second Person of the Trinity, God the Son, was joined to our flesh and blood forever. Wherever God the Son goes thereafter the Son of Man goes. Yes, God the Son went into death to make the final payment on the sins of the world, and the flesh and blood Son of Man went with Him, but since Death can't swallow Divinity, it had to spit God the Son out of the grave and when it did our flesh and blood came too.
What a new perspective on funerals. In Jesus they aren't the end. That's why we can sing such crazy lyrics as, "It is not death to die." That's why we don't grieve at the death of a Christian as if there is no hope. That's why we mark the graves of our dead in Christ; they're places where life rises again not death descends forever. That's why with Paul in the New Testament and Hosea in the Old we taunt Death. Yes we taunt, we tease, we make fun of Death whom the world considers almighty. We say, "O Death where is your sting? O grave where is your victory?"
This new perspective on funerals which comes from being crazier than a fox and following Jesus leads to being able to unfurrow your brow. Jesus begins with poetic words to an overeager follower. He uses word play with a reluctant follower, and He ends using playful words on a potential follower who doesn't see the foolishness of what he is doing.
Only in a Laurel and Hardy movie, a Marx Brothers skit, a Three Stooges gag, or a toddler walking are you going to see someone looking backward while moving forward. It's funny; it's silly. Unlike the second man who replied to Jesus command to follow, "Lord first let me go and bury my father," only intimating that he would return, the third man says he will. "I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good-by to my family." The Greek word means more than say good-by.' It means "detach with orders." The other places it occurs in the New Testament it's translated by the NIV "take leave of." Only here is it rendered, "say good-bye."
But this is a reasonable request, isn't it? Jesus uses playful words to show the man's request in a new light. Going back to take leave of your family, to set your house in order may seem sensible, but in reality it is as foolish as looking backward while plowing forward. Some people's hearts are always in the past. They walk forward forever looking backward. They either think wistfully of the good old days or painfully of the bad ones. A coach for the New Orleans Saints said at a press conference that he was tired of talking coulda, woulda, shoulda about the past game. Some people not only never tire of talking about the past they only really are alive there.
Jesus would free His followers from trying to live in the past, and He would do it by means of unfurrowing our brows, by laughing. Yes, whether I'm living in the good old days where "life was sweet like rain upon by tongue," or "when all my troubles seemed so far away," I may seem as happy as Jethro Tull's resolve to go living in the past, but I'm the toddler about to walk into the wall because I'm really looking behind me. And I can laugh at that, and listen carefully here; I can laugh at that even if the past I'm focusing on is not happy but painful and sinful.
Twenty or more years ago I was confessing my sins when the brother pastor burst out laughing. When I had gotten to the point in the private confession liturgy where the penitent says, "What troubles me particularly is [fill in the blank]," I confessed a sin of many years before. My confessor laughed that a sin Scripture says God has cast behind His back for the sake of Jesus' innocent life and guilty death could still be before my eyes. My confessor laughed that a sin Micah 7 says God has cast into the depths of the sea should be so close to the surface of my heart. How silly of me!
How many people are hindered, hampered, crippled, by real or imagined guilt that they drag behind them and insist on looking at? 2,000 years ago John the Baptist declared that your sins where on the Lamb of God and He was carrying them away from you not to you. 2,000 years ago God was not counting the sins of people, and you're a people too, against them but against Christ. 2,000 years ago Jesus declared He was finished suffering for, being guilty of, and paying off that sin you think needs your suffering, guilt, and payment.
That sin has long ago been paid for, forgiven, forgotten. It only lives in your memory; it's not even alive in the past because the past is dead and gone. The past no more belongs to you than the future does. So you can as St. Paul says he does forget those things that lay behind and strain toward what is ahead. Moreover that's what Jesus wants you to do; that's what Jesus calls you to do.
Easter people walk toward sunrises not sunsets. This is seen in our churches and graveyards. Our churches are usually built facing east and even when they're not the front wall is still called the east wall because we're looking forward to our Lord Jesus returning for us. Malachi 4:2 says, "The sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall." And when we do dig holes in the ground not to live like a fox but to bury are dead, we bury our dead in Christ facing east, facing the rising sun in the anticipation that this funeral isn't the end of their life but the prelude to them gamboling about like calves finally and happily released from a stall.
Unfurrow your brows you people who are crazier than a fox who have such a funeral to look forward to. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (20130630); Luke 9: 57-62