Friday, July 1, 2016

"Lord, first let me go and bury my father."

 As many of you know, I buried my father last week. I have been touched by the many gestures of consolation shown to me by members of this parish and this community. I thank you all for the opportunity to go home and say goodbye to my father. Losing someone we love is never easy, but the pain of such a loss can be somewhat alleviated if we are able to prepare ourselves, say our goodbyes, and have at least some kind of closure. I have been blessed that at both the death of my father and my oldest brother six years ago, I have had the opportunity to be with them in their last days; to pray with them, to share with them the hope of our faith, and along with my family, to usher them gently into the presence of God. It makes a huge difference. A sudden loss can be so much more difficult to endure. We need to be able to end things well, and to have closure, which is why our burial rites are so very important.

My father’s funeral was indeed a beautiful one. I did not do the service myself—I’m glad I was able to merely be the grieving son—but the pastor of my father’s church did a wonderful job officiating. The graveside committal was particularly cathartic. I was invited to lower my father’s urn into the grave that was prepared.  I stooped there in the dirt and gently let him down, and as is the custom in our tradition, I took a handful of dirt and made the sign of the cross. When I stood back up, the undertaker rolled over a wheelbarrow of dirt and invited me to fill the grave. Standing there in my black suit, I was momentarily hesitant, but I took up the shovel and began literally burying my father. Soon I was joined by my brothers. It was a bit awkward, but I am so thankful for that experience. It was the closure I needed.

Our Old Testament lesson this week presents us with another kind of farewell.  Elisha has been chosen to be the disciple of the great prophet Elijah. His call came right in the midst of his labor. He had twelve yoke of oxen ahead of him and he was plowing the fields. Suddenly Elijah threw his mantle over him, a sign that he was passing on his role as prophet to him. The scene is reminiscent of Jesus calling his disciples by the Sea of Galilee. Jesus’ disciples dropped everything and followed him. Elisha too is ready to follow his Lord even though it means that he must leave everything behind, but he makes of him one request, "Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you."
Elijah grants the young Elisha this mercy. Elisha is able to satisfactorily bring his former life to a close. He slaughters his cattle and has a farewell party for all his friends and family. He finds closure. Then he leaves them behind to be Elijah’s disciple.

It is impossible not to compare this story with very similar incidents recorded in this morning’s Gospel lesson. Like Elijah, Jesus is calling men to be his disciples. In these stories, however, Jesus seems far less merciful and accommodating than Elijah. To one who says, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father,” he responds starkly, "Let the dead bury their own dead.” To another— with a request like that of Elisha to say goodbye to those at home—Jesus says, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."

We have been speaking about the importance of closure, of resolving things, and ending well. Does not Jesus seem cruel to deny this opportunity to these disciples? Indeed, these verses have been numbered among “the difficult sayings of Christ.” They emphasize the great cost of discipleship. Following Jesus requires self-denial; it requires us to make a break with our former way of life. Jesus asks us to take up our cross and follow him. He asks that we place obedience to him above all other duties and responsibilities. Being his disciple takes priority over all else. It is of absolute importance.
The Jews took the duty to one’s parents with great seriousness. It was the solemn responsibility of a son to bury his father. To emphasize the urgency of following him, Jesus shockingly places it above even the commandment to honor father and mother.

When I got the call from my Mom to come home, that my father was close to death, I dropped everything and went. I was preparing to lead a bible study that afternoon. We were preparing the bulletin for Sunday services. I was getting ready to attend our diocesan convention. I had a lot on my plate, but this call took precedence over them all. All of the things I was working on were important, but my duty to my family was even more important. So, what is this call which is of such importance and urgency that it comes even before father and mother? Our first and greatest duty is to honor God above all things. Jesus’ request is so shocking because he claims the devotion and honor only due to God. In putting these other duties first, these disciples are denying the proper worship that belongs to God for the sake of lesser goods. This is idolatry!
How often have we been guilty of the same? We say, “I want to grow in my faith, but first let me get more established in my career, first let me get married, first let me raise my children, first let me retire. We have any number of things we put first before following Christ. To be sure, our Lord wants us to fulfill our duties to those we love, he wants us to have closure, but we must never use these responsibilities as a way of avoiding the greater responsibility of following him. The main difference between these two men and Elisha is the intention.

Commentators have often pointed out for instance that we shouldn’t assume the father of this man was already deceased. It is possible that he is saying, “Lord I will follow you in a few years after my father has died.” It is an excuse to delay obeying the urgent call. Elisha, on the other hand, acts decisively to bring matters to a close. He slaughters his cattle, and uses the yoke and plow for firewood. This was his livelihood! It was a tremendous sacrifice and showed great faith. There was no turning back from that! Elisha was willing to pay the great cost of discipleship!  The question is are we?

When I was back home, I had the opportunity to visit with my uncle, Dad’s brother. The last time I spoke with him, he told me he was reading the book The Divine Conspiracy. Some of you recently participated in a parish study group on the same book. I asked him if he enjoyed reading it. He told me that he didn’t think “enjoy” was quite the right word because he found the book so very challenging. “He is asking us to become disciples,” he said, “I have to confess that I don’t know if I have what it takes for that kind of commitment.” I agreed that being a disciple was indeed a daunting prospect.

In the eulogy I gave for my father, I spoke about the spiritual awakening he experienced midway through life, the transformation that happened in him through faith in Christ, and the influence it had on my own spiritual journey. After the service my Uncle approached me in the parking lot. “I think your Dad was a disciple,” he said. He was indeed. That is a great consolation to me in his death. The cost of discipleship is great, but no sacrifice in this life can be compared with the crown of glory that awaits those who follow Christ in faith.