Compartmentalizing God

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6th Sunday after Pentecost; Year C, June 30, 2013

1 Kings 19.15-16, 19-21; Psalm 16, Galatians 5.1, 13-25; Luke 9.51-62

Pastor Renee Splichal Larson


Grace and peace to you from the one who calls us out of our comfort zones, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

I am going to be the first to admit out loud today how much this Gospel reading convicts me and how much I struggle with it.  Most of the time I try and ignore it because I don’t like what Jesus has to say.  “Let the dead bury their own dead,” he says, and “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

I want to try and soften what Jesus is saying.  He doesn’t really mean it, I think to myself.  He must mean something else.  Then I sit with this Gospel reading longer and I think about life, and I begin to realize that he means exactly what he says.  Jesus constantly surprises and challenges me in what I think it means to follow him and be a disciple.

In so many Scripture passages Jesus frees people from what binds them, things that are evil and bad in their lives and then they follow him.  This is not hard for us to comprehend.  Give up bad things for the sake of following Christ.  Yes, sounds good to me!

What is so challenging about today’s Scripture is that people are also asked to give up good things in order to follow Jesus.  It is a good thing to be with an aging parent and properly bury them and grieve.  It is a good thing to say goodbye to loved ones when going away.  We know God deeply cares about these things, so why does Jesus make it seem like he doesn’t?

We hear right away at the beginning of our reading that Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem.  We know that this is the place he will die.  There is nothing more important on earth for him than to die for the sake of the world, for your life and for mine.  He is on a journey to the cross.  He heals and teaches along the way, but he will allow nothing to distract him or pull him off the path he is on.

It’s not that Jesus doesn’t care about things like family and burying people, he is trying to make a point that there is absolutely nothing more important than God’s call in someone’s life, not the comfort of one’s own home, not security in a job, not food on the table, not even family.

Jesus is also inviting people to become a part of something that is taking shape in the world called the Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom of God, we hear in Scripture, is what is going on when people are healed, released from bondage, overcome addictions, forgive the unforgiveable, and are raised from death to life.  Jesus is asking people to give up good things for the best thing…God.

My husband Jonathan likes to compare our hearts to a pie.  Yes, a pie.:)  He says, “Sometimes I think we understand our hearts as a delicious pie. We slice up our hearts, piece by piece; giving a piece here and there to those we love; giving some people bigger pieces like spouses and children, and then if we have anything left we give a piece or two to God.”

This rings so true as we try and compartmentalize our lives.  Here is my time and life I give to work or school.  Here is my time and dedication to my family.  Here are my friends.  Here’s time for me if I ever get it.  Then there’s exercise, gardening, treatment programs, television shows, etc. etc.  If we do not fall right asleep as we hit the pillow we might get in a prayer or two, or if we find we have time on Sunday morning we’ll go to worship.

Our Scripture passage today reminds you and me that God doesn’t want only one or two pieces of your life and heart…God wants the whole thing.  Before we get all defensive that it is MY life and MY heart we must remember that God created your body and soul and everything that goes along with it.  Because God created us, our hearts and lives are meant for God…more than country, team, home, food, clothing, culture, tradition, friends, and even family.

Jesus says in one chapter later in Luke 10.27-28:  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself…do this and you will live.”

God and faith are never meant to be one small compartment of life in which we try and fit in.  God is supposed to be the center of your life and mine to which everything else is secondary.  All the people in our story who approached Jesus and wanted to follow him had other things that were first in their lives.  For one it was comfort of a home, to another it was obligations to family, for another it was looking back and not forward.  Until they were willing to let go of these things they could not love God with their whole heart.  It is the same with you and me.

Again, the difficulty in this text is not giving up bad things to follow where God is leading; it is giving up even the good things.  The challenge in it is that it is often unknown territory where Jesus through the Holy Spirit is asking us to follow.

The best example I can think of in my own life to give you is right after I graduated from college.  My whole senior spring semester I wrestled with where I thought God was calling me next.  I knew what I should do…get a job with my degree and start paying back student loans.  I know what my family wanted me to do…move back closer to home!  But I felt such a strong pull, or call so to speak, to volunteer full-time.  I checked out places in Washington State, Michigan, and California, but I eventually felt God was leading me to Denver, CO.

I will never forget saying goodbye to my parents.  My dad looked at me and said, “Why are you moving away?  I don’t understand why you have to go that far or why you are not getting a job.”  I said, “ I know this is what I need to do,” but really I was thinking:  What in the world am I doing?!  This is really embarrassing to admit, but I got in the car and cried through the whole state of ND and even some into SD.  I hated leaving my family behind and stepping into an unknown world in which I didn’t know anyone or what lied ahead.  I remember hitting the steering wheel and yelling a bit at God, things like, “This better be right!” and “I’m trusting you!”

I arrived at my new home in inner-city Denver and met my nine roommates I’d be living with for the next year while we all would be volunteering at various non-profits.  It was one of the hardest and most fulfilling years of my life and looking back on it I understand why Jesus called me there, as hard as it was.

After leaving my home community for college I was gone for 10 years.  Denver was just one of those years.  I can tell you that the emotion of my drive to Denver has been repeated numerous times as I have tried to be faithful in answering God’s call in my life.  My family kept asking me, “When are you going to move back home, honey?”  And I would think, When God calls me back.  Thankfully, now God has and it is a great gift, but I am so thankful for the struggle and the places and people God has called me to over the years.

Theologian Richard Shaffer Jr. writes: “God’s place in our lives is neither a matter of convenience nor something that can be taken for granted or assumed…Adopting a life of discipleship cannot be a part-time or momentary commitment.  It is a life-changing shift in direction and priorities, in which our human needs and wants become subservient to the call of our Lord.”

God doesn’t always call us away from home and family, but God often calls us away from a life of drugs, away from a dependency on money, calls us out of the ways we ostracize, hurt, and judge other people.  God also calls us to things: to worship, to give, to prayer, to the table, to the baptismal font, to one another, to witness to what God has done in your life.  If there is anything that is preventing us from answering God’s call to these things in our lives then we need to stop and think about what that is and do some house cleaning and rearranging.  Jesus never says it will be easy, but he does say it will be worth it.

What we must realize is that in the end things like family, home, money, medicine, stuff, etc., cannot save us.  They cannot give us ultimate fulfillment.  When all is stripped away, what I am left with is God: God’s call in my life, God’s care of my heart, God’s promise to raise me from death.

It’s not that God doesn’t care about family, shelter, food, and all the good things of life.  God created these.  Jesus is trying to help us understand that even in the midst of these good things God is bringing about something even better with the Kingdom of God and we are invited into it no matter what is going on in our lives and what our priorities are.

Bradley Hanson writes in his book, A Graceful Life: “It is not God’s highest goal to have each of us live a long care-free life.  God is more interested in fashioning people who have deep faith in God and love for one another (p. 53).”