I was flying home one time to visit family, back when I lived in the Dominican Republic. My flight had a six hour layover in Miami, and the Miami airport isn’t exactly the most fun place to spend six whole hours (not that any airport is!). So I decided I’d call an old Peace Corps friend of mine who lived in Miami to come pick me up.
I had been living in the Dominican Republic for about three years at this point, and I found that being back in American culture was a little overwhelming. Between the heat and the sensory overload, I stepped out of the Miami airport with a massive headache. So my friend and I headed to the nearest Walgreens to pick up some aspirin.
Now, in the DR, I had gotten used to just going down the street to the little corner store whenever I needed something for a headache. I could usually count on having one or maybe two options for painkillers. But the painkiller aisle in that Miami Walgreens seemed to stretch all the way to the horizon, painkillers as far as the eye could see. They had aspirin and ibuprofen and acetaminophen and naproxen; they had tablets and capsules, bottles and packets and boxes of every size and quantity imaginable. It was ridiculous. I just wanted to feel better – but by the time I finally picked something out, I felt like my head was literally going to explode.
It’s nice to have options sometimes – but having too many choices to pick from can just be stressful and overwhelming. And we live in a world that is chock full of choices – choices about many more things besides what to take for a headache. Our lives are full of things constantly competing for our attention: work, school, responsibilities to family and friends, sports, political parties, volunteer and community organizations, even commercial brands. There is no shortage of things demanding our time, our money, and our loyalty. Lots of these things are good things! But deciding where and how and when to invest our limited resources can sometimes be an overwhelming task. And among the many choices that we have to make every day, God and the church can sometimes get lost, or they can sometimes start to feel like just one more thing demanding something from us.
In light of all this, a reading like our gospel reading for today can feel like a really hard pill to swallow. (For the record, again: I do not pick these texts.) This word from Jesus sounds harsh almost to the point of being incomprehensible. And he’s not even the one trying to burn down a whole village in this text! Jesus’ call to follow him in this passage is completely uncompromising. He insists that his followers choose the kingdom of God first and foremost, and he leaves absolutely no room for anything else to come first.
His completely focused attitude even turns off a whole village of Samaritans at the beginning of this passage. Luke tells us that they did not receive Jesus “because his face was set toward Jerusalem.” Jesus is on a mission. This is the beginning of his long journey to Jerusalem – a journey that, in Luke, takes up over ten chapters! Jesus knows he is marching toward torture and crucifixion and death, so you’d have to imagine that he is in a very life-and-death state of mind. He’s on a mission and he doesn’t have time to sugarcoat the details.
So when someone shouts out that he will follow Jesus wherever he goes, Jesus pulls no punches. Wild animals have homes and nests to hide in, he says, but the Son of Man is homeless and unwelcome. The implication is: look, following me is not glamorous. You may very well lose the comfort and social status of a roof over your head. People might not be willing to receive you – like the village that kicked me out just this morning. Following Jesus often means making choices that are countercultural, choosing the path of discipleship instead of pursuing material comfort and individual achievement.
But as hard as this message is, it gets even harder with the next two people Jesus encounters. Jesus calls a man to follow him and another person volunteers to follow him. The one who volunteers says to Jesus, “I will follow you, but… first let me say goodbye.” But Jesus has no time for “buts,” even when it seems like such a reasonable request. And the man whom Jesus calls to follow him says to him, “Okay! But first let me bury my father.” Jesus’ response to him sounds downright cruel: “Let the dead bury their own dead.” This man isn’t just asking for a moment to grieve; he is asking to live out the commandment to honor his father and mother in one of the deepest ways possible. But Jesus says there’s no time, even for that.
Jesus’ responses to each of these people are intentionally exaggerated. He is using hyperbole to make a point. And his point isn’t that it’s bad to care for friends and family or even to have a nice home. His point is that walking the way of the cross – the way of discipleship – requires radical commitment.
God insists on being our first priority, our first choice. And even though these other things competing for our time and attention and allegiance are often good, God-given blessings, we must not be allow them to take priority over God. God wants our allegiance, to be first in our hearts.
As I was thinking about this text, especially with Independence Day coming up this week, it occurred to me that people who have served in the military probably understand this kind of allegiance better than just about anybody else. Someone who joins the military gives up certain comforts and certain individual freedoms in order to become part of something greater. It’s not that these folks are against home or family or any of that stuff. But they have signed up to serve a larger cause, and because of it they are willing to sacrifice what they love, even their own lives, for that cause. That is the kind of loyalty that Jesus is asking of us – the kind of discipleship that takes precedence over everything else.
That can be a really off-putting ask: to put Christ before everything else in our lives. Paul actually calls this “freedom” in our second reading for today, though it may not actually sound like freedom to us at all. In our US culture, we tend to think of freedom as being the absence of restriction or limitation, as the ability to do absolutely whatever we want whenever we want. Freedom is a Walgreens painkiller aisle that stretches off into infinity. But Paul writes that Christ has set us free in order that we might become slaves to Christ and to one another – and that that is true freedom. It’s a brain-breaking bit of paradox. We are freed in order to become slaves.
But what Paul is getting at is that, no matter what we choose, those things have a claim on us, they have ownership of us, for better or worse. He urges the Galatians – and, by extension, us – not to “submit again to a yoke of slavery” to the things of the world, but instead to choose to become slaves to each other and to the Spirit. He shows us what slavery to the world looks like, things like: fornication, licentiousness, envy, jealousy, drunkenness, carousing, and so on. It’s striking that many of these things start out good: sexual expression, human relationships, material goods, wine, celebration – all these things were created by God and given to us for our enjoyment. But when they start to take priority in our lives, they can quickly go sour. On the other hand, the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. All of these are good things, and none of them keeps us from enjoying the good things of the world that God has given. But they might put some limits on those things in order to keep us centered in the one who gave us the gifts in the first place.
And for this reason, I think the words of Psalm 16 that we read today are great to describe this freedom in Christ that Paul talks about. The psalmist actually exults in the boundary lines that have been drawn for him. They have fallen for him in pleasant places, as he says, because God is his “chosen portion and cup.” He writes that “those who choose other gods increase their sorrows” – those who choose material gods or gods of relationships or gods of comfort will ultimately be disappointed. In the end, these things just can’t give back to us the life that we hope for.
Putting God first helps us to make sense of a confusing and overwhelming world. Our priorities tend to fall in line when God is at the top of the list. The discipleship that Jesus calls us to may feel like a lot to ask of us at times. But we can trust that he is leading us to the path of life, and that in his presence, we will come to know the fullness of joy.
So whenever you find yourself struggling to make good choices in the Walgreens aisle of the universe, choose God!