Poor Substitutes

“Poor Substitutes”
Galatians 5:1, 13-25 and Luke 9:51, 57-62
William L. Hathaway
The Presbyterian Church of Chestertown, Maryland
June 30, 2019

In Buffalo, New York the big culinary debate is the location of your favorite wings (note, not Buffalo wings, just wings). In Wilmington, where we now reside – Wilmington being an offshoot of Philadelphia – it is cheesesteak. But, for folks in Maryland, the burning culinary question is the location of the best cream of crab soup. Chick & Ruth’s, the deli in downtown Annapolis has surprisingly good cream of crab. But my vote goes to that spot on the water in The Narrows, just this side of Kent Island. That dash of sherry makes it so smooth.

I was eavesdropping one day on a cream of crab conversation, listening to a woman’s frustration about her failed attempt to replicate the best at home. She said that she couldn’t quite figure out what went wrong but it just didn’t taste the same. Then she led on to the fact that she substituted skim milk for heavy cream. Skim milk! Yikes! That is almost as bad as substituting a Bud Light for a Guinness!

Ohh, the temptation of substitutes for the real thing. That’s the issue that today’s Gospel lesson raises in my mind. We are so often tempted to politely, self-righteously substitute the shallow for the real thing, whether that be the gift of faith or the gift of one’s own life. Jesus tosses a warning across the bow of our spirits. Beware of poor substitutes, even the respectable ones.

We are in the gospel of Luke, the one with the particular concern for the poor and outcast and Jesus’ work in the world for the kingdom of God. Chapter nine is a turning point – verse 51 opens with the words, “When the days drew near for him (Jesus) to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Then a full third of the gospel is about this journey – not in terms of geography but in terms of theology – it is all about Jesus’ teachings on the way. And, since we are all on the way, in one way or another, the words ring with particular relevance.

In a long list of teachable moments and memorable lines, we encounter these pearls: After one person said that he’d follow Jesus wherever he went, the prophet replied, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Unencumbered by material things is the word …. a tough message for all of us who are well tied down and recall that days of college when all one’s earthly possessions could fit in a Vega.
Then, in a response to Jesus’ call to follow, another said, “First let me go and bury my father.” The Jewish readers of Luke’s gospel might well remember that Elijah let Elisha go home to bury his father before he joined the prophet, so Jesus response “uped the anti” quite a bit: “Let the dead bury their own dead, but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” In response to another who wanted to go home first to tidy things up, he said, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Jesus did not mix words. The time is now and the demands are great. What’s your move?

When have you felt such urgency? To head off to school, to run away to get married, to jump off in a new direction …. a new calling, a new life?

We love the bigger than life stories of heroes. Some of our 19th Century ancestors read such lines and heard calls to head off to the mission field – leaving home and never looking back. Put the mission field off for a moment (all too often we go to such heroic stories and miss the message for ourselves). What about your story of heading out without looking back …. a move, a new career, a marriage, a child? Or possibly, your story includes regret – you didn’t go.

Growing up in a modest, mid-west family where travel was limited, I had a sense when I boarded the Broadway Limited in Chicago to head by train to Princeton Seminary that I might never return, other than for a visit. And that proved to be true. I recall that the first time I encountered entrenched poverty of spirit in the Philadelphia prison system as a seminary intern and, some years later, encountered strong spirits but entrenched oppression in apartheid South Africa that my views of the world and my place in it would never be the same. Yes, I’ve turned back to look over my shoulder but, in many ways, everything did in fact change.

A fundamental struggle in life, though, is to settle for skim milk instead of rich, hearty, heavy cream. And, the insidious part of it all is that it can seem so respectable and honorable to settle for the substitute.

Take the church for example. So often we are all dressed up in good theology and fine liturgy but have nowhere in particular to go. You’ll recall that Jesus said it was all about the kingdom of God, not fine theology or respectable words.

The church is a funny reality. Over the decades we have fought over the fine points of the life of Jesus – like the virgin birth – when the kingdom of God is what Jesus was so concerned about. The Apostles creed put it this way:
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only son, our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary,
Yet, take note, there is nothing about Jesus life and ministry for it continues:
suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father almighty; from then he shall judge the quick and the dead.

What happened to the kingdom of God, Jesus’ greatest concern? The church substituted right thoughts about Jesus for a call to follow Jesus. The last 60 years of Protestant theology has been an attempt to get it right and return to the real thing. Today we talk about Jesus preaching, teaching, healing, eating with outcasts, calling all to repent …. and our call to do the same.

What a tragedy it is to accept a poor substitute for the gospel …. or one’s own life.

In her classic, Pulitzer winning book “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” Annie Dillard wrote of life and faith beginning with a quote from Thomas Merton: “There is always a temptation to diddle around in the contemplative life, making itsy-bitsy statues.” Then she goes on:
There is always an enormous temptation in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end. It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down, saying, I never merited this grace, quite rightly and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage.
Her response:
I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright. We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.
(Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, p. 274)

My hunch is that you know of the temptation to substitute the real thing with the acceptable itsy-bitsy of life, even the gift of your own life. Then Jesus calls. The world calls. Life calls.

Alison and I have been retired now for a year. Yes, Alison somewhat failed retirement by accepting your invitation to be part of this interim journey. But, retired we are. Yet, after a year of moving, house construction, planning and taking a big retirement trip, visiting my mom then burying my mom, it feels like we are just now at the point of figuring out what this retirement thing is all about. Some of you may be at this or other points of transition – entering a new school, welcoming a new child, starting a new job, discovering what it means to be an adult. Possibly a turning point has been thrust upon you – the death of a loved one, the loss of a job. Every turning point is ripe with anxiety and filled with potential. The unknown can cause panic or paralysis; it can also bring excitement and the thrill of challenge.

I am not sure what lies ahead. Full time work – no. I don’t think that the perspective is one of earning retirement – in the course of human history very few of us can actually rest from our labors prior to the grave. But forty-one years of 50—60 hour work weeks seem enough. Been there, done that. I am not sure what is next but I hope not to settle for skim milk and an itsy bitsy life. Yet, there is risk ……… to embrace the next step, to listen to the Spirit to put a hand to the plow and not look back.

How is it for you and the gift that is your life? Where is the call? What voice deserves your attention? What is so important or compelling that you will say no to an itsy-bitsy life of skim milk, put your hand to the plow, and not look back?