13th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Jun 26, 2022

Please raise your hand if you were baptized as an infant and have considered yourself a Christian your whole life (pause).  Looks like that is most people here today.  In just a few moments, (infant’s name: Vincent, Emilio, Reyna) will join us as a Christian through the Sacrament of Baptism.  In a profound sense, Baptism is the ultimate sacrament of vocation, or calling– for it is because of our Baptism that we acknowledge the call to be followers of Jesus, and journey with him, as the gospel just said, to Jerusalem.

For most people who are baptized, today’s gospel is, no doubt, a challenging one. It’s confrontational, and it doesn’t leave much wiggle room. “No one who sets a hand to the plow, and looks to what was left behind, is fit for the kingdom of God.” Jesus makes it clear: we’re either looking toward the kingdom, or we are not… we’re either responding to the call of life, or we’re not… we’re either open to the coming future, or we’re not. 

Jesus is calling each one of us into question… and that’s never easy, fun, or comfortable. He is calling into question the direction of our life, the values we claim to hold, and how we are living and embodying those values. He is asking us to look at ourselves, rather than focusing on the Samaritan on whom we’d perhaps like to “call down fire from heaven” (as the disciples did). 

I’m using “Samaritan” here in a general way, to mean anyone who is not in our tribe.  By “Samaritan” I mean those who look, act, and believe differently from us; those who do not hold our particular religious or political beliefs; those who are not from around here; those to whom we are opposed and in conflict with, for whatever reasons. Our “Samaritans” are those who write the articles or editorials that push our buttons, or who appear on the news channel we refuse to watch, or our relatives with whom we cannot have a conversation at Christmas dinner.

Today’s gospel won’t let us turn away from the people and situations that are right in front of us, or the future that is coming to us. Jesus recognizes and holds before us the tension in which we live. On the one hand, we say to him in the Sacrament of Baptism, “I will follow you wherever you go.” But, on the other hand, we say to him, as we heard in the gospel reading, “But first, let me go and ….” (you can fill in the blank).

When have you experienced that tension? When has it felt like you were being pulled in two different directions: the way of Jesus, and some other way? How many times have we all said, “But first let me go and…?”

It’s easy and simple to follow Jesus… in principle. Love your neighbor as yourself, love your enemy, welcome the stranger, visit the sick and imprisoned, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give the thirsty something to drink, turn the other cheek, forgive, not just seven times, but seventy times seven. These are the values Jesus holds– that’s where Jesus is going. That’s the direction in which he has set his face– that’s the road to Jerusalem, and it sounds good. Most of us probably agree with those values. It’s the road we, too, have chosen to travel, at least in principle, because of our Baptism.

But I think you know already that it’s much harder and messier to follow Jesus in real life than in principle. I suspect we are all in favor of love, hospitality, forgiveness, and nonviolence until we meet the unlovable, the stranger who scares us, the unforgivable act, the one who throws the first punch, or the Samaritan in our life. Then it’s a different story, and that story usually begins with, “But first….”

Jesus, however, puts no qualifications, limitations, or exceptions on where he is going, who is included, or what he is offering. He doesn’t seem to care who we are, where we are from, or what we have done or left undone. Republican or Democrat, citizen or foreigner, Christian or Muslim, pro-life or pro-choice, gay or straight, black or white, NRA member or not, good or bad, cisgender or transgender, believer or nonbeliever… everyone is included when Jesus reaches out. For him there are no conditions attached to love, hospitality, forgiveness, or giving. He simply does not allow for a “but first” in his life, or in the lives of his followers. 

You see, “but first” is the way we put conditions on the unconditional:

  • Yes, I will love the other… but first let me go and see who the other is, whether s/he is deserving of love, whether I like him/her, whether s/he agrees with me. 
  • Yes, I will open my door to and welcome the stranger… but first let me go and see who’s knocking, how different s/he is from me, what s/he wants, what I might be risking. 
  • Yes, I will forgive another… but first let me go and see if s/he has acknowledged the wrongdoing, is sorry for what they did, and has promised to change. 
  • Yes, I will give to and care for another… but first let me go and see why I should, what it will cost me, and what’s in it for me.

But first….  It’s as if we are backing our way into the kingdom while keeping an eye on the door. It’s as if we are walking backwards into our future, not wanting to see or deal with what is before us. It’s as if we have put our hand to the plow and looked back… and we already know what Jesus thinks about that. 

When I manage to take my Baptism seriously, I realize that I don’t really want to back my way through this life. I don’t want to live, if you will pardon a bad pun, a butt-first life. I want to turn around and lead with my heart, or actually with the heart of Jesus—a heart that loves the unlovable, and forgives the unforgivable, and welcomes the stranger, and gives without seeking a payback or even a thank you.  

I wasn’t kidding when I said that this is a challenging gospel. I wish I could resolve this in some neat and simple way, as much for myself as for you… but I can’t. This is about the hard work of resolving ourselves… and resolving our heart. That resolution is not a simple or one-time decision. It is, rather, a way of being in this world, a way of relating to others, a direction for our life. It’s a choice we make every day, based on our Baptismal calling. It’s the road to Jerusalem that Jesus took. That means recognizing the ways in which we are backing through life. It means naming the people and situations to which we have turned our backs, and acknowledging that we do, sometimes, live a “but first” life. 

I wonder what our lives and world would be like if we were to love, give, welcome, and forgive without a “but first?”  I suspect it would be risky, and scary, and look pretty crazy. But as I look at the world, and read the news, and listen to the lives and stories of others, the world is already risky, scary, and crazy. So, what if we took a better risk, faced a better fear, and lived a kinder craziness? And what if we were to let that start with you and me… today… in our lives… in our particular situations… and with whoever or whatever is before us? 

In other words, what if we were to allow ourselves to be led by the heart of Jesus… instead of “but(t) first?”

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