13th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Dominic/St Anthony/OLR
I wasn't even Catholic when – at age seventeen – I first heard the call to priesthood. For the next seventeen years of my life I answered God's call with “Maybe” and “Not Yet.” There were a lot of excuses and dodges. I need to finish college. Then, I need to finish my Masters degree. Then, I need to finish my doctorate. And all the while I was playing around with all sorts of spiritually dangerous ideas and practices, and not in the least bit interested in hearing anything God had to say to me. I applied to become an Episcopal priest in my home diocese. Got rejected. Applied again in another Episcopal diocese a few years later. Got rejected again. I joined the Church in 1995 and decided to revisit my priestly vocation. Three years in, I applied to join a religious order. They rejected me. Not too long after that, I got an internal staph infection that went undiagnosed for three months and came within a few days of killing me. That woke me up, and I got serious. I entered the Dominican novitiate in 1999, and I've never looked back. When Jesus hears our excuses, our delaying tactics, even our good reasons for not following him, he says things like, “Let the dead bury the dead. But you, [you] go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
So, yes, I spent seventeen years dodging God's call to priesthood. My excuses all sounded excellent at the time. I did need to finish my studies. I wasn't yet ready to fully embrace chaste celibacy. My parents weren't keen on me being Catholic. My group of university-educated, politically leftist friends hated the Church. There were a few things the Church teaches that I couldn't yet accept. I was living the typical life of a impoverished twenty-something grad student, which means I managed to stay alive in the fall semester by stealing fried chicken and liquor from the tailgaters in the Grove at Ole Miss home games. And I was still too much of a hard-headed, big-mouthed, cynical redneck to let anyone tell me what to do or believe. So, yeah, it took seventeen years and almost dying from an undiagnosed staph infection to get me to shut up and sit down long enough to actually listen to what Christ was saying to me. I finally heard him, “Let the dead bury the dead. But you, [you] go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” No more excuses. No more dodges. No more “good reasons.” Put your hand to the plow, and don't look back.
So, Jesus is walking the countryside, preaching the Good News. He comes across a guy and says to him, “Follow me.” What does the guy say in return? “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” A perfectly good reason to delay following Christ. Burying the dead, especially your dead parents, is an ancient obligation, one blessed by countless generations of families. This guy didn't say he wanted to finish his workday and get paid; or that he needed a shower and a clean change of clothes; he didn't say that he wanted to discern for a few years and attend some retreats first, or consult with his spiritual director. He wanted to bury his dead father! Knowing the urgency of the Father's Good News, and knowing how many hearts and minds longed to be turned back to God, Jesus says, “Let the dead bury the dead. But you, [you] go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” What did the man do? Did he drop everything and follow Christ, leaving his father unburied? We don't know. Maybe we aren't supposed to know b/c “that guy” is you and me. Luke doesn't tell us how he responded b/c you and I are still responding. We are still answering (or not answering) Christ's invitation to follow him. You are That Guy. How do you answer Christ?
While you're considering your answer, think about this. Christ was not indiscriminate about who he invited to follow him. While he walked the earth preaching and teaching, he selected his close followers for personal instruction. Think of the Twelve. He chose them all by name to become his ambassadors to the world. He stood in front of thousands in his three years among us, and only occasionally to a very few did he say, “Follow me.” The universal call to discipleship and holiness comes after the Holy Spirit's visit at Pentecost. Only after Christ ascends into heaven does everyone receive the invitation, “Follow me.” While he was still among us, he carefully chose whom to invite. That Guy – the one with the dead and unburied father – wasn't just some random guy randomly chosen. Jesus knew him. Heart and soul, Jesus knew him. And he knows each one of us. The universal call to discipleship and holiness is directed at each one of us in the Church AND to the whole world. Jesus knows each one of us b/c we have died with him and we have been buried with him and we will be raised with him on the last day. We are members of his body, the Church. We have been chosen and invited. And so, he says to us, all of us, “[Anyone] who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is [not] fit for the kingdom of God.”
If we will be fit for the kingdom of God, we will not look to what we have left behind. Leave it behind where it belongs. Whatever “it” is. Leave the excuses, the bad decisions, the terrible mistakes, even the deliberate acts of vengeance and violence; leave the angry self-accusations, the guilt and the shame, all the junk that gathers around you when you wallow in sin. Leave it all. And plow forward. Go and proclaim the kingdom of God. Why not? I'm not smart enough. I'm not articulate. I'm shy. I'm afraid that people will think I'm weird. My family and friends will be embarrassed. I might lose my job. People will stare. What else ya got? You need to go bury your dead father? Let the dead bury the dead. When I entered the novitiate in 1999, I lost more than half of my friends and former grad school colleagues. By 2010, I had lost my two best friends of 24 years. When I say “lost,” I don't mean that they died. I mean that they cut me out of their lives b/c they hate the Church. My family – thank God – didn't turn away. Though they still look at me like I'm a partially-shaved circus monkey.
What and who are you willing to lose to follow Christ? You might not lose anyone or anything but your sins and those who encourage sin. You might not leave behind much at all. Or, you might have to leave everything and everyone behind. The decision to follow Christ is the decision to make him Master of your heart and mind. That means putting aside whatever or whoever else rules you. It means stepping off into another world of freedom, peace, forgiveness, and mercy. And it means giving to others anything that you have received from Him.
You're at the plow. Don't look back!
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