Proper 8C: Let the Dead Bury the Dead
By: The Rev. Mashaun D. Simon
I will never forget the look on my father’s face the night of his stroke as he laid on the hospital bed confused and concerned yet alert, trying to keep a strong face for us. I knew he was scared. I was scared too, mostly for him but also for the little boy, his baby boy, who was witnessing the humanity of his father in a different way—something the little boy had never experienced himself before because his father seemed almost invincible and abnormally strong all of the little boy’s life.
The night of March 29 is a night that I am not sure I will ever forget. My father, at the age of 82, suffered what has been categorized as a mild stroke. He was lying down at home, watching television, had seemingly dozed off and when he awoke he was on the floor incapable of pulling himself up and unaware of what had happened.
He called for my mother. My sister heard him calling, then called the paramedics. I was home, preparing for bed after ordering the vestments for my upcoming ordination. It was, I thought in the moment, just an ordinary night.
Other than ordering the vestments, I did the same thing I had done each night before going to bed. I watched some television, stopped by my mother’s house to pick up some mail that had gone there instead of my apartment by mistake, and ate dinner. My father and I had spoken earlier that night about this and that, and then I went home. I turned off the television, finished eating my pineapple popsicle snack, called my partner to wish him goodnight, and had just fallen asleep when the phone rang.
That night is still fresh in my mind. So when I came across this text from Luke where Jesus is acquiring more and more followers; presumably what many of us would call disciples, I find myself pausing for a moment—pausing because I am trying to make sense of the instructions from the one we call the Messiah.
Jesus covers a lot of ground in the ninth chapter of the Gospel of Luke. It is in this chapter that we get the story of the feeding of the five thousand with the fish and the bread. We also hear the story of Jesus casting an evil spirit out of a young boy. We are told of the transfiguration and Jesus’ meeting with Moses and Elijah. And we are told of the moment in which Jesus rebukes James and John for wanting to punish the Samaritans who fail to receive and welcome him.
That’s a lot, right? It’s complicated—not just in terms of the text, but also of Jesus himself.
This is Jesus, the same Jesus who leads and instructs us through complicated parables. This is the same Jesus who in one section of the text turns over tables in the temple, but then again shows care and comfort for the woman at the well. This is that Jesus who in one instance appears to be condescending and in another instance appears otherworldly, wise, and patient.
I respect that Jesus. And then I get to this text where one of his potential recruits says, “Hold up Jesus! Let me go deal with the affairs of my father before I launch out into the unknown with you” and then Jesus says, “Let that be; let’s go!”
He says to the man, “Let the dead bury the dead!”
Well, actually what he says is, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
On the surface I want to say, “Wait a minute now Jesus, what you got going on is not so important that I have to neglect the memory of my father to cater to your state of urgency.” But then I find myself considering that maybe that is the point.
Oftentimes we get so caught up in the midst of what has us preoccupied that we lose sight of the things that are other. What do I mean by that?
So many other times in the text we see nameless individuals petitioning Jesus for a miracle. Men and women begging Jesus to save their children; to bring them back from the brink of death. We read about siblings who have asked Jesus to save their beloved; to hurry because time is of the essence. And we have seen, we have heard of the ways in which Jesus has granted their petitions; how Jesus has breathed life back into their bodies. And yet, in this instance that is not what the man asks for.
The man says, “Let me bury my father” meaning his father is already gone. Maybe he has made peace with that reality. Maybe this man has made peace with the outcome. But at the same time, he has not yet learned to let go. Then here comes Jesus along this man’s path. The man is caught between the past and the present and is being shown his tomorrow.
Maybe this man has done what he was supposed to have done for his father and yet he wanted to do one last thing: to provide for his father a proper burial. But Jesus is saying, “let that be, let’s go.” Maybe, just maybe what Jesus is saying to this man, whether he is young or old, is that what is before him is tomorrow, that yesterday has come and gone and that there is nothing more for him to do back there—that what is for him now is to proclaim, to testify, to share the good news, to be about God’s business because he has already done what he could for what he was leaving behind.
I don’t know. But maybe, just maybe I should not be so quick to assume that Jesus is being insensitive in this moment. Maybe, just maybe what God wants me to do—wants us to do—is to be at peace with what is when the “what is” comes, to accept that we have done all that we can or should or need to do, and then move forward—that our responsibility is not to be stuck where we were, but to launch out into the next phase of our purpose.
A year ago I preached the eulogy at a dear friend’s mother’s homegoing. I preached from the well-known “there is a time to live and a time to die” text. His mother had battled cancer for I don’t know how many days, weeks, months, years, but she battled. And not too many days after her birthday she breathed her last breath.
I said to him in that moment, “You have done everything you were supposed to do for her. You were her son, her friend, her support, her partner, her caregiver, her… you have done what you could and now that she has moved on, it is time for you to do the same.” That was what I believed she wanted for him and what God wanted him to know that she wanted for him. And so as I consider this text and how Jesus says, in Jesus’ own way, it is time to move on, I think about my father, who continues to live post-stroke, not dwelling on what was, but living—choosing to live, carrying forth, launching out.
Maybe, just maybe, what Jesus, what God is trying to say to us is that there is still work to be done, there is still life to live, there are still opportunities and experiences and memories to be had—that dwelling back there is dwelling with something that is no longer alive or life-giving and that maybe, just maybe, God wants us to live because that is what the kingdom is all about…right?
The Rev. Mashaun D. Simon, a native of Atlanta, Georgia, is an ordained Elder, scholar, writer and teacher. A 2013 graduate of Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Simon’s research interests engage the intersections of race, identity, sexuality, faith and belief.