Friday, June 17, 2011

Exactly Enough

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Luke 9:57-62

A friend told me about hearing a sermon on this passage by a United Methodist bishop. In the sermon, pastors were admonished to follow Jesus by going where the resident bishop wants to send them. (We’ll leave aside the question of who wants to volunteer to explain to the Bishop that he/she is not Jesus.)

The Bishop affirmed that when we follow Jesus our needs will be taken care of, and illustrated that affirmation with a story about a clergy couple serving very successfully in a church. The District Superintendent and the Bishop assumed that this couple would serve there until retirement. But they also thought that these two pastors would be a wonderful fit for two churches that needed new pastors. And whenever they considered the needs of these two churches, they could not help coming back to this clergy couple. Eventually they asked the two pastors to move and amazingly, they said yes!

Later, one of those pastors called the Bishop to report on their experience:

"Bishop, just a week or two before you called us to move, we sat down with our kids at the end of their semesters at college and said, 'You have to quit college for a year. We're out of money... We're sorry. There's no choice.' But Bishop, in the new churches where we're going, the salaries are higher and there's EXACTLY ENOUGH MORE to allow them to keep going in school!”

“EXACTLY ENOUGH!" The Bishop repeated the phrase for emphasis, and then said:

"You see, when we open our hearts to follow Jesus to where we're called, our needs are taken care of!"

So Jesus “has nowhere to lay his head,” but if we follow him (by doing what the Bishop asks) then we will have enough money to pay for our children’s college education.

One of the most cherished misunderstandings of biblical faith is the doctrine of “Special Providence.” We want to believe that God loves us more and protects us more than others. Special Providence promises that God cares for me in a special and unique way. Of course, that is true in the sense that each of us has a unique experience of God’s care. But as Jesus said, the sun shines and the rain falls, on the just and the unjust, and God’s love is there for everyone.

In a radio sermon preached in 1952, Reinhold Niebuhr said that for many people, believing in God means “that that we have found a way to the ultimate source and end of life that gives us, against all the chances and changes of life, some special security and some special favor.” As an example, he speaks of the prayers “that many a mother with a boy in Korea must pray, ‘A thousand at thy side and 10,000 at thy right hand, let no evil come to my boy.’”

For the mother or father with a child in danger, that is the most natural prayer in the world and it is the deepest desire of our hearts. Yet in the end it is impossible. As Niebuhr explains, “The Christian faith believes that beyond, within and beyond, the tragedies and the contradictions of history we have laid hold upon a loving heart, and the proof of whose love, on the one hand, is the impartiality toward all of his children and, secondly, a mercy which transcends good and evil.”

The promise of Christian faith is not that God will grant us a special exemption from life’s hardships, or give us a special reward for our virtue, but that at the center of life there is a loving heart, which will be with us now and forever.

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