r m p






On the Move


Old Testament Reading: Jeremiah 2:1-2

New Testament Reading: Matthew 8:19-22

As I begin a sermon on the Matthean text you have just heard, I would like to read it again from another translation, the Authentic New Testament of Hugh J. Schonfield, a most intriguing translation indeed, and as far as I know, the only published version of the New Testament by a Jew, not a Christian. In Schonfield's version it reads: "The foxes have lairs, Jesus replied, the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has not a floor where he may lay his head."

His version is based on the reading in a medieval Hebrew copy of Matthew, where the idea is that travellers were sometimes assigned the most meagre shelter of a raised wooden platform in the stable, surrounded by animals. The Son of Man cannot even attain such modest accommodations. Why not? What does the saying mean?

There have been various guesses. Suppose "the Son of Man" refers to Jesus. Helmut Koester suggested that the point is that someone is portraying Jesus in terms of the figure of Wisdom in Jewish Philosophy: Wisdom personified has come down from heaven to instruct foolish mortals who could certainly use her services, much as the farm children of East Carolina once benefited from Carol's tutoring in math and reading.

But humans were so impenetrably wicked and stupid, loving darkness better than light, that they drove Wisdom forth. Finding no welcome extended anywhere, she folded her tent and returned in disgust to heaven, where, we may imagine, she was welcomed back as the Prodigal returned.

Jesus, too, said Koester, had "come unto his own and his own received him not." He was despised and rejected of men, subjected to the only fate Plato said a righteous man could look forward to: crucifixion.

So on Koester's reading, Jesus sought an open door and did not find one. But others have seen the saying as paralleling Jesus with the Cynic itinerant Diogenes of Sinope, the strange man who wandered the land, like Nietzsche's mad man, holding aloft a lit lantern in the daytime, looking for, and never finding, an honest man. Only Jesus the Son of man is wandering the land in search of faith. "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith in the land?" "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith." But he continues to look.

An interesting and powerful interpretation. I especially like the connection with the Cynics. They were a group of philosophers who had decided to live in accordance with nature, shunning all of what they deemed as artificial conventions.

What are artificial social conventions? All the things that vary with different cultures. If different societies define and practice marriage differently, for example, there must not be anything natural or inevitable about it. It must be a human invention.

Or human shelter: why are they so different? Why are some people nomads? The Cynics thought, as did Jesus, that you ought not to waste your valuable time worrying over “What shall we eat? What shall we drink? What shall we wear?" Let these things take care of themselves, while you seek God's kingdom, i.e., his natural plan for human life.

Their view was that human beings do not need any stable address. They do not have an inborn nesting instinct like animals do, and when they nevertheless build a permanent home for themselves, they are losing the freedom nature intended them to have.

Does the saying mean this? I suspect it does! Note the contrast with other species, birds and foxes, who do have a nesting instinct, and the sons of men who do not. When they become homeowners, they have become like Kierkegaard's well-fed geese who can look admiringly at wild geese on the wing but can no longer hoist themselves aloft to join them.

The wayfaring apostles of the early church must have understood the saying this way, and it governed their practice. But what can it mean to you and me?  To me the saying speaks of the inevitability of spiritual existence being in nature a pilgrimage. And that is where I would like to turn my thoughts, and yours, this morning.

The very metaphor of "following Jesus" must entail something of an itinerant spirituality, wouldn't you think? You are not to stay firmly ensconced, parked, with Jesus. You cannot be associated with him, the text says, unless you are willing to move, for Jesus himself is to be found in no one place. He has no one permanent address. So you can never quite be sure where to find him.

Can you be sure of finding him in the halls of the orthodox Protestant denominations? I am not sure. Maybe so, so but I wouldn't take it for granted.

Can you be sure of finding him in a seminary class room? Last time I took attendance in one I did not find his name on the list. But he may have been there anyway.

Is there any place you think you can take for granted that he would not­ be? Think again! Perhaps, to stretch another saying, the Son of Man cometh where ye expect not.                      

Revivalist preachers scare their audiences with the threat, would you want Jesus at his return, to find you here or there? I think the danger is just the reverse: to find Jesus today, you might very well have to look for Jesus in places where you would be embarrassed to find him! That was the experience of people in the first century who were surprised and embarrassed to find Jesus feasting with tax-collectors and sinners.

Malcolm Boyd, in Are You Running With Me Jesus?, prays,

This is a homosexual bar, Jesus. It looks like any other bar on the outside, only it isn't.  Men stand three and four deep at this bar - some just feeling a sense of belonging here, others making contacts for new sexual partners. This isn't very much like a church, Lord, but many members of the church are also here in this bar. Quite a few of the men here belong to the church as well as to this bar. If they knew how, a number of them would ask you to be with them in both places.    Some of them wouldn't, but won't you be with them, too, Jesus? [p. 106]

The Jeremiah text this morning speaks of the period of Wilderness wanderings in a very different way than the later books of the Pentateuch do, or Amos. Jeremiah views it as a time of religious fidelity, a honeymoon period when all was right between God and his people. And do you know why? Because they were on the move. The nomad existence was particularly favorable to spirituality.

Nomads move from one site to another because the food resources for themselves and their flock sooner or later become exhausted. They have to move on to the next oasis. It is the same way with spirituality, with the individual religious pilgrimage, in my judgment.

It may be you need to move to a new theology, a new devotional practice--or to the lack of one, in order to gain a new nourishment you need. Even spirituality, when familiar, can grow stale. If you stay where you are, you will starve.

The vagabond apostles of Jesus were sent out with marching orders that they not encumber themselves with superfluous possessions. They are not to be like the shopping-bag-laden street people whom one sees, shuffling along under the burden that is a token of the house they wished they lived in but do not. They are content to move slowly like snails: mobile, but limited by the home they carry with them on their backs.

The Christian and Cynic apostles knew that if they wanted to cover much ground they had to travel light. In terms of our situation I think this means we must not insist on carrying with us every old belief we believed since we were children. We have to let some of them go, or they will impede our progress.

They become biases, prejudices, blinders that prohibit us from seeing the path ahead, that stop us from even seeing that there is a path ahead of us, more ground to cover.

For example, I believe that biblical literalism is a belief best left behind since sooner or later it is going to limit how much you can see. Many people reject on principle anything not commanded in scripture, as if a finite book, even the Bible, could cover the Infinite.

If, for example, you let a literalistic adherence to the Bible make you deny the valuable truths to be found in other religions, you are ossifying spiritually, just like the legalists who opposed Jesus because he broke the molds, because he wanted to pour new wine into new wineskins.

One thing I have noticed on my spiritual pilgrimage is that one becomes chagrinned looking back on the earlier stages of it when you were so sure of things you have since seen through and set aside as childish things.

But at the time you were so sure, like a greenhorn seminarian, that you didn't hesitate to broadcast your opinions: you must have a personal relationship with Christ to be saved! You must be a political leftist to be a faithful Christian!

One thing I learned, though probably not very well, is to try not to make such a jackass of myself again. After a certain point you learn Socratic humility. That, having been wrong so many times, you can't be totally sure you're not wrong now. So what do you do?

A mature spiritual journey is a series of experiments. You come to look at various possible doctrines or spiritual techniques much as a scientist views scientific theories: as working models, as tentative paradigms. The question is not "Is it true?" but rather, "Will it produce results?" The results, in this case, of a broader spirit, a higher horizon, moral and spiritual growth. That is the only truth of a doctrine that we may ever test.

Zen Buddhists have learned this lesson well. Hence the striking picture one often sees of the Zen monk tearing up the scroll of scripture. The point is to show that even the holy scripture is not an end in itself (in which case it would be an idol), but is simply a means to an end. Once it has produced enlightenment, holiness, it has served its purpose. That is its only purpose.

The strange fact is that many doctrines which logically contradict each other can both be productive of great spiritual growth. This means you have to be tentative, provisional, in your belief in your own beliefs, adopting a different religious role at different stages, playing a spirituality as a kind of game.

And you can be tolerant of someone else who has assumed a different role than yours, engaged in a different experiment than yours. I have always remembered something from Thomas a Kempis's The Imitation of Christ. Christ says to him,

    Many things you...  must pass by with a deaf ear, and think

    rather of those things which belong to your peace. It is more

    profitable to turn your eyes from such things as displease

    you, and to leave to everyone his own way of thinking, than

    to contend in disputes and arguments. (Book Three, chapter


Or, as Jesus says to Peter when Peter asks him about the path and the fate of another disciple, "What is that to you? You follow me."

Someone else may be treading a path that you have turned aside from years ago. You think you know the pitfalls that await him. You feel it to be your duty to set him straight. All right, but be careful! Is the person at the level of spiritual maturity where they can hear what you are saying?

Can they do otherwise than see you as a spiritual threat, like cultists who regard the voice of reason as the seduction of Satan? They are the weaker brethren Paul talks about. Let them be. They may have to learn hard lessons for themselves.

But you may be right. It may be that someone who should have moved on is stagnating in an oasis that is dry, a pasture that has been grazed to the ground. Invite them to move on with you. And ask yourself: am I on the move? If not, then the vagabond Christ has left you far behind. You are living on a dimming memory of fellowship with him.




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