On the Move
Testament Reading: Jeremiah 2:1-2
Testament Reading: Matthew 8:19-22
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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