Ban the “But’s”
By The Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger
It was a church women’s conference. In a workshop which focused on conflict resolution, the leader asked participants to take part in an exercise. Her purpose was to demonstrate that many times people do not present what is really concerning them, they rather come forth with a blanket statement that is so broad it cannot be dealt with. Conferees were to break into “twos”; then, one would present something with which they had a problem – something that upset them. The other half of the couple was then to respond, “That’s your problem, but what is your real concern.”
Pam Laing was paired with a good friend of hers who immediately offered to state a problem. She was working as a layperson in a church, with the responsibility of family programming. She said she gets really upset when people say that the church is very important to them, yet immediately say that they can’t help with a specific program or emphasis because they have to do something which is more important. Her examples were, “I really think that the children are a top priority for the church, but I cannot teach Sunday School because that is the morning that my children sleep in, since they’ve been up late the night before.” Or, “I think that family outings or fellowship time is important, but I cannot come to the picnic because my son has baseball practice that day.” She gave several other examples, all of which are excuses similar to those every church worker has received. After listening to her, Pam responded as the leader had asked, “That is your problem, what is your real concern?”
Her response was, “My concern is that I wish we could kick all the ‘buts’ out of the church!” She then went on to explain that grammatically, anytime a sentence contains the word “but” that it entirely negates what was said before.(1)
You can see where this is leading – our Gospel lesson. Jesus has begun his ultimate journey: as the text has it, “he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” The cross. Nothing would interfere. Not an inhospitable Samaritan village. Not angry followers who would call down lightning strikes to avenge the insult. Someone came along who indicated an enthusiastic desire to accompany him: “I will follow you wherever you go.” There is the hint of a raised eyebrow in Jesus’ reply: “You want to follow me? Really? Really? Do you know what that might mean? ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ In other words, are you ready to do without? Just to follow me? Really?”
Another joined the march. Jesus invited him, “Follow me.” BUT he said, “first, let me go and bury my father.”
Strange reply from Jesus: “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” How are we to understand such a curious answer? First, we can eliminate the idea that Jesus is suggesting that the man abandon the funeral arrangements for his Dad who has just passed away. Had Dad just died, the young man would not have had time to be on the road with Jesus anyway – the tradition of the culture (and the practical necessity forced by living in a hot climate) was to proceed to burial within 24 hours after death. Junior was not being instructed to do something to which anyone with an ounce of sensitivity would have objected. Instead, we should understand the excuse as being, “Lord, I will follow you, BUT let me get all family obligations out of the way first.” Even that does not sound especially unreasonable. However, the question arises as to when will all the obligations be “out of the way?” If that man’s family is anything like MY family, the answer could well be NEVER.
Still, the “Let the dead bury their own dead” response sounds a bit harsh. Perhaps we should understand it in the same way as Jesus’ instruction to pluck out our eye out or cut off our hand if we look at something or touch something we shouldn’t(2) – a bit of Semitic hyperbole that dramatizes a point but is not meant to be taken literally.(3) SERIOUSLY, but not literally.
Now another says he wants to come along. “I will follow you, Lord; BUT let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus response draws on a bit of conventional country wisdom: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Every farmer will tell you that no one can plow a straight furrow without keeping the eyes straight ahead.
Jesus’ answer also draws upon a story with which people of faith would have been familiar: the call of the prophet Elisha.(4) God had told Elijah to anoint this young man as his successor as prophet to the nation of Israel. Elijah journeys to the town of Abel-meholah. He finds his spiritual heir-apparent plowing in the field (and, no doubt, keeping his eyes straight ahead in the process), and lets Elisha know of his divine selection by placing his own cloak, the symbol of the prophetic office, on the young man’s shoulders. Elisha’s response? “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.” Sound familiar? Scripture never says whether Elisha actually did as he had suggested (I suspect he did), but we do learn of the young man’s eventual unswerving loyalty and the incredible power that God gave him for his work. This was a story that Jesus’ audience that day knew well. Elisha had his priorities in order and God blessed in literally miraculous ways.
This was Jesus’ message that day: get your priorities straight. Then (and only then) will you be ready for God to rule in your life.
Now, move that story up a bit. Fast-forward the tape to 1998. Jesus’ invitation to “Follow me” is offered again. The temptation is to respond the same way our ancient friends did. “Lord, I’ll be glad to follow, but…but…but… There are so many things that call to us. GOOD things – family, friends, work, and on and on and on. The choices that confronted the would-be disciples on the road were not between good and evil. The choices were between two “goods.” My, my. Some things never change, do they? “Lord, I will follow, but…”
One of my cyberfriends suggests that the greatest threat to the gospel is “the good,” not “the evil.” When we recognize “the evil” in our lives, we usually want to get rid of it. However, when we become content with “the good” in our lives, we may fail to follow Jesus and seek what is “the best.”(5) Lord, I will follow, but…
Is it time to BAN THE BUT’S from your Christian journey? Yes, they come SO easily. Worship? But Sunday is our family day. Sunday School? But this is the only day I get to catch up on my sleep. Mid-week Bible study? But it’s such a rush after work. Teach? But there are others who could do it just as well. Serve on a board or committee? But I’ve done that before. But, but, but…
The good news is that once the BUT’s are done, a real blessing awaits. I read something this week by a lady named Jacqueline Townsend called “The Confessions of a Reluctant Steward.”(6) Jacqueline recalls being ambushed on the way out of church. “Will you do flowers?” She writes:
I couldn’t figure any graceful way out of this one. It didn’t seem the right moment to point out that I was flat broke in both the time and talent department. I was trapped. I spoke the word so many dare not say: “Sure.”
So I do flowers. You must understand I am not the artistic type. My idea of a festive centerpiece is matching salt and pepper shakers. Botanical knowledge is out of my realm, although I am able to identify a carnation, thanks to cans from contented cows.
Why couldn’t it have been something easy, like traveling in the belly of a whale? (Jonah and I have a lot in common, but that’s another story.) The worst part was knowing my name would show up in the schedule. People would know I was the bi-weekly mishandler of blooms! On the other hand, it was a little flattering to be asked (someone noticed I was here) and thought capable (maybe I could get a book from the library). I vowed to do my best, at least until I could pawn the task off on someone else. My schedule revealed I could squeeze it in if I gave up ironing. It seemed such a small sacrifice for the church.
As the weeks went by, I found myself looking anew at the world around me. I noticed when the fireweed bloomed. My husband would report, “There’s some wonderful fern down by the creek bank.” We took walks looking for wildflowers. I learned to boldly venture into the cooler at the florist shop in search of lemon leaves and baby’s breath.
Just this week I made the most amazing discovery – I like doing the flowers. It’s not the arrangements themselves; I’m never quite satisfied. Spending time in the silent church, either alone or with my husband, is so refreshing. I peruse the bulletin board and book table, poke around in the sacristy picking out a vase, talk to God, maybe sing a little. Today, for no reason at all I looked in the fridge, just like when I go to my mom’s. It’s a little homecoming every other Saturday. I don’t even miss the ironing.
Beautiful. Is there a BUT that is hindering your Christian journey? A BUT that is keeping you from a blessing?
An expert on the subject of time management was speaking to a group of business students and, to drive home a point, used an illustration those students will probably never forget. As this man stood in front of the group of high-powered over-achievers he said, “Okay, time for a quiz.” Then he pulled out a one-gallon, wide-mouthed Mason jar and set it on a table in front of him. Then he produced about a dozen fist-sized rocks and carefully placed them, one at a time, into the jar. When the jar was filled to the top and no more rocks would fit inside, he asked, “Is this jar full?”
Everyone in the class said, “Yes.”
Then he said, “Really?” He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped some gravel in and shook the jar, causing pieces of gravel to work themselves down into the spaces between the big rocks. Then he smiled and asked the group once more, “Is the jar full?”
By this time the class was onto him. “Probably not,” one of them answered.
“Good!” he replied. And he reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand in, and it went into all the spaces left between the rocks and the gravel. Once more he asked the question, “Is this jar full?”
“No!” the class shouted.
Once again he said, “Good!” Then he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in until the jar was filled to the brim. Then he looked up at the class and asked, “What is the point of this illustration?”
One eager beaver raised his hand and said, “The point is, no matter how full your schedule is, if you try really hard, you can always fit some more things into it!”
“No,” the speaker replied, “that’s not the point. The truth this illustration teaches us is this: If you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all.(7)
Hmm. Jesus says, “Follow me.” BIG rock. We respond, “I will follow you, Lord, but…” Priorities. Get the big rocks in first. How to make sure the priorities are appropriate? A good start will be a commitment to BAN THE BUT’S, then all the rest will fall into place.
Let us pray.
O God, we confess to lives of regularly misplaced priorities. We genuinely want to do better. That is why we are here. Help us, for Jesus’ sake. Amen!
1. Pam Laing, Wood River, IL, via Ecunet, “Sermonshop 06 28 1998,” #31, 6/25/98
2. Matthew 5:29, 30
3. New Interpreter’s Bible, electronic edition, disk 2, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996)
4. 1 Kings 19:19-21
5. Brian Stoffregen, via Ecunet, “Gospel Notes for Next Sunday,” #1722, 6/21/98
6. Nancy Curtis, via Ecunet, “Bottom Drawer,” #3528, 6/25/98
7. Karel Hanhart, First and Riverside Churches, Merrill Wisconsin, via Ecunet, “Sermonshop 1998 06 28,” #40, 6/26/98
Copyright 1998, David E. Leininger. Used by permission.