No Excuses (If You’re Going Somewhere)

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Snapshots from a full week at camp:
That’s me blessing Ann, one of the confirmation camp staff, with water from Ossipee Lake and reminding her that “God loves you, and there’s nothin’ you can do about it.” 

Luke 9:51-62

Excuses, excuses. 

I’ve just come from a place where people may give excuses, but for the most part, everybody works hard and works for one another. 

If I’m glowing today, it’s because I’ve just come from one of my favorite places. I was the confirmation camp chaplain and the staff chaplain this week at Camp Calumet, our synod’s outdoor ministry in Freedom, New Hampshire. Over the years, we’ve sent a lot of money and a lot of people to Calumet: we’ve sent adult, teenage, and child campers, counselors, chaperones, full time staff people — you name it! Our own Tyrese Vazquez, Deb’s grandson and Wayne’s great grandson, is there now as a counselor, getting ready to welcome the first campers of the summer this afternoon. He says hello! 

We’ve contributed to Calumet’s general fund and their scholarship fund, in an attempt to keep the cost of camp as low as possible for families. Every year, I run across the state of New Hampshire with a team of eleven other people to contribute to that same scholarship fund, and you all encourage and contribute, and I am so grateful. 

You all are to blame — you got me involved in Calumet. You all are the reason I got a random call from a man named Knute over three years ago asking me to drive four hours up to New Hampshire. And it kinda changed my life. I had been trying to find my footing in this new synod where I didn’t know anyone, right after a cross country move. I knew I loved all of you from the jump — you are fun, you are practical, you are hilarious, and you are kind. I was happy whenever I left a meeting (I still am!), which I took to be a good sign. But I was having some trouble connecting to others in the synod or finding ways to feel useful outside of my “real” job with you guys. 

Then Knute called. Calling him back was one of the best decisions I made in 2016. I served as the family camp chaplain that summer, and I’ve gone back every year since. 

This year, I was called in late to be the emergency confirmation camp and staff chaplain when the previously scheduled chaplain had to cancel. Luckily, I didn’t have anything on my schedule that couldn’t be moved, and also luckily, you all are camp people who don’t mind loaning me out for a couple of weeks every summer. I’m grateful to you for that.

One of my favorite roles at Camp Calumet is to be the staff chaplain. I get to go and hang out with high school and college students, including our own Tyrese, who are giving their entire summers to live in Christian community and teach children how to do the same. I’m constantly amazed by them and by our folks who have served in such a capacity in years past. 

When we read this Gospel text where Jesus essentially says, “Excuses, excuses” to people, our first instinct is to try to explain it away. “He didn’t really mean that,” we tell ourselves, or we try to explain to ourselves how Jesus especially wasn’t talking to us. Surely Jesus wants us to be there for our families, and surely Jesus wouldn’t turn us away when we say we want to follow him.

One of the hardest tasks in reading the Gospels is to consider the terrifying possibility that maybe Jesus really did mean all that stuff: stuff about giving away our possessions, and about treating everyone — no matter who they are or where they’re from or even what they’ve done — with the same respect that we would treat Christ himself. And here, Jesus tells someone that if family excuses, including burying his father, are in the cards, he can forget about following him as a disciple. He tells someone else, more or less, that he doesn’t believe him when he says “I will follow you wherever you go.” Someone else says “Wait, first I have to tell my family goodbye,” and they get the response, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

When I wrote this sermon, I was sitting on Camp Calumet’s famous lakeside dining hall porch, overlooking beautiful Ossipee Lake on a sunny day, as the camp counselors milled around me, preparing for their seven weeks with campers. These folks aren’t getting paid much. They get to eat Calumet’s amazing food all summer, sure, and they get to live in one of the most beautiful places they’ve ever been. But mostly, they get to wrangle children and put up with the same people for eight weeks, living in cabins or in tents. There’s no time for excuses — just work. Hard work. Fun, yes, but also work. Serious work, like taking care of other people’s children and making sure they boat and swim and hike and even sleep safely. 

As part of my work with them, I gave staff devotions every morning. The first morning’s theme was “generosity,” and I talked about how people who gain the kind of wealth to be able to purchase private jets undergo quite a change in socialization. Suddenly, when you no longer have to fly commercial, it changes you (or so I hear). You no longer have to run on someone else’s schedule, move out of the way of others, or wait for that one person to take way too long to get out of the aisle. It turns out that that sort of thing — in small doses and for limited times, hopefully — is good for us. It teaches us to be patient, and to give up our own space and convenience to others. Being in an airplane, as many of you know, means being crunched in with seemingly a bajillion people in a very small space. It’s roughly equivalent to living in a 600 foot apartment and packing 250 or so people in there. We’re only willing to give up space like that when we’re going somewhere.

I informed the Camp Calumet staff that they’ll be flying commercial this summer, metaphorically, at least. “So,” I said, “you might as well be generous. Give up space. Let others go first. Take care of other people. It’s good for you.” I also told them that they could’ve done any number of things with their summers; they could’ve “flown private,” so to speak. But they didn’t.

As I told the staff and so I tell you: it’s worth it to give up space for others this summer, because you’re going somewhere. Progress will be made. You will grow.

No excuses. 

They say the church is dying, but I think that people are just getting more honest. They’re becoming more aware that they can do anything with their Sunday mornings and they’re choosing not to. And that’s okay. Living in community is hard, after all. Being part of a church is hard — I don’t have to tell you that. Even in a community like this, where we generally all love the heck out of each other, things can still be difficult. You have to give up space, and I can most certainly see why not everyone wants to do that. 

But you guys have made a different decision, and I believe it’s good for you.

As a pastor, I’d rather have fifteen people who want to be here and live in Christian community than 500 people who are here because they feel obligated. I can do a lot more with those fifteen. 

This is not to say that those who make a different decision are less loved by God. That isn’t true. Earlier in the passage, before Jesus throws shade at everyone for giving him excuses, there are some Samaritans who really don’t get it. They have no interest in following after him at all. 

James and John, bless their hearts, try to please Jesus this way: “Lord Lord Lord! Can we call down fire on them? Can we can we can we? 

And Jesus turns on them and tells them off for it. He also doesn’t say that those who don’t follow are lost forever. He doesn’t condemn anyone to hell for going to bury his father or for wanting to say goodbye to his family. I believe that God is big enough, wide enough, to cover everyone in love. I believe that grace and faith show up in the strangest places, and we in the church don’t own God or dispense God’s love. That’s really important.

But you, like the Camp Calumet staff, have an opportunity here. You can “fly private,” metaphorically at least. You can do whatever you want on Sunday morning. Or you can be here. You can give up space because you believe that we’re going somewhere. I certainly do. If I didn’t believe in this place and in you and in this community, I wouldn’t be here either. 

But I do. I do. 

Maybe Jesus meant all that stuff, church. We have an opportunity. It requires giving up space. It requires listening to one another and letting one another take up space. It requires making no excuses and working hard. You are loved no matter what, but we have an opportunity here. We can create hope for others. We can find hope for ourselves.  

And today, we’re celebrating someone who has given up so much over the years to be with us — Lisa. Even in my relatively short time here, I’ve noticed how much effort Lisa puts in to all of her ministries: her art and her music. She’s given up a ton of time and made a ton of room for others to thrive. And today, we celebrate her and we’re grateful. At the end of the service, we’ll gather at the font to bless her as she goes out to continue her ministry in other places. 

The point is this: here at this table, there’s hope for all. Here in community, there’s love to share. We have each other, and we know each other, and we support each other. We are examples for each other of what love and care and dedication really look like. We could be anywhere, but we’re here together. Might as well go somewhere. Amen. 

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