Text: Matthew 8:18-22
Before I started this sermon, I went to the laundry room, grabbed a rag, got some Pledge and started dusting. I knew this sermon wouldn’t go anywhere until I had cleared the dust off a Greek adverb that was first rendered in English as “whithersoever.”
In the classic, old English, King James version of the Bible, Matthew’s text today opens like this:
18 Now when Jesus saw great multitudes about him, he gave commandment to depart unto the other side. 19 And a certain scribe came, and said unto him, Master, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest. 20 And Jesus saith unto him, The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.
Whithersoever. Whither-so-ever. Whithersoever. Whithersoever. It is one of those strange Shakespearean words that has long since faded from our vocabulary. It is a word that does not easily roll off the tongue. Even so, in the story from Matthew, it slides quite easily off the Scribe’s tongue in a fit of ecstatic enthusiasm. He announces publicly that he is “all in” for following Jesus He has watched Jesus cure a leper, heal a centurion’s slave, and restore health to Peter’s mother. After witnessing this hat-trick of miracles, he tells Jesus, “Master, whithersoever you go I will follow.”
While I admire the Scribe’s enthusiasm, I wonder if he might have wanted to count to ten or maybe twenty or probably two thousand before he uttered this “whithersoever.” I wonder if he might have wanted to do some more research before committing to follow Jesus “whithersoever.”
After I dusted off this old English word, I did some research myself trying to locate where to find “whithersoever” today. And, I learned how it shows up in the oddest places. It looks like “whithersoever” is located at the nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhya in the Ukraine. This plant has six nuclear reactors and 37 years of nuclear waste sitting in unprotected cooling pools that if attacked could contaminate tens of thousands of square miles. “Whithersoever” is where courageous religious leaders are gathered today along with U.N. Atomic Energy Commission members to do all within their means to prevent a nuclear mishap that would dwarf the nuclear catastrophe at Chernobyl.
“Whithersoever.” I kept looking for it this week, but could not find it in my GPS, so I returned to the old-fashioned way of asking directions. I asked everyone I met, “Where can I find ‘whithersoever’ on the map?” Some looked surprised by my question and said it is right next door or just down the street. Some said it where there is a serious problem at home. Some were sure it is located wherever children are getting into trouble. Some said it is wherever there is a chill when you walk into the house and not because the AC isn’t working.
I spoke to some people who swore they saw “whithersoever” at the office where everyone ducks when the boss arrives, hoping not to be latest victim of an angry and unwarranted tirade. Some told me they saw “whithersoever” in the home of an aging couple who cannot do all that they once did and are wrestling with next steps, big steps.
Can anyone here this morning guide me on a path to “whithersoever”? I wonder if it is located in the home of a family suddenly stricken by unimaginable grief where you and I are left not knowing what to do, not knowing how to help? So, we bring food. Send cards. We make an obligatory condolence call. We mumble an offer of our “thoughts and prayers.” What more can we do? Everyone has to work out their own grief anyway. Right?
“Whithersoever you go I will follow” says the Scribe. I am not about to make that promise until I know exactly where “whithersoever” is located. After all, I was raised on the admonition: “Mind your own business. Life will present you with enough problems without borrowing some from others.” After all, there are days/weeks/months when it is all we can do to keep our heads above water and even if we wanted to help others, there’s usually nothing we can do. Sure, it is a shame that bad things are happening around us, but it is really none of our business. Sure, it may not be fair how our colleagues are being treated or how laborers are unfairly paid but what can we do?
“Whithersoever” the Scribe says to Jesus. What possibly possessed him to open his mouth and say, “Whithersoever you go I will follow”? Matthew does not tell us why the Scribe makes that bold statement. I can only thank God that he did. For he inspires me to loosen my grip on all that keeps me from following Jesus into the battle against war and poverty, the battle against apathy and alienation, the battle against racism and sexism.
Oddly enough, evidently Jesus is as perplexed by what the Scribe says as I am. When the Scribe steps up and utters words of absolute devotion to Jesus, Jesus does not pin a merit badge on him. Jesus does not use the Scribe as a public example to everyone else in the crowd and say, “See, if the Scribe can make this promise, so can you!”
Just the opposite. Jesus, in effect, asks the Scribe, “Have you lost your mind? Do you have any idea whatsoever where whithersoever is?!” Jesus says, “To follow me will permanently dislocate your life for foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” “Life with me will not bring you accolades or loud applause. It will not result in your impressive job growth. It will not result in deep affection and admiration for you from all your family and friends. No, follow me and you will go places you never dreamed of going. You will watch me be fought every step of the way. I will be called a radical, a revolutionary, a trouble-maker. I will be betrayed, denied, beaten, and executed.” “So, Scribe, are you sure you want to follow me ‘whithersoever’?”
But Jesus does not stop there. He also tells the Scribe, “If you do finally decide to follow me whithersoever, you will find more meaning in your life than you thought could ever exist. I will calm your anxieties that wake you in the middle of the night with my peace that passes all understanding. I will set you not adrift in a world that always demands your allegiance but I will send you out into the world on a clearly marked path, in a direction where you cannot get lost. You will not need to worry about burying the dead because you will be so busy bringing life to those who are barely living.
“Follow me whithersoever and you will walk on roads that sensible people do not walk. You will cry out for justice when everyone else stays silent. You will no longer wonder about finding home because when I am with you, you are home.”
If you notice, Matthew does not tell us if the Scribe ends up following Jesus “whithersoever” or if, like the rich young ruler, he gets cold feet and turns away. Since Matthew does not tell us one way or the other, I like to think the unnamed Scribe followed Jesus and was one of the faithful few at the foot of the cross. I like to think he was close to the women who found that the Easter tomb was empty. I like to think he stood with new friends in Jerusalem when the Spirit of God arrived on Pentecost not as a gentle breeze but with gale force gusts.
I like to think all those things about the “whithersoever” pledged by the Scribe but I’m not so sure. All I know is that you and I had best be careful when we tell Jesus we’ll follow him “whithersoever.” Or, better yet, maybe following Jesus “whithersoever” happens precisely when you and I stop being so very careful.
“I will follow you, whithersoever.”
Jesus, sign me up.