(a sermon for June 30, 2019, the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, based on Luke 9: 51-62)
(Note: A podcast recording of this message can be found here.)
I think you’ll agree with me that in life at least two things are for certain: first, that there are always choices to be made, some very important, others seemingly inconsequential but most of them fairly essential; and second, that inevitably there will be something seeking to distract you from those choices!
There’s a story from the Hindu tradition that tells of young yogi (that is, a student of the Indian philosophy) who was instructed by his teacher that the pathway to true enlightenment was to spend his days sitting under a tree by the banks of a river in deep contemplation of God. And this is exactly what the student had decided to do; and in fact for this purpose had divested himself of all his worldly possessions, save for a begging bowl with which he would daily beg for scraps of food from those in the nearby village, and a loincloth, by which he covered up his… nakedness!
But this was fine, for this was all the student needed in his pursuit of enlightenment; except that one night after the student had washed out his loincloth and hung it on a tree to dry, he awoke the next day to discover that rats had torn and chewed up his loincloth beyond all repair. So now the student was naked and not only embarrassed to be seen that way but also that he was now forced to beg both for food and a new loincloth! Eventually, the student did manage to find a charitable donor for that particular piece of clothing, but upon returning to the river’s edge the student realized that there were always going to be rats; and since it was rather unseemly for a man of God to be continually begging for a loincloth, this young yogi decided to handle the problem in a different way: by getting a cat, so to be chasing the rats!
Which was very wise, indeed; except that the cat now needed to be fed, which required the young yogi to go out to get milk for the cat, which led to him looking for a stray cow from which he could get that milk! And even that was fine; that is, until late into the summer when the grass burned away from the lack of rain, and the cow needed some kind of fodder, any kind of fodder just to stay alive. So what did the yogi do? Of course, come the next rainy season he set out to plant some crops – just a few for the cow because after all, the cat needed milk so that it would keep chasing the rats so that there would be no need for him to have to go begging for another loincloth – oh, and perhaps he ought to plant some rice and a few vegetables for himself as well!
Well, you can guess what happened: he spent so much of his days farming he could hardly find time at all for spiritual pursuits! He did seek to remedy the situation by hiring some workers to tend the fields, but the workers needed supervision; which led him to the rather patriarchal decision to take a wife who could oversee the operations of the farm, all so he himself could be free to get back to communing with God! But – you guessed it (!) – his new wife was not content to live under a tree by the river and so he set out to build a house; a large house, especially now she was expecting their first child!
Five years had passed, and the yogi had grown wealthy and fat living there by the banks of the river. The story goes that one day his teacher reappeared, and asked with some dismay in his voice what had happened in his quest for enlightenment. “Revered teacher,” replied the yogi, head bowed and eyes to the ground, “this was truly the only way I could keep my loincloth.”
I’ll say it again: so often what life amounts to are the choices that we make; but there will always be something that seeks to distract us from those choices!
Our text for this morning is all about choices and distractions; specifically the choice to follow Jesus and the distractions that threaten to keep us from doing so. Actually, I don’t know about you, but I have to say that for me this passage from Luke’s gospel feels kind of harsh. There’s nothing particularly positive in anything that Jesus has to say here; in fact, to borrow a word from another preacher, Jesus’ words come off in this reading as, well, a bit “cranky,” seemingly going “out of his way to say difficult things, things people, even good and decent people, will simply have a hard time accepting, to say nothing of actually doing.” (Rev. Stacey Sauls)
Granted, Luke tells us that this is the point of the gospel story in which Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” and the inevitability of the cross that awaited him there; so there is a certain seriousness about this very pivotal moment. But to seemingly dismiss that faithful admirer alongside the road promising to follow Jesus wherever he would go by saying, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” or as The Message renders it, “Are you ready to rough it? We’re not staying in the best inns, you know;” and then to answer the would-be follower who first needed to bury his father, and then to another who wished to say farewell to his loved ones with the curt response of “Let the dead bury their own dead,” well, there’s something that most decidedly does not fit the profile of “Jesus, friend, most kind and gentle!” And for the moment, let’s not even talk about Jesus’ rebuke of James and John who were ready to “command [heavenly] fire” to consume the village of Samaritans who had refused to receive Jesus along his journey!
I mean, up till now, all that we’ve heard about this business of following Jesus has had to do with the coming Kingdom of God taking root in our midst and about you and I being “fishers of people;” it’s all been about healing, and miracles and stories of seeds taking root in good soil. But there’s more to it than that, and now we encounter Jesus in a “teachable moment” that not only shows forth the great seriousness of that call to follow but also reveals the great urgency of it; which is exactly what Jesus is talking about when he says to that wanna-be disciple who first needs to straighten things out at home before he leaves that “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Once again, to make his point Jesus brings forth an image that any of those listening would have understood, and as people who know at least a little bit about the rural culture, so do we! From an agricultural point of view, it just makes sense: any farmer worth his salt would never think to look back from the plow, for to do so would be to risk cutting a crooked or shallow farrow and thus ruining the work (or more to the point, if I might quote an ancient Greek poem on the subject – from 700 B.C., to be exact – the plowman is one “who attends to his work and drives a straight furrow and no longer gapes after his comrades, but keeps his mind on his work.” [Hesiod, Works and Days]). The point that Jesus is trying to make here is that in the task before you there is “no place for looking back or even trying to look in two directions at once.” Quite literally, writes Biblical commentator Mikeal Parsons, Professor of Religion at Baylor University, you can’t be “two-faced,” and so it is with being a disciple of Jesus. If you are to follow Jesus, you “must be single-minded in purpose, setting [your face] like Jesus on the task at hand.”
What we need to understand about this passage is that Jesus’ words are not as “cranky” as they might seem at first read; indeed, his call (quoting Karoline Lewis of Lutheran Seminary now) “is not an insensitive plea to abandon that which is important to us, who matter to us, who make a difference to us.” This is not a call to abandon family or to “let the dead bury their own.” But it is a reminder to you and to me and to all who seek to follow Jesus that there is an important, essential job before us and that every single moment before us matters in what we have to do. When it involves the Kingdom of God coming into our midst, every moment counts; and thus it includes and encompasses “all the contexts and circumstances of our lives… it is the convergence of time, people, purpose and place.”
Or, to put it far more simply, in and through all the routines and rhythms of our lives, yours and mine, we have decided to follow Jesus… and we dare not let ourselves become distracted from that choice we have made.
The fact is that even when I think about it a little bit, I can totally understand the reaction of those who respond to Jesus calling by saying, “Oh, yes, Lord… absolutely I’ll follow… but first let me take care of a few things.” I mean, we do want to follow Jesus, right? That’s kind of why we’re here today: we’ve heard Jesus calling, we’ve built that relationship with God in Christ and we do have some sense of God’s Spirit moving in our lives; this is why we gather ourselves together as the church – even on a hot and muggy June morning (!) – because while we don’t fully understand it and we don’t always know where it’s going to lead us, Christ has called us and we do want to be disciples! But even given all that, there’s so much in life that seeks to distract us; so much that would take our hand off the plow given the chance: “real life” distractions, things like job concerns, matters of financial security and the time and space that’s needed to take care of ourselves and people we love. There’s also the kind of distractions that emanate from the relentless challenges of convoluted days and an over-scheduled life; to say nothing of a pervasive culture that actively tries to pull us in every direction except that where Jesus is walking. And then, of course, there are the distractions of sin and sorrow and anger and hurt and regret to which we so often tend to cling; precisely the kind of life (or more accurately, the kind of death) from which Jesus has come to save us all in the first place!
Barbara Brown Taylor has written, “Discipleship costs all that we have, all that we love, all that we are. And Jesus does not want us to be fooled about that.” That doesn’t mean that in following Jesus we aren’t ever going to love, or to laugh, or to have a life that is rich and full and eventful and surprising. It just means that the call to follow our Lord where he goes – even unto Jerusalem (!) – doesn’t happen after all of that; it happens while all of that is going one. Jesus calls us to proclaim the kingdom of God while we’re living… while we’re growing… while we’re grieving… while we’re facing the inevitable changes that come our way… it happens as much while we’re in the midst of our farewells as it does in the new beginnings of our lives. Discipleship, you see, isn’t something for another day; it’s for now… it’s for here… it’s for life “its own self.”
It’s for planting and it’s for harvest, and in-between that, it’s for plowing… and as Jesus is quick to remind us here, we’d do very well, you and me, to not be distracted from the task at hand… to ever and always keep our hand to the plow and never look back.
Which begs the question, beloved: how’s the field looking?
Beloved, I hope and pray that as disciples of our Lord Jesus, we might truly, in the words of the song, “plant our rows straight and long, seasoned with a prayer and song” so that there will be a harvest truly fit for the kingdom.
And as our garden grows, may our thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
© 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry