I think it was Mark Twain who said, “It’s not the things I don’t understand in the Bible that worry me; it’s the things I understand perfectly clear that worry me.” Which is kind of my reaction to this passage which David read for us. Jesus had no home. Do I need to be homeless to truly follow him? What about burying the dead? Or saying good-bye? Worrying, indeed.
I found a kindred spirit in the commentator who wrote,
My first response was, Sorry, Jesus. You are wrong. Sometimes we have to bury our dead and you are just going to have to wait. Sometimes we have to say goodbye to those we are leaving or to those we have lost, and we will catch up to you eventually. Sometimes we have a few things that need tending before we jump on the discipleship bandwagon. Like what, you might say, Jesus? Well, like grief, for example, for those close and personal, but also for those whom our world continues to insist cannot be a part of your kingdom. Sometimes we just need some time. Thanks, Jesus. [Karoline Lewis, Dear Working Preacher, 6/19/16]
But I also wonder–is it not possible to follow Jesus into grief or saying good-bye? Is being a disciple of Jesus so removed from daily life that shaving your head and donning a robe and taking to the streets with a begging bowl is the only true way to follow him? What does it mean to “follow Jesus”?
Nancy Rockwell writes helpfully, “Jesus does not equivocate about the cost of becoming a disciple. Neither is the Way he offers a sentimental path. The road leads on. Never back. It is the discipline of walking on that he requires.” [biteintheapple, 6/22/16]
Those words have an edge this week as Britain just voted to leave the European Union. “The road leads on. Never back. It is the discipline of walking on that he requires.” Or as Americans flock to a man who wants to “make America great again.” Or to a woman firmly embedded in a system that has worked–for a shrinking few–in the past. “The road leads on. Never back. It is the discipline of walking on that Jesus requires.” Or/and they have an edge to the church, once a well-respected institution, with sanctuaries and Sunday Schools full of people. “The road leads on. Never back. It is the discipline of walking on that he requires.”
There is an urgency in Jesus’ words. People are suffering, people are dying. People are lost, without hope. Every minute counts. On a lazy, hot, summer Sunday morning like this, that’s a harsh message. And realistically, it isn’t humanly possible to keep going without rest or reprieve. Even God rested on the Sabbath. Even Jesus took time out to get away from the crowds and from his disciples. It was just last week that I was preaching about “time out.”
But the preciousness and possibility of each moment is still charged, still held in tension with that call to continue full speed ahead. All those lives cut down in a moment 2 weeks ago in an Orlando nightclub. My colleague Alan Parker posting a cartoon on Facebook Wednesday morning a week ago, then struck down by a blood clot that afternoon and dead by Friday morning. The way leads on, never back. This moment counts. “How do we measure 500 25,000 600 minutes in the year of a life?” as the song from Rent asks so hauntingly? “No one who puts hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
This Jesus – who has set his face toward Jerusalem and the surety of what awaits him there – this Jesus, who answered the hapless folks offering to follow him, could be characterized, as one Episcopal bishop did, as “the cranky Jesus.” [Rt. Rev. Stacy Sauls, Day1.org, 6/30/13] But it is also the focused Jesus, the realistic Jesus, the human Jesus. This will be no picnic, he tells them. We won’t be staying at the Ritz Carlton along the way. There will be no reminiscing about “the good old days.” You’ve either got to be all in, or don’t bother. You’ve got to trust that God will take care of the living and the dead with infinite love and compassion, but God is also on this path before us; and this is the direction I’m heading. Toward new life, not the old.
It was the German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who coined the term “cheap grace”–grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without hard work, without challenge or price, grace, as he said, “without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound!” we love to sing, and it is amazing, it does save us, but too often we’d like to have it without cost or consequence. We’d rather not have to change how we’re living. “Save me, Lord,” the 17 year-old Augustine was said to have prayed, in the midst of one of his more, shall we say, “frisky” periods, “Save me, make me pure and chaste, Lord, but not yet!” Don’t make me change, really. I don’t want to seem like a religious nut.
“No one who puts hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” It wasn’t so long ago–and it is still true in many places in the world–that fields were indeed ploughed by horses or mules or oxen, with human beings guiding the plough behind them. Blinders were put on the mules or horses, to keep their focus straight ahead, and woe to the one with hand on the plow who got distracted. “I remember being mildly but firmly corrected by my grandfather,” one man recalls, “when I tried to distract him from the side. I was just throwing little pebbles at him.” “No one who puts hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
The way forward is the only way to go. There is no going back. And Jesus is quite clear that it will require focus, discipline, hard work, creativity, courage, and faith. That was true of the way to Jerusalem as well as the way to the future of Europe and the United States and the church. It will demand all of us. For those of us who are reasonably comfortable and happy with the way things are for us, though recognizing that they’re not too great for many others, that sounds harsh and a little rude; not to mention a lot of work.
Ethicist Sharon Welch has some uncomfortable wisdom for us–
The despair of the affluent, the middle class, [when problems are seen as intransigent is a temptation] that has a particular tone: it is a despair cushioned by privilege and grounded in privilege. It is easier to give up on long-term social change when one is comfortable in the present–when it is possible to have challenging work [or a well-earned retirement], excellent health care and housing, and access to the fine arts. When the good life is present or within reach, it is tempting to despair of its ever being in reach for others and resort to merely enjoying it for oneself and one’s family…Becoming so easily discouraged is the privilege of those accustomed to too much power, accustomed to having needs met without negotiation and work, accustomed to having a political and economic system that responds to their needs.” [“A Feminist Ethic of Risk”]
Does that ever ring true for you? I sometimes look at the dramatic effects of climate change–talk about overwhelming challenges–rising sea levels, increasingly violent storms in some places, drought in others–and I hear myself say, “Boy, I’m glad I live in Vermont.” I’ll probably be able to get by. And then I’m horrified that I’ve even thought that. I’m not at all proud about that, or about the many other issues or tragedies I see or read about and say, “Thank God that isn’t my child, or my home.” “There but for the grace of God go I,” we say, don’t we? But really, does God’s grace save us but not other people?
There is an old proverb that says, “When you get to your wit’s end, remember that God lives there.” Thank goodness! It is not humanly possible to keep plowing without cease. But Jesus says, “Hold on, I’m right there with you.” Hold on to the vision of a world where all have enough, where no child goes to bed hungry. Where not only foxes have holes and birds have nests, but all God’s children have simple decent homes, where the welcome table is spread far and wide. Hold on but also let go of all the other stuff you’re dragging along behind you, all that doesn’t serve you or God. Hw can you simplify your life? How can you let go of the past that will never come again? How can you let go of regrets or resentments that do nothing but bind you up? Hold on to that which is good–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control–eat freely of those fruits of the Spirit.
The way is forward, not back. The moment is now, not “at some point,” when everything has falling into place, when we really are ready. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for, and we are not alone. So let us travel on, into God’s future, with faith, with hope, with courage, with joy. Amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark