Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“No Looking Back”
Rev. Art Ritter
June 30, 2019
When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
My aunt Phyllis lives on a farm near Amble, Michigan. The farm has been in her late husband’s family for nearly 150 years. Each spring the farm hosts what is called “Plow Day.” On that day visitors are invited to come and watch Phyllis’ son and grandsons and nephews use a team of horses to plow furrows in the earth, the good old fashioned way. It has been a while since I have attended “Plow Day” but I still remember what it was like when my late uncle and his father did the plowing. The horses were given blinders so they could not see any direction but straight ahead. They were hitched to the plow with a harness connected to strong leather reins which went over my uncle’s shoulders. He then steadily took the handles of the plow and urged the horse to begin moving forward with once sharp command and then a series of more loving, clicking noises. The thing that always amazed me was how straight the furrow always was. I was told that keeping things straight was more important that just appearances. Straight rows also improved the yield and made it easier to care for the crops later in the season. It is kind of embarrassing to think that I can hardly sign my name without putting my signature on a slant but those horses and the man behind the plow always put down a perfectly straight furrow across a large open field.
This morning’s Scripture lesson from the gospel of Luke is sometimes called a turning point in the ministry of Jesus. Previously in Luke’s account there were some rather profound teachings and some impressive miracles. Jesus was transfigured on a mountaintop. Bread and fish were multiplied to feed a multitude. A woman was healed of her bleeding and her daughter was raised from the dead. A storm upon the sea was calmed. Suddenly everything seemed to change.
“Now it came to pass, when the time had come for him to be received up, he steadfast set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Things were about to get much more difficult. As Jesus moved to Jerusalem, he was about to encounter the powers of the world. Jesus knew that what had come before no longer mattered in the face of what was about to happen.
The lesson continues with an account of some messengers that Jesus sent to Samaria but were not received very well. The disciples, notably James and John, wanted to send fire upon these rather rude Samaritans but Jesus would have nothing of it. Raining fire upon enemies was not part of God’s plan for the building of the Kingdom. Instead he used the occasion to warn his followers about the hardships that they would face if they choose to follow him. For those who would follow, he said, there would be no sense of being at home and no place to rest their heads. There would be no time to arrange for a funeral, even for a parent. There would be no time to say goodbye to family and good friends. No one who looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God. The steady hand needs to be upon the plow and all eyes should be looking forward.
Some commentators say these words come from a rather cranky Jesus. One person said that this piece of Scripture might be entitled, “Jesus the Jerk.” How could anyone respond kindly to such an invitation and such recruiting tactics? Instead of showing some gratitude or sympathy for his would-be followers, Jesus seemed to be rather unfeeling. He was tough. He was demanding. He didn’t cut them any slack.
I remember the movies Private Benjamin and Stripes. In both films naïve military recruits signed up for more than they bargained for. Goldie Hawn’s spoiled rich girl character was tricked into enlisting by the promises of seeing the world and experiencing exotic adventures. Later in the movie Private Judy Benjamin says, “I did join the army, but I joined a different Army. I joined the one with the condos and the private rooms.” In Stripes Bill Murray’s character John Winger was duped into enlisting into the Army by a recruiter who only cared about making his monthly quota of recruits. When the recruiter asked Winger if he had ever been convicted of any felonies or misdemeanors, including burglaries and assaults and rapes and arson, Winger’s only reply was, “Did you say convicted?” The recruiter quickly got Winger’s signature on the dotted line before he heard anything else that would disqualify the recruit.
But Jesus the recruiter was different. His tone was grim but it wasn’t because he was without heart or uncaring. He did not want to paint too positive of a picture to his followers. Walking toward Jerusalem is serious business. Discipleship is not something to be undersold or soft-pedaled. It is a challenge. It is hard work. Before signing up, you need to count the cost. When you put your hands on the plow of discipleship, you can’t be distracted by anything other than what lies straight ahead.
How do we respond to such a rigid demand? My gut feeling is a defensive reaction toward Jesus. Sorry Jesus. You are wrong. Sometimes we have to take the time to do what we need to do. Sometimes we have to bury our dead and you are going to have to wait for us. Sometimes we have to take the time to say goodbye to those we leave behind and just know that we will catch up to you eventually. Sometime we have a few things that just need our attention before we are all in with what you would have us do. Jesus knew that our tendency to put off moments in time would make a difference in how we follow him. When it comes to making some important decisions of faith, we think we need to be in a better place, a better time, a time in which all of the stars align to make things perfect for us to take action. I will follow, but first……Perhaps Jesus knew that it is our instinct to stand at the Red Sea waiting for God to part the waters before we even get our feet wet. Instead of waiting until we have all the angles figured out, Jesus wants us to jump in, get wet and say, “Let’s see what happens now.” When our hands are on the plow, we can’t be looking around, just straight ahead.
Yet I find it hard to believe that Jesus was being completely insensitive to the human needs of his followers. And I find it hard to believe that Jesus does not care about our losses, our goodbyes, and the difficult moments of our lives. Jesus call is not an insensitive plea to give up everything that is important to us, and to leave behind all those who matter to us. Rather it is a promise that if we follow him with eyes looking forward, all the moments of our life will matter. Each one of us will count. Maybe what Jesus was trying to say is that there is still a lot of Kingdom building work to be done. There is still a lot of divine life to be lived. There is still a lot of blessed opportunities and experiences and memories to be had. Looking back, dwelling back there with something that is no longer alive or life-giving produces only crooked, ill-planned furrows. God wants us to live and to be alive because that is what the Kingdom is all about.
And perhaps Jesus’ demand pointed toward our dangerous tendency to cordon off parts of our lives from the total claims Jesus makes upon us. Barbara Brown Taylor writes that if a person in the church loses their job, it is natural for us to offer sympathy and prayer. But if a person in the church gets a promotion or a job with greater pay, do we pray for God’s strength for them in the new temptations that new responsibility and more salary might bring their way. Brown Taylor points out that there are parts of our life that we tend to cordon off from God’s intervention. Most of the time, when things are going well, we act as though we are on own and we resist or perhaps don’t even consider any of the self-sacrificing demands that faithfulness to God commands. She writes that the only way out is to plow a new path of life, killing off ordinary ways of defining value and bring into our lives a whole new set of priorities. And then we look ahead and not back.
Sometime keeping our hand on the plow and keeping our eyes straight ahead is not so much an act of our human will as it is an act of active faith. Sometimes it is not just a choice we make but a confession of our hope. There is an old proverb which says, “When you get to your wit’s end, remember that God lives there.” We hold on and we look ahead because we can trust in God being with us in what lies ahead. We can hold fast to our faith and our call to discipleship not because it is easy nor because of the promise of reward. We keep our hands firm and our eyes steady because the promise of the one who created us and who redeems the worth of each of our moments is faithful.