Saturday, June 30, 2007
No Turning Back
No Turning Back
It was just a few weeks ago that I preached a sermon on Justification by faith. It was a sermon about God’s working out our salvation, that it is not by our works that God saves us. We do not have to do anything save accepting the salvific work of Jesus. But then why do we have these readings? If God does all the work of salvation, what are we worried about? Christianity is easy. And yet….
Throughout this Pentecost season we hear of the ministry of Jesus. We hear of what it means to be disciples. And in today’s readings we hear of the cost of discipleship. And while our salvation is worked out for us, it is free. There is for the Christian the need to recognize that the life of the Christian is costly simply because there are others who would compete for our attention.
In today’s Gospel of Luke we find Jesus setting ‘his face towards Jerusalem.’ This is a statement showing Jesus’ resolve. The journey to Jerusalem is not a vacation or even a pilgrimage. It is an encounter with God. Jesus’ purpose in life is to be addressed in Jerusalem. In Luke, “to be taken up”, both means ‘journeying UP to Jerusalem and also being taken up by God, ascending to God’s presence’. There is determination in what Jesus is going to do. He and the disciples must go through the territory of the Samaritans.
Now, Samaria was not a welcome place for Jews. It would be like having to walk through the West Bank or the Gaza Strip for a Jew today. This was not a place where he would be welcome. Jesus’ disciples offer to bring down some kind of retribution upon those who do not welcome him. But for Jesus, violence is not the answer. He moves on toward Jerusalem.
One person offers to follow him, and Jesus says something quite cryptic. He says that he has no home, not even a place to sleep. Is the disciple willing to be homeless too? Is the disciple willing to follow when there is no destination in sight? Another disciple is invited to follow, but family obligations are in the way. Another offers to follow but asks only to say good-by.
And Jesus’ response is not like Elisha in the first reading we heard this morning who saw to his obligations at home and THEN followed Elijah. Jesus says something harsh: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
For those who call themselves Christian-- who know the salvation of God though faith, there is no middle ground. It is all or nothing. And it is here that we find that salvation may be free, but the life of a Christian is costly. It is not about paying back God for all that we have been given, it is a matter that if one does not throw one’s self totally into following Jesus, the fullness of God’s life in us cannot be found. There is not to be a lukewarm Christian. We either follow whole-heartedly or we cannot honestly call ourselves by Christ’s name.
Does this mean that we are to be perfect? Not hardly. There is no way that we can be. Does this mean that we are holier than others? Nope!
It means that as Christians we are willing in our lives to make Jesus’ agenda ours—we are willing to leave the comfort of the familiar to follow Jesus with a kind of determination that is single-minded. The life of one who follows Jesus is about commitment to Jesus’ message that violence is not the answer and domination is not the way to live a God-centered life. Vengeance cannot be the way that we live out our faith.
Jesus taught a kind of dispossession, a refusal to be caught up in consumerism, or power brokering for the sake of knowing God more intimately, for the sake of knowing one another more lovingly. Ultimately Jesus refused to allow the basic fear in life to deter him from spreading the news that God could be foremost in people’s lives.
Jesus taught that those fears that are likely to turn us from God are phoney. Just like today, the people of Jesus’ day were afraid of what was happening around them. They didn’t like being occupied by Rome. They feared not being able to pay their taxes or the rent. They worried about the unrest and terrorism in their world. They feared what would come in the future. And Jesus taught them that if they kept their eyes upon God, nothing could harm them because their salvation was already accomplished in the love of the Father.
The Christian life is no different today than what Jesus taught then. We need not fear what cannot destroy the soul. Over and over Jesus taught that we don’t have to worry about what we have or don’t have. We don’t have to worry about what is going to happen. We need to be single-minded about whose way we are going to follow, the way of fear and anxiety, or the way of confidence in God. That sounds simple, but it isn’t easy to live. It takes constant vigilance.
Some years ago I decided to put a vegetable garden in the yard of my rectory in DC. This was a plot that had not been turned over before so I decided to rent a rototiller to help with the project. I spread a good bit of organic material over the area that I wanted to till knowing that the soil was meager and needed additives. I had broken some of the area with a spade, but it needed the kind of mixing that the tiller could do.
Now, gardening is a contemplative endeavor. It requires a bit of single-mindedness. And my unfamiliarity with tillers demanded that I put all my attention on my plowing. I had gotten most of my small plot finished and was on my last furrow when a parishioner came up on the other side of the fence and called to me. When I looked up, the tines of the tiller caught on the chain link fence and in the flash of an eye, the rented rototiller was hanging four feet up the chain link fence. It required a trip to the hardware store for bolt cutters to cut the tiller out of the fence. And no longer was my safe little fenced-in backyard garden secure. There was a hole the size a moose could go through in the fence!
I knew then with no uncertainty what the meaning of Jesus’ one liner of today’s Gospel meant: God wants us to know what it means to be so totally focused on living the life of generosity to one another that we cannot be distracted by the fears that those in power would have us focus on. One of the ways that those in power manipulate others is by keeping us anxious, by keeping us afraid, by keeping us focused upon ourselves and our own needs.
Now, I am not talking necessarily about governmental power although I think that governmental power does do this no matter what party you follow. I am talking about anyone who uses power to manipulate. This might mean a boss, a teacher, a pastor, a bishop, a neighbor, a spouse or even a child, anyone to whom we are willing to give power in our lives. It might even mean Madison Ave. or the Stock Exchange. Jesus taught us that we do not need to fear these powers when we put God first. It also means that we have to surrender ourselves to the moment and not the future or the past. It means that we take seriously that God will provide all that we need and that what our idea of success is not necessarily God’s idea of success.
‘Putting our hand to the plow without looking back’ means that we cannot dwell in the past, that God’s life among us is always calling us to a kind of newness that is in front of us. Jesus’ way demands vigilance that will not deter us. Allowing ourselves to be centered on the loving way of Christ is not hard as much as it requires focus. It requires an unwillingness to be distracted with the fears that others would have us entertain.
The cost of discipleship is not one that is paid by the world’s currency of greed, power and manipulation. The cost of discipleship is paid in a willing spirit to embrace the selflessness that Jesus had. Jesus had no home or even a place to lay his head to which he could be attached or tied. He had no possessions save the clothes on his back. He depended up on the generosity of others even for a grave because his life was centered upon the God that could not be encapsulated, manipulated or circumscribed by the law, by the priests, by the leaders. Jesus’ way to know God was to jettison all the trappings that could imprison him so that he could preach God’s love to everyone who would listen.
What I am suggesting to you and to me is that if we are going to know the fullness of Christ’s love for us, we must be willing to live as one unhindered by possessions, fearless in the face of loss, willing to leave it all when called. To do anything else would compromise the free gift of love that God gives us in Christ Jesus. We must be willing to face life fearless of what we might loose, whether it is our possessions or even our image of ourselves. The cost of discipleship is to live in a consumer world without the need to consume, to live in a power-filled world without the need to be powerful, to live in a fear-filled world without the need to fear. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer was wont to say, grace may be free but it isn’t cheap.
I invite you this week to inventory the grace in your life. Are you willing to give up all that you are and have to follow Jesus? That’s what it costs, brothers and sisters. We must be willing to give it all up in the twinkling of an eye. Can we do it? Are we willing to do it?
About a month ago, a friend of mine from St. Peter’s in Bainbridge came to hear me preach here at St. Luke’s. I hadn’t seen her in 20 years and it was a delight to have her here. At ninety-something it was a delight to see her smile and hear her laugh. But just last week, she had to give up everything. She died. At some point, Helen had to give up all she had accumulated, all she treasured for those 92 years, possession, family, and friends, even herself. We all must do that at some point. Are we ready? Are we to recognize that we have no home but in God alone? That is what it costs to be a disciple of Jesus. That is what it means that we cannot put our hand to the plow and look back. Helen followed her row and without any doubt I know that she abides now without fear, without need in the arms of the God who loves her and us all.
This is what it means to follow Christ. AMEN.