Note: I preached a version of this sermon on June 26, 2016 (the third Sunday after Pentecost, Year C) at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
I am not an expert on farm work. But my experience working on a farm did teach me one thing: that farm work is not for the distracted. It’s not for the daydreamer. It’s not for the absent-minded.
Which is a roundabout way of saying it’s not for me. Once I gave myself an electric shock on an irrigation line, so bad that it threw me a few feet away to the ground. I filled a gas-powered dump truck with diesel. I crashed a tractor.
I did these things because my mind was divided. Sometimes I was thinking back. What had happened in class that morning. What someone had said around the porch the night before. Sometimes I was thinking ahead. After I make this turn with the drag harrow, how much of the field will be left?
Thankfully the damage I did to myself and the world around me was minor. But I’d be lying if I said I ever really learned my lesson.
In today’s Gospel passage Jesus uses a bit of farming wisdom to make a point. It comes at the climax of a powerful series of dialogues between Jesus and prospective followers.
One says that he or she will follow Jesus wherever Jesus goes. And Jesus replies, “Foxes have holes, birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Be careful what you are volunteering for, in other words. If you want to go where I go, you must be ready to live without the comfort God gives even to the foxes and the birds.
To a second person Jesus says, “Follow me.” But this one tells Jesus, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus answers him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” If you want to follow me, Jesus says, you must be ready to give up the duties your family and your world expect you to fulfill.
A third person offers to follow Jesus but with a qualification: “Let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Here’s where Jesus brings out the big guns: “No one who puts a hand to the plough, and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” If you want to follow me, Jesus says, you must be ready to do one thing, and not look back at everything else you need to do.
I don’t think I’ll ever get to the end of my fear and fascination at these words. Jesus is borrowing an ordinary adage about plowing. It’s like “a stitch in time saves nine” or “don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.” If you’re operating a plough, you need to make a straight row. If you’re looking back at your house—there are your friends waiting for you; there’s dinner being cooked; there’s your bed, which you left too early and will get back to late—you’re going to make a crooked row. And each row that follows will be worse. But in the mouth of Jesus, this country wisdom takes on a new meaning: If you put your hand to the plough of discipleship and look back, you’ll never be fit for the kingdom of God.
All of this happens as Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, where he knows his work of proclaiming the kingdom must end. And it happens when Jesus has to resist the temptations of his closest disciples to fight. When Jesus, earlier in the chapter, explains that the Son of Man must be betrayed and die, Peter says that this can’t be allowed to happen. When the Samaritan villages reject Jesus—unsurprisingly, because Samaritans and Jews had a rocky relationship—James and John ask to rain fire down on them. Jesus has to keep saying, “No.” His road to Jerusalem is a road of suffering and rejection.
So it is with kindness that Jesus warns these three would-be disciples. Don’t come along looking for comfort, because there isn’t any comfort or safety on the road with Jesus. The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. Don’t come along looking to be a good person, because following Jesus means surrendering your sacred duties. Let the dead bury their own dead. And don’t come along with a double heart, a backward look, another agenda, because once your hand is to the plough, there your heart must be.
And this drives me nuts. Because I love Jesus and I want to follow him and be with him. I want to work with him in the least of his brothers and sisters in this world. But I want a place to lay my head. I want my IRA to keep growing. I want to be a good son and a good husband and a good dad. I want to cherish a backward glance now and then at what might have been, what else I could be doing. Lord I will follow you on Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Saturdays. Lord I will serve you with ten percent of my income after self-employment tax. Lord I will follow you but first let me play some catch with my kid or catch up with this awesome cat video account on Facebook. That’s a pretty good deal, right, Jesus?
So it’s significant that our Gospel story does not record the final answers of these three disciples. Do they accept the challenge and come along to Jerusalem? Or do they heed Jesus’s compassionate warning and stay home? We know how the young man answered when he asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit life. Jesus told him he lacked only one thing, to sell his possessions and give them to the poor, and follow him. The young man, we hear, goes away sad because he had many possessions.
We don’t know the answer of these three would-be disciples. Maybe that’s because we are supposed to imagine ourselves in their shoes. What do we prefer to following Jesus? What obligations do we feel are more urgent than Jerusalem and the cross and the resurrection? Here’s the biggest question: What are we looking back at?
I mean, here in front of us is everything God promises: his Word, his Sacraments, his people who exist to bless us and receive our blessing, his world waiting to be healed and sanctified with our prayers and our gifts and our work, the plough of the Kingdom of God close at hand, waiting for us. But what is behind, turning our glance backward?
It could be an unresolved quarrel. It could be an unresolved grief. It could be an addiction. It could be poverty or unemployment or oppression.
It could be guilt over an old sin. It could be regret over an old failure. It could be resentment at a choice we didn’t make, a path we didn’t take.
Maybe it’s the church we used to know, singing familiar songs and being filled with familiar people.
It could be something big or something small. It could be many things at once.
All I know is that the temptation to hang back when Jesus calls us forward is one everyone seems to feel. Back there, just over your shoulder, you can see it—the fire is lit, dinner is almost ready, and there’s something there to eat, or drink, or inject that will make everything ok; someone’s there you haven’t seen in twenty years; back there is the sweet relief of resignation to the world’s injustices, right back there while we’re stuck here in this field, trying to make a straight furrow.
And the upshot is not that we should all feel anxious and neurotic about every single choice we make. I checked in on a meaningless mid-season baseball game as I was working on this sermon, and I don’t regret that and I don’t think it will be held against me on Judgement Day. Leisure is good and family is good and rest is commanded by God, after all.
But Jesus claims the whole life of his disciple because he is concerned with the whole life of his disciple. There is no part of your life that he does not think can be mended, healed, and lifted up to God. And he is present to us not just on a road to Jerusalem, but in our nearest neighbor. He is crucified not on a single hill two thousand years ago, but in all the violence aimed at the poor and weak in the world. He is raised from the dead not on the first day of one week, but every time we hear the Word, every time we receive the sacrament, every time we grasp him in faith, every time we say “Just one more day Jesus, just let me trust you here and now with what I have and the people I love.”
That’s the hope in these scary words, for me and anyone else who likes to look back when we should be keeping our hand on the plough: everything worth wanting, everything worth missing, everything worth hoping for is ahead of us, with Jesus, in the kingdom, through the furrow that can only be cut with his grace. Amen.