Well, if we were hoping for a comforting word from Jesus this morning, it seems that we have come to the wrong place. The gospel reading this morning provides us with little comfort in the words that Jesus gives to those that either volunteer or are asked to follow Jesus along the way. Each of them seems to give Jesus a fairly reasonable response to his call only to get some rather discomforting words back from Jesus as he sets his face towards Jerusalem.
When we get readings like this, it is tempting to twist things up enough until we are able to be a little bit more comfortable from the reading of the text. It is tempting to try to read it as simply a call story versus a challenge to us in the contemporary era. It is tempting to take the text and to make it say something other than what it says. It is tempting for us to hunger for the nice, warm, smiling Jesus instead of the Jesus that challenges us to go further in our acceptance of Christ’s call on our own lives.
The three different sayings that we get at the end of the gospel lesson today are all meant to draw out what it is going to mean to be a follower of Jesus in different ways. Each saying is meant to convey some aspect of truth about being a disciple of Jesus, and each saying holds a unique challenge within it as we seek to live out a life of discipleship that is in keeping with Jesus’ life and ministry.
In the first instance, a person says to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you may go.” Without seeming to even flinch, Jesus refuses to take the offer at face value and provides the person with something more to think about in what is being offered. The response, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” seems to imply that disciples of Jesus should also expect a time of disconnectedness, of being without a place to call home, to rest. The response to the man is meant to underscore that followers of Jesus will need to expect the same kind of privation – to be one without a place to lay down, to call home, to fix roots within a community. As readers of the Gospel of Luke, we also know that to follow Jesus wherever Jesus may go is also to be ready and willing to set our faces towards Jerusalem and towards the reality of the Cross. If we make the same claim that this person does, it is going to mean that we have to risk everything we have for the sake of following Jesus, and it is going to mean taking the commands and teachings that we learn from Christ’s ministry on earth as our starting point for discerning any direction that we take in our own lives. Oh, it sure would be nice to have that nice, warm, smiling Jesus right about now…
The second person in these sayings is called by Jesus when Jesus says to him, “Follow me.” In response to Jesus’ call, the person is willing to do it, but he also says that he must first go to bury his father. In other words, this person needs to go and do that which is required in order to honor your father and your mother. The person needs to fulfill his familial obligations as he understands them under the law, the Torah. Even here, though, Jesus retorts, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Once again, it seems that Jesus is rejecting a seemingly appropriate request from a would be disciple. And yet, Jesus is also giving him a different command – to go and proclaim the Kingdom of God. The way that Jesus gives this command is particularly interesting as it divides the living and the dead into two separate groups. The dead, of course, are not able to proclaim the Kingdom of God. It is a saying that gets rid of all other delays for following Jesus and for proclaiming the Kingdom of God. While we do not have a specific understanding of who the dead are in this particular instance, it is clear from what Jesus says that those able to proclaim the kingdom are not among the dead.
The third and final person offers to follow Jesus if he is able to go say farewell to his family. Again, the request would be understood as a reasonable request in the days of Jesus; after all, the family unit was the primary economic unit during the first century. To simply leave your family was akin to leaving all economic opportunity behind in order to go your own way. Yet, Jesus tells the person, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Now, to really understand this particular metaphor, you have to think about the reality of plowing a field. If you were to look back while plowing, you are almost certain to plow crooked furrows in the field. Jesus is telling us to keep our eyes ahead – focused on the kingdom of God – if we are to follow him.
We are being asked to follow Jesus on this difficult path that includes the realities of homelessness and privation, leaving behind father and mother, and leaving the social and economic realities upon which we rely in our daily existence. It seems that being a disciple of Jesus is no easy task, and it seems that in order for us to follow Jesus we just might have to do all of these things.
And maybe, these are all things that need to be considered by our parish in the here and now. We, as a community, stand eager to welcome a new rector in August, and it is often very tempting to look backwards to our history – to pine for what our past held. It is tempting to hope that our parish will once again be like the very best of days that we remember from our history as a community. It is tempting to get so caught up in looking backwards that we forget that God is calling us to look forward – to plow straight furrows for the building up of God’s kingdom in the present. The message of Jesus in the gospel lesson might be exactly what we need to hear as we prepare to look towards the future and as we look towards building up a new community of believers that invites new gifts to become part of our celebration of God’s graciousness. Instead of getting caught looking backwards, Jesus is calling us to leave that behind for the moment. Jesus is calling us to understand that following him is going to mean looking not to our past but to our future. Jesus is calling us to take extreme risks in our life as a community in order to be faithful to his teachings. Jesus is calling us to take the risk of joining him on the road to Jerusalem, the road to the Cross, as we share the truth of God’s love in the life of a new parish, a new Saint Michael and All Angels, a new understanding of the Gospel.