Third Sunday After Pentecost, June 30, 2019
I am a terrible student of history! It has always been my worst subject. Although I love stories and have spent all of my academic life studying old things, like Latin, Old English, Greek, Hebrew, the Bible, I just cannot get the hang of history. It seems so arbitrary to me! Things will be going along—sometimes well and sometimes not so well—and then all of a sudden, revolution breaks out! Or a plague wipes out one-third of Europe, or a monk nails 95 theses to a door, or a handful of colonies decide to wrest control of their lives away from a monarch, or a once-enslaved people decide that their country must honor the proposition that all people are created equal.
Once in a conversation with Mary Collins, the registrar at Duke Divinity School, I told her how much I had struggled with two semesters of church history. She looked over my grades in Greek and Hebrew, theology, and church history, and gave me the key to understanding my struggles: “It’s not systematic,” she said. “It’s not orderly. Languages follow patterns, and theology makes an orderly account of who we are in relation to God. But history is not orderly!” She hit the nail right on the head. Suddenly I realized why I was so adept at languages and theology and so incompetent at history.
My very worst experience with the untidiness of history was in a Roman History class I took in college. I majored in Latin and was required to take Roman History. Six weeks into the course, I was failing–no exaggeration: F!–so I went to talk to the professor—Henry C. Boren, no pun intended. “Susan, are you keeping up with the reading assignments?” he asked. “Not yet, but as soon as I get organized, I’ll be able to do them,” I answered. He looked at me like I had lobsters crawling out of my ears. “Susan,” he said, “we’re six weeks into the semester! If you’re not organized by now, you never will be!” He hit the nail right on the head, and my vision of color-coded index cards and tabbed notebooks that I thought were coming between me and the Roman Empire vanished. I went home, humbled, read like crazy to catch up, and somehow managed a C in that class—my last history class until I was forced to study church history in seminary!
What Mary Collins and Henry Boren did for me in those stories, Jesus does for his would-be followers in today’s Gospel story: they helped me see clearly who I am and what I needed to do. Mary Collins looked at my transcript and deduced from my grades that I enjoyed systems and order. Henry Boren looked at my excuses and told me exactly what I needed to do to make headway in his class. Jesus looks at three “would-be” followers and tells them who they are and what they need to do to follow him.
Now, I call them “would-be” followers because that is what lots of Bible scholars call them. A lot of folks read this story and assume it ends with the would-be followers turning back and Jesus going on ahead without them. We make the same assumption about the story of the very wealthy ruler in Luke:
A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 20 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’” 21 “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said. 22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 23 When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy. 24 Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:18-25)
We assume that Jesus moves on and the wealthy ruler stands there, hanging his head in sorrow because he can’t bear to part with his wealth. Am I right? In our imaginations, he’s standing there still!
I’ll come back to that in a little bit, but first I want to talk about what Jesus sees in his would-be followers and what is required of them. Jill Duffield of the Presbyterian Outlook, summarizes the story deftly:
Jesus warns the first one who steps up and proclaims, “I will follow you wherever you go.” He says: Don’t count on lush accommodations, an easy life or much worldly comfort. The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. Are you sure you mean what you say? The life of discipleship requires sacrifice and a willingness to forego much of what others value the most – stability, security and status.
Jesus calls the second person in this story saying, “Follow me.” This would-be disciple gives a qualified “yes” to Jesus’ invitation. It is a “yes, but” rather than a “yes, and.” He says, “I will go, but first [let me bury my father]…” Something other than Jesus takes priority. Apparently, this person doesn’t realize the urgency of the time. Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem. This is the point of decision. It is now or never. . . . The third encounter has another person stepping out in faith saying, “I will follow you, Lord.” Again, however, there is a “but.” A “but first …” Another loyalty other than loyalty to the Lord takes precedence, even if briefly. “But first let me say farewell to my family.”
Jesus recognizes in all three of these would-be followers an attachment that each must re-examine before they can give an unconditional “yes” to the call to follow him. The first needs to re-examine the attachment to comfort, to home, to a settled place in this world. The second needs to re-examine attachments to the past and to time-honored rituals, obligations, and religious traditions. The third needs to re-examine attachment to family. In confronting them with their attachments, Jesus helps them see who they are: settled and comfortable, attached to their traditions, and attached to the people who are close, familiar, and important to them.
Jesus also gives each of them a glimpse of what saying “yes” to the call to follow him will look like. Following Jesus is about wandering out in the world, but not being attached to the world. It is about a restless, nomadic moving about in the world for the sake of the good news. It is about going forth to proclaim the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. This proclamation is decidedly forward moving and future looking. And it is about taking the Gospel plow in hand and not turning back.
I love that the lectionary pairs this story of Jesus’ would-be followers with the story of Elisha. Elisha is called to take on the work that his master, Elijah, started. And in answering that call, he takes the tools of his old life—the oxen and the plow—and throws a huge goodbye feast for his family and friends. Then he sets out and follows Elijah, and becomes his servant. There are things that Elisha has to let go of, people he needs to say goodbye to, and provisions he needs to make for them. But once he does these things, he follows after Elijah without looking back.
So about those “would be” followers of Jesus? Where do they stand with respect to answering the call? I don’t know. Like so many of the stories in the Gospels, this one is unfinished. We don’t get to see how the “would-be” followers respond. In our imaginations, as Jill Duffield said, this is a “now or never” moment, a moment in which we and Jesus leave the three would-be followers behind. But the story doesn’t say that. And in that suspense, I think is one of the hard challenges of following Jesus: letting go of our impulse to judge others’ paths rather than attend to our own.
The story of the would-be followers invites us not to judge them or others, but to ask ourselves what are we attached to and what do we need to let go of before we can embrace the restless, visionary, expansive call of the Gospel? It invites us to ask ourselves what obstacles and excuses we put between ourselves and the Kingdom of God. Do we have settled, comfortable images of what being church looks like? Are there time-honored traditions, rituals, or ways of worshiping and serving together that we need to let go of? Are there people we fear we might betray if we follow a new path?
I’m not so sure Jesus is saying it’s now or never. Maybe what he is saying is something more like what Elijah said to Elisha: prepare yourself for a hard journey, take care of your obligations, make provision for the people you are leaving behind, because once you put your hand to this plow, there is no turning back.
“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for hte Kingdom of God.” in our mind’s eye do we see three would-be followers standing dejected and rejected by the side of the road?Tell me, then, who is fit for the Kingdom of God?If that’s the question then let’s all just take our place with the would-be followers. Because the Kingdom of God comes not by striving, and deserving, but by grace. So maybe we don;t know as much as we think we know about the fate of the would-be followers with respect tot he Kingdom of God–or about anyone who hears a call to follow Jesus. But what we do know is that none of us enters that kingdom except by grace.
I still don’t know much about history, and it still baffles me with its movements and revolutions and ideological stands. But what I do know is that our families, our world, and our faith would be much poorer were it not for those once-enslaved people who insisted and put their very lives on the line to demand that our country honor the proposition that all people are created equal, that handful of colonies who wrested control of their lives from a tyrannical monarch, and that monk who nailed 95 theses to a church door.
Jesus’ call to us is to follow the restless, visionary, expansive lead of the Spirit to proclaim good news to a world that is so full of bad news that we often feel paralyzed, like we just want to close our eyes and huddle up in self-preservation. Answering that call is costly, uncomfortable, and risky. It leads, in fact, to a cross. But taking that risk, risking that discomfort, and discounting that cost—just like the cross, it turns out—is the only sure path to life.
Praise be to God.