Usually loving and wise, today we hear an incongruous, harsh, non sequitur Jesus. With his face set toward the cross in Jerusalem, Jesus’ strange responses to three would-be disciples offer the Who, the What and the How of discipleship in his reign of justice and love.
First, the Who. To this would-be disciple Jesus says, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head."
Comfort is important to us—we like clothes of soft fabrics, leather couches, TV screens bigger than my first car, and deep recliners. We like our beer cold, our wine smooth, and our AC on high in the Texas heat.
When it comes to where we lay our head at night—we can have beds that recline, foam toppers, down comforters, orthopedic, egg crate, or neck support pillows; we can choose from Sealy, Simmons, Serta, Sterns and Foster, and Sleep Number beds. But Jesus says, “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head—following me will be uncomfortable, life will be uncertain, and events will be unpredictable. You are taking a risk, plans will change; you cannot sit in your La-Z-Boy and pretend to be in charge.”
Jesus asks, “Who are going to trust when discipleship gets really uncomfortable? You must trust God enough to be comfortable inside even when you are miserable on the outside. You have to be ready to let go and let God, even in the face of death, trusting that God is control and up to something even bigger.”
I had an experience this past week of how hard it is to REALLY trust God. Dan left on Tuesday to visit his brother Ben in Phoenix and then drive to Utah to climb its highest mountain, King’s Peak. Dan has done a fair amount of hiking, but his would be his biggest climb. Dan promised he would be smart and stay safe, but he would be out of cell-range from Friday lunch to this afternoon until around 4. I have an average amount of worry, as wives and moms go, except when I was in chemo for breast cancer eleven years ago. Back then, I had high anxiety about the safety of my family because I experienced that bad things really do happen, and can happen to the people I love.
When one of us flies without the other, Dan and I have no drama good-byes at the airport drop-off. But this past Tuesday, fresh scars across my chest (from the recent removal of my implants), a 13,527’ mountain in his near-future with no cell contact for 2 ½ days, I jumped out of the car, ran up, grabbed Dan by the collar and with tears streaming down my face, said, “promise you’ll come back to me, I can’t live without you!”
He promised again to be safe, hugged me and off he went, but then I had to deal with my triggered anxiety. This is what Jesus is really getting at—Who am I going to trust?
I have a comfy couch, a new TV, smooth wine, a foam topper on my bed and lots of pillows, but none of that really helps me with this anxiety. Peace is available to me, but am I available for the peace that Jesus is ready to give me? Am I available for the comfort that comes only from trusting God and following Jesus even when it’s hard? Can I be comfortable on the inside when I am uncomfortable on the outside?
I prayed and have prayed every day. I asked God for help, I did the deep breath prayers I have taught you and tried to focus on doing just one thing at a time. When Friday came, and we talked the last time, I was able to tell Dan to have a great time and to enjoy God’s creation.
The only true comfort we have is in WHO we trust—God in Jesus Christ, no matter where we lay our head and whether our loved ones are home with us or not. “Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:8). The prophet Isaiah says it this way: “Thou dost keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee.” (Isaiah 26:3 RSV)
As it turns out that the top of the King’s Peak has too much snow so they could not attempt the summit. Dan was back in cell range yesterday! I said, “Awesome! I mean, oh, I’m so sorry that did not work out for you!”
Second, the What: To another would-be disciples who wanted to first bury his father, Jesus sounds particularly harsh, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Certainly Jesus, who wept at the death of his friend Lazarus and raised him from the dead, is not devoid of compassion when it comes to experiencing grief. He is not suggesting that we give up our practices of burial.
There were specific rituals of burial, however, required by the Temple, and it was so important that they were done properly and completely that those involved were relieved of daily morning and evening prayers. Until completed, the one responsible for burial was considered ritually unclean. If this man followed Jesus without burying his father, he would forever be unclean, that is, never be able to enter the Temple, nor participate in its worship life. He would be like a tax collector, a sinner and a leper, and forced to stand outside the gate, excluded from the religious community.
And that is the very point Jesus is making. The ministry of the Temple should be focused on including the tax collector, the sinner and the leper. When Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead” he is pushing his followers to ask the question of their Temple, “What? What are you focused on? What are the priorities of this religious institution and are they fulfilling God priorities of justice for the poor, healing for sick, care for the widows, welcome for the stranger, and love for the outcast?”
Jesus judges the religious institution for allowing ritual regulations to replace real righteousness. If the worship inside the temple does not lead you into that kind of mission outside the temple, then what are you focused on? You are not serving the God of Israel that Jesus embodies; instead, you have made an idol of worship, rules and the institution itself.
What matters is that our rituals, our prayers, our songs, our worship, energize us to follow Jesus out the door, to carry on the work of the kingdom of God. Galatians tells us that “for freedom Christ has set us free”—free to love and serve our neighbor.
Three, the How: Another would-be follower wanted to say farewell to his family and to him Jesus said, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God." This disciple not only sounds like a good son, we hear Elisha do this very thing in our first reading from 1 Kings. We have all heard “hindsight is 20/20” and "those who cannot remember the past are condemned …to repeat it." So, what’s up?
Jesus uses a farming metaphor—a plow in Jesus’ time was most likely made of a single blade that cut into the ground that was attached to a T-handle that the farmer would hold. This blade was strapped to mule or ox and the farmer would both steer the animal and cut the furrow holding the handle attached to the blade of the plow.
In order to cut a straight furrow, the farmer must keep his eyes straight ahead, exactly on the edge of the field where he wants to end up. The second the farmer looks back, looks away, gets distracted or does not have his undivided attention on his destination across the field, the animal walks whichever way he looks, and he ends up with a wavy, crooked furrow. Wavy, crooked furrows make for bad farming and a poor harvest because patches of land go unused, watering is difficult, and the results not as fruitful. But with straight furrows, everything else that you do becomes easier—watering, irrigation, drainage, and harvesting.
The most successful farmer always keeps her eyes on the future—her eyes are always locked on her destination on edge of the field when she plows—and that future arrival is what determines her plowing in the present moment---not the past, not the last harvest, not how much debt she carries, not whether she feels worthy to be a farmer. She keeps her eyes on the future point across the field, and the more focused she is on that point while plowing, the straighter the furrows, the more abundant the harvest.
Jesus knows the problem with looking back is that we use the past to limit us and shut down possibilities. “If only I hadn’t done that. What are they going to think of me now?” We turn one mistake or rejection into a personal belief— “I don’t deserve to be loved,” or “God couldn’t possibly use me” or whatever story you are living inside your head. That plows a crooked self-identity that does not bear as rich a harvest.
Jesus is defining HOW we go about following him as disciples—we are defined not by our past, but by our future—a future that is secured beyond the cross, in his resurrection!
In the kingdom, we don’t live from the past forward, BUT, like someone holding a plow, we live from the future point, back to the present. Jesus invites us to keep our eyes always focused on the future destination God has for us—resurrection with Christ—which determines the straight path we walk today, risen with Christ, beloved child of God, disciple of Jesus, the Savior of the World.
Today, our enigmatic Jesus gives us: Who we trust—not our comforts, but God alone; What we do—our rituals always energize our kingdom work in serving others with love; And How we do it—keeping our eyes on Jesus and our future in the risen Christ, so we can bear the fruit of justice and love as disciples in the present!