Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Sermon: Keeping Your Eye on the End of the Row

Readings on which this sermon is based.

(Readings specified in Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Proper 8, for the Sunday closest to June 29.)

1 Kings 19:19-21

[Elijah] found Elisha son of Shaphat, who was plowing. There were twelve yoke of oxen ahead of him, and he was with the twelfth. Elijah passed by him and threw his mantle over him. He left the oxen, ran after Elijah, and said, "Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you." Then Elijah said to him, "Go back again; for what have I done to you?" He returned from following him, took the yoke of oxen, and slaughtered them; using the equipment from the oxen, he boiled their flesh, and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he set out and followed Elijah, and became his servant.

Luke 9:51-62

When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, "Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, "I will follow you wherever you go." And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." To another he said, "Follow me." But he said, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." But Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God." Another said, "I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home." Jesus said to him, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."

The Sermon

One phrase jumped out at me in today’s readings. It’s in Luke’s Gospel.

"No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

When I was in high school, I dated a farmer’s daughter. I was a city kid, but I visited the farm a lot, and sometimes I helped out. The fall before I went away to college, Judy’s dad trusted me to sow a field of winter wheat—that’s wheat that’s sown in the fall so it’ll come up in the spring and be harvested early the next season.

I drove the John Deere tractor up and down the field, pulling the planter, doing my best to sow evenly, not overlapping or leaving gaps. I focused on keeping the tractor’s left front wheel in the rut left by the right front wheel on my previous pass. It took all afternoon, and I thought I did pretty well.

On a visit home from college the next spring I visited the farm and asked about my field of wheat. That got quite a laugh from all the members of the family. They said they’d never seen such wavy rows. Oh, it was not a big deal--the wheat was growing well enough--but it was pretty funny, they thought.

I laughed along with them, of course, but being a sensitive kind of guy, I thought a lot about this later. In retrospect, I figured that would have done a lot better by keeping my eye on the far end of each row. You can’t do a straight row looking down or a little ahead—you’ll make too many adjustments.. And I should have never looked back to see how I was doing.

So yes, Jesus is right: a person who puts a hand to the plow and looks back isn’t fit to be a farmer, and perhaps not much else.

In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus has set his sights on the end of his row. He’s turned his face towards Jerusalem. Up to now, he’s been preaching his message about the nearness of the Kingdom of God in Galilee and other remote places, but today, he’s decided to take himself and his message to Jerusalem. Jesus’ ministry is sort of like an act that prepares by playing first in Cincinnati and other lesser cities, until it’s ready for the Big Time—Broadway in New York. Of course, there are risks when you take your act to New York. The critics can be devastating!

But Jesus has set his face to Jerusalem, in spite of the fact that he knows that he was going into a life-threatening situation. Like a farmer tilling his field, he’s got his eyes dead set on the end of his row.

He’s anxious to get to Jerusalem, and Samaria lies between him and his destination. You remember the Samaritans—those people who were like the Jews in many ways, being God-fearers and all, but who didn’t worship God in the right way at the right place. They were much disliked by the Jews—and the feeling was mutual. Most pilgrims going from Galilee to Jerusalem go around Samaria, but Jesus, being in a hurry, goes through. As they come to a Samaritan town, they are, not surprisingly, refused a place to stay. James & John want to set fire to the town, but Jesus angrily refuses, and keeps on going toward Jerusalem. This is the Jesus we know—not a fire & brimstone kind of man.

But now he’s met by three people who are attracted to him and want to be with him and follow him, and with them, he’s remarkably stern and off-putting. To a person who says he wants to follow him wherever he goes, Jesus tells him sharply that to do so means giving up the security of having a home to call his own—a home base. To another who says that he needs time to attend his father’s funeral, Jesus says,” Let the dead bury the dead!” To a third person, who wants to say good-bye to those at home, Jesus says “Anybody who looks back isn’t ready for the Kingdom.”

Jesus is being quite short with these people; not exactly the kind, understanding Jesus I’m more comfortable with.

Some people have said that this is a story about the excuses people make for not following Jesus. But these people’s reasons for delay seem reasonable to me, so I think this is not a story about excuses. I think it’s a story about perception—or lack of same. It’s about inability to see and understand the implications of what’s going on.

Jesus has just made the decision to take himself to Jerusalem—the center of the powers that be of his time. He knows that if his message is to have any effect—if his life is to have any effect, he needs to deliver it personally in Jerusalem—consequences be damned. And he fully expects something very significant to happen when he gets there; and he’s focused on getting there--straight to the end of his row.

So when people say they they’ll come to Jerusalem to be with Jesus, but not right away, Jesus understands that they’ll miss out on what’s going to happen. By delaying, they’re showing that they don’t understand the momentousness of what of about to happen.

And these three aren’t the only ones—his disciples, those closest to him, don’t seem to “get” Jesus. So Jesus is understandably concerned about these people. They’re missing the point of his life and message.

- - - - - - - -

Now, people who heard Jesus say, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God" would have understood him to be referring to the story about Elijah and Elisha that we heard in today’s OT reading.

In that story, Elisha is busy plowing using twelve pairs of oxen. Elisha was a farmer—and quite a farmer at that! Twenty-four oxen! Elijah, who is Israel’s first great prophet, comes by and gives Elisha a prophet’s cloak. He asks him to come with him. Elisha asks to have time to say good-bye to his family, and Elijah gives permission.

Some people have said that Jesus, by referring to this story, is showing that he is more important than these two early prophets; that he’s saying that following Jesus takes precedence over family in a way that following Elijah didn’t. I don’t think so. Look what Elisha actually does. He kills his 24 oxen, he cooks them and gives the meat to the people to eat. By doing that, he’s destroyed his means of earning a living. He’s got nothing to go back to. He’s burned his bridges. Then he goes to Elijah and becomes his servant. He goes on to be the second great prophet of Israel.

This is not a story about lack of ability to make a life-changing commitment. It’s a story about seeing how one’s life could be different, and daring to make a change.

- - - - - -

Now, what does all of this have to say to us?

Two things, I think.

First, it’s important to keep your eye on the end of your row.

In our life, there may be several rows that we are plowing. And your rows are not the same as mine. But one row that we all share is the row that has the end of our life at the end of it. That’s a hard row to hoe, as they say. I’d rather not look down to the end of that row. I’d rather focus on what’s right in front of me, and look back to see the furrow I’ve already plowed.

But it’s important to look down that row. It’s important to realize that our life is limited and that we are limited. It’s important to take into account the fact that we only have so much time to have whatever effect we’re going to have; to make whatever contribution we’re going to make, to be whomever or whatever we’re going to be when we grow up.

To the older among us, I’ll say that it’s never too late to think about what we want printed on our tombstone; or what we want said at our wake; or what we want to be able to say about ourselves as we near the end of our life row. To the younger among us, I’ll say that it’s never too soon to think about these things.

Second, it’s important to pay attention to the things that are going in our life; and be ready to make adjustments—even life-changing ones.

We can all be paying attention to the gifts God has given us, and to the things that God has made us passionate about, and we can be looking for ways to use those gifts and passions to make this world a better place for all God’s children.

Not everything that happens demands a response from us, and not every request for help requires a “yes” answer. But some do, and ignoring them can mean missing the boat, so to speak. Going with Jesus to Jerusalem was something not to be missed by those who were attracted to Jesus in today’s Gospel. Responding to Elijah’s call was something not to be missed by Elisha.

Now, I’m not going to try to tell you about some great not-to-be-missed opportunity that you should be paying attention to today. Your opportunities aren’t the same as mine, and we have different gifts and passions.

But each of our lives is filled with information that we can pay attention to. That information includes things that are happening around us, but it also includes our own experiences. We can pay attention to what comes easily to us and what doesn’t, what works for us and what doesn’t, and thereby become more aware of what God-given gifts we have to work with.

We can note what things we really care about and what things we don’t care so much about (even though we’re told we’re supposed to) and thereby understand what we are passionate about—where our God-given energy lies. If we put these insights about the person God has made us together with the needs of those around us, we might find ourselves making some life changes—we just might decide to plow a different row entirely!

Figuring out who we’re going to be when we grow up—what our row will be like when we’ve come to the end of it, and figuring out which opportunities we’re presented with that we should respond to and which we should let go by—figuring out these things isn’t easy.

In my case, it’s taken a lot of trial and error; so my furrow isn’t the straightest of rows. In fact, it’s taken some rather strange turns. But I think it’s getting a little straighter, as I allow God to forgive my mistakes, and as I learn a little from each zig and zag.

Whether or not our row is completely straight isn’t all that important. My first effort to plant a field of wheat wasn’t pretty, but the wheat did get sown, and it provided some amusement to the family. Better still, because I learned something from the experience, it gave me a life lesson. And finally, these, uh, 50 years later, a nice sermon illustration.

Ken Lyon
June 27, 2010

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