1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21;
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
It’s always easy to follow Jesus when Jesus is doing what you think he ought to do. When he’s healing the sick and sticking it to the man, when the crowds hang on his every word, when he’s traveling the countryside and casting out demons as the possessed writhe, when he’s winning the debates with the learned and the famous—that’s often when we squint carefully at the texts and say, “Yeah. I’m a follower of Jesus. I’m right there with him. I’m proud to stand next to him.”
And it wasn’t always easy to join up with the baddest man in Galilee, either. There are three attempts at discipleship in today’s story, and it’s unclear how successful any of them were. “I will follow you wherever you go,” says the first. Jesus tells him—animals have homes, but not me. Do you want to follow me to homelessness? Jesus actually calls the second one, who is in the middle of a family crisis— “Just let me bury my father,” says the man. A reasonable request, you’d think. But Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” Not a reasonable request. Also, not really empathetic. Jesus’ Father isn’t ever going to die. Then the third said, “Sure, I’ll follow, but I see you travel quite a bit, so let me go say goodbye to my family.” Like, for instance, Elisha, the famous and powerful prophet we heard about today. But Jesus says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Also, not reasonable. And one wonders what happens to that recruit—does he just follow Jesus? Does he go back to his habits?
Jesus is such a spike in the wheel. We all grow up with ideas about the way life should be lived, what we should expect and do. I think there is an expectation that life will generally continue as it has for us—birth, graduation gowns, taxes, maybe a wedding, maybe three weddings, death. I grew up knowing I was going to college and beyond. Greta Thunberg, the Swedish climate activist who has begun the Friday school strikes across the world to urge action on the climate crisis, mocks the people who patronize her and tell her she should study hard and become a climate scientist to help understand the problem. She says something like, “The very science you tell me to study says that the kind of world you’re asking me to prepare for will not exist—so why should I do that?” Jesus is like that disruption. Jesus is a spike in that wheel. Death of father, a place to lay your head, saying goodbye—none of them seem to matter to him when he calls you. Leave it all behind to follow me, he says. And it’s not just here. It’s when he tells his disciples, in front of his family, that he has no family save the ones that hear the Word of God and do it. There is no qualification to following Jesus. It’s not a part time job. You can’t dabble in Jesus, play with him, try him on and take him off. It’s the whole you, or none of you.
Jesus has a hard saying today—no one who lays a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God. And yet if Jesus really does change our lives, if he really is a spike in the wheel, how could it be otherwise? Think about the things that really matter: If we really want to avoid the worst of climate change, we need to turn away from the use of fossil fuels—our emissions have to go down to pre-industrial levels. That’s a simple scientific fact. We can’t put our hand to the plow of change and Pride and letting go of the plow. Or, say, marriage—once you’re in it, you have to leave that single life behind. No more nights on the town, no more flirting and dating, none of that stuff. It’s all or nothing. And so it shouldn’t surprise us that Jesus, who offers us something more wonderful and greater than anything the world has to give, doesn’t have time for half measures: follow him. Now.
Jesus is here for the whole you. And sometimes, the whole you needs to change. Or whatever in you that needs changing needs to change completely. Today our church—the Metropolitan New York Synod—does something almost unheard of a generation ago. We will march in a gay pride parade. I remember in college wrestling with the idea of gay pride. I grew up in a liberal family, and my parents certainly instructed me to value every person, no matter whom they loved. And yet I also grew up in some pretty conservative environments, and I didn’t really know anyone who was out until I went to church in Chicago. And there I met people who were out and proud, out and proud in church. That’s all it took for me to internalize what my parents had tried to impart—but I still didn’t recognize the courage my new friends had, nor the sacrifices they made, nor the history of the movement. I’m still learning about it today. But I do know that I can’t be half and half on the issue. And since I have witnessed the kingdom vision of God’s love making room for every identity, I can’t turn back to the old way. The plow is before use, and there is only one furrow—the way of inclusion and of blessing.
Still, there are times when I feel like I have let Jesus go, that I have told him—Jesus, I hear what you’re saying but I’m just not ready. I have to watch one more soccer game, take one more evening off. So it’s good to remember, the story of the centurion, whose daughter was dying. He comes to Jesus and says, “I am not worthy that you should come under my roof—but just say the word and my daughter shall be healed.
I have heard that in the Orthodox tradition, at the Eucharist, the priest says after the consecration of the bread and wine: “Holy food for holy people.” But the people reply in some sort of fashion like this: we are not worthy to come under your roof, but say the word and we shall be healed. We are not worthy of grace, nor the continual call of Jesus for whenever we stray—but Jesus does say the word and we are healed. We do sometimes put our hands to the plow and look back—but Jesus says the word and snaps us back to the furrow. Amen.
The Reverend John Z. Flack