Sunday, June 30, 2013

Looking Back

Looking Back
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
June 30, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 9: 51-62

 Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.52And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him;53but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem.54When 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?’*55But he turned and rebuked them.56Then* they went on to another village.
Would-Be Followers of Jesus
57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’58And 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.’59To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’60But Jesus* said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’61Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’62Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’ 

I've always been a child out of my generation. The first cd that I ever got, now I had a bunch of tapes and some records, but the first CD I ever got was the Nat King Cole story. I just loved Nat King Cole. I was introduced to him by his Christmas music, but then moved on to his other music, and so I remember wanting that CD for Christmas. One of the great songs on that CD was called "Looking Back." I can still hear it now.

Looking ba-a-ack over my life
I can see where I caused you strife
But I know, oh yes I know
I'd never make that same mistake again

Looking ba-a-ack over my deeds
I can see signs a wise man heeds
And if I just ha-ad the chance
I'd never make that same mistake again

Once my cup was overflowing
But I gave nothing in retu-u-urn
Now I can't begin to te-ell you
What a lesson I have learned

Looking ba-a-ack over the slate
I can see love turned to hate
But I know, oh yes I know
I'd never make that same mistake again

Looking back over our lives, taking stock of who we are where we've come, all the steps along the way seems to be a big part about being human, but in this passage, Jesus says, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."
A few years ago I heard a sermon on this passage. The pastor was seeking to grow his church by any means necessary. He wanted to make a bunch of changes to the service, to the way the church ran things, most of them were going to be unpopular with the current members of the church, but he thought that they would attract many more new ones, so he thought it was worth doing. So he used this passage to say, we must steam ahead, with our eyes on the prize, the goals of growing the church always in mind. He altered the metaphor a bit, by saying that if you are plowing a field you can't make straight plow lines without looking forward to a point in the distance and then and only then focusing on that point can you keep your plow lines straight. I always was a little bit disturbed by this take on the passage, especially since it had to do with a personal agenda, and then ramming it through and using the Bible to justify it, and silence any and all dissension, but I also had trouble with the metaphor itself, because focusing on a point in the distance may keep your lines straight, but what's in your way. If you are staring way in the distance and you hit a family of bunnies, or mice, or as Robert Burns wrote, in "To A Mouse, On Turning Her Nest up with the plow" "I'm truly sorry Man's dominion / Has broken Nature's social union," I'm sorry you are in the way, but I have to keep these lines straight. I have to accomplish my goals. The other thing that can happen is there is a big rock, and it breaks your plow. I bring this up to say that there is danger in only looking forward, there is a difference between always looking forward, and what Jesus is talking about here. There is a difference between looking back, and looking away from Jesus, away from God. You can be looking forward all day, with the straightest plow lines you could imagine, reaching personal goals, but be looking in a direction that is far away from Jesus, and so not fit for the kingdom of God. It is possible. Not looking back, does not mean blindly looking forward. It's funny that forward in this case isn't the opposite of back.
The Bible is full of illustrations and examples of what Jesus means when he says "looks back." In Genesis there is Lot's wife. While fleeing out of Sodom she looks back and is turned to a pillar of salt, remember it from Genesis 19. Jesus also refers to this event later in this gospel of Luke in chapter 17, saying, "

30 “It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed. 31 On that day no one who is on the housetop, with possessions inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything. 32 Remember Lot’s wife! 

Again don't look back. Another time that people look back in this way is the Israelites after getting out of Egypt. How long was it before they start grumbling, rather than looking to God through Moses who had brought them out of slavery, through the Red Sea, even, that they begin to look back to Egypt and their former bondage with longing. Looking back to the past instead of the future because again like we talked about last week the unknown of the future is scary, more scary than the known past even if the known past is slavery or destruction.
And that is exactly what is behind for both Lot's wife and for the newly freed Israelites: Slavery and Destruction. Is that what is behind us when we turn to Jesus? Is that what we are looking back towards when we invariably seek to look back? In 1678 John Bunyan published his famous work, A Pilgrim's Progress. In that allegory, his character, a man named Christian goes on a journey of redemption. The town that he lives in is called the City of Destruction. It's this city he is fleeing from. He get's inspired by a man named Evangelist to leave that city, but his wife and children think he is crazy and do not come. Early in the course of his journey he looks back in a way, he is despondent about having to leave his family behind, and he gets caught in the slough of despond. In that bog, of sinking sand, and marsh, and swamp, he longs to be back at home, he longs for what he had, even though he knows that the city will be destroyed. Bunyan tries to capture the gravity of this morning's passage. The path of the Christian is difficult, but it is right, it is away from destruction. Bunyan's allegory seeks to describe the road that all Christians travel, and Jesus knows it as well.
It seems so harsh though doesn't it, when taken literally. All the guy in our story wants to do is say farewell to "those at his home." I just want to say good bye. Come on Jesus let me say good bye, but Jesus says, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God." That's intense. It's not like the guy asked for a week, or even another day, he just asks for a moment. And Jesus denies him it. Why? Is Jesus in that much of a hurry? What is it? Part of a clue may be in the rest of our reading for today. There are a couple of verses that stand out as just as intense. It talks about Jesus going through Samaria, but no one received him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. It certainly suggests, that Jesus is completely focused on where he is going. So if Jesus is intense, at least he is consistent, he is following through on the same behavior he is demanding of his disciples. He's not just saying follow me, and do what I say, but follow me, do what I do, and we all know what goes on in Jerusalem for Jesus, Jesus carries the cross, as disciples we pick up the cross, would we rather look back? Another interesting point here, is he has many people seeming to want to follow him, and he is clear to them about the life that he leads, the lack of comfort. Don't expect a house to live in, for the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. There is no mistaking it, following Jesus is not easy. It's uncomfortable, it pushes you far beyond your comfort zone, it alienates you from your old life, it is dangerous, and if that were not enough, it demands you leave without saying goodbye. Or does it?
In John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, after Christian makes it to the Holy City, in part one, there is part two, where his wife and family come too on their own journey. The goodbyes are only temporary, and by Christian leaving abruptly they are inspired to come, had he come back to get them, they would have instead convinced him to stay. Looking back, that moment's hesitation is enough to freeze us in our tracks, remember how Jesus knows us. He knows how humans prefer the known to the unknown, he knows that the moment's hesitation really means the choice to stay and not to follow. He knows that we have Lot's wife in us, and that we have the Israelites in us too. He knows that hesitation is the end of our following.
But then there is the alternative, and what Jesus wants instead. There is that old, well not too old, movie, at least not Nat King Cole old movie, When Harry Met Sally, where two friends slowly fall in love over a long period of time, but finally when they realize without a doubt that they are in love, Billy Crystal says to Meg Ryan, "When you finally realize you want to spend the rest of your life with someone, you want forever to start as soon as possible." That's love, and that's what the Kingdom of Heaven is. Notice that Jesus doesn't say, you can't follow me if you go say goodbye, notice that Jesus doesn't say no to the guy, rather he says this is what following means, its love, and love doesn't look back, and love is hard, and love requires sacrifice, and love requires everything you are, but love is what the kingdom of God is made of, and if you can't love that completely, you are not fit for the kingdom of God.
Now one could say isn't it love that wants to say goodbye, isn't it love that wants to bury his father. It may be, but it reminds me of another important verse from Jesus, Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God, and it's righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you. Jesus is leading people away from slavery and destruction and into a world that is beyond our finite thinking of finality and limitation. Like the fact that Christian's wife and children make their way in the second part of Pilgrim's Progress, so too will others, others may follow you, love says they will. It's not about staying and convincing them to come with you, that never works, actions always speak louder than words don't they. Isn't that one message of Jesus' work on the Cross, doesn't that put to action what John 3:16 put to words, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son" not just to become human, not just to teach and grow numbers of followers, but to die on a cross, so that people would truly know that God so loved the world without a doubt, an action of total sacrifice, an action of love, love doesn't look back, love seeks the embrace of the Almighty, it is destruction and slavery to look back and seek else. And why do we think anything else would suffice in the stead of love, it won't.
I started this sermon with Nat King Cole, and his song Looking Back is a song all about remembering regret, wanting for things to be different. Life with Jesus is all in all, wanting something else is preferring the slavery and destruction, he sings in that final verse, I have seen love turned to hate, but I know, oh yes I know I'll never make that same mistake again. Let us instead seek to follow Jesus, into the Kingdom of God where love does not turn to hate, let us go there without looking back. Amen, may it be so.