Third Sunday After Pentecost
Year C, RCL
North Fork Ministries
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."
This passage is often thought of as an expression of the “cost of discipleship”. If you truly follow the Christ, this line of reasoning goes, you may have nowhere to lay your head at night. Discipleship might require that you let go of familiar obligations, not even taking the time to say goodbye as you walk out the door. And if you look back, you’re not fit for the kingdom. The way to Jerusalem requires sacrifice.
But I’d like for us to consider that what we have traditionally considered the cost of discipleship is in reality a gift, the gift of discipleship. What is costly, I think, is not to follow Christ, and to cheaply trade away your life.
An early name for the Christian movement was “The Way”. The gift of discipleship that Jesus is offering is “the Way”, a method of living that will ultimately bring you more happiness than any other. A way that, Paul tells us in his letter to the Galatians, lets us be guided by the Spirit.
I called him “rowing man”. I once lived on a small lake in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains. On summer evenings I would often see a rower silently gliding across the lake. Unlike the fishing boats, or the canoes or kayaks that traverse the still waters, rowing man keeps a steady course, moving in an almost perfect trajectory as he travels the length of the lake. His rhythm is constant, dipping each oar into the water at the exact same moment, each stroke - slow, steady, and precise.
Rowing man climbs into the old rowboat with the assistance of his wife. With the wooden boat, weathered with age, lashed firmly to the shore, he first sits on the edge of the dock, and then gingerly lowers himself onto the middle seat of his ancient craft. He takes a few moments to center himself and correctly position the oars in their locks. When he nods his ascent, his equally aged wife, unleashes the lines from the cleats, and gives the boat a gentle push away from it’s mooring and onto the waiting water. Rowing man allows the boat to drift away from the dock, until the long oars have cleared, and then he gently, with only a single oar, lifts spoonfuls of water from below the lake’s surface, causing the boat to veer away from the dock, so that the bow edges away from the cove and toward the main body of the lake.
And then, with a rhythm first learned as a child on ponds in New England, both oars sweep simultaneously through the water, each stroke perfectly matching the one that proceeds it, creating twin whirlpools that arise on the water’s surface, swirl and disappear, like thoughts in the night.
Strength arises from deep within rowing man’s frail body. His feet are firmly planted on the boat’s ribbed bottom. As he pushes through his legs, the power is transmitted through his stomach and back and shoulders and arms as he engages his whole body, mind, and spirit in a practice that allows him to move in ways reminiscent of his lost youth. The boat moves forward evenly, as rowing man’s hands provide a final thrust that propels the boat so that it doesn’t stall between strokes.
Rowing man, like all rowers, is stationed in his boat so that he is facing the stern, the boat’s rear. Such positioning enables the rower to use the body’s weight to pull the oars against their locks, a more powerful motion than pushing would provide. But that means that rowing man isn’t looking in the direction that he is moving. So the geese honk their farewells and quickly scatter as the boat ploughs it’s unveering path through their drifting flock. And though he moves as one “guided by the Spirit”, its worth noting that one evening while I was sitting in my canoe in the middle of the lake, mesmerized by his rowing meditation, I finally realized that if I didn’t paddle quickly out of the way, a watery collision was imminent.
But rowing man’s attention, though he is facing the boat’s stern, isn’t really focused on where he has been, either. His face is set toward the wake, created by the boat’s movement through the water. The form the wake takes provides clues to the perfection of his stroke, the certainty of his bearing, and steadiness of his pace. Rowing man’s whole being is brought to bear on the stroke, the immediacy of the task at hand, his desire to waste no motion, to disregard where he is going and where he had been and exist fully in the present.
As rowing man draws the blade of the oar from the water, he is neither cursing nor congratulating himself for the inadequacy or the perfection of the previous stroke. He is simply rowing, engaging the oar with the water he is moving. Stirring the water, creating tiny whirlpools, each vortex reminiscent of how our lives swirl and disappear.
While the old man rows, his faithful wife waits at the dock, unable to see him after he rounds the bend in their cove. Knowing his frailty, I suspect that she fears that each time she pushes the boat from the dock, that he won’t return. And someday, perhaps he won’t. But she understands that his desire for true life, even just a few moments of living life fully engaged, is worth the risk of a watery grave.
The way to Jerusalem is not to focus on the future. The way to Jerusalem is not to focus on the past. “The Way” is to bring our attention to where we are now.
We try to tell ourselves that it will be okay when we get this new job, or when I retire things will be better. Or when I settle things with my spouse, life will be brighter. Or when the kids are a little older, things will be easier. Or when economic circumstances improve. Or when I am healthier or when I get past this grief or hurt or when, when, when…
We all carry deep wounds inside of us. And we frequently call up those old wounds, so that we can feel them anew. In asking us to follow him, Christ calls us to let go of our woundedness and live anew in his blessed company. We may fear the future, or we may be filled with hopeful expectation of what awaits us. Either way, we miss the glorious gift of the present.
Clearly, as we follow Luke’s telling of the gospel story, there is a sense of movement forward, as Jesus and the disciples journey through Galilee and toward Jerusalem. But Jesus interrupts the journey to teach his disciples that movement forward is not simply an orientation toward the future. True forward movement, is a realization of the reality of the present. James and John were still consumed by the lack of hospitality they were shown in the Samaritan village. They were so full of hurt and anger, that they were ready to burn the village down.
But Jesus is already moving on to the next village. And as they move along the road, a succession of would-be followers expresses their desire to accompany Jesus on the journey. But as they learn, movement forward, with the Christ, requires letting go of both the past and the future.
Let the dead bury their own dead, Jesus tells one. To another Jesus says, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God." The kingdom of God is now. And if we are to inherit the kingdom, we must learn to live in the present. The gift of discipleship, the gift we learn to receive as we journey with Christ to Jerusalem, is the joy of the present moment.
To be still and still moving, that is everything.