Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
June 27, 2010
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.”
When I served the Sheyenne-Oberon Area Ministry in the Eastern North Dakota Synod of the ELCA, I was occasionally invited to ride along in a parishioner’s combine. This was something I really looked forward to and enjoyed–sitting way up high in climate-controlled comfort while watching the wheat, barley, or corn being harvested right before my eyes. The newer combines are amazing, complete with GPS, great sound systems, and huge price tags. Funny thing though…no one ever suggested that I drive.
There is a pretty good reason I was never the designated driver; most farmers are pretty particular about how the field is sown and harvested, and they aim for straight, even rows instead of rambling, curvy corrections. In the Dakotas farms are huge compared to the ones back east. A small family operation in North Dakota makes a decent size operation like my grandparents place in eastern Kentucky look like a hobby farm. That means a whole lot of combining goes on, and there’s a huge commitment in terms of time, energy, and expense. Yep, farmers are fully committed and know a thing or two about risk. They also, however, know a thing or two about calculated risk, and letting some greenhorn pastor from Tennessee who has trouble navigating even a gravel road take the wheel of a six figure piece of farm equipment is not a good risk.
These farmers truly put their hand, indeed their whole lives, to the plow, and they don’t look back. What they do is serious work, risky business, and a way of life–not just a job and sometimes not even a living. That means a city girl yahoo like me is better suited for rock picking and preaching than seeding or harvesting. The closest I should get to an Case IH or John Deere harvester other than the passenger seat is a logo hat on my head.
In today’s gospel reading our Lord has a few choice words to say to three would-be disciples, and he sure doesn’t mince any words. Jesus is headed toward Jerusalem; he is on divine mission and those who follow him must be ready to leave everything for the sake of the gospel. The first volunteer responds with great fervor and without a clue. Maybe that person was envisioning future glory and the reign of a great king; however, Jesus is quick to explain that even wild animals have more worldly security than God’s son.
The second person wants to follow Jesus but is feeling the weight of the first century family system and the need to properly honor and bury his father, thus fulfilling familial duty. Nope, says Jesus, you go now and proclaim the kingdom of God. Forget appearances and expectations. Finally, the third would-be disciple expresses interest under the condition that he may fulfill family honor with proper farewells. In response, Jesus says you can’t start plowing and look behind you. Any farmer can tell you that kind of commitment will result in a crooked furrow.
Here’s the thing. We 21st century North American Christians are for the most part products of the low expectation school of discipleship. We give an hour on Sunday, drop 2-4% in the plate, and if we’re really involved teach a class or serve on a committee. Again, any North Dakota farmer worth his or her salt could tell you that you won’t get a crop from that kind of investment. Why even your youngest 4H member puts more of an investment into the local club than the average Christian puts into his or her congregation.
If the agricultural metaphor doesn’t work for you, consider the professional musician and the hours of practice and rehearsal along with years of lessons that go into mastering an instrument. What about the athlete who dreams of Olympic gold? Think of the hours of physically grueling practice, the expense of traveling to competitions, and the sacrifice of any kind of normal lifestyle that is involved in the pursuit of one moment of glory. Yet the promise of eternal life merits only an hour or two a week and a meager investment?
No wonder Jesus’ words were so strong. After all, he knows our human nature. He knows how hard it is for us to commit and sacrifice for something we can see, much less something with so many unknowns. He knows that we like certainty and control. He also knows our tendency to take our eyes off of the prize, to look back, to falter, and even to fail. Thanks be to God for the grace we are offered, for the love freely given, and for the hope that keeps us plowing–no matter how crooked the furrow.
Photo Credit: Carlson Harvesting