A preacher I heard once illustrated the Gospel text (Luke 9:51-62) by giving his farming community the analogy of tilling straight rows in a field. When Jesus says, you can’t plow a field by looking backwards, the challenge is put to keep looking forward. Good advice, especially if you are interested in making your rows straight.
But, you can’t be looking just in front of your feet, the preacher went on to say. You look at a tree or fence post at the opposite end of the field you are tilling, and aim for that. The trick is, you have to keep your eyes set on that tree in the distance — without wavering — while you make your way across. This is the best way of making sure your lines are straight. A good illustration for living the Christian life, right?
But, I’ve wondered, what happens if the fog rolls in or the heat of the late day causes the horizon to shimmer? What happens when the goal in the distance is blurred by climatic circumstances you have no control over? What to do when you can’t see or experience the ‘goal’ even though you know what that goal is supposed to be?
I’m no farmer. But I remember in my first parish in southern Ontario, I was immersed in the farming culture of working the land. Most of the farmers in the region between London and Stratford worked on large swaths of land.
The farmers in the area also worked hard to introduce me, a city-boy at heart, to their pastoral lifestyle. And they were very patient and loving about it. Once I was invited to sit for hours in an air-conditioned, hi-tech cabin of a gigantic tractor as we traversed the rolling fields tilling the land.
One aspect of following Jesus that jumps out in the Gospel text (Luke 9:51-62) is the cost of being a disciple. It’s hard, because attachments to material security are jeopardized in the mission of Jesus — “Foxes have holes and birds have nests” but Jesus has no place to call home. Jesus implies that those who would risk following him must expect and count on losing something of value to them. Are they up for it?
Last week when Michael Harvey spoke to a large group of Lutherans and Anglican in Ottawa, he put it out there that he didn’t know how Canadians — who are so concerned about offending everyone and apologize for everything — would deal with the challenge to invite people to church. He said that we’re so worried that we might lose a friend, our reputation, or upset someone.
Consequently, we lock ourselves into un-healthy and un-Gospel patterns of uninviting. And he challenged us to consider not so much our IQ (a quotient signifying intelligence) but our NQ (our ability to deal with rejection when people respond, ‘no’, to our invitation).
He also reminded us that the challenge is to invite — and not worry or be concerned about whether or not people respond positively to our invitation. That’s God’s bit, he said. It’s not about us — whether people come to Christ or the church or ‘arrive’ at their spiritual awakening. Our job is simply to invite and remember we are part of God’s larger plan that we can’t fully see right now.
The disciples want to bring the fire of God down upon the Samaritans who rejected them. Recalling the prophet Elijah’s act of vengeance when he called upon fire from the heavens to usurp his enemies (1 Kings 18:36-40) and eventually destroy them, the disciples of Jesus feel justified in their request. Good on them, right?
But Jesus turns the impulse on its head. God’s thoughts are not human thoughts; God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). This Lukan Gospel reminds us again, and again: The way for Christians to deal with detractors is not revenge and violence, but a ‘letting go’ kind of love. “Love your enemies,” Jesus says (Luke 6:27-35). This is what we’re about, as followers of Jesus. In case anyone was wondering.
Moreover, the table-turning, rug-pulling response of Jesus gives us a clue to the character of God, and God’s kingdom.
Under God’s reign, even when we don’t get it right, we need not fear the fury of God. God’s response to our misdeeds and disobedience is not punishment and vengeance. God will not send down fire to incinerate us and our evil ways.
God will heal us by the ‘no strings attached’ method of love. Not forced upon us nor coerced out of us by obligation, guilt, slick marketing or manipulation, Jesus’ approach is nevertheless uncompromising. Jesus ‘sets his face to Jerusalem’ amidst the conflicts of his earthly journey.
In Jerusalem awaits the Cross — the place of his self-giving, costly love for us. We need not fear God. Only an opportunity missed for extending the message and gift of hope and the experience of unconditional love. Do we bind ourselves in our sin? Do we lock ourselves into patterns of self(ish)-preservation? Or, do we freely give of ourselves in acts of hospitality and generosity towards others?
Even though southern Alberta suffered greatly in the wake of the floods there, what has astounded so many is the generosity of people there and across Canada to help. So many invitations to find shelter in other people’s homes not affected by the flood rendered some of the temporary shelters irrelevant. In the time of crisis, people just helped where they could. The gifts of hospitality were given by invitation to those who had no place to lay their heads.
What we do in worship is a sign and symbol of what we do in the world. For example, in the Christian ritual and sacrament of Holy Communion, the gifts of bread and wine are brought to the altar by the people gathered. Later, the consecrated food comes back from the altar to be served to those who first brought it forward.
Whenever we are willing to give and hand over for the sake of others, is returned to us as the gift of Jesus Christ in us. I am sure that many affected by the floods in Alberta experienced the loving presence of Jesus through the invitation of others in their act of generosity.
In the early grades especially, when my kids brought their scribbles and drawings from school, they showed and offered us parents their artwork. We put their work on the fridge door for all to see. I noticed how much pride they had, brimming with satisfaction and delight.
The gift (not perfect), when given, is returned, hundredfold; when we exercise some courage and risk-taking to share the gift of Christ with others (not alone), we will be blessed to receive Christ’s loving, forgiving, gracious presence in us — and people will notice.
I don’t know what motivated my farmer friend in southern Ontario to invite me to ride with him in his tractor. It can be a lonely job, farming, all by yourself on acres and acres of fields. He was proud to tell me the tricks of his trade, tilling the earth row upon row. It was a gracious exchange, a friendly encounter and ultimately affirming for both of us. Out of that invitation and experience together, I believe, we both were encouraged on the ways of our unique and separate lives.
Whatever challenges we face or losses we endure on the field of life and on our journeys towards the goal, when we take those risks and do it together, I believe we will experience the affirmation of our journey and be blessed by the steadfast, uncompromising love of God in Christ Jesus.