The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at: http://users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/r180.htm
s180g98 Somerton Park Sunday 13 28/6/98
"a hand to the plough" Luke 9.62
It is like having a bucket of cold water tipped over us to hear this gospel read, for throughout the passage, Jesus makes it quite plain that he really isn't too fussed about having a great number of disciples around him. Indeed he really isn't here to curry favour with anyone particularly.
My mind goes back to a retreat where I was a participant a couple of years back, where the director pointed out how angry some people must have got with Jesus. It was the time, described by Mark (1.34-38) when Jesus got up particularly early in the morning after healing many people the night before. He got up early to "beat a hasty retreat". The director pointed out that probably everyone had spent the morning bringing their sick grandparents, aunts and uncles, probably all on stretchers, for Jesus to heal, only to find that he'd already gone. They would have been at the very least put out that they had missed their opportunity, but more likely distinctly piqued that Jesus hadn't stayed long enough (in their opinion). It wasn't really the way "to win friends and influence people".
We find Jesus making another quick exit after the feeding of the 5000, when the crowds wanted to make him king (Jn 6.15). When one looks at the gospel stories in their entirety, looking for instances to illustrate this, it is remarkable how frequent they are. Before we turn our attention to the reading for today, just one more, the risen Jesus says to Mary Magdalene, "don't hold on to me".
We have, in today's gospel four little snippets which have this same theme - the Samaritan town and three individuals. Jesus wasn't out "to win friends and influence people". He didn't want to gather a significant group of people around him, to make some real changes in society, as perhaps we see people going into politics want to do.
The Samaritan town don't welcome Jesus "because his face was set toward Jerusalem". (How often can religious disputes get in the way of receiving blessings ..?) Jesus doesn't care. James and John are all fired up, ready to command fire from heaven themselves ... They had certainly got the message about "asking anything in my name" or had they? I think there is little doubt that it is James and John who are rebuked, not the Samaritan town. Actually, Jesus primary motivation was for the Jewish people. When others included themselves in, he had no difficulty. It was immaterial to him and quite irrelevant to the accomplishment of the mission if a Samaritan town welcomed him or not. It would not have made the slightest bit of difference in Jerusalem. It would not have saved Jesus from the Cross, but of course saving him from the Cross was not what he was about. He could have done that all by himself.
Then we have these various individuals who come to offer their assistance to Jesus' cause, and in each case they are met by a distinct coolness on Jesus' part.
The first of the individuals wants to offer his services, and Jesus seems not to encourage him at all, but to make plain the difficulties of his present existence. No 5 star motels on the road to Jerusalem. Jesus bids the person to look at what manner of existence he was "enjoying", and he could promise nothing more.
The second of the individuals might inspire some hope in us that Jesus wanted more companions along the way, for we are told Jesus said to him "Follow me". But we are on uncertain ground here, for when the person hesitates, Jesus says: "Go and proclaim the kingdom of God" - not "Come ..." How often do we think that the man is given a choice - either proclaim the kingdom of God or bury his father. I suspect it is quite possible to do both, and it is both that he is encouraged to do, as his way of following Jesus.
We are not to know whether Jesus called the third or not, but again the response by Jesus is lukewarm to say the least.
I find it fascinating how the conversations I have with people inform what I have to say in my sermons. So one of the interesting conversations I had recently was with a couple of people who have travelled to India to meet Sai Baba, a quite remarkable person, credited with inspiring many most needed charitable institutions in a very poor part of that country, and other miracles. His philosophy is to "Love all and serve all". I have no doubt however that many people get distracted by the miraculous things he seems to be able to do, and don't actually "follow" Sai Baba's philosophy. Sadly, of course, the happiness that Sai Baba so clearly radiates, comes not from the ability to work miracles, but by himself following his own precepts - loving and serving others.
It is precisely the same issue for Jesus. Those who lived in his particular generation and in subsequent ages can so focus on the wonderful things Jesus did, as if our happiness rested on us intellectual assenting to the reality that those things actually occurred. We can follow Jesus mistakenly trying to get others to acknowledge who Jesus was or what he did, rather than doing what he says. It matters not if it is Sai Baba or Jesus, we will be disappointed, unless we love and serve others.
St Paul's words in the epistle say precisely this: "For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. (Galatians 5:13).
If we thought that Jesus was interested in converting the world, and marching on Jerusalem to take it by force and impose on all and sundry an ideal righteous and theocratic society, we need to think again. It is one of the reasons why I am not particularly anxious to have everyone joining in the "Australian Awakening" type exercises. I think in past times they were called "National Repentance". One of the mission agencies, who indeed do good work, have the motto "Australia for Christ" - when it seems to me that if Jesus wanted that now, he would have wanted that then. And to me he didn't seem to want that then.
One of the classic phrases of the Church has been: "Justification by faith" - and while I agree fully with the phrase - it does not mean that because we follow Christ, so that it doesn't matter what we do, all our sins will be forgiven. It does not mean that because we follow Christ so that we become different from other people. It does not mean that we follow Christ by upholding the strictures of the moral or ritual law - making sure that others measure up to our expectations as regards manner of life or content of faith. It does mean that we follow Jesus by following the words of St Paul: "through love become slaves to one another".
I think that there is a little more meaning in the words: "a hand to the plough" than just a task among many which Jesus "plucked out of the air" to used to describe the Christian ministry. So often, in my experience, people describe Christian ministry using the phrase "sowing the seed". I have suggested before, that it is God who sows the seed and provides the rain; that which we can do is to be the good soil, prepared and ready for the seed. The good soil is prepared with the plough, and ploughing is hard work - much harder that spreading the seed. It isn't very glamorous either.
And as we look back at the reading we see that the theme of being ready - being prepared - as the good scouts would say - is there from start to finish. Neither the Samaritan town nor each of these individuals were ready when Jesus came. They hadn't done the ploughing. A couple of weeks ago, one of the pithy sayings in the "Advertiser" was: "Fortune invariably favours those who are prepared". God blesses those who do the ground work. If we have our eyes open for the blessings that God showers all around us, we will see them, use them, and have our faith buoyed.
One of the exercises I usually put to the confirmation candidates is to ask what happens if we don't remember that Jesus died on the Cross and that he gave us his body and blood for the Holy Communion. It usually takes a while, but eventually we get to the answer - we forget ... And if we forget that Jesus loves us so much, who is the looser?
Morticia Addams to Gomez (in exasperation): Don't you know what the penalty for bigamy is??
Gomez: But of course, Cherida mia, it's having two wives.
I'm sorry for the politically incorrectness of this, but both my wife and I found this hilarious :-)
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