Monday, June 28, 2010

Looking Back -- A Sermon

Now that school is out, it’s safe to tell you about St. James’ Nursery School. You did know that we have a nursery school, didn’t you? And each week, I come into each class to read the children a bible story.

Only problem is, each year the kids think up some way to greet me and see me off again. This year, they decided to whisper my name over and over as a signal that it was time for me to read. The teachers prefer this one to last year’s shouting my name repeatedly.

Anyway, early this year, as I was about to leave them, one of the kids called out, “Walk backwards!” Foolishly, I did. From that day on, the cry “Walk backwards!” rang from the three through five-year-old crowd.

I actually didn’t mind. I could wave goodbye to them as I left – and it was a very short path to the doorway. But one day, a kid said, “Walk all the way to your office backwards!” That’s a much longer, winding path. I smiled and – the second I got out the door – turned around to face forward. If I tried to navigate it backwards, I would have hit something for sure.

What’s the point of this story? Maybe that looking back is not sustainable. It might work for a moment, but it’s not way to move forward.

Which just might be the point of our scripture readings, too.

Remember, there are two stories today in which prospective followers ask to take time and “look back”, to say goodbye to their families. One is the prophet Elisha after Elijah calls him.

Elisha says, “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.” And when Elijah gives him permission (at least we think that’s what Elijah’s words mean), Elisha goes home, kills the oxen he used to plow with, used the yoke for firewood and apparently threw himself a going away party.

The second story in the Gospel has Jesus calling a number of potential disciples. One says, “First let me go and bury my father,” to which Jesus says, “Let the dead bury the dead.” Another says, “Let me say farewell to those at home,” to which Jesus says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

How could Jesus be so cold hearted? Why can’t he let them look back? What’s the difference between what Elisha did and what those would-be followers of Jesus did?

Well, the best we can do is speculate – or maybe ruminate. But it seems there is a qualitative difference between them.

With Elisha, he takes the tools of his trade – his oxen and yoke – and destroys them. He makes known to his people that he is leaving for good, possibly thanking them for what they have meant to him so far. He cuts himself off from his life up to this point.

It’s different with the two that Jesus called. He is on his way to Jerusalem and death, so already what they are being called to is different than the long-term prophetic ministry Elisha was called to.

And yet, their words echo Elisha’s.

So, one possibility is that these two wanted everyone to know they were being called by a prophet (Jesus). They compared themselves to Elisha and therefore echoed his words, and expected Jesus to answer as Elijah did. Perhaps they were looking back to see how many of their friends and family would admire their new position in life.

Perhaps – there might have been an element of that. Or, more likely, they could not let go of their homes. The one apparently had an ageing father he could not bear to leave. Several scholars noted that he probably was not dead, just old – and that it could take years to “bury” him.

Jesus did not have that time. His mission was urgent, and if the man wanted to follow Jesus, he would not be able to stay home. He would have to follow Jesus and not look back.

The other wanted to say goodbye to his friends and family. Again, Jesus gives a harsh answer. Once you begin to follow, if you look back, you are not fit for the kingdom of God.

Perhaps what he senses is that these people cannot let go of what binds them. Perhaps they cannot put following Christ – to whatever end – in front of all else. Perhaps he knows that they will keep looking back, thinking about how much easier their lives were at the family farm. They are not like Elisha who visibly cuts all ties with his past. They are not even like James and John who – when Jesus calls them – simply walk away from their nets and their father in order to follow.

Whether these would-be followers are thinking of themselves delusions of grandeur or simply can’t let go of their past in order to keep their eyes only on Jesus, the point is, they cannot follow.

If we keep looking back, we lose sight of Christ - we can’t walk straight. If we can’t let go of that which is not God, we cannot fully embrace God.

This is forever the most difficult lesson of our faith – letting go, not looking back. When we are baptized, we say we die to our old lives so that we are born into a life with Christ as our focus and guide.

Are we? Is Christ our focus?

Or do we – you and I – keep looking back?

I wish it were a simple answer, but I suspect it is a question we must ask every day of our lives. What do you choose today? To look back or to look to Christ? Amen.