I Will Follow You Lord, But . . . - Luke 9:51-62
Have you ever heard the Shel Silverstein poem “I Can’t Go To School Today”? It’s a little long so I won’t read the entire thing, but it begins like this:
"I cannot go to school today," Said little Peggy Ann McKay. "I have the measles and the mumps, A gash, a rash and purple bumps. My mouth is wet, my throat is dry, I'm going blind in my right eye. My tonsils are as big as rocks, I've counted sixteen chicken pox…
The poem continues with little Peggy Ann McKay listing all sorts of things wrong with her while her parent listens. Until the poem ends:
My elbow's bent, my spine ain't straight, My temperature is one-o-eight. My brain is shrunk, I cannot hear, There is a hole inside my ear. I have a hangnail, and my heart is—what? What's that? What's that you say? You say today is. . .Saturday? G'bye, I'm going out to play!"
The little girl in the poem had every excuse in the book, but when her parent told her it’s Saturday all those excuses suddenly disappear, and she goes out to play!
I think Shel Silverstein’s little friend Peggy Ann McKay demonstrates something that Jesus may have been dealing with in our Gospel reading today. Excuses. Tons of good excuses. I will follow you Lord but first let me take care of a few other things. I will follow you Lord but first I’ve got some other priorities. I will follow you Lord but only when I’m ready. I will follow you Lord but on my own terms. People have many good reasons not to follow Jesus. Many good reasons not to give him our all.
But when we read the text here, Jesus’ response does sound incredibly harsh. I don’t think any of these people were lying about their situation like the little girl in the poem. These people want to say goodbye to their families. One man just wants to bury his father. It’s really quite troubling when you think about all Jesus says here. Is he really saying that to follow him we need to abandon family responsibilities? It seems reckless, even sinful, to abandon loved ones in that way.
But it’s interesting to remember at other times Jesus encourages us to follow the commandment to honor father and mother. For example, in Matthew 15 Jesus criticizes the mindset of some Pharisees that they could get out of supporting their parents if they gave money to the Temple instead. That encounter suggests that Jesus’ words here are more of a paradox than a straightforward instruction to abandon one’s family. But whatever way you spin it, what Jesus says is really demanding.
When we look at this text, I also think it’s important that what Jesus says here be understood in the context of how the passage starts: that he has set his face toward Jerusalem. Scholars point out this entire section of Luke is Jesus’ journey to the cross. Luke makes it clear that from this time on Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem. The implication is obvious: from now on everything Jesus does is in relation to the sacrifice he is about to make in Jerusalem. Everything from here on out should be considered in relation to the cross. And these verses are what immediately follow that declaration. So we need to understand what he says here in light of Jesus’ own determination and commitment to the Kingdom of God, a commitment that he knows will get him crucified.
Perhaps this helps to explain Jesus’ apparent harshness: he is prepared to die for the Kingdom and is heading toward Jerusalem and the cross with determination. And considering the sacrifice he’s about to make, he’s got no patience for followers being wishy-washy! He’s got no room for lukewarm disciples right now! Jesus is 100% committed to his mission and doesn’t want to be distracted by anyone who isn’t all in.
So where does that leave us? Are we all in? Have we left everything behind to follow Jesus? I’d like to think I’m all in, but I can’t say for sure. I have a pretty comfortable life. I’m not persecuted for my beliefs. I’m not about to get crucified anytime soon. Three years ago when I preached on this text, I told the story of St. Francis of Assisi who literally abandoned everything and became a homeless monk. He may be the best example of someone actually doing this. Someone leaving everything behind to dedicate their life to Christ. Someone actually living up to the extremely high standard Jesus sets for us.
But in general we Christians don’t live up to the bar Jesus set for us. We hold back. We hesitate. We worry about what truly surrendering our life to God might mean. Surrendering our self-will to God’s will is actually THE essential Christian spiritual practice. It’s at the center of the teaching of the mystics. And it’s what we practice in small doses during contemplative disciplines like centering prayer. Surrendering the will to God is also central to programs like AA. It’s vital to recovery, spiritual growth, and our overall wellbeing. And I believe the discipline of honestly seeking to align self-will with the divine will, when enough people do it, is what will eventually lead to God’s Kingdom come, God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven.
I think that’s why Jesus is so firm here. Because we need to understand the discipline of self-surrender is absolutely central to his teaching, to the Kingdom way of being. The bar is high, and it needs to be.
But what about those of us who can’t find it in ourselves to live up to such a high standard? What about us sinners who are so burnt out we can barely drag ourselves out the door Sunday morning? What about those of us who are so worn out by life’s trials that we barely have any energy left at all? Well Jesus has plans for us too. Throughout the Gospels Jesus consistently accepts people who are far from perfect. People who don’t leave everything behind. People who are sinners and outcasts. People who are tax collectors and prostitutes. His disciples always misunderstood his teachings and even abandoned him when he was being crucified. So while the bar Jesus sets for discipleship is incredibly high, he also clearly accepts those who can’t reach it. It’s as if he wants us to know such commitment is where following him will take us, but we can start from wherever we’re at.
Because at the end of the day it’s not about us and our efforts. What we do or don’t do. We are saved by what has been done for us. On the cross, Jesus paved the way to reconciliation with God and invites us into the same relationship with God that he has. As Lutherans we know that it’s all about grace and not about anything we have done.
But how then can we make sense of what Jesus says in the Gospel reading? I think our reading from Galatians sheds some light on this issue. We can imagine commitment or discipleship as one of the fruits of the Spirit. Like love or faithfulness or self-control. And as we grow more rooted in the Spirit, as we mature on our faith journey, we naturally become more full of love and faithfulness and self-control. More full of commitment to Christ. More eager to give it all up and follow. More prepared and willing to go all in.
In this passage from Galatians Paul is saying that just as a tree naturally grows and matures and produces fruit, so does a human being naturally grow and mature and produce spiritual fruit. And the fruit we bear is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
When we connect this to the Gospel reading, we see that Jesus is saying a person who is a mature spiritual tree is willing to let go of everything and follow him. And even though most people in this world aren’t fully mature spiritual trees who are 100% aligned with the will of God, even so, Jesus calls us to follow him anyway. To be rooted in him. To grow so that we will become sturdy trees that bear this fruit naturally. To be so grounded in Christ, so rooted in the Spirit, that we grow to the point where surrendering everything to God becomes effortless, becomes our natural way of life, just like a tree in full bloom naturally produces delicious fruit.
And until then we trust the Spirit’s work in us. Because it’s not about our effort, it’s about what God is doing in us. Growing us up to be disciples who are 100% all in. Purifying our selfishness and helping us grow up. Right now we might be like the people Jesus encountered on the road. We might be like the little girl in Shel Silverstein’s poem. Coming up with excuses, all the reasons in the world not to follow, not to go all in. And if that’s where you’re at, there’s no need to beat yourself up over it. It’s actually a good spiritual practice to become aware of those excuses. Find out what they are. Don’t deny they exist. Instead, curiously investigate your mind to find out what your excuses are. Discover what is holding you back from God. Find out what it is that is keeping you from surrendering to God’s will. Pray for help in making that discovery. And when you find it, turn it over to God.
Jesus calls us to the tough road of discipleship. And the Spirit is growing us up to bear good fruit like commitment and faithfulness. In this reading Jesus shows us what true discipleship will look like when we do reach Christian maturity. And the epistle reading shows us that growing into Christian maturity isn’t something we do with our own effort; it’s something God does in us like a healthy tree that bears fruit when it’s mature. God’s grace helps us grow up into the type of followers who do leave it all behind to follow Jesus. With continued exposure to the groundedness we have in Christ, we will continue to transform into mature and faithful disciples. We will learn. We will grow. We will follow. This is the life to which we are called.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pastor Brian, 6/26/22