“Always Look Forward” Luke 9:56-62. 6/30/19. Donald W. Dotterer, PhD.
A few weeks ago I received a sad letter from the pastor of Wesley United Methodist Church in New Castle, which was my third appointment in the Conference. The letter said that Wesley Church would be closing. They will have their final service next Sunday,
As a former pastor I have been invited to write about a fond memory, an experience that I had at the church to be shared at that final service. This will not be it. When I was a pastor in New Castle, one of the things that I did to try and build community was to start a church softball team. The church owned a softball field behind the building that had been neglected and had fallen into disrepair. It had high grass and junk all over it. It was being used as track by the neighbors to ride their All-Terrain Vehicles.
The field was, needless to say, a mess. However, getting the ball field into playing condition was a great project for getting people involved, especially the youth. And we did that. Once we got going the church people and others enjoyed coming down to the field to watch the kids and adults practice and then play games.
At that time, 28 years ago in New Castle, there was a very intense church softball league. It had strict rules that teams had to abide by in order to participate.
We had to have paid umpires from the American Softball Association to umpire the games. There were usually two or three games a week, so if we were going to avoid being embarrassed in the games we had to have practices. And of course, we had to have uniforms.
Before the beginning of the season, every team had to present a typed roster of players complete with individual player signatures to the league office. It was this last requirement that got my church kicked out of the New Castle Church Softball League. Our team’s manager, who was critically ill with cancer, failed to get that roster in on time. And so in midseason we were thrown out of the league. My last significant accomplishment in New Castle was to organize a new, less intense softball league so the kids could have some fun playing softball.
Being thrown out of the church softball league was a revelatory moment, an epiphany, a pivotal moment for me. Because it was at that moment that I realized that there are only a few things in life that are worth a total commitment, and church softball wasn’t one of them. It’s a good thing, mind you. But not something worthy of my total commitment. I don’t know about you, but I have found that it takes almost all of my time and energy to be committed to the important things, the things that really matter. Those things are, for me God, family, and the church of Jesus Christ. However, there seem to be an increasing number of people out there for whom softball and the like ranks up there with and even surpasses their commitment to their jobs, their church and even their families as the most important things on Planet Earth.
Youth baseball is a good example. It’s a good thing. It’s fun. I’ve been a coach. But playing Little League morphs into traveling teams, fall ball, skill clinics and so forth. You would think every 10 year-old is going to grow up to be Josh Bell. And it’s not just kids’ stuff either. Suppose, for example, that you want to join a plant club because you enjoy growing plants. Before long it isn’t just going to monthly meetings for fun to talk about plants. The Plant Club needs a board with a president and a secretary and a newsletter. Before long you find yourself working at home stuffing envelopes. You know what I'm talking about. It seems that everybody today wants a total commitment or nothing.
In our gospel lesson for this morning, we read that “Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem.” His words that follow have been listed by scholar F. F. Bruce among “The Hard Sayings of Jesus.” So what’s going on here?
This passage is what is known as Luke’s travel narrative.That is, Jesus is on a journey to the city of Jerusalem. Jesus knows that he must go there to fulfill his destiny, his purpose, his mission, which will be to suffer and die on a cross to save the world from its sins, and then after three days rise from the dead bringing to us the gift of everlasting life. It is significant to note that fully one-third of Luke’s gospel is a travel narrative. So Jesus is a man on the move. He is going somewhere. He is not standing still. Jesus’ life has purpose and direction and meaning. And so should ours.
You see, Jesus is always looking forward, even as he cares for the needs of people in the present. Jesus takes time to feed the hungry and heal the sick. He takes time to teach people that the kingdom of God is present among them here and now.
But at the same time Jesus is always going somewhere.He’s always looking ahead. Jesus is not looking backwards to the good old days. His life has purpose and direction and forward motion. And so should ours, no matter what age station we are in life.So Jesus is on a journey to his destination, which is his destiny. Jesus is totally committed to this calling. And he will not be deterred, although there certainly are those who try to do that. The core of this passage is the single-minded purpose, the determination that Jesus has to fulfill his calling from God. We read here that Jesus takes his mission and message to a village of Samaritan people. Now if you took the Old Testament class we had this year, you know that Jews and Samaritans didn’t like each other, and you know the reasons why. We don’t have time today to get into all that. Suffice it to say here that Jews and Samaritans were peoples who were at odds with each other, just as groups of different people are at odds with each other today. Going through Samaria was the fastest and most direct route to get to Jerusalem. But taking that route involved problems and even danger. But Jesus would not be deterred from going that route. So Jesus and the disciples come into this Samaritan village.We are told that the Samaritans did not receive Jesus. That is, they rejected him and his message.
What does that tell us? It tells us that as we travel along life’s journey to our destination, it’s not always going to be smooth sailing. Life doesn’t always go according to plan.You know that. There are turns and bumps, potholes and detours in the road. There are going to be people who do not receive us, and a lot worse, even when our intentions are good. But see what Jesus does here? He doesn’t stop his mission. He doesn’t give up the work of ministry. He keeps going. He keeps pressing ahead.
Very interestingly, I think, Jesus refuses to strike back at the Samaritans who reject him. In fact we are told that Jesus rebukes, that is, he reprimands not the Samaritans, but the disciples James and John for wanting him to punish the Samaritans.
Jesus realizes that he has more important things to do than to waste time and energy on revenge. We read then that Jesus and his disciples simply went on to another village.
And so Jesus keeps moving, keeps looking forward to his destination. Jesus has set his face, we would say that he has set his sights on Jerusalem, and he will not be deterred from going there. Jesus is determined to fulfill his calling in life. And so should we.
Okay. That makes sense. We can understand that. It doesn’t do any good to strike back at those who reject us, those who hurt us. It doesn’t help to throw gasoline on a fire. Trying to get revenge is a waste of time and energy. Revenge is really a fool’s game. We know that. It’s better just to move on, keeping the big picture in mind.
But then comes the hard part, that which Professor Bruce calls the “The Hard Sayings of Jesus.” As Jesus and the disciples move down the road they encounter some would-be followers of Jesus. These fellows had obviously had been attracted to Jesus’ preaching, teaching and holy work.They thought they too would like to be his disciples. They wanted to be a part of the action. It just sounded so exciting.Three of these would-be Christians tell Jesus that they want to follow him.
Good for them, we say. Everybody needs more of God in their lives, don’t they? However, we see that each one of these would-be followers has a qualification. Each of them adds a condition to following Jesus.
The first one says glibly, “Jesus, I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus says, “What’s that? I don’t have a place to lay my head. I don’t even have a bed to sleep in. There is no place that I can call home. Is that what you really want?”The second would-be follower says to Jesus, “Let me first go and bury my father.” This is where the “hard saying” stuff comes in. That sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? A man should be able to bury his father, right?But Jesus tells him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but as for you, go and proclaim the Kingdom of God.” The third would-be follower says, “Lord, I will follow you, yes. But first let me go home say good-by to my family.”
To him Jesus says, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” There it is again--Jesus always looking forward, not backward. And he expects those who follow him to do the same. You just can’t look backward and forward at the same time.
Jesus of course uses many agricultural illustrations. Here it’s the plow. I haven’t done a lot of plowing in my life, but a couple of summers when I was in college I worked on a farm at Polk State Hospital up near Franklin, PA.
One of my jobs was riding the tractor and cultivating the cabbage which was planted in straight rows. I enjoyed it and got pretty good at it. But if I tried looking back to admire the work behind me, that’s when I would mess up and damage the cabbage, because I could not drive the tractor in a straight line
when I was looking backwards. I learned you can’t look backward and forward at the same time without messing up.
So what do we make of this? I don’t believe that Jesus is saying that we shouldn’t have homes or beds to sleep in. He’s not saying that we shouldn’t have funerals for loved ones who have died. And I don’t think he’s saying we shouldn’t have good-byes when we leave and go someplace else, like we’re doing today.
What I think Jesus is saying is this: as important as those things are, there is something in each of our lives that can become more important than our faith in him. There is something that we think we need to take care of first before following him.
For all of us, there is something in this world that gets in between God and us. There is something that each of us is in danger of putting ahead of following Jesus.
For each of us, there is something that can make us look backward instead of forward. Each of us has our plow: we all have work to do for the kingdom. But we also have that which causes us to look backward, that can make us look away from the work we are called to do for God on this earth. So we find it hard to find the time to pray, hard to find the time to worship, hard to find the time to serve. We all need to find the time to do those things—pray, worship and serve. And not just find the time, but to put those things at the top of our lists in life. Because in the end, they are what really count. Because that’s what following Jesus is about.
One final baseball illustration. This will be the last one you’ll hear from me. Thank goodness, some of you are thinking.A couple of weeks ago the New York Mets fired their pitching coach. Their pitching has been worse than the Pirates’ so far this season. So they thought they needed to make a change.
The new pitching coach of the Mets is Phil Regan, who happens to be 82 years old. Now I don’t know anything about Phil Regan except that he was around when Sandy Koufax was pitching. But no matter. Whoever he is, Phil Regan at age 82 is a person who is still contributing, still giving, still sharing his wisdom, still looking forward.
I hope that I will be able to do that in retirement. And I hope you will continue to do that as individuals and as churches.
Friends, we’ve come a long ways together on our journey these past ten years. I am proud of the progress we have made together by looking forward, by having a vision of what our congregations could be.
We’ve had our ups and downs to be sure. We’ve hit some potholes and had some detours. But through it all we’ve kept moving ahead, kept our hands on the plow and our eyes forward, and God has blessed us. And God will continue to bless you under Bay and Donna’s inspired and capable leadership.
Thanks be to Christ who enables us to do all things through him. Amen.