Fr Peter Beck presided and Margaret Maclagan preached. Our Gospel was taken from Luke 9:51-62.
Read on for the sermon and a video of the service.
I runga i te ingoa o te Atua, te kai-hunga, te kai-hoko me te kaiwhakaora. Amine.
In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer of life, Amen.
Over this past week, as I’ve thought about today’s readings, that prayer that so many of us older members of the congregation will have learnt as children has kept popping up: ‘Gentle Jesus meek and mild, look upon this little child...’ etc. And I started to wonder why we think of Jesus as meek and mild. Sure, he called the children to him and he was gentle with people he healed, but we see a great deal more of a much sterner side of him in our gospels and in our reading today. Today’s reading, ‘he set his face towards Jerusalem’ is a turning point in Luke’s gospel – from now on, Jesus is headed towards the cross and his death. You’ll have noticed that there are two separate incidents in today’s gospel: James and John and the Samaritans with whom Jesus is gentle, and the would-be disciples whom he treats decidedly harshly.
It’s not surprising that Jesus didn’t get a warm welcome in the Samaritan village – there was always friction between Jews and Samaritans. And James’ and John’s response asking if they should call down fire from heaven on the Samaritans also isn’t really all that surprising, after all, in Mark’s gospel Jesus did call them Boanerges – sons of thunder! And here we see the gentler side of Jesus – he turns and goes on to another village – where presumably they find somewhere to stay!
But in the second incident, we see a much sterner side of Jesus – a side that’s actually rather hard to cope with! Three people want to be disciples and all get sternly told that they’re not whole-heartedly committed enough to make the grade. ‘Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’ – ouch! ‘Let the dead bury their own dead’ – really? And ‘no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of heaven!’ So who is? This really is the stern side of Jesus – nothing gentle here!
Commentators have a field day – The kingdom requires our all! We must be totally whole hearted in our response to Jesus! No hesitation! And on they go – you can just see them leading rallies, getting everyone all excited. And I curl up inside. I want to be whole hearted in my response, but I’m human – I do look back, I do turn aside. But a more recent commentary reminded me that Jesus always exaggerates to make his points and wryly observes that ‘the practical application of such interpretations is problematic to say the least’. It points out that as Christians we live ‘with one foot in heaven and one foot on earth – compromised, confused, concussed...’ And at that point I breathe a sigh of relief – ‘compromised, confused and concussed’, yes that’s a much better description of my real life and commitment.
And once I could stop cowering in despair I started to look at what Jesus said to the would-be disciples. And what really caught my attention was his comment to the third one: ‘no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of heaven!’ because I didn’t understand what it meant. The first two would-be disciples had bad cases of the ‘just let mes’ – ‘just let me bury my father and then I’ll follow you’ – and it seems as though the father wasn’t actually dead – maybe he was very sick, but there are some suggestions that he was still perfectly healthy and this would-be disciple really was putting off the rigours of following Jesus. And saying good-bye to one’s family seems harmless, except I suspect it also could be rather prolonged... It feels a bit like St Augustine – Lord grant me chastity just not yet... I’ll follow you, Lord, just not yet. I’ll follow you, Lord, just let me do this first.
But the third excuse? Looking back while plowing – just looking back, not even turning back – what was the problem with that? As most of you know, I grew up in Sydney, and even 50 years ago Sydney was a big city – there wasn’t much countryside round. There were pockets of bush, yes, but you don’t plow the Australian bush! So it wasn’t till I went to London to study that I actually saw countryside and plowed fields – yes, it doesn’t make much sense to go to London to see the country side but for me it was reality.
I can remember my disappointment the first time I saw a field of wheat – I’d imagined it towering way over my head... But as well as wheat, I also saw lovely straight furrows plowed across fields. And similarly here, I admire the straight furrows in the fields that have all been plowed ready for planting, or where green shoots are currently coming up in lovely straight rows.
It took Fr Geoff who knows about the country to tell me that if you look back when you’re plowing, the furrows go crooked. And then I thought of what happens when you look off to the side as you’re driving a car – the steering wheel has a nasty habit of turning in that direction and you swerve... So Jesus is warning this third would-be disciple to keep going straight ahead, to make sure the furrows are nice and straight. And again that’s a very stern instruction. Nothing at all gentle. But as I again cringed at this injunction I remembered that lovely quote that’s apparently attributed to St Teresa of Avila: ‘God writes straight with crooked lines’ – ‘God writes straight with crooked lines’. This doesn’t mean that God will take my crooked lines and force them to be straight. Rather, even if my furrows aren’t straight, even it they’re thoroughly crooked, God can still use them, God can still use what I’ve plowed, the work I’ve done even if it’s far from perfect – even if, like me, my furrows are ‘compromised, confused and concussed’. And the same goes for the furrows we plow as a parish as we move forward towards and then with our new vicar. And so we end up with Jesus’ responses being a wonderful mixture of stern and gentle – yes, he exaggerates, yes, his demands appear to be way beyond what us normal mortals could cope with, but at the heart there is grace – God can and does write straight with our crooked lines, both our personal lines and those we plow together as a parish.
And for that, glory be to God! Amen.
E te Atua, kororia ki a koe! Amine.