Here we are, a few days from the great Festival Day of Pentecost. Anticipating monumental hymns to the Holy Spirit in a parish possibly festooned in red balloons and streamers. The white vestments of our holy Eastertide yielding to the red fire of the Spirit. And in today’s Daily Reading, the gospel is still emotionally dragging us back to Holy Week, to Jesus’ way to the Cross.
Is it anxiety, that cold fear in the gut, that prompted those closest to Jesus to forget everything he had taught them and ask, beg, to use the power he has given them to burn down a village too afraid to put up a wanted criminal and his party? Perhaps those people were saying, “We are Samaritans. We have enough trouble with the Jewish Temple authority. Go away.” And they turned their backs, knowing all too well what crossing power could cost.
But Jesus’ face was turned toward Jerusalem, hardened in determination to finish what he was sent for, but not hardened toward these people. So he turned and rebuked his disciples. Had they not learned yet, at this late hour, to love and forgive? How often do we forget?
The succession of people who come to him on the road, what are we to make of them? They certainly do come late to the game? Is that part of the reason that they are challenged and rebuked? But we believe that it is never too late to turn to Jesus. So perhaps he is just challenging them to see how far they are willing to go to do this hard thing. Foxes have holes, birds have nests, but the Son of Man is dependent on the grace of his Father to open the hearts of any who would offer hospitality to Jesus and his own. And Jesus knows the hearts of each of these seekers. Be sure of that. And to each one he addresses something that he knows is a stumbling block. The foxes and birds can find or make their own simple homes in the Creator’s rich world. Being in Luke’s Gospel, which often shows Jesus reaching out to his people on a level plain in one way or another, sharing their lives, answering the needs of the powerless, we could take this as an appeal to recognize the homeless. But this is Jesus on his way to Jerusalem and all the horrors that await him. Perhaps this is a simple warning to this man and to us all. Following the Son of Man can result in being cast out of polite society. We are, or can be, a troublesome lot, just like Jesus. Where was Jesus safe to lay his head? Not in the recently passed Samaritan village. Probably in Bethany. Or in Simon’s mother-in-law’s house. We, who follow the Way, may have a comfortable position and live a long life of respect surrounded by family, friends, books and cats. Or not. More likely it will be a struggle – spiritual, financial, social.
And then there was the unknown man to whom Jesus said those blessed words, “Follow me.” We all want to hear those words, or have already. And the journey begins in this life, and for all eternity. The next two, a man who had just lost his father and only asked to go and say the Jewish prayers for the dead at his funeral, and the one who wanted to say goodbye to his family, both reasonable requests, one would think. But this is a test in vocational discernment. Jesus is going to his end. There isn’t much time to teach these two, to support them, to correct them, all the things a spiritual teacher does. And Jesus is spelling it out for them. What I am about to do, and what you want to come with me and witness, and to join this community, the assembly of the disciples, is more important than funeral rites or family. If Jesus by now knows that death will be overturned by his impending death or not, and one suspects he, himself, is still praying to understand why he must go and do this, he does know that his Father has called him with an urgency and intensity that in obedience he cannot ignore. And he is passing on the message to those who seek him at this late date.
By modern lights, those who seek a position in the Church as we know it are practically required to live a balanced life including family and family responsibilities, like attending one’s father’s funeral, or making time for children and partner. But in truth, in our deepest yearnings we know that even those things must be done for love of God, in the love of Jesus. Even in ordinary things we must never forget that God is here, God made them and us, and our primary, maybe only, responsibility is to God our Father. And it all comes down to following Jesus. When we use words saying that Jesus is the way, truth, life, light, those words are potent. They are as potent as “In the beginning was the Word.” Or Truth, as Jesus uses it in the Gospel of John, which means nothing less than the word of God. That’s why in the old conservative ways we said grace before eating. We said prayers at bedtime. Or anytime we assembled. We were saying, “Yes, God, here I am, incarnate in a material world, doing ordinary material things, but I remember that you are here, my God, loving me, sustaining me, guiding me in the Spirit, protecting me day and night, collecting us into one Body.”
When Jesus said to that man, “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God,” he was saying that when plowing, in order to keep the furrow straight, you need to look ahead, concentrate, make little corrections to the reins to guide the oxen. Or when we watch some horror movie and the zombies are gaining on the heroes, and we scream, “Don’t look back.” It slows you up, distracts you, makes you freeze in fear. And you get eaten, or zombified. And we don’t want that! Because it works the same way in a life of faith. Don’t look back at roads not taken, old hurts, things that have been forgiven. Keep going, even to the end.
And perhaps if we turn from the plow, leave the furrow to tend to the world’s business, with all its breathless distractions and demanding needs, we give up our hole to take refuge, our nest to raise our young. Because Jesus is the fox’s den and bird’s nest. He is our safety, our protection, our teacher, our friend, our brother. And all the rest goes away; it evaporated with changes of time, our time as we age and change, with the world’s time as styles and politics shift to new configurations. Only in Christ is the permanence we seek in the vanity of the world. Oh, yes, the Church may change. Women at the altar. Same sex couples making marriage vows. All sorts of things. But the foundational Truth never changes. We are loved. We are protected. We are children of our Father, sisters and brothers to Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, and that is far more comforting and more important than any of the glamour of the world. Follow him. Pentecost is almost here! Alleluia, alleluia.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California