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I Will Follow You...But

Date:6/30/19

Passage: Luke 9:51-62

Speaker: Rev. Dr. Michael L. Gregg

“They say Aslan is on the move – perhaps has already landed.” This is a well-known quote from the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. “They say Aslan is on the move!” Then the narrative continues. “And now a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it has some enormous meaning – either a terrifying one which turns the whole dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again. It was like that now. At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in its inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.”

I love that part of the book. Because it’s true, when the divine is on the move, we can feel the power and the presence of God moving through creation. My girls and I have been reading the Chronicles of Narnia recently and we’ve made it through four out of the seven books, just completing the Silver Chair and now half way through the fifth book, A Horse and His Boy. I totally see why Pastor Ray talked about the Chronicles of Narnia a lot. It seems we can hold C.S. Lewis in one hand and the Bible in the other. And that is also true of the scripture lesson this morning. After reading this Lukan text for today, I am reminded of this part of Lewis’s book referencing Aslan. Because we, indeed, see that Jesus is on the move. He has set his face to Jerusalem and has one goal in mind, to complete the mission of salvific love set before him. Through the rest of chapter nine in Luke and for ten more chapters, Jesus doesn’t slow down, he doesn’t get distracted. He turns his head and his heart to the Holy City, knowing that he can’t get distracted by what his followers think he should do. No, he is focused on following the divine plan and what he must do.

And like the four Pevensie children who stumbled into Narnia, I too get the same twinge of excitement in my spirit as I stumble into this text and as I imagine Jesus turning his face resolutely to Jerusalem. I get that same hope flooding through my soul, the hope that the evil forces, like the White Witch in Narnia, do not have the last say. That winter, that frozen deadness, will soon give way to Christmas and then to springtime. Aslan is on the move! Jesus is on the move! Jesus’s inclusive reign is coming and there is nothing we should be doing but following Christ in eagerness, in love, and without inhibition.

Dr. David Lose says, “Jesus recognizes that the journey to Jerusalem and the cross that waits there [allow] no compromise. To eschew violence, to embrace suffering for the sake of another, to refuse comfort, privilege, status for the sake of fidelity to God’s vision and mission are, to say the least, countercultural; perhaps they even run contrary to the natural human instincts for preservation, safety, and comfort. In this regard, we might detect something of a truth-in-advertising element to Jesus’ rebuke of his would-be followers. Those who would embrace Jesus and his mission must be under no illusions of what it will mean for them.”

We see several instances in this scripture reading for today when would-be disciples wanted to follow Jesus, tried to follow Jesus, were even eager to follow Jesus, but didn’t put Jesus ahead of their responsibilities and relationships. These three followers were put to the test and their responses to Jesus, at first glance, seemed rather reasonable and appropriate. I mean, none of the actions taken by these disciples following Jesus were all in all terrible distractions. The followers were simply giving excuses, putting small things they felt were very important ahead of their desire to follow Jesus.

So, let’s look at these three people. The first person to jump at the chance to follow Jesus didn’t really have an excuse, he just didn’t realize what was in store for him. I mean, Jesus had his face resolutely set towards Jerusalem and his crucifixion and his death. And with this intensity, Jesus had no room for comforts and luxuries. Jesus had no room for safety and security. Jesus had no room for attachments to material distractions. And so, he told this first follower that he didn’t have a place to lay his head at night, that he didn’t have a home. Which means that following Jesus meant giving up everything, even that of shelter and refuge.

Leonard Sweet, postmodern author and religious thinker said, “The young man claims he will follow Jesus ‘anywhere,’ but the truth is that Jesus only has ‘nowhere.’ Being a disciple will not give this man security of place, profession and person – it will in fact strip him of all the common forms of security we find so dear. No home, no office, no pension plan, no IRA, no health-care plan, no home-owners insurance, comes along with the credentials of discipleship. When Jesus clarifies the transient, vagrant nature of following heaven’s highway, he is challenging all of us to move beyond the accepted standards of safety, beyond our preoccupation with job security, financial security, social security and invested securities. The only true security in life is through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, which gives us true freedom – freedom to love Jesus and to love the neighbor.”

The second person who sought to follow Jesus received a personal invitation from Jesus, himself. Jesus did the heavy lifting and asked for this second would-be follower to join him on his mission to Jerusalem. But not unlike us, the second person allowed family responsibilities and religious rituals to hold him back. You see, according to Jewish tradition it was the duty of the oldest son to tend to the burial of his parents. We aren’t sure whether his father was actually dead or severely ill, causing him to hesitate in following Jesus. And not only that, his Jewish faith called him to take care of these end of life issues for fear of being unclean and shunned from family and community. But we all know Jesus’ answer in Luke when questioned about picking grain on the Sabbath, healing on the Sabbath, the disciples not washing their hands on the Sabbath. We get a Jesus more concerned with the power of hospitality, healing, and life, rather than the restrictions of religious rituals and familial obligations.

Dr. Elaine Heath says, “Commitment to discipleship leads to a testing of loyalties on every front. At times the demands of the gospel will violate familial and cultural norms. ‘Let the dead bury the dead,’ Jesus says to a potential disciple who places lengthy funerary customs ahead of the call to mission. Jesus’ shocking words about the father’s funeral seem harsh and unloving, even though he may be referring to the placement of the deceased father’s bones in an ossuary box long after the father’s death. His point is that when other loyalties to family, community, and tradition claim first place, disciples will compromise the call on their lives.”

I mean, who among us doesn’t feel the daily tug at our emotions and our spirits as we try to balance all of the demands of church, family, jobs, communities, and citizenship? Don’t we all have sick and ailing parents or spouses? Don’t we all have mortgages to pay and skyrocketing taxes? Don’t we all have car payments, kids that outgrow their clothes, student debt, financial insecurities, and familial anxieties? Don’t we struggle just to get to church one hour a week on Sundays so that we can say we’ve done our Christian duty? Don’t we carry the heavy weight of the 5th commandment to honor our fathers and mothers and think that we must tend to their needs before we can possibly do anything else? Jesus thinks otherwise. “Let the dead bury the dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” So maybe instead of the 5th commandment or some overly religious ritual, Jesus wanted the second follower to “seek ye first the kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness. Then everything else will be added unto you.”

And the third would-be follower also jumped at the opportunity to be with Jesus, but asked permission to first go and say good-bye to his family. This person also used family as an excuse to buy time before acting to follow. Again, this seems like a benign and reasonable request. Yet, Leonard Sweet sees Jesus’ challenge to this would-be follower as a call to risk something big. He says, “Jesus challenges this reluctant disciple to move beyond easy conformities, accepted conventionalities, risk-free familiarities, and to dare to do something for God. The image of the plow Jesus uses is a moving image. A field does not get plowed by turning it over in your mind. You must walk along, always moving forward in order to prepare the ground. Jesus does not leave us where he finds us. Discipleship is not a static state. Rather than fretting over what may be socially or politically correct, Jesus gives us a new reference point for life – freedom in God’s Spirit to truly love and serve each other.”

I mean, if this third follower knew his Jewish history, he would’ve brought up one of the other lectionary texts for today, the Old Testament reading in 1 Kings. In this reading we see the farmer Elisha plowing his fields. And as he was about to drop everything to follow the prophet Elijah, we see that even he was allowed to go say goodbye to his family. But Jesus didn’t want that. Jesus even echoed back to the incident with Elisha, saying, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Maybe Jesus knew something that we don’t about this third type of follower. Maybe this follower was going back to his parents to garner some type of recognition for following this “up and coming” Messiah. Maybe this third follower was unsure about Jesus. We don’t really know. All we know is that Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, to the work of a new form of salvation, a journey that would turn the world upside down, took difficult dedication in which even brothers, sisters, and mothers were no longer family unless, as Jesus said, they were people who loved and followed God.

With these three accounts of would-be followers, the only thing we do know is that in the end they all decided not to follow Jesus. The events and circumstances in their lives were too heavy, too important, and too costly for them to drop everything and follow Christ on this new mission. The visible things in their lives, their jobs, their families, their religions, their sense of pride, were just more than they could sacrifice. Yet, Jesus modeled for us what it means to sacrifice. Jesus didn’t promise security. Jesus didn’t promise religious superiority. Jesus didn’t promise that our family and friends would love us and understand what we are doing. No, we are to turn our faces to the one who set his face to the ultimate act of love. We must turn our faces to the one who held the scared and hurting children in his arms. We must turn our faces to the one who welcomed every stranger and redeemed every sinner. We must turn our faces to Jesus, follow him, and not look back.

There was this old image I remember from when I was a youth growing up in church. Even Amanda remembers this image from her time in church youth group. The youth minister would talk to us about priorities and what was really important in our lives. My minister pulled out a large glass jar and set it on a table in front of him. Then he produced about a dozen fist-sized rocks and carefully placed them, one at a time, into the jar. When the jar was filled to the top he asked us, “Is this jar full?” Everyone in the youth group said, “Yes.” Then he said, “Really?” He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel, dumped some of the gravel in and shook the jar causing pieces of gravel to work themselves down into the spaces between the big rocks. Then he smiled and asked the group once more, “Is the jar full?” By this time, we were onto him. “Probably not,” we answered. “Good!” he replied. And he reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand in and it went into all the spaces left between the rocks and the gravel. Once more he asked the question, “Is this jar full?” “No!” we shouted smartly. Once again, he said, “Good!” Then he grabbed a jug of water and began to pour it in until the jar was filled to the brim. Then he looked up at the class and said, “The point of this object lesson is, if you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all. Make sure you get the big rocks into your life first.”

Friends, following Jesus is difficult. We have soccer games to take our kids to, bills to pay, lawns to mow, dinners to share, work to finish. Many of the things we do in our lives conflict with God’s call for us to follow. I will follow you Jesus, but first let me get my kid through college. I will follow you Jesus, but first let me get rebaptized so I can have a fresh start. I will follow you Jesus, but first let me retire so I have more time to dedicate to church. I will follow you Jesus, but… But, Jesus is reaching out to us, beckoning us into a new kingdom, a new way of setting our faces towards the love of God, seeing the faces of those in need, holding the faces of those in grief, healing the faces of those in pain. If we dare to follow Christ, if we decide that Jesus, and love, and mercy, and hope are more important than anything else, maybe our little lives will be caught up into God’s great and marvelous grace. Maybe if we realize that Jesus gave up everything, including his life, to follow the will of God, maybe we too will drop everything and follow.

Jesus focused solely on Jerusalem because he was showing his followers what it looked like to sacrifice himself, all of himself, so that the love of God could be revealed to all. The Pevensie children needed to know that the mighty Aslan, the loving Aslan, would keep his focus on saving Edmund, the youngest Pevensie boy who traded his life to the White Witch for some Turkish Delights. Edmund wasn’t ready to follow Aslan and traded his service for some sweet treats. So, Aslan went willingly to the White Witch to be sacrificed on behalf of a traitor, to give his life in exchange for the failing and faltering Edmund.

But we all know how the story ends. Aslan was indeed killed, but moments later the stone table on which Aslan was sacrificed broke in two and the great lion was suddenly back and standing in glory among Susan and Lucy. I remember my girls saying, “He’s alive. I love him! Aslan is just like Jesus!” And we, like Edmund have failed to follow. We, like Edmund have said, “I love Aslan but let me just have one more Turkish Delight before I follow him.” We find that we want to destroy one more of our enemy. We find that we want to follow but don’t realize we have to give up everything. We find that we want our religious structures and spiritual agendas rather than relying on the way of Jesus. We find that we want to take our sweet time saying good bye to the people and possessions of the world, hoping that Jesus forgets that we are lagging behind. We keep saying, “I will follow you, Jesus… but!” Maybe it is time to say instead, “He’s alive. I love him. I will follow him… that’s it… no buts. I will follow you.”

Amen.