No Turning Back
“No Turning Back” Luke 9:51-62
Are you willing to follow Jesus, no matter what the cost to you? Growing up in the Bible belt, I often heard this question on the lips of preachers who possessed expert capacity for stirring up fear and guilt in their congregations. Breathing hell-fire and damnation, these preachers managed to evoke enough shame to make even the most faithful Christian doubt their capacity to follow Jesus. So when three people come to Jesus in today’s gospel to sort through the cost of discipleship, I find that my first job is to deal with my filters through which I hear this message, to work through my own ancient, residual guilt feelings before I can open up to any life changing truth in this passage. Perhaps you can relate to the guilt.
To the first person who says “I will follow you wherever you go,” Jesus says: “Foxes have holes, the birds of the air have nests, but the son of humanity has no place to lay down his head and rest.” And we feel a little guilty that we live in a nice house or apartment, big by the world’s standards, some even with yards and gardens .
To the second person, Jesus says “Follow me,” and they say, “I need to bury my father first.” We don’t know the details, the father could have just died or he could be hale and hearty with death far off into the future, but Jesus says: “Let the dead bury the dead.” And perhaps we feel a little guilty because we are pretty attached to our families, and if push comes to shove, we might put the demands of our family before the demands of God, but we’re not sure. Or perhaps we have already buried our dead, but haven’t been able to move forward yet, and the guilt is because we haven’t been able to let go of that deep, expansive grief that has laid siege to our souls. How can we follow into the future when we’re not done with our grief work, haven’t let go of the past?
The third person says they want to follow Jesus, but they have some unfinished business to tend to in the form of goodbyes to friends and family. Jesus says: “You can’t look back. Have you ever seen a farmer plow a field while looking back over his shoulder?” And perhaps we feel a little guilt about our deep social ties to people and places or about our attachment to the past, and wonder if we could give it all up if that is, in fact, what is required to follow Jesus.
May we follow you, Jesus? “Only if you are willing to give up your secure dwelling place and sleep in a ditch.” May I go bury my father first? “Nope.” May I go say appropriate goodbyes to my friends and family? “Absolutely not.” Luke suggests that to follow Jesus you must be prepared to give it all up in a cold minute: drop it all and follow, sever those attachments, turn toward the future, get moving. Are you able to do these things to follow Jesus? No? Then pack your bags, you’re going on a guilt trip.
OK, so let’s be honest: being a disciple of Jesus is not easy, no matter what you may have been told. Discipleship is not about having our needs met, spiritual or otherwise. Discipleship is not about getting any guarantees of a comfortable life, spiritual or otherwise. Discipleship requires that you make some sacrifices, spiritual and otherwise. Discipleship makes demands that supercede all other demands that are placed on us, spiritual and otherwise. Discipleship is ultimately about making other disciples. The truth is, we will probably never fully measure up and we will always struggle to be faithful, loyal, devoted disciples of Christ. And the truth is, we probably will always feel slightly guilty that discipleship comes so hard for us and that there seems to be a big gap between the disciple we long to be and the disciple we are in fact.
The three people who wish to follow Jesus but can’t mirror the difficulties of discipleship. To be a follower of Jesus we must be prepared to trade in our loyalties, attachments, and obligations and to set our face toward the future, which may hold a Jerusalem for us. There is no turning back.
This passage of scripture may in fact inspire guilt, but I don’t think that is its primary intention. The purpose of this gospel lesson is to show us the way into the future, and to help us to move from guilt into freedom. The good news is that there comes a time when we can become disentangled from the past with all of its external definitions of who we are, and move into the freedom of God’s future. In that future, God defines us, for we are called to freedom, brothers and sisters.
The three people who wish to follow Jesus represent our attachments to the old life. There are many things that we love about that life: people, things, our identity. But there is also a “shadow side” to that old life: the things that bind us and keep us from becoming fully the person God calls us to become. There comes a moment when we know that if we are to move forward, then we have to let go of something. There is no turning back.
I’ve been mulling over this passage in regard to the attachments to the past, both personally and collectively. Ed Friedman has a great quote that I’ve been chewing over for several years. He once said: “Mother is the original addiction that we spend the rest of our lives trying to get over.” I’ve come to believe that this has something to do with our struggle to let go of a past that hinders us. I think Friedman meant that we have an expectation of the ideal parent that was formulated somewhere during our early experience. And we keep expecting that kind of perfection from our parents, or we transfer that expectation to our spouses or partners or friends or pastors, or even our church communities, always longing for that perfection to be repeated. Of course, we know that such a thing exists only in our primitive psyche, hard as we may try to recreate the ideal parent to whom we are addicte3d. I think if we are to become fully the person Christ calls us to be, we have to let go of our attachment to a fantasy. We have to give up our addiction to the ideal of “Mother” or “Father.” Letting go of that frees us to move into the future, and to create new relationships that are not crippled by our old expectations.
Jesus suggests that we must let go of the past in order to move into God’s future. What does it mean for the church, this church in particular and the church universal, to not be crippled by its attachment to the idealized past? I attended a conference on Natural Church Development several years ago, and it generated a lot of questions for me about what the future of the church might look like. I came away from the conference more convinced that The Church has some work to do it letting go of its effort to try and recreate the past, and to move into an uncharted future. Natural Church Development was developed by a German pastor named Christian Schwarz who created a survey which he tested in 1,000 churches, in 32 countries, in 18 languages, and on 6 continents. He was trying to assess what church growth principles were true regardless of culture or theological perspective. After analyzing 4.2 million pieces of information from these surveys, Schwarz concluded that growing churches are healthy churches, and that there are eight quality characteristics of a healthy church: empowering leadership, gift-oriented ministry, passionate spirituality, functional structures, inspiring worship, holistic small groups, need-oriented evangelism, and loving relationships. His survey is used by churches who wish to assess where they are on these eight characteristics. Then the church works on improving the characteristic that scores the lowest on the survey. When churches work on developing those healthy characteristics, they begin to grow.
Schwarz’s survey also helped him to identify six biotic, or organic, principles that are operating when a church is healthy and growing. These principles are interdependence, multiplication, energy transformation, multi-usage, symbiosis, and functionality. As I sat there listening to the presenter describe the characteristics and operative principles of a healthy church, I found myself wondering if the mainline church would ever be able to adapt to these new learnings. This is a really new way of thinking about ministry. Could the church take it all in?
For example, the principle of multiplication assumes that healthy organisms reproduce themselves. Schwarz’s statistics show that healthy churches are also churches that plant other churches. When the principle of multiplication is at work, then a church would ask certain questions when considering a new ministry, such as: “How can we best use our resources so that this ministry can be multiplied indefinitely?” or “If we implement this ministry, what is the possibility of multiplying it?” This is a very different way of conceptualizing ministry in the 21st century. Is the church capable of reinventing the church? Can the church use its rich heritage in a way that it is a resource rather than something that holds it back? The answers to these questions remain to be seen, but it is clear, the church of the future will be very different from the church of the past. Once we set out to follow Christ into the future, there is no turning back. Things will never be the same.
The Old Cambridge Baptist Church is at an exciting point in its life together. You are looking at the strengths and growing edges in your past and present, and are asking what it is that you need to let go of in order to follow Christ into the future. Are you ready to let go of the past and move into that future? I fully believe that you as congregation have the resources you need to follow Christ wherever he leads. So go forward to create your future. And remember, there is no turning back… and that can be a good thing! AMEN.