When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Excuses – we all have them. One Yiddish proverb says, “If you don’t want to do something, one excuse is as good as another.” We don’t seem to ever have a shortage of excuses – for not following through on our good intentions, for not being all we can be, for not living up to the challenge of discipleship. The three would-be followers Jesus encounters in our lesson today were great at coming up with excuses that would let them gracefully bow out of discipleship and commitment when it suited them.
Many years ago the following appeared in a church newsletter:
“To make it possible for everyone to attend Sunday school and church next Sunday, we will have a special ‘No Excuse Sunday.’
• Cots will be placed in the foyer for those who say, ‘Sunday is my only day to sleep in.’
• Eye drops will be available for those who watched TV too late on Saturday night.
• We will have steel helmets for those who say, ‘The roof will cave in if I ever come to church.’
• Blankets will be furnished for those who say, ‘The church is too cold,’ and fans for those who think it’s too hot.
• We will have hearing aids for those who say, ‘The pastor speaks too softly,’ and cotton for those who say the pastor preaches too loudly.
• Score cards will be available for those who wish to list all of the hypocrites present.
• There will be take-out for those who can’t go to church and cook dinner the same day.
• One section will be devoted to trees and grass for those who like to see God in nature.
• Finally, the sanctuary will be decorated with both Christmas poinsettias and Easter lilies for those who have never seen the church without them.”
While COVID certainly gave us all legitimate reasons for avoiding church attendance, I still suspect that we can see some of ourselves in that list. And I think we can relate to the three people whom Jesus encounters in today’s lesson. The first tells Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go.” But Jesus had set his face to go to Jerusalem, to trial and crucifixion, and he makes it clear how demanding a personal commitment to this path would be. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” When Jesus explains the transient, vagrant nature of following God’s call, he’s challenging all of us to move beyond where we are. To truly be moved by the Spirit, we can’t be too deeply rooted in our own lives and selves.
The second person in the passage receives a personal invitation from Jesus to follow him. But this man claims family responsibilities tie him down and hold him back. “But the man said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.'” According to Jewish tradition it was the duty of the eldest surviving son to see to the burial of his parents. It may be that this man’s father wasn’t even dead yet – his request could simply be for a grace period, an undefined amount of time until his parents grew old or ill and died – so strong was his sense of family duty and honor.
Who among us doesn’t feel the daily tug of obligations and responsibilities, as we try to balance the demands of family with the demands of our jobs, our creditors, our community? We’ve got phone bills and electric bills, rents and mortgages, kids who need clothes and demand entertainment, ailing parents, and of course grocery bills in the face of inflation.
What Jesus objects to is when we claim our families as some sort of loophole. We can’t cry “bad timing” as our excuse for turning a deaf ear to God’s call. Instead, we’re more able to deal with family responsibilities and crises when we trust in God’s love and grace.
The third person in today’s lesson says to Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” He’s hanging onto the past. Few things are more detrimental to moving forward than incessantly looking back. Nostalgic longing to return to the past, a haunting sense of missed opportunities, depressing memories, chronic remorse — to all these, Jesus responds, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
A classic example is the Old Testament story of Lot and his family, who were told not to look back at the city they had left. When Lot’s wife disobeyed, she became a pillar of salt. What I find an even more powerful story is the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.
Orpheus, mourning the early death of a beautiful maiden called Eurydice, begged the gods to restore her to him, but all to no avail. So he decided to seek for her in the underworld and bring her back to light. Passing down the gloomy way haunted by ghosts and phantoms, he stood before the throne of Pluto, god of the underworld. Tuning his harp, he poured forth so bitter a lament that even Pluto took pity. Summoning Eurydice, he gave her to Orpheus and told him he might lead her back to the light. Yet he imposed one condition: that he would not look back at her as she followed him, until they had reached the upper world.
Orpheus happily accepted the condition, and striking his lyre with joyful notes he passed upward. Yet as he approached the ever-brightening light, he became fearful. Had his beloved followed, or had she dropped by the way? He was almost at the gate of exit when he turned ever so slightly to see if Eurydice was there, and with unspeakable joy he beheld her. Stretching out his arms he clapsed her, but just as he touched her, the mists of death enwrapped her, and she faded from his grasp. Through looking back for lack of faith, Orpheus lost his beloved Eurydice.
Closely tied to this excuse of the past is the common excuse that goes, “No, I’m not good enough,” or “No, I’ve never done that before, I don’t think I can.” The Bible is filled with people with excuses for not serving God. Consider Elijah who said, “Excuse me, Lord, but my nerves can’t take it!” or Isaiah who said, “Excuse me, Lord, but I’m not pious or pure enough.” Jeremiah said, “Excuse me, Lord, but I’m too young,” and Moses said, “Excuse me, Lord, but I’m too old.” When the Lord shot down that excuse, Moses tried again with, “Excuse me, Lord, but I’m not good at public speaking.” When THAT failed to convince the Lord, Moses resorted to the old, “Excuse me, Lord, but there are others much more qualified.”
Sometimes our very fears, vulnerabilities, and sense of inadequacy or insufficiency are what God finds the most useful about us. The pastor James Moore tells this story of his clinical training at a local hospital when he was in seminary.
One afternoon the head nurse took him aside and told him that a patient, Mrs. Davis, was in dire need of pastoral counseling. She was facing serious brain surgery the next morning with the double liabilities of poor physical condition and a soured, self-pitying spirit. Her chances of survival didn’t look good.
Overawed by the life-and-death responsibility his pastoral ability seemed to carry, Moore decided to let Mrs. Davis do all the talking and he would serve as an active listener, a sounding-board for her fears and anxieties. Unfortunately at the last minute, he was told Mrs. Davis wasn’t allowed to speak. In a panic, the young man bumbled into the desperately ill woman’s room, accidentally banging the door into the wall. He then lurched forward into the room and jarred the poor woman by kicking her bed. Mortified, he then launched into a stuttering, stammering series of platitudes and prayers, saying all the wrong things and feeling he had utterly failed to reach the woman’s fears. Horrified at his inadequacy, Moore left quickly.
A few days later, Moore was amazed to find Mrs. Davis recovering nicely and in remarkably good spirits. Even more incredibly, she praised him and credited him with practically saving her life. “But I don’t understand. I felt so terrible. I was so ashamed. I did everything wrong,” Moore moaned. “That’s just it,” she replied. “I felt so sorry for you! It was the first time I had felt anything but self-pity for months. That little spark of compassion ignited in me the will to live! And the doctors tell me it made all the difference.”
Jesus challenged each of the three would-be disciples to move beyond what’s easy, beyond accepted norms, beyond risk-free familiarities, to dare to do something for God. Jesus’ closing image of the plow is a MOVING image. A field doesn’t get plowed by turning it over in your mind. You have to walk along, always moving forward in order to prepare the ground. Rather than worrying over what’s socially or politically correct, rather than putting up barriers and finding excuses, Jesus pushes us on, offering us freedom in the Spirit to truly love and serve each other.
As we move beyond the COVID restrictions that have held us back in so many ways, now’s the time to cast aside excuses. So I ask you to think about these questions: Is God calling you to follow a special avenue of discipleship? Is God asking you to try something you’ve never tried before? Is God urging you to look at something like you never have before? Is there some road of service staring you in the face, challenging you, asking for your attention, but receiving only your excuses? When you hear the voice of God calling, will you respond, “Excuse me, Lord,” or will you spring to your feet and say, “Here am I, Lord, send me.” Amen.