Plowing the Past
Text: Luke 9: 57-62
57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 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.” 59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60 But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
My first year in seminary I began working at a church in Denver as a minister to children and youth. It was a part-time position but it was a great learning opportunity. The clergy staff allowed me to participate in worship, I was responsible for the children’s sermons most of the time and there were other duties as well. Sometime in the spring of that first year I finally had the opportunity to preach, which was fun, and I slowly began to take root and feel like I had some confidence in the limited scope of what I was doing.
There were two clergy persons at this church at this time – both women, one was also in school finishing up a Master’s of Divinity degree and the other clergy person was an elder in full connection and was under appointment to the church by the Bishop. Well summer arrived and the associate minister, the one who was in school, graduated and returned to her home conference in Montana. About mid-summer, the ordained clergy person decided to go on vacation – and wondered if I could preach for her while she was out of town. I readily accepted and wished her a great time and assured her all would be well.
That was Monday. On Wednesday of that week we had a death in the congregation. Understand, I had been doing only children’s sermons, maybe had preached an actual sermon two or three times by now, and this coming Sunday would be the first time I had ever had an entire service on my own. I hadn’t even thought about how to conduct a funeral or a memorial service. All of my classes had been general stuff, like church history or United Methodist Polity – nothing about funerals. Needless to say, I was in a little over my head. But with the enthusiasm that normally accompanies ignorance – I jumped right in. I was going to do my first memorial service.
Well, there is more than one great story from this particular event. But the one I want to tell you about happened before the service actually began. The service was not in the church, it was in the chapel of the funeral home and I was standing at the back of the chapel waiting for everyone to arrive and be seated. One of the funeral directors was trying to get my attention; so he softly said “reverend?” from behind me. I heard him, but did not respond. Then he tried a second time; “reverend?” this time a little louder and a bit more force in his voice. Still I did not respond. On the third attempt the man had to tap me on the shoulder and almost physically turn me around as he said; “reverend?” Only then did I realize he was talking to me.
There I was, in a clergy robe, carrying a Bible, about to conduct a memorial service in a chapel – and I didn’t respond to the title reverend. I thought he was talking to someone else. I wasn’t a reverend yet in my own mind – I was still in the past somewhere, looking back, not forward. I thought I was a student, or perhaps a person in career transition, or perhaps a church leader – but reverend? No way. So when he spoke – I heard the sounds – but I didn’t hear. The words went right over me.
The scripture I read a few minutes ago speaks to this kind of thinking. Most people don’t look at it that way, but I am convinced this scripture has more meat to it than just what you get from the first reading. Everybody wants to make the scripture into some sort of litmus test as to whether or not a person is good enough, or strong enough, or brave enough, or whatever to actually follow Jesus. The Bible commentaries talk about the harsh words of Jesus and the stern reality of what it meant to follow Jesus. One commentary that I consulted said something like Jesus wanted to be harsh so his followers would have some idea of what they were getting into. Well…..at the risk of alienating some of those egg-head Bible scholars – let me just say I think the story uses following Jesus as an example, but the message is for all of life. And the message is really quite simple – and not scary at all – the message, at least as I see it, is to not look back. Allow the past to be past, and when you decide to do anything – follow Jesus, start a new career, lose some weight, work on a relationship or a thousand other things – the important thing is to make that change in your mind first. Before you do anything else.
The scripture we read has three different people volunteer to follow Jesus. Each time Jesus points out there will be difficulties and challenges. Each time, the would-be-followers want to go and do just one more thing, and then they will follow. The point is that in their minds, these would-be followers are still not viewing themselves as followers of Jesus. They have failed to make the change in their thinking – and until the thinking changes, nothing of consequence will ever happen. After the three followers volunteer, Jesus sums up the entire problem with just one phrase. Any person who puts their hand to the plow and looks back is not fit for the kingdom of God. The message is very simple – it is not about the difficulties or the challenges or the harsh words of Jesus. The message is simply to make the change in your mind first – don’t look back – don’t live in the past – don’t be bound or oppressed by what used to be. When you make a change in direction, whether that is following Jesus or starting a new job or plowing a field, don’t look back. View yourself as the person you are about to become and not as the person you once were.
Let me say that again. View yourself as the person you are about to become and not as the person you once were.
You see, that was my problem in the chapel that day. If I had made the transition completely in my mind first, if I had viewed myself as the person I was about to become, then when the director called out “reverend?” – I would have responded, because I would have known he was talking to me.
This is a critical point. How can we decide to fix a relationship if we view ourselves as a couple who has always fought? How can we be successful in a new venture if we view ourselves as someone who has always failed? How can we overcome drug or alcohol abuse if we view ourselves as someone who has always had an addiction problem? How can we stop smoking if we view ourselves as a smoker? How can we ever lose that weight if we view ourselves as someone who has always had a weight problem? The truth is, we can’t. As long as we look back, we are doomed to repeat the pattern over and over again.
This is the good news. We need not worry about who we once were – that is past and it doesn’t matter anymore – it can’t hold us back – and it can’t define us any longer. The only thing we need to hold in our minds is the thought of who we will become. Leave your past behind you and look to the future – for in Christ we are a new creation. You can become anyone you want to be – but you must do it by looking forward and holding the thought of that person in your mind’s eye. The transition to the new you begins with the thought.
Go in peace, go with God, and don’t look back. Amen.