Sermons

No Turning Back

(A sermon for Proper 8C June 27, 2010 Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20; Luke 9:51-62)

On Monday, I drove south from Jackman, covered with bites, forced to retire early from our Senior High mission trip because I had what the Physician’s Assistant at the Urgent Care called a classic allergic reaction. “You’ve never been bitten by a black fly before, have you?” 

No, but now I had experienced a close personal encounter with thirty-five or forty of them, and I had the welts to prove it. 

At the halfway point of the drive, in Skowhegan, I got something to eat, and I set aside a dollar for the one toll I would pay. Later, just south of Augusta, I reached out with my right hand, and I patted the passenger seat where I thought I had left the dollar bill, and I promise you I was not tuning the radio or sending a text message or adjusting my iPod, and somehow I did not have a good grip on the wheel, and my tires hit those ridges that let you know you’re going off the road, and for a moment, just a moment, I did not have control of the car.

It’s just like keeping your hand on the plow; you can’t lose your focus on what’s in front of you. Oh, in a car, in this 21st century world, you scan your various mirrors to be sure all heck isn’t breaking loose behind you. But you have to keep your focus forward; no turning back.

I have decided to follow Jesus;

I have decided to follow Jesus;

I have decided to follow Jesus;

No turning back, no turning back.

It sounds so easy; it sounds so simple. I have decided to follow Jesus.

It’s a plain statement, a profession of faith. Plenty of people who met Jesus could have described themselves with just such words: the twelve disciples and the women whose resources helped keep the movement going, and the others who gathered around them from town to town. But in today’s reading we reach a hinge point in Luke’s gospel, the place where Jesus and his followers make the turn toward Jerusalem. From this point, there is no turning back.

It isn’t a straightforward geographic turn; they did not begin a linear journey to a destination the way I do when I get in the car in Portland, take the ramp onto 295, pass through Falmouth and Cumberland and arrive here in Yarmouth. It’s a meandering journey they will take, through towns and homes, into people’s lives and in some cases out again immediately. And some people will go with them, lives changed forever.

Yet in a different sense, the journey is direct. We can guess they’ve sensed a change in their teacher from the way they suggest violence against the village of Samaritans. But Jesus has other things in mind. His face is set toward Jerusalem, toward the city where he will meet his enemies, his accusers and his death. He must feel he owes it to the people around them to make them know they’ve embarked on serious, life-changing, even life-threatening work.

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." (Luke 9:57-58, NRSV)

You may come with me, friend, he seems to be saying, but I can’t promise you a particular destination. I can’t promise you even a place to lay your head. We don’t know if this person came along the road with Jesus. But the disciples, and others, followed him, trusting that somehow it would all make sense, someday. 

Though I may wonder, I still will follow;

Though I may wonder, I still will follow;

Though I may wonder, I still will follow;

No turning back, no turning back.

No turning back—but where were they going? It’s the same question the Israelites asked when Moses and Aaron led them to the edge of the Red Sea. What kind of crazy people had they decided to follow? Were they being led from slavery directly to death?

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." (Luke 9:59-60, NRSV)

Here Jesus invites a man to follow, but the man pleads family responsibilities. It’s not clear if the man’s father is even dead. He’s making a statement about family responsibility, and when people try to claim that Jesus promoted family values, a passage like this is a good reminder that he did not. When the man spoke of the expectations of his religion and culture that he would not leave a parent unsupported, Jesus said one of the least pleasant things he ever said to anyone: "Let the dead bury the dead. The old rules don’t matter. There is a new law of love, and that’s the one my followers will be proclaiming."

The world behind me, the cross before me;

The world behind me, the cross before me;

The world behind me, the cross before me;

No turning back, no turning back.

The cross is definitely before them, with its shame and its pain and its dislocation. And just in case we didn’t get the message, Luke gives us one more example:

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." (Luke 9:61-62, NRSV)

If you haven’t walked behind a plow, and believe me, I haven’t, you might not understand the reference. Plowing a straight furrow depended on keeping your eyes in front of you. A farmer’s work depended on not turning back. 

Oh, Jesus. That’s a hard teaching. Isn’t it?

Though none go with me, still I will follow;

Though none go with me, still I will follow;

Though none go with me, still I will follow;

No turning back, no turning back.

I’ve been out of seminary for eight years now, and for those eight years I’ve managed to find work near enough to the home familiar to my children that I didn’t have to upset the family by pursuing ministry.  For the past three-and-a-half years I’ve served in interim positions, striving to help congregations resist the urge to turn back and lose their direction, encouraging them to keep a firm hand on the plow with the next pastor who will come to serve them.

As I get closer to the end of my time with you, many people are asking, what’s next? And I can tell you honestly, I don’t know for certain yet. I do know it’s likely to be a settled call, and that the chances are good that it will involve the move I’ve tried, up till now, to avoid. But when it got to be the time to consider where I would go after leaving you, I decided the most faithful prayer was not a conditional one, not the “Oh, God, I will go wherever you want me to go as long as it lies in a relatively straight line within 45 minutes of Portland, Maine.” This time the faithful prayer sounded more like, “I have decided to follow Jesus; no turning back.”

Another pastor searching for her right place must have prayed a similar prayer, and she sent her ministerial profile to this church, all the way across the country. As one of your phone references, it was my pleasure to speak with her and tell her about life at First Parish. In two weeks she will stand in this pulpit. If the congregation votes to call her, she will become your new Associate Pastor, and together you will move forward, focused on the future, hands on the plow. 

Will you decide now to follow Jesus?

Will you decide now to follow Jesus?

Will you decide now to follow Jesus?

No turning back, no turning back.

In the car last Monday, after I moved into the right lane and talked myself down off the metaphorical ledge, I found another dollar in my wallet. Later I saw the original dollar, carefully and *very* visibly sticking out of a side pocket of my purse. It was there all along; maybe I needed a reminder about keeping my eyes on the road in front of me.

Jerusalem would mean more than death. It would also mean resurrection, just as the journey to the edge of the Red Sea meant not drowning, but an escape to freedom. The Psalm reminds us that even though we cannot see God’s footprints, God walks beside us. Even though the way may seem threatening, or obscure, or simply unknown, God leads us to new life.

No turning back, no turning back. Amen. 

13 thoughts on “No Turning Back”

  1. Oh my gosh!!! I love this! Awesome. Wish I would be there to hear you sing and hear the sermon as well.\
    Once again, proff all to well, that a personal story can and does work in our sermons.
    AND…in this you are not really the hero or the victim (unless of course you consider the flies). It is simply a story with you in it, that fits all so perfectly! Great job, SB!

  2. Wow.
    great and moving and where so many are in so many different ways.
    blessings upon the Word as you proclaim it and on your continued search for a permanent call, where they will be extremely blessed.

  3. Powerful, and moving. May God bless your preaching it and give all who hear it, ears to hear.

  4. Wowza! I heard those words from Luke in a whole new way, thanks to your sermon. The familiar becoming new and different again — wowza!

  5. Excellent! I hope Cordelia’s sermon (beginning in a very little while from now) is as good! Blessings on your search and your transition.

  6. Beautiful. And I promise, I didn’t read this until now. Great minds think alike? Fools seldom…ah well.
    God bless you and your family in the months ahead.

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