We’re now into our second week of the “long green season.” This time in the church year, in fact both green seasons, the one after Epiphany and the one after Pentecost, both these times are called, “Ordinary Time.” The reason of that might at first be deceptive. Ordinary, according to one way of looking at it, is something that’s unremarkable or even boring.
During this time in the church year, we don’t have big festivals or liturgical celebrations. The rhythm of church life is pretty steady. It’s pretty…ordinary, if you will. But that understanding, at least as unremarkable or boring, is misplaced. The rhythm of church life might lend itself to a feeling of ordinariness in the sense that things are rather regular, but it’s during these two green seasons of the church year are the times when we hear the stories from Jesus’ own life and ministry that provide us with a model for godly living. It’s in ordinary time, in the sequence of Sunday after Sunday, that we see Jesus’ own life unfold, day in and day out, showing us what our lives lived in relationship with God look like on the ordinary. Each day leads into the next, and so each day with God leads into the next.
But what does life lived with God look like? Well, look at the day-to-day life of Jesus, and we who are baptized into his death and resurrection know exactly what God is calling us to in a life united with Jesus as Jesus is united with the Father. And so as we go along into this ordinary time in the life of the church, let’s perk our ears up and rub our eyes to see more clearly just sort of day-to-day lives Jesus is calling us to when he says to us, “Follow me.”
Let us pray. May only God’s Word be spoken and may only God’s Word be heard; in the name of Jesus. Amen.
Once there was a free man. He had a home, worked a good job, went on vacation, loved his children, went to church—he was like many other people. But he had a habit: every time some event occurred in his life, whether good or bad, he picked up a stone from the ground and put it in a sack. Every day he sorted out his stones, laughed remembering joyful events, and cried remembering the sad ones.
The man always took the stones with him, whether to work, to store, to church. He never forgot about them. The years passed, and free man got a lot of stones, but he still kept on sorting them, remembering the past. It was becoming more and more difficult to go about, and one day a man was unable to do this.
The man who was free some time ago, could not walk. He was unable to make a move on his own. He could couldn’t go to church anymore. He could only spend time with his kids when they came to him. Vacations were out of the question. He lost his job because he couldn’t go to work. And then he lost his home because he couldn’t take care of it. But a man bravely endured all the hardships, guarding his precious memories. After some time, a man died of privation—clutching his sack of stones. And only a pitiful bunch of worthless stones remained of the man for a long time.
The past can be a wonderful thing. We like to remember the past, particularly those things that are good. We talk of storing memories, or walking down memory lane with friends and family. We speak of the past making us who we are today. And that is true. The past does most definitely shape who we are. We wouldn’t be who we are today without having gone through each and every event in our lives that brought us to this moment, good or bad. Anyone who tells you that they live for the present and don’t let he past affect their lives today misunderstands the way that life works. We, any of us, simply wouldn’t live the lives we live today without the events of our past shaping our present. The sentiment is well taken, the sentiment of “I live for the present and don’t let the past affect me,” but it doesn’t honestly acknowledge that the past is important.
We interact with the past in two different ways—one impersonally and one personally. The impersonal past still affects us, but it’s a past that’s shared by many, many people, and can reach back hundreds, thousands, even millions of years. We might think of it also as the collective past. September 11, 2001 is an event for most of us that happened in the impersonal past. It definitely affected us, but it’s not an event that impacted us directly, or perhaps immediately. The same now for WWII. For us today, almost all of us anyhow, WWII is something for the history books. Again, something incredibly important, but from the impersonal past. The French Revolution. The impersonal past. The construction of the pyramids. The impersonal past. The development of written language. The impersonal past. All events that are important, but not impactful in the way that other parts of the past are.
The other way we interact with the past, the more impactful one to our day-to-day lives, is the personal past. This is what we mean when we speak of “our past.” The particular, specific events that happened in our lives to bring us, particularly and specifically, to where we are today. These events are often impactful precisely because they’re packed with emotion, good or bad. They influence our lives because they leave a mark on us. The birth of your daughter. The car accident you are thankful to God you walked away from. The day you graduated architect’s school. The day the doctor told you have cancer. Your vacation to Bermuda. These memories, and other memories like them, form our personal past. They’re impactful. They’re full of emotion. We sort through these memories, and sometimes we laugh remembering joyful moments, and sometimes we cry remembering the sad ones.
In today’s gospel text, we find Jesus in the middle of his ministry. We have the interesting vignette of James and John, the Sons of Thunder, showing us why they’re called the Sons of Thunder. They want to smite other folks who’re doing healings, as if they, the disciples of Jesus, have a corner on the market for healings. Jesus tempers their enthusiasm and puts them in their place.
Then we move on to Jesus calling ordinary folks to follow him. People are enthusiastic about his ministry, enthusiastic about what he’s doing and want to be part of it. That’s a good thing! And Jesus doesn’t scold them for it the same way that he does James and John. Instead, he lays it all out what it means to be part of what he’s about—that is, he lays it all out what it means to live a life that’s completely changed for living in the kingdom of God.
It means putting aside all the expectations we have for a “normal” life now and being, more or less, ready for anything, good or bad. That’s what Jesus is telling the people when he says, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” He’s saying, “Are you ready to rough it? We’re not staying in the best hotels, you know.” The life of a disciple isn’t one that is necessarily easy—in fact, the life of a disciple is more often than not, inconvenient and difficult. The life of a disciple means making sacrifices, tough ones…
And then Jesus speaks to a man directly: “Follow me.” The man’s response? Of course, but first give me a few days. I have to take care of my father’s funeral and estate. Jesus then tells a second person to follow him, and that person says, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.”
We might be shocked at how Jesus responds to these two. After all, it seems perfectly reasonable to think that he’d want to mourn his father’s death and take care of everything that needs taking care of before he’d give up everything and follow Jesus. And it seems perfectly reasonable to go home and tell the ones you love and care for goodbye before going off to a new life.
But Jesus tells these two, and everyone listening, and us today who are still listening, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God. First things first. Your business is life, not death. And life is urgent: Announce the kingdom of God!” Life as a disciple of Jesus isn’t about what’s easy for us, comfortable for us, convenient for us, or fits into our busy day-to-day lives.
We can’t fall into the trap of taking what Jesus is saying here too literally. After all, just by way of example, the dead literally cannot bury themselves. Jesus isn’t condemning these two men, either. But he is setting down in stark terms what a life of discipleship means. He’s telling us the cost of discipleship. It’s not easy.
And what’s more, if we look closely at the responses from these two would-be disciples, we see that they’re tied up in their personal past—in the events, the memories, the relationships that made them who they were in this moment and brought them there. The man’s father. The second man’s family. These are parts of them that make them who they are, at least in their eyes. Jesus goes to the very heart of the most impactful place for these two—the place where the earliest memories, good and bad, are formed. The relationships that mean the most to us, for a host of reasons. And Jesus tells us, “These things no longer are the most important things for disciples. The kingdom of God is the most important thing.”
Jesus invites us to follow him, but it will cost us. It means reprioritizing our lives, not around those things that we have come to hold on to as valuable, but around the work that God is doing. We can’t simultaneously call ourselves disciples of Jesus while keeping our ears perked up for or eyes peeled for something that might make a better memory or be more important than the new way of life that God calls us to.
Life as a disciple of Jesus isn’t something we check our schedules to see if it fits today or next Thurday. Or put another way, we can’t carry our sack of stones with us as we journey along the new way of life that Jesus calls us to. The sack of stones we carry, each of us, is too heavy and weighs us down—and will weigh us down even more if we’re looking to keep adding more and more to it.
The stones themselves are not what is important, but the person we are today is—the person that God calls to embrace a new way forward. Jesus doesn’t tell us to forget our past, but Jesus does tell us we can’t go forward with him if we are too encumbered by our past or too encumbered by concerns somehow related to our past. Our past doesn’t define us as disciples of Jesus. Our freedom to go where God calls us, not knowing exactly where that be or what that look like, but knowing God is with us, protecting us, guiding us, sheltering us—that freedom defines us in our new way of life as Jesus’ disciples.
Jesus calls us to leave ourselves behind, to use the faith we’ve found to reshape the world around, to move and live and grow in God and God in us, and never be the same. Will you come and follow Jesus if he but calls your name?
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.