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Plowing Ahead

A message preached by Jay P. Rowland at the First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN on Sunday June 26, 2016.

Text: 2 Kings 2:1-2,6-14 and Luke 9:57-62

Plowing Ahead


In today’s gospel story, we hear Jesus respond to three people who say they are willing to follow him.  Something must be going on, because on its face, we would expect Jesus to be pleased. His replies indicate otherwise.  Whenever Jesus says or does something that seems rude or objectionable I’ve learned that it’s worth paying close attention to the situation.  In this case, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and a confrontation with the authorities of church and state. He knows he doesn’t have much time left.

The first prospective follower is enthusiastic, if not a bit naïve, about following Jesus. Maybe Jesus senses in this person some expectations or assumptions about what will happen when Jesus gets to Jerusalem—some advantage will be gained by throwing in with him.  Jesus is quick to explain that wild animals have more material security than the Savior.

The next prospective follower informs Jesus about family obligations he is committed to fulfilling. To this one Jesus says rather brusquely, “you might as well bury yourself too. This is about life. That’s about death.  Make your choice: it’s now or never–the kingdom of God is here now.”

The third one is willing to go all in but only after he goes back to say goodbye to his loved ones.  Each hesitation seems perfectly legitimate or appropriate from our perspective.  Jesus responds by saying, in effect, you can’t plow your field if your head is turned around and looking behind you. Now I’m no farmer, but I know enough to know that if I tried to plow a field with my head turned around looking behind me, I’d end up with a mess of a field for planting.

A pastor colleague, Emily Heath, shares a story about this passage.[i]  She had recently graduated from seminary, and on one of her final Sundays at the church where she was serving while in seminary, this gospel story was read. After that worship service, a hobby farmer from the congregation asked her what she thought Jesus was trying to say to the three potential disciples.  Heath says she thought Jesus was teaching them about commitment and the cost of discipleship.  She added that all of us look back anyway, and that God still loves us. She remembers thinking it was a decent on-the-spot interpretation–and could have made a great answer on an ordination exam.

Meanwhile, the farmer looked at her a moment and said, “Hmm  … I found myself thinking about when I start plowing a row in my field. I pick out an object in the distance. All the way down the row I focus on that object and I don’t lose track of it. That way, when I finally reach the end of the row, I know I’ll have plowed it straight.”

In other words, when you figure out where you’re going, keep your focus on the horizon.  Heath says, “Every time we look back at what we’ve left behind, we lose sight of the one we are following.  Jesus is a tricky one to follow sometimes. He moves fast, and he goes to the places we don’t expect. … (and) he doesn’t stand still.  So at the end of your life, when you’ve followed him as far as you can on this side of existence, when you look back you won’t see a straight line.”

Life has all sorts of distractions, all sorts of reasons to hesitate … or decide that Jesus demands too much from us.  That’s why it’s so important to “keep our eyes on the prize,” keep re-setting our focus on Jesus as we move through life … following and trusting him to lead the way” out of whatever troubling situation.

I know: following Jesus, trusting Jesus is easy to talk about.  It’s much more difficult and elusive when we leave the comfort of this place with its familiar sights and sounds and the support of community.  Out there we tend to depend upon OURSELVES and OUR WILLPOWER, doing whatever it takes to win or prevail. And so, when the moment of truth comes–often without warning–our first impulse or fear is I don’t know how I’m going to deal with this.  Sometimes we’re weak or vulnerable … ill or isolated. When crisis hits, we’re never sure who to trust: Jesus, ourselves, or someone else.

When I put my trust in the Lord to lead me through a difficult situation, there’s a lingering bolt of doubt to contend with: a voice in my head that taunts me, “but what if He can’t … or won’t–what then? ”

I’ve learned that if I’m going to be able to trust Jesus in a crisis, I have to practice trusting him in the so-called “ordinary” day to day life. Just like it takes practice to get the most out of any skill or gift, the same practice applies in matters of the spirit.  The best way to learn how to meditate or to pray is by doing it … practicing.  Sure it helps to read about it, but at some point we have to put into practice what we learn.

My daily spiritual practice goes something like this: before I leave my house and begin my day, I ask the Lord to help me trust him with the day ahead. I tell him that I do trust him, and I confess that I’m prone taking back that trust, or hesitating, when I’m under duress.  This daily practice of asking Jesus to help me trust the day to him helps me trust him when life goes off the rails.

Scholar Haywood Spangler[ii] observes how Elisha dealt with the crisis of being separated from Elijah, his mentor and beloved father-figure.  Spangler notes “Elisha follows what he understands to be God’s will, although he does not know clearly what God’s will for him is.  Elisha must discern God’s will by participating in events. He must watch the chariot and the whirlwind. He must pick up the mantle. He must attempt to part the Jordan. Elisha confirms his call through his actions…”

Spangler continues: “Elisha’s experience suggests that faithfulness (trust) may be expressed by … embracing the ambiguity and suspense that is part of life, asking, “What is God calling me to do in this situation?  Elisha also suggests that we may have to discern God’s will through action.  This challenges us to develop and maintain a God-centered perspective.  The suspense Elisha must feel, and which the story generates in us parallels our actual experiences. Our lives are filled with suspense: “Will this cancer treatment work?” “Will this counseling save my marriage?” … “Will I be downsized out of a job?”  … “Will my child find her way?” … “

Regardless of our gifts or imperfections, Richard Shaffer says, trusting Jesus “compels us to make difficult choices a more secular existence might otherwise avoid … because unlike other human endeavors, commitment to God is a heartfelt matter, rather than the result of a logical decision-making process.”[iii]

Jesus’ blunt words to those three prospective followers can strike us as un-settling. I see in his words a bold response to any distraction or insecurity that life puts between ourselves and Him. His responses reflect Jesus’ commitment to helping us fend off whatever threatens to divert our focus from Jesus.  It’s not about plowing over whatever gets in our way. It’s about following Jesus into a deeply spiritual place. When we are able to be with him in that spiritual “place”, we can keep our eyes on the horizon and our hearts in tune with him, as we too follow him while we keep on plowing ahead.

[i] Emily C. Heath, Still Speaking Devotional, published by the United Church of Christ, June 15 2016
[ii] Haywood B. Spangler, in Daily Feast: Meditations from Feasting on the Word, Year C: Bostrom, Caldwell, Riess, eds., WJK, pp.244-245.
[iii] Richard J. Shaffer, jr. ibid, p.246