ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYERIAN CHURCH JUNE 26, 2016
THE FIRST RULE OF ITALIAN DRIVING
1 Kings 19: 19 – 21; Luke 9: 57 – 62
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
Gumball Rally is a movie about a bored candy mogul who gathers his fellow automobile enthusiasts in New York City to embark on a coast-to-coast race. There’s one line in the film I like because it summed up my Italian heritage. If you’ve ever driven in Italy you know how authentic this is: video clip.
In our Gospel reading this week we read of 3 people who genuinely desire to be disciples of Jesus. Their stories come to us in snappy phrases. The first made an unwavering vow to follow Jesus wherever he went. Jesus laid it on the line – to follow him is to give up every comfort and become a homeless drifter. The second person was called by Jesus to follow him. The man was willing but he was in grief. Because the Jews bury their dead within 24 hours, we know this man had just lost both his parents. He asked for a brief reprieve to honour them before setting off with Jesus. Jesus took a heartless stance with him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9: 60). The third person Jesus encountered agreed to follow him, but first he asked to say a proper goodbye to those at home. Jesus dismissed him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (vs. 62).
Like us, these people wanted to be faithful disciples. The problem is that, unlike Italian driving, what’s behind us is important to us. It’s hard not to look back when many things keep us there. Families, for instance, are magnetic. Our parents are the first people to love us. Emotional attachments to our parents or children are designed by God for our survival and growth. We always need the emotional security of being loved and connected to people who know us deeply. Our family remembers us before we can remember ourselves. Together we share history and stories that give us our sense of identity and self. Families aren’t perfect but generally we want the best for one another. We may hurt one another but these are also the people who have forgiven us 70 x 7. Most families are dysfunctional to some degree and some are even destructive, yet it’s hard to walk away even from them. When we’re not bonded by affection we’re bonded by bad memories, unhealed wounds and deep scars. We continue to return to the scene of the crime looking for the approval and love we didn’t have. Another dynamic that binds us to our families is a sense of responsibility. In our first reading Elisha was plowing the field in order to provide for his family. When Elijah calls him, he wants to say goodbye to his parents. To leave without saying goodbye is unthinkable. In most homes is we tell one another where we’re going, when we’ll return, and with whom we’ll be. When people disappear without saying goodbye, police get called in. For Elisha leaving means he won’t be able to drive the oxen anymore so he won’t be able to provide for his parents as was expected of a good son. So before departing Elisha does one last, grand act. In a symbolic act of duty he slaughters and roasts the oxen to prepare a feast for “his people”. What’s behind us is important to us.
We’re also attached to our homes and possessions. On the news, a man from Fort McMurray who had lost his home angrily stated, “If one more person tells me ‘it’s just stuff’, I’ll deck them. It’s my stuff. The things I’ve worked my whole life for. Everything I had.” Then he broke down and sobbed. Our homes provide us with comfort, safety, ease and security. They contain what’s valuable to us. Very few people would trade their home for a homeless, nomadic life. What’s behind us is important to us.
We can be attached to our past in other ways. The memories of the moments that were most life-giving can keep us from moving into the future. Could anything come close to those precious times? At other times we’re called back by life robbing things: unfinished business; broken relationships; goals we haven’t reached; events we can’t get over. Regrets frequently pull our minds back into the past where we relive what we’ve done with a different outcome. What’s behind us is important to us.
Ironically, the Church, the body and followers of Christ, has a difficult time letting go of the past. Those famous last words of every congregation “we’ve never done it that way before” indicate how important tradition is to us. Our group identity is wrapped up in our history. Change is difficult for us to deal with. If things aren’t done a certain way “it doesn’t feel like church” which is to say it doesn’t feel like “us”. We form many rules about the “right” way to worship and what “ought” to happen, forgetting God doesn’t want our rituals, he wants our hearts. We also cling to our buildings and will salvage them at all costs rather than asking what God might have in store for our future. What’s behind us is important to us.
Because what’s behind us is important we can’t help but ask: Why doesn’t Jesus see that? How can he ask so much of us? What difference do a few minutes make when we’re planning to give him our lives? How can he tell us to toss the rear-view mirror because “Whatsa behind you es not mportant!”?
A.W. Tozer suggests that very few things are life and death matters: crossing the desert without a guide isn’t a gamble, it’s a suicide mission. Likewise our relationship to Christ is a matter of life and death yet on an even higher plane. “To accept Christ is to form an all-inclusive attachment to the Person of our Lord Jesus… accepting Christ for all He is. We cannot say he’s our Saviour and not live under His Lordship… Further, the follower’s attachment to Christ is all-exclusive. The Lord becomes to us the one attraction forever… by which all other interests are determined.” While salvation is a gift given to us by Christ through his death and resurrection, discipleship demands something from us and as Tozer points out, we can’t have one without the other. The Church is quick to tell people about God’s love and forgiveness but when we speak only of grace, we’re like real estate brokers selling swamp land to unsuspecting buyers. Jesus told his would-be disciples exactly what following him entailed. Discipleship is receiving Jesus as our “one attraction” for which our egos, desires and attachments are willingly sacrificed and put to death. As Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23) We take that phrase to mean we are to stoically put up with our hardships, illnesses or disappointments. What Jesus meant is, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, will save it.” (Matthew 16: 25) Following Jesus involves nothing less than dying to self through an absolute overhaul in perspective and behavior. It’s to allow our Lord to determine the place of our family commitments, our vocations, our finances, our free time and every other aspect of our lives. It’s not that those things don’t matter, it’s that we need to bring them into the present where Christ is Lord. Just as Jesus told the man, if we’re not walking life’s path with him, we may as well be dead.
There’s not one of us who at some time has not flatly refused to follow Jesus. We we know exactly what he’s asking us to do or not to do, and we persist in living for ourselves by following our own desires. Other times we genuinely want to follow Jesus – just not now. We want to put our discipleship on hold. We have other things we need to do first. We say, “Jesus, I’ll follow you, but let me take care of this first. Jesus, I’ll follow you, but may I hold on to this? May I bring this grudge along on the journey, carry this desire with me, hold onto this treasure, haul this habit? Jesus, I’ll give you my all as soon as my time opens up and my commitments are fulfilled.” We try to applaud Jesus with one hand while holding on to something else with the other. It’s impossible to applaud with one hand. We need to consider how we resist the call and claim of Jesus. Where and what are we holding back?
Former football coach Tom Landry, , once said, “The life of a coach is to make men do what they don’t want to do, in order to achieve what they’ve always wanted to be.” That’s a good description of the Christian’s walk with Jesus. We want to be alive in Christ and so the Spirit’s job is to make us do what we don’t want to do; to change our thinking so that Jesus will be Lord of every aspect of our lives; to help us let go of what we cling to so our hands are free to applaud and glorify Christ. Jesus calls us to follow him because he wants to re-make us in his image. An owner showed a prospective buyer the old factory he had for sale. It was in bad repair and the owner took pains to say he would replace the broken windows, bring in a crew to correct any structural damage, and clean out the garbage. “Forget about the repairs,” the buyer said. “When I buy this place, I’m going to build something completely different. I don’t want the building; I want the site.” In the same way, God wants to tear down our old self and build something new. For that to happen we need to let go of any attachment that keeps us from giving our whole selves to Christ. What God is doing in our lives as we follow Christ is making a whole new creation. Jesus doesn’t tell us to let go of the past to be mean. He tells us to let go live fully in him. When we do, we discover that, “What’sa behind me es not mportant.”