Sixth Weekend After Pentecost (C/RCL): “No Going Back!”
1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21; Luke 9:51-62
June 25-26, 2016
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ
I thought very carefully about whether I really wanted to do it. Parts of the rock scramble I was considering are dubbed the “Labyrinth” and the “Lemon Squeeze.” The description I read warned that it is NOT a two-way trail. Forward is the only direction a hiker can go; starting the route is a commitment to finishing it. Wimping out is not an option. Hmmmmm. What if I didn’t have what it takes?? The prospect of “no going back” was scary.
When Hernán Cortés landed in what is now Veracruz, Mexico, he ordered his men to scuttle the ships that had transported them from Spain to the New World. He essentially had them tear up their return ticket home. He intentionally took away the option of “Let’s go back to where we came from.” He clearly sent the message, “Make it or break it, guys! There’s no going back, only forward. So: let’s succeed, shall we?” At the time he wrote, “…we’re all in and there’s no turning back.” He said of each soldier that he “…had nothing to rely on, apart from his own hands, and the assurance that they would conquer and win the land, or die in the attempt.”1
I don’t know if Cortés was thinking of Jesus or not, but he was certainly giving his fellow conquistadores the strong message that since they’d already put their hand to the plow there would be no looking back! He and Jesus both knew that it’s human nature to second-guess ourselves when the going gets tough and sometimes to bail when we sense a “fail” heading our way.
Elisha in the first lesson signals his commitment to transition from farmer to prophet by slaughtering his oxen and using the wooden yoke and plow to stoke a fire over which he cooks their meat. He’s throwing a last party for his family and servants before he leaves, he’s saying “Thank You” to God through the sacrifice of the animals, but he’s also making sure he’s not tempted to run home if the going gets tough. He destroys the tools of his livelihood.
This story is a reminder that we just never know what’s going to happen in the course of a workday. Elisha was taking care of business, plowing his vast, profitable fields with the help of almost a dozen servants and 2 dozen more oxen, when Elijah appears, throws his cloak over Elisha’s shoulders, and keeps going! Mysterious stuff. Elisha must have known of Elijah (who hadn’t heard of the prophet through whom God had raised the dead son of the widow of Zarephath and slain the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel?). Elisha runs to catch up with Elijah and promises to follow him if he can just give him a minute to kiss mom and dad goodbye. He did more than give hugs, as we heard, and certainly was gone more than a minute – though I have no idea exactly how long it would take to slaughter, cook and serve oxen.
The passing of the cloak, the mantle, shows that God has chosen Elisha to be Elijah’s successor as prophet. As usual, no reason is given. (God usually doesn’t share God’s reasons.) One is elected by God because – one is elected by God! Period. Sometimes we don’t choose the mantles thrust on our shoulders. But there they are.
Elisha is assigned to help Elijah, who had become quite burned out. Remember how he lay down in the riverbed and prayed to die? God’s answer to that prayer was, “NO!” Elijah asked for death and God sent help instead, in the form of Elisha. The passage from 1 Kings we heard today is an example of divine succession planning. Elijah can’t step off the stage till somebody else steps on. That someone is Elisha.
In the Gospel Jesus is heading toward Jerusalem and all that awaits him: arrest, crucifixion, death and resurrection. He needs many others to pick up where He will leave off. He is continually looking to make new disciples, even among the hated Samaritans. But like the Gerasenes we heard about last week who begged Jesus to leave their town after He cast out the Legion of demons from their neighbor, the Samaritans shoo Him along His Way. In the beautiful hymn “Stay with Us” we sing a different tune than they did, asking just the opposite:
Stay with us, till night has come…
Stay with us, till day is done:
No tears nor dark shall dim the sun.
Cheer the heart, your grace impart:
Jesus, bring eternal life.
In today’s Gospel someone earnestly tells Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go,” which we’d think is what Jesus wants to hear, but He cautions the person to consider carefully the cost of discipleship:
“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Luke 9:58)
In other words: are you willing to rough it?? Our Lord is looking for quality not quantity of followers. The standards are high. The requirements are steep. Remember:
“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
So can we possibly sign on?? Can we accept a mantle of responsibility for being little Christs in this world, for “proclaiming the kingdom of God,” in the midst of all the other demands on our time and energy? After all, we have responsibilities in the world, not just in church. We have jobs to do and families to raise and obligations to keep. Ah, and there’s the heart of Jesus’ expectation: that we carry faith in our hearts, out into the world, wherever we go, whatever we do. Our most important job is to be who God calls us to be: the kind of spouse, the kind of parent, the kind of child, the kind of student, teacher, physician, accountant, auto mechanic, salesperson, plumber, manager, cashier, chef, tech support person, that God calls us to be. Jesus’ unflinching and unapologetic demand is that our faith should inform and form our whole life: our work, our play, wherever we are and whatever we do, 24/7.
God calls us to look forward, not back. Why? As someone has said, “It is impossible to plow straight furrows while looking backward.”2 Even and especially when we fail, God calls us to look forward. It doesn’t glorify God for us to second-guess choices we can’t undo, or to waste energy weeping over past sins. We are called to ask and accept God’s mercy for our sins, seek God’s wisdom for our decisions, trust and embody God’s love in every situation. There’s no going back – only forward.
By the way: I screwed up my courage, did the rock scramble, made it to the finish. Parts were scary, as I’d been warned. If I’d had a choice, I may have turned around. But I didn’t have a choice. Sometimes that’s a good thing. As Cortés and Jesus knew. Amen
1Glenn Stanton, “FactChecker: Burning Your Ships for Jesus,” Christian Living (on-line), March 13, 2013.
2Frederick Danker, The New Age: , p. 125.
Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham