In one of my favorite films, Cool Hand Luke, Paul Newman does a masterful job of playing Lucas Jackson, a Korean War hero who goes to prison after drunkenly destroying municipal property. Over the course of his excessively long term on a prison chain gang, Luke repeatedly escapes. Each time he is brought back and each time the prison authorities teach him a lesson – with an ever-increasing level of brutality after each escape. Finally, Luke escapes again, but instead of continuing to run, he finds himself in an abandoned church – for the first time in his life, talking with God. It is in the church that Luke comes to an understanding of the fact that he has reached the end of the road. The only thing left for him to do is die – thereby living on as a sign of hope in the hearts of his fellow prisoners.
Into the church comes Luke’s number 1 disciple, his “St. Peter” if you will, a man named Dragline, who tells him that things are all worked out so that Luke can go back to the chain gang and serve out his time, without having to pay any price for this latest escape attempt. But Luke knows what is about to happen and he tells Dragline off – telling him to leave. So, with the church surrounded by armed prison guards and police officers, Luke goes to a window and mocks the warden by making fun of the warden’s own words, which he knows will result in immediate retribution. His words are instantly followed by the sound of a rifle shot and a bullet hole in Luke’s neck. He knew that he was going to die, but he continued on his mission anyway. He wouldn’t let anyone’s words keep him from doing what he had to do so that the people whom he loved could benefit from his death.
We hear some tough sayings from Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. The author of this Gospel tells us that at this point in the story, Jesus had “set his face toward Jerusalem.” That meant that he and the Disciples were taking their last road trip together. Jesus was walking steadfastly toward what he already knew would be the end of his earthly ministry. In other words, Jesus knew that he was headed toward his own death, and he was determined to see his mission of salvation through sacrifice come to its inevitable end. So perhaps it is no wonder that Jesus was, shall we say – a little testy – with the people in this story.
A man came up to Jesus and said that he was ready to follow Jesus “anywhere.” But Jesus, whose mind was set on what was to come, responded by saying, in essence, “You have no idea what you are signing on to. You say that you will go anywhere with me, but you don’t realize that I don’t even have a home to go to. There is nowhere that I can go that takes me away from doing the will of the Father in Heaven.” This may sound a bit harsh to us, but in the midst of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, these words are actually quite kind and caring. Instead of saying, “Get away from me, you are not worthy to follow me in this mission.” He simply said, “Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.”
But the other two men with whom Jesus conversed are even more troubling for us. Jesus told them to follow him. One of these men asked Jesus to be allowed to bury his father before he goes to be a disciple. The other merely wanted to say goodbye to his family. And for us – the modern readers of this story – Jesus was downright rude to these two men.
To the man who wanted to bury his father, Jesus said, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” That seems more than a bit harsh to us. And frankly, biblical scholars disagree on what he could have meant by this saying. Some say that Jesus was talking about those who were spiritually dead taking care of those who were physically dead. But I think that the better way to look at it might be that Jesus was so focused upon his mission of getting to Jerusalem to lay down his life, that anything that got in the way of that was to be ignored – just like when Dragline tried to talk Cool Hand Luke into giving himself up and going back to the old life. Nothing could be allowed to get in the way of the mission.
And the same can be said of the man who told Jesus that he simply wanted to say goodbye to his family. Jesus told him that anyone who had put their hand to the plow and then turned away was not ready for the kingdom. This is clearly the same message – that nothing should get in the way of following Jesus on his kingdom of God mission. When he talked about the plow, he was alluding to the fact when was one plowing a field with yoked animals, if one took a hand off the plow to look backward, the entire row could be messed up by allowing the animals to pull the plow in the wrong direction.
The words may sound harsh to us, but they are not so much harsh as uncompromising. Jesus wanted his first hearers to know, just as he wants us to know, that being the disciple of the Son of God, the Savior of the World, can be a hard task. Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ had no set address; no worldly comforts; no safety and security in his life. In fact, God’s anointed Son knew, as he walked along the dusty road through Samaria that at the end of the journey he would be: tried by a sham tribunal, turned over to the sworn enemy of his people, mocked for being who he was, spat upon, beaten, nailed to a cross and killed in one of the worst ways ever devised by man. That is what God’s “Chosen,” was faced with. And if we choose to be his disciples, we need to understand that the same horrible fate could possibly befall us as well.
I don’t believe that Jesus intended his message to be that we should all live as though we were all going to be martyred. Martyrdom or physically suffering for the sake of Christ, is not what all of us are called to. But there are other ways that we may be called to suffer loss on behalf of Jesus.
Almost all clergy people have served in a place that they loved and then, one day been called to another place and had to leave all of their beloved relationships in order to follow Jesus. (And, before you ask, NO that is not a subtle hint of any kind). Many of us have lost friends over differences within the Church. There are myriad ways in which we can suffer loss for the sake of the kingdom message. But perhaps one of the most personal one is when we are asked to physically sacrifice for the Church.
Our society asks a great deal of us in the 21st Century. We all have heavy demands on our time and other resources. But the Church – the actual Body of Christ in the world – asks that we regularly come to services. Or more demanding than that, the Church asks that we get involved in the ministries of the Church. We are asked to give up our precious time on Sundays and then asked further to give up time to serve in other ways. And … We are asked to give of our earthly wealth. We are requested to stretch already tight budgets a little tighter in order to financially support the ministries of the Body of Christ.
But here is the thing. Jesus never asks us to give up anything without getting something else in return. Jesus may tell us to walk away from our father’s funeral in order to proclaim the kingdom message. He may ask us to forego telling our family goodbye before we go off to work in God’s vineyard. He may demand the very best that we have – thereby leaving someone, or something else with less than our best. But what we get back is infinitely more valuable.
If you heed Jesus’ call to follow, you will always receive more than you gave. If you roll out of bed on Sunday and get here for services, you receive the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ to prepare you for the rest of your week. You get the spiritual refreshment necessary for your to tackle life’s tough tasks. If you put yourself out and take on a ministry here – or elsewhere – you will be blessed by the fulfilling feeling of serving in a way that God called you to. And if you give of your earthly treasure, you will be blessed with the gift of abundance – being able to see how all things work out when you put God first. All of which will often be experienced as, “the peace which passes all understanding,” in the midst of the storms of life.
Jesus always demands our best. And sometimes we aren’t able to give our best, because our faith is insufficient to convince us to risk it, or because our head overrules our heart and keeps us from stepping out in faith. But here is the part that is missing from today’s reading. God knows when we can’t – or won’t – give our best to God. And God loves us anyway. If you are in a place where you are struggling with trying to follow God’s call to you, don’t worry. God will not relegate you to the “outer darkness,” of hell. God will always be available and ready to forgive. But God’s grace is not a reason for us to stop trying to accept and follow the call.
Remember that no matter how demanding Jesus’ call to us may sound, he never asks anything that he would not do himself. Have faith and courage. Say yes to God – and watch everything else in your life turn around and become more fulfilling as well. Faith in Jesus is the answer, no matter what the questions is.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.