A Homily for the Third Sunday after Pentecost
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who calls us to follow him even unto Jerusalem. Amen.
As a Junior ROTC cadet in high school, I had the opportunity to attend a summer camp at an old air base in Salina, Kansas. We lived in the barracks, did push ups, ate at the mess hall, got yelled at, did push ups, flew in a Black Hawk helicopter, and did more push ups – all in the July heat of the Kansas prairie while wearing long pants, a field jacket, heavy-duty leather boots, and several pounds of gear and water harnessed around our shoulders. It was a blast.
Each year, we would load onto a bus and go out a large patch of grassland for a crash course in map reading and orienteering. We learned and re-learned how to find an eight digit grid coordinate, shoot an azimuth on a compass, and measure distance traveled via our hundred-meter pace count. In theory, it’s all quite simple. While sitting under the shade of a tree, the “classroom” portion made perfect sense so long as you remember a few key rules: maps are read to the right and then up, azimuths are measured clockwise, make sure you keep track of your step count, and even some fifteen years later, I could probably still do a fair job on a written test.
Once we had that down, it was time to put it into practice in the parking lot. And you know what? Land navigation on a flat gravel surface is really easy! Grid coordinates for the nearest intersection? Got it. Azimuth to that water tower? No sweat. Distance from the bus to the water cooler? Easy.
But then they sent us out on the course in the wilderness, full of sudden dips and rises, briar patches, and groves of low trees. Suddenly, the goal that seemed so simple on the gravel was nearly impossible. One student would shoot an azimuth and send another cadet out a hundred meters at a time, holding the compass and gesturing left and right to make sure we were heading in exactly the right direction – but if you’re not holding the compass right, you don’t realize you’re three degrees off. And the cadet who is out in the distance doesn’t realize they miscounted their steps because they tripped on a rabbit hole. And all of you have been distracted by a fear of resident rattlesnakes and watching the cargo planes flying overhead in the distance dropping flares. You set your mind to the task as though setting your hand to the plow, but then you look back. Soon, you arrive at a patch of trees where you’re expecting to find your marker and realize there’s nothing there. But there is a flag five meters ahead to the east and another flag three meters south. All I can say is I’m glad the stakes were so low. (And that the other teams did worse than us – they read the map up and to the right, and ended up on a random road. They got back fifteen minutes late and had to do more push ups.) No one who sets their azimuth and looks back is fit to beat the land nav course.
“When the day drew near for him to be taken up, Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem.”
And the crowed wants to follow him. Who wouldn’t? At this point in Saint Luke’s narrative, Jesus has driven out unclean spirits and healed many, promised blessings to the poor and oppressed, calmed the storm, fed the five thousand, and even raised the dead! We’re on the tail-end of the Transfiguration today, that miraculous sign when Christ was revealed in all of his divine glory. The Gospel up until ow has been mostly stories of God’s power.
Following Jesus is easy, right? We’re on our way to Jerusalem where the Messiah will reign in glory; it’s as straight-forward as map reading in a parking lot. It’s so easy that when Jesus sent out the twelve earlier this chapter, they – yes, even they, that rag-tag group of misfits – go out “through the villages, bringing the good news and curing diseases everywhere.”
But something changed, just before the Transfiguration. Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter responded “The Messiah of God.” And then everything changed, and Jesus told his closest disciples:
The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised….If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it….
Eight days later, Christ’s glory is revealed, he comes down from the mountain, drives out a demon, and sets his face towards Jerusalem – not towards a royal coronation but towards a traitor’s death.
Now hear again the exchange in today’s reading: “Someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’” And Jesus calls to another, saying “Follow me,” but the man responds, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” And another promises, “I will follow you, Lord,” but asks for a caveat: “Let me first say farewell to those at my home.”
Christ’s response is jarring: “No one who sets their hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Up until now, it had been a fairly easy path to trod, akin to map reading in a parking lot. But now we’re heading into the wilderness where the terrain is bumpy, snakes are whispering their temptations, the vegetation is dense, and sun is beating down. Now it’s easy to get lost, to get distracted, to turn back and flee from the dangerous times to come. Now all you want to do is look back.
Our Lord has called us to follow him – to Jerusalem, to the cross, to the grave. To follow him in the ways of blessing the poor and the oppressed, of loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us. To take up our cross daily. There’s no turning back.
Following Christ will lead us into conflict with the powers and principalities of this world. In the past, it has meant showing up at segregated lunch counters and polling places, facing down violent mobs led by state troopers. Just two years ago, it meant taking to the streets of Charlottesville and standing against a resurgent white nationalism. Today, it means calling for our representatives to feed and shelter migrant children in their care. And make no mistake: Christians that have stood with the marginalized and been a blessing to the poor have always had the cross forced upon them. It is no different today.
But following Christ also means following him out of the grave! We can endure these trials and tribulations, we can follow Jesus in the wilderness, we can pick up our cross daily, and we can withstand the temptation to look back because we know that there is something far, far better waiting for us! Our Lord was rejected in Jerusalem, and killed, but on the third day he was raised! And we know that even if we lose our life, Christ will save us from death!
So, beloved, follow Christ. Don’t look back towards the grave. Look forward towards the Altar, and behold the Risen Christ, trusting that God has given us the grace we need to endure our sojourn through the wilderness! Look forward towards the resurrection, trusting that we will join our Lord in life everlasting.