GOSPEL: Luke 9:51-62
… 57As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
*Note: Sermons are posted in the manuscript draft that they were preached in, and may contain typos or other errors that were resolved in my delivery. See the Sherwood Park Lutheran Facebook Page for video.
Maybe this is a familiar experience to you. You are part of a community or group and someone shows up to something with energy and passion, ready to kick start things with new ideas and vision. Maybe it is at church, on the hockey team, in the office, on the PTA, in the music group. They show up, try their new thing and it does’t go the way they expected. In fact, the community doesn’t receive this new person very well at all. So they pull pack, drop out and probably disappear as soon as they appeared. Maybe you have seen this person, maybe you have been this person. I was this person when I tried out coaching kids soccer for about 8 weeks in 2019.
Today, as we hear from Luke’s Gospel, there is definitely something familiar about this story and experience…
Jesus is out in the world proclaiming the gospel and he sends some disciples ahead of him to make things ready in a Samaritan village. Samaritans and Judeans did not get along.
So when the Judean disciples show up in Samaritan village to tell these backwater folks they are brining the real good news, it doesn’t go so well.
Disappointed, the disciples return to Jesus asking if they should get revenge on these unreceptive folks… which Jesus doesn’t take too well either.
But it is the next part of the story that might be the most interesting or the most convicting. As they walk away from their failure in the Samaritan village and rebuke from Jesus, some disciples in the group begin reflecting on their commitment to the cause. First one vows to follow despite the failure, to which Jesus warns that there might be more unreceptive folks ahead. The next says that they have to go home and care for an aging parent before following (the father is not dead yet, but likely aged). And then another says they have to say goodbye to family before they can follow… to family that is certainly begging or demanding them to stay home.
As we hear this story of Jesus and his disciples today, we hear it as people who have lived through the same disappointment.
I can think back to a number of experiences in my own time in ministry:
One summer I decided to try hosting campfires on a few Sunday Evenings through the summer months. The church I was serving at the time was not a congregation with a strong connection to camp or outdoor ministry and I thought that this might be a small way to introduce them to some of the things I loved about camp. So I invited folks to come out to our large green space behind the church on some select Sunday summer nights to sit around a large fire for some hot chocolate, s’mores, and camp songs. The first week there were 8 people that showed up. Smaller than I hoped, but a good start I thought. The next time there were 4. The third time 2… and then last one zero.
The reverence and nostalgia for evening campfire that I had after 5 summers for working at Bible Camps, was simply not part of their experience and so sitting around a fire in mosquito season didn’t make a lot of sense… Mydream of singing Kumbyah around the fire weren’t to be.
And over the years there have been more disappointments: Bible studies, confirmation classes, fellowship events where things have not been as well received as I hoped for and not turned out as I imagined.
Still, I am hardly the only pastor who has a story of planning an event and folks not showing up as hoped for. And there are more stories of this happening to whole congregations, planing events to welcome the community only to be received tepidly.
In fact there are many places in our lives and world where this same story has played out. Where we have jumped in with two feet, put ourselves into something while also hoping and expecting things to go a certain way, only to be disappointed when when they don’t… and then to quit altogether. Whether it is in the workplace, in the neighbourhood, in volunteer activities, even within families. And in the church, there are lot of congregations who are feeling like there have been more failures than successes lately, and many folks slipping away because it is too disappointing when expectations aren’t met.
This is an understandable human reaction. And yet, when Jesus responds to these disciples making excuses to quit, he does it pretty harshly: “Let the dead bury the dead” and “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Clearly, Jesus is frustrated with disciples who are throwing in the towel when things don’t go their way.
But why is Jesus frustrated. Does he think the response of the samaritan village should have been better? Or that maybe his followers should have done a better job? Is the solution to do more and do better instead of quitting…
I don’t think that is it.
Rather, Jesus seems to get quite well that failure is part of the price of doing the work. Or rather, that doing the work in order to meet our expectations is not the point.
He didn’t send his disciples to meet conversion quotas in that village. Jesus did NOT promise cheering hoards excited to finally hear from his followers. Jesus isn’t measuring his work by how many attended or put money in the plate. In fact, Jesus is often annoyed by the crowds, frustrated when they want more and more from him.
For Jesus, the thing that he is looking for is not the result, but the action. That the gospel is preached, that God’s Kingdom comer near is proclaimed, that the coming of the Messiah is announced, the good news is told to God’s people. Whether it is to 1 or 10 or 100 or 1000… it does’t matter to Jesus. What matters is that God’s story of Good News is shared in the world.
And however that happens does’t really matter. Jesus knows where he is headed. He knows that the cheering crowds will welcome him into Jerusalem on Sunday and call for his death by Friday. Jesus knows that his rag tag group of followers will be barely able to get it together to make sure the story of his resurrection goes beyond their fear and baggage and resistance. But the Easter story cannot be held back and makes it in to the world none the less and that is enough for God to do God’s work. That is enough for God to change everything.
And 2000 years later, Jesus knows that it is the same for us. Our expectations and visions of how we think this ministry business ought to go get in our way more often than not. But for God that isn’t the point.
God is at work in our failures and false starts. God is still present and up to something when our target audience doesn’t get what we are trying to do. God has plans in mind for us even when we put ourselves out there and things go sideways, or things don’t happen at all. God is still calling us to go ahead and make things ready even when we are ready to pack it in, when it feels like our best isn’t good enough, when it seems like the world doesn’t care, when we are looking for excuses to go home and stay home. God is still doing in and through us – in and through our community of faith, our meagre feeling gatherings for worship, study, and fellowship – the thing that God has always been doing. God is putting the story of Jesus out into the world. God meeting whomever will hear it, with the promise that the Messiah has come with good news, given for us.
The point is that the story keeps getting told. The good news for us is that the good news told to folks who receive it tepidly, told to folks who only hear it once in a while, told to crowds that hardly seem worth the fuss… that is enough. That good news of the One crucified and Risen, the one who claims us in the waters of baptism, the one who feeds us with his own body and blood, the one who calls us to go out into world and tell the story again… that this one only needs the story to be told. That this one calls us to figure out how to tell the story and what the story does in the world after that is up to God.
Jesus doesn’t call us to change the world, that God’s job. Jesus doesn’t call us to manifest crowds of faithful followers, Jesus simply calls us to follow. Jesus doesn’t expect that we will succeed at every turn, but instead warns us that we will likely fail… But that is the mission, that is the call. To tell story of God’s love for the world, and let God carry us the rest of the way… to places we would never imagine and never expect.