Pentecost 5: Fixing our faces forward

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. (Galatians 5:22-25)

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, "I will follow you wherever you go." And 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." To another he said, "Follow me." But he said, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." But Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God." Another said, "I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home." Jesus said to him, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God." (Luke 9:57-62)

We live in a world of money-back guarantees. Every television offer, every department store return policy, every risk or decision that the world asks us to make seems to come with the assurance that if we need to, we can turn back at any time. Think of the Dodge commercials these days that offer a 60-day trial period before you actually commit to the purchase of your car or truck. Think of colleges that now let you test out classes for the first week or two before actually settling on your semester schedule. Think of celebrity marriages, where divorce has become so commonplace that marriage itself seems to come with its own “trial period.” We live in a risk-averse world, and so we rely heavily on the money-back-guarantee to help us feel better about our choices. The money-back-guarantee makes us feel safe.

Unfortunately, in today’s Gospel, Jesus gives us the sobering truth of the life of discipleship: there are no money-back guarantees. Jesus and his fellow travelers are on the road, and we read that Jesus has his face fixed on Jerusalem. The group reaches a village, hoping to eat and stay there to rest, but are shown no hospitality, and so they press on, tired and hungry. This snag seems as good as a time of any for the travelers to revisit the question of following Jesus. One man boldly boasts that he will follow Jesus wherever he goes, to which Jesus replies, somewhat ominously, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Presumably, Jesus is warning his travelers that they are likely face more hardships and snags along the road, and that their rejection by the Samaritan village is a signal of things to come. When Jesus goes on to say “follow me,” he is really saying, “now that you know that the road of discipleship can be bumpy, are you still ready to stay close and follow me, knowing that it will all be worth it in the end?”

Two men speak up, promising to follow Jesus if only they can first run home to take care of some pressing personal matters. One man wants to pay his final respects to his father who had died, and another man wants to quickly run back home to bid farewell to his family. Both seem to us to be noble, caring actions. But Jesus, his face fixed forward on Jerusalem, tells them “no.”

Does he say “no” because he is cruel and compassionless? I don’t think so. Does he say “no” because he’s cranky, having been out on the road all day in the hot sun? Possible, but again, I don’t think so. Does he say “no” because he has something against families and the moral imperative these men feel toward providing for them? Of course not.

Jesus tells them “no” because he knows the depth of our human weakness. Once you turn back, and head home - for whatever reason - the lure of home often proves to great. Once these men turn back, they’re far too likely to give in to the lure of everything comfortable and familiar, the lure of a roof over their heads and meals on their table, the lure of certainty and their rehearsed daily routines.

Jesus lives each moment of his life focused on Jerusalem - focused on the cross and his ultimate mission to return to heaven by way of death, resurrection, and the salvation of the world. Jesus asks his followers to live with similar devotion and commitment. Loving Jesus and following Jesus means keeping our faces fixed forward on him, and on his promises of life and wholeness.

With our faces turned back away from Jesus, we are in danger of falling into a life “of the flesh,” as Paul would say; a life marked by “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” Paul has given us quite the list here! He hasn’t given us this list as a checklist or catalogue of particular sins to avoid, though we’d yet do well to avoid as many of these things as we can, by the grace of God. But ultimately, this list is symbolic. It is there to remind us that our lives, when faced away from Jesus, are vulnerable to a whole host of things that would ultimately draw us away from following him.

Like the men who wanted to turn back home, no matter how temporary they thought their departure would be, we too are always in danger of wanting to turn back from all that Jesus calls us to do and be, expecting our departure to be temporary. But Jesus urges us to keep our eyes forward, knowing that our temporary departures too often turn into something bigger.

There are always plenty of reasons to put off our journey with Jesus - plenty of other matters that compete for our attention. They all seem justifiable, as justifiable as bidding farewell to one’s family or attending a funeral. We worry about the physical and emotional health of our families, with our over-stretched schedules, and think that maybe the best thing to do on Sunday might be sleeping in and taking the day to ourselves. We grieve and suffer personal losses and shy away from our devotion, believing that we’ll be more fit to love and worship God once we have our own lives figured out. We worry about our safety or health when faced with strangers on the street who ask us for food or money. We put off sharing our faith with our friends until we’re more certain that they are in a receptive place to hear us without judging us or getting uncomfortable. We look backward, either with regret or nostalgia, hoping to find ourselves before we seek God.

But the Jesus we read about in Luke’s gospel was born with a destiny - to live among us with his face fixed on God’s will to save us. He was absolutely single-minded in this mission, living every day devoted to preaching the good news and living the promise of the kingdom of God. His birth didn’t wait until a comfortable and convenient time - not one of us would pick a stable as an ideal place for the birth of anyone, especially the son of God! He didn’t wait to share God’s desires with the world until he had “made nice” with or “wooed” the religious leaders. He didn’t sit back and try to quietly reform Judaism from within. He did whatever was necessary to press onward toward the goal, not even letting the fear of certain death hinder his forward progress. And it is by that death that we are made free to follow Jesus with that same unhindered devotion.

The promise to us is that our devotion and discipleship will not be for nothing, even when the journey is difficult. In the words of the poet Walt Whitman,
The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first—Nature is rude and incomprehensible at first;
Be not discouraged—keep on—there are divine things, well envelop’d;
I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.
(“Song of the Open Road,” Walt Whitman)
Keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, pressing forward and not looking back, God promises us that there are divine things in store for us, more beautiful than words can tell. A life lived facing forward is a life lived in the Spirit, who bears in us the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. A life lived facing forward is a life lived in the freedom of Christ, which has set us free to love our neighbor as ourself. As Martin Luther says, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all”(“The Freedom of a Christian,” 277).

This is why, in baptism, we renounce the powers of sin, death, and the devil. By renouncing these things, we commit to facing forward in our new lives of faith, focused on God’s call and the power of Christ that works in us. This is what conversion is all about - the daily conversion that happens every morning when we wake up and decide again to do something as absurd and wonderful as commit our hearts and minds to Jesus, who won for us our salvation. Conversion is merely the ongoing process of asking yourself, “upon what is my face fixed?” The good news is that, because of God’s grace, the answer to that question can always be “Jesus.”

Jesus might not ever give us a money-back guarantee. And the life of faith doesn’t every come with a 60-day trial period. But I promise you, my brothers and sisters, that taking the risk to follow Jesus is absolutely, certainly, life-changingly worth it. For when we follow Jesus, we know life, we know love, and we know the depths of a hope that will never disappoint us.

So, my friends, on this day and every day, upon what is your face fixed?

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