June 30, 2019
Today’s readings are:
1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Click here to access these readings.
When I was a kid, I played a lot of baseball. It’s something that you just did if you grew up in the shadow of New York City like I did. Yankee Stadium, where the legends of baseball used to play, was just a short trip into the City. And the Mets were just across town. The Red Socks were up in Boston and the Phillies and the Oriels were just a little further. Down in the South and up here in the Northwest it’s all about football, but in New Jersey, it was baseball.
Now, I played baseball from T-ball up until middle school, either on a team or with the neighborhood kids. But at whatever level, whether I was trying to smack a home-run or catch a pop fly, there was always one bit of advice I always got: keep your eye on the ball. Maybe other kids got this quicker than I did, but, for me, when I played, I was always wondering about what was going on around me. I was looking at the people on base, or I was worried about whether I’d hit the ball or strike out. But my dad and my coaches always told me: keep your eye on the ball. Whether you’re batting or playing in the field, the first step is to keep your eye on the ball. Sure, doing so won’t guarantee that you’ll hit the thing or catch it, but it’s that first step. Look forward, focus, and keep your eye on the ball.
Now, Jesus tells his disciples something very similar in our gospel reading today. No, Jesus isn’t planning to make a baseball team out of the disciples so he can take on the Samaritans in an ancient World Series. Jesus is trying to teach his disciples how to follow him, how they should hear his call to them, and how they should join him. Luke records a few things Jesus said to the disciples and, perhaps, to some people who were called and who chose not to follow him. And one of these sayings is a lot like “keep your eye on the ball.” It’s this: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.”
Now, this is one of those “gulp” passages. This is one of those passages (and there are quite a few in the Bible) when we come face to face with what it means to love God, and what God means when he says that he loves us. Often, I think, we take this passage to mean: don’t doubt. Don’t you ever doubt, even for a second. In God, our life is changed, from the inside out and from the outside in. In God our life takes on new meaning and new hope as we grow to be sons and daughters in the image of Jesus Christ. We become who we were truly meant to be. But if we look back, if we look back to our old lives and our old sins and, even for a moment, relapse, then that’s it, we’re through, we’re not fit for the Kingdom of God.
No, no, I don’t think that’s what this means. Even though we are alive in Jesus Christ, we still sin. We’re not perfect, even if we were baptized, even if we take the Eucharist each and every day. That’s why, in our Baptismal Covenant in the Book of Common Prayer, one of the promises is that “Whenever we sin” (not if we sin but whenever we sin) whenever we sin, we will return to Christ.” Being a Christian doesn’t mean that, from now on, we’ll lead a perfect and blameless life; being a Christian means that we will orient our entire lives to God. We could be a long way off from a perfect life, but that orientation, that turning, again and again, towards God – that’s what’s important.
No, what I mean when I say that this passage – that no one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God – when I say that this is a “gulp” moment, I mean that in it we come to understand the depth of what it means for God to love us, and what it means for us to promise to love God. Now, I don’t know much about farming, but I know this much: when you’re working a plow, when you’ve got that plow deep in the soil, look in front of you. Or, for those of us without experience in farming, think of when you learned to drive a car. When you’re driving, look at the road in front of you. Check a mirror here or there, make sure you’re not speeding, but, on the whole, look forward. When a kid trips, what does the parent always say? “Look where you’re going.” So, in other words, when you’re following Jesus, look at what’s in front of you.
Now, this can mean two things. First of all, when you follow anyone, what should you be looking at? The person you’re following. Look to Jesus Christ and to God his Father. Look to the life and the love of the world around you; look to the light and the fullness and the grace that you have been given. At times of joy, remember that all goodness comes from God, not from we ourselves but God living in us. At times of sorrow, look to those moments of help and community that is the Spirit breathed into the ones around us. At times of anger, look to God to how to handle that anger and discern, with God, if it is a righteous anger and needs to be spoken, or if you just need to go blow off some steam. At times of difficult decision, look to God and his Church for guidance and wisdom. In your work, praise God; in your play, praise God; in all things: praise God.
And the other thing is this: as we follow Jesus, as we continue the work of Jesus in the world, look at those who are right in front of us. Often, churches can get bogged down with a sort of “do do do” attitude towards ministry. When someone says “ministry”, it can often seem that all we mean are those large and official ministries like soup kitchens and missions to other countries and huge building projects. And these are all great and important ministries that are the responsibility of the Church, but there are others as well. We all have a call to ministry to those individual folks in our lives, from the members of our families to the clerk at the supermarket. And that ministry might not be rescuing them from despair (though it certainly might be), but, oftentimes, giving them the good, honest hope of Life in their lives. We don’t have to be saccharine about it, or be happy and exuberant and energetic all the time. That would tire out even the most type A extrovert there is. But we should live our lives, in whatever way God has given us to live, we should live our lives as people who have been given a great hope and a great life.
Because what we have before us, what is in front of us, every moment and every day, is a flame of Life unquenchable and eternal. Down at the core of our souls, beyond all hurt and pain, beyond even all our joy, is the beating heart of Christ, which is goodness pure and simple like a drink of cool water on a hot day. The reality of all things is a turning to God in love. So when you put your hand to your plow, be that in working at the food bank or serving on diocesan committees or just simply going about your common business on a cool summer’s day: look in front of you, keep your eye on Christ, and give to the world that Life that you yourself have been given. For in such life is eternity.