Go Forward in the Name of Christ

LK 9:51-62

There is an enormous amount of material to work with in today’s Lucan passage. Jesus sets His face towards Jerusalem Ð the foreshadowing of His crucifixion. Then there is rejection by the Samaritans, for whom Jerusalem was not their sacred city Ð echoing the split between the Northern and the Southern Kingdoms following the death of Solomon. The disciples want to rain down fire Ð echoing Sodom and Gomorrah. We have the aphorisms about the foxes and their dens and the birds and their nests as opposed to the rejection of the Son of Man. The two would-be-disciples want to do some other things before following Jesus. Finally we have the passage about plowing and the kingdom of God. The term “kingdom of God” has been the subject of countless books. For our use now we can say that it is the will of God taking place here on earth and also in eternity. For the believer, the kingdom of God is both “now” and “not yet.”

The phrase that arrests my attention is that of plowing and not looking back. Having grown up in the Midwest, I can remember the sight of a farmer out in a field with a mule or a team of horses turning over the soil. Later, of course, there came J.I. Case, John Deere, Massey Ferguson and others. But I really came to understand plowing during the summer of 1954, between my freshman and sophomore years at Yale. Some of you have heard this story before. It involves my father.

Dad was born in 1901. During W.W.I he worked on a farm in Iowa (the older young men had been sent to war.) From that summer experience Dad always wanted to be a farmer. He married my mother and that took care of his agricultural aspiration. Even so, during WWII he had a half-acre “Victory Garden” and was known as the man who grew the four-foot parsnip. Time labored on, and we moved to Connecticut and then to Kansas.

In the 50’s we lived in a sub development outside of Kansas City. My father could not have a farm, so he had the vision of “the perfect lawn.” Our soil was hostile and unyielding, full or roots and rocks. One day I returned home from a Yale Club picnic and discovered that Dad had borrowed a truck and driven down the highway to a dairy farm. He had trucked in two and a half tons of organic fertilizer and dumped it in our front yard. The mound was huge. My mother, wearing a pillbox hat and white gloves, returned from her shopping trip on Maiden Lane in Kansas City. She took one look at the mountain in our front yard, and I witnessed two miracles. One was that I never knew that a fair-skinned, blond Swede could turn absolutely purple. Secondly she didn’t kill my father. Dad, pleased as punch, put his thumbs in his red suspenders (which were over his Sears and Roebuck red and black checked shirt, and exclaimed, “Son, someday all this will be yours.” All I could think to say was, “Gee, thanks Dad.” He then placed my hands on a Gravely ten horsepower walk-behind tractor and said, “Bartlett, start plowing.” For two weeks I worked the soil. I hit every rock and root in the ground. But I also learned that you had to figure out where you were going, set certain goals and constantly work toward them. If you looked back you would hit a root and throw your back, neck and everything else out of whack. In the end we planted seed and watered. Unfortunately, Dad never had the perfect lawn because for the next seven years Kansas City experienced severe drought.

Was my plowing worth it? You bet. I learned a great lesson and my father took satisfaction in knowing that he had done what needed to be done. I learned to have a sense a direction, set goals, and work the plan in spite of resistance and obstacles. You can, of course choose your furrows and general patterns, and the Epistle for today suggests some of the patterns to follow: love, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. But you have to move ahead. Jesus knew what He was talking about when He said you can’t plow and look back at the same time.

Now what does all this have to do with us and with the kingdom of God? Jesus’ face was set towards Jerusalem. He had preached the Gospel of God’s judgment, forgiveness, compassion and the promise of eternal life. He had clearly articulated the message that God’s work was being done in the world, His will was being done. Jesus was now in the process of fulfilling the will of God and embodying the Gospel that He preached. He was “walking the walk,” not just “talking the talk.” From this point on there was no turning back. His call to His disciples is for total commitment to Him, to his expiation (sacrifice) and to His Gospel.

That call to Christian discipleship, to Christian witness, to Christian service and stewardship is as clear and relevant today as it was two thousand years ago. Some things never change. We are called to put our hand to the plow and to persevere over the obstacles and challenges, roots and rocks, of contemporary life.

As a parish we are in the midst of the call of a new rector. We stand with the prophets in the tradition of seeking justice and righteousness for all people. We stand, also, in the tradition of the apostles by proclaiming the “good news” of salvation in Jesus Christ as we seek to serve Christ in all persons (baptismal covenant). We have a laudatory history, having helped found the first hospital in Stamford, the first library, the Boys and Girls Club, one of the oldest Boy Scout troops. Our outreach was for many years through St. Luke’s at the corner of Pacific and Woodlawn in the south end; there we ministered to the immigrants who worked at Yale and Town. We sheltered both Swedish and German congregations, as we do the Haitian congregation “L’Eglise de L’Epiphanie.” For hundreds of years we have had a tradition of glorious music.

But if all we can do is look back, if all the church can talk about is the past history, then we are like the plowman who is wandering around the field, looking back over his shoulder. Churches that can only talk about the past, “we are the first church in Overshoe County,” are dead. They are basically a mountain of bricks and stones (I know, because I served in one like that in 1958).

A vital parish is one that believes and proclaims the Gospel clearly to a vibrant and changing city. A vital parish has a vision of who it is and what it wants to become. It dreams dreams and sees visions. It yearns to be actively building the kingdom of God in the here and now and in the great by and by. Moreover, it is not fair to call a rector to a parish if there is not already a sense of energy and mission. I think the call committee has worked hard to articulate such a sense of mission in our Parish Profile. We are grateful to them for that. But we don’t have to wait for someone to come to light a fire under us. We can set tentative markers or goals to guide and energize us.

Here is my list: 1) We could get serious about promotion and advertising. We are open other times than just Christmas and Easter. We need to seriously pursue both print and website communication. 2) We can do more with our concerts and music. We are a sacramental denomination. Therefore we should regularly perform the great masses as part of our worship services: St. Cecelia Mass, Lord Nelson Mass, Mozart, etc. 3) We could expand our Christmas Show to include caroling in the weeks before and after, a Boar’s Head festival, develop a Dickens’ Christmas theme with costumes and lamplighters and bring in the Salvation Army Band. 4) Why not re-open St. Luke’s Chapel with a service celebrated there weekly in order to reconsecrate the sacred space and to eventually prepare for the population explosion of one thousand new housing units in the South End? 5) Lastly, how about guaranteeing that every child goes to Camp Washington next year and that we put in motion a dynamic youth program?

These are just some suggestions. I can’t implement them, but you can. Of course they cost money, but only about one half of the people on our membership lists pledge. Now in a short time we will be starting a Capital Fund Drive in order to revamp our buildings. If it is to be successful, it will have to have the ingredients of dreams and visions of ways in which we can articulate and live out our commitment to Jesus Christ. Envision in the rebuilding dedicated Godly Play Rooms, a Scout room, a youth room, a choir and rehearsal room, a dining room with nice chairs, a media center, decent facilities for programs to help immigrants (such as good space for the International Institute), air conditioning, handicap access and facilities.

These are just a few achievable goals that require a lot of plowing and looking forward, if St. John’s is to be more than a pile of rocks in the twenty-first century, where its glory is in the past, rather than in our Lord Jesus Christ who calls us towards the Kingdom of God.

Perhaps I am out of place. But I do not think what I am envisioning is works righteousness. Rather I see it as a living out of our faith and our witness to the world around us.

You and I are called, of course, to live out our faith in our personal lives, by dealing with the rocks and roots that cause us to stumble, fall down, and sometimes lose our way. Through prayer, compassion, dedication and sacrifice we deal with loss, illness, failure and disappointments. The glory of a place like St. John’s is that there are so many opportunities to do something, although small, that is important and useful. We have been advertising in the bulletin for weeks for greeters. Sign up. We need more ushers. We constantly are pleading for fellowship and coffee hour volunteers. Our Godly Play program offers opportunities for service (you can sit on a chair and greet) as does our childcare needs. Small tasks but ways of enriching both your lives and the lives of others.

Allow yourself to be enthusiastic and to love St. John’s. Allow yourself to rejoice in the Lord and to glory in the building of the Kingdom of God. Allow yourself to feel the spirit moving, prodding, and loving you. We are not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy, but you and I still have the challenge of setting our hands to the plow and moving forward. As Dad said, “Bartlett, start plowing.” Brothers and sisters in Christ let us go forward in the name of Christ. Amen.