Reconciliation and A Tractor

Ascensioncast

Sermon by The Rev. Patrick J. Wingo, June 30, 2019

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The Gospel: Luke 9:51-62

When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.

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.”

Sermon Text

Sermon for Proper 8C 6-30-19 CAK The Rev Patrick J Wingo   In late 1993 Mr Alvin Straight, 73 years old, of Laurens, Iowa, received news that his older brother Henry had suffered a stroke. Henry was 80, and the two men were estranged and had not seen each other for over ten years. Alvin decided that he needed to see his brother and make amends, but Alvin was arthritic and almost blind. He didn’t have a drivers license, and he didn’t like to accept help from anyone. But he badly wanted to see his brother, so he hooked up a supply trailer to his old red lawn tractor and drove out on the highway toward Henry’s home in Blue River Wisconsin, over 240 miles away. He got 25 miles, but then his old red tractor died, so after he was towed back to Laurens he bought a 1966 John Deere tractor and hit the road again. He broke down again on the trip but got the mower fixed. Then heavy rains forced him to stay for several days with one of his daughters who lived along his route. After a badly-needed Social Security check arrived in the mail, he was off again, and made it to within two miles of his brother’s house before he broke down yet again. But this time he finally accepted a ride. He stayed with his brother for several weeks, until he allowed a nephew to take him and his John Deere back home. When Alvin died in 1996, a John Deere tractor was in the funeral procession to the cemetery. (From “The Off Season: The Real Story About ‘The Straight Story’” by Mike Lunsford, The Tribune-Star, Terre Haute, IN, March 17th, 2015.)   Jesus said, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.” Or in a more modern translation, “No one who gets on his John Deere and gives up is fit for the kingdom of God.” This statement, and indeed everything in today’s reading from Chapter 9 in Luke’s gospel, flows from the first verse we heard: “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Luke is telling us that everything that will happen after Chapter 9 is in the context of Jesus looking straight ahead, without looking back, without doubting his path or what he is doing, to go to Jerusalem in order to fulfill God’s plan for the reconciliation of the world. It is as if Jesus has jumped on an old John Deere and will not be deterred from making it to the place where reconciliation would come through his own suffering, death, and resurrection so that death could be defeated on our behalf.   Chapter 9 begins with Jesus sending the disciples out on a mission to proclaim the Kingdom of God and to heal.     As the story continues we hear about the feeding of the 5000, and then Peter’s confession, when Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am,” and Peter speaks up and says, “You are the Messiah of God.” Then we hear about the Transfiguration, when Jesus went up on a high mountain and right there in front of Peter, James, and John he became dazzling white. This is followed by a powerful healing story, and finally we are brought to today’s passage. It’s as if Luke is squeezing into a few paragraphs several very important reminders about who Jesus is and what he can do so that we understand that when he sets his face to go to Jerusalem the stage is set for a confrontation between God’s Kingdom and the powers that oppose it. And it is clear that Jesus is putting his own hand to the plow, and will not turn back. He is jumping on the figurative John Deere, if you will, with a single-minded purpose: not just reconciliation with a person, but reconciliation for the whole world. But unlike Alvin Straight, Jesus also calls us to follow him. Actually, in Luke’s telling of this story someone first says to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go,” and Jesus replies, “foxes have holes and birds have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” or in other words, “If you really do choose to follow me you may be making a choice to live differently than you do now. So differently, in fact, that it may be uncomfortable, and challenging, and you may not like it sometimes. That’s what it’s like on the road to the Kingdom.” Then Jesus says to someone else, “Follow me,” and the person says, “Let me go and bury my father.” Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead,” possibly a well-known adage at the time, by which Jesus is probably saying, “Set your eyes forward to the things that give life, and do not dwell in the past.”   Another person says he will follow Jesus, and that’s when Jesus says his wonderful statement, “No one who sets his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God,” or, in our newer translation, No one who gets on his John Deere and gives up is fit for the Kingdom of God.”   But why is that? What is it about looking back from a plow, or giving up on your lawn tractor that is problematic? I have never plowed a field, so I turned to the “Science Notes” webpage of the University of California, Santa Cruz, for help. In an article about a GPS-guided autotractor, here’s what they say about plowing in a straight line:   “When plowing beds for row crops, such as corn, the tractor digs beds, where the seeds are planted, and furrows, which are the narrow trenches between the beds. A slight wiggle in the beds results in seeds falling into furrows when the farmer comes back to plant. Seeds that fall on furrows don’t get watered and fertilized efficiently. They don’t grow. For every seed that doesn’t become an ear of corn, the farmer loses money. With an autotractor, the seeds go in the beds every time.”   Whether you are talking about 21st century farming or 1st century farming, the principle is the same: when a farmer doesn’t plow straight rows, his crop won’t grow the way he intended. And if you look backwards when cutting your grass on the John Deere, you may run over a big stick, or your lawn is going to be a wiggly mess. And if you are riding your John Deere 250 miles to be reconciled with your brother, and you turn around to look behind you, you may end up in a ditch. If you are following Jesus, everything he wants for you is ahead of you. The past is forgiven. Your worldly concerns mean less. Reconciliation with God and with others is in front  of you, which is what God wants for all of us.   So we are called to look ahead toward the Kingdom of God with a single-minded commitment and purpose. We are told not to turn back, but that doesn’t mean we can’t look around us to see what we are encountering on the side of the road as we travel. If we are called to reconcile with God and with the world then we have to know what the world looks like.   What do you see on the side of the road? This gospel passage mentions the Samaritans, who were a mixed-race people who worshipped God but were enemies of the Jews. The disciples want to call fire down upon them but Jesus rebukes them, and then in the very next chapter Luke tells the story of the Good Samaritan, where the only person who helped the man left for dead on the side of the road was an enemy. So maybe you will see  someone different from you, or someone who thinks differently than you, or someone who you see as an enemy, and make a choice to show kindness. As Thomas Tarrants has written, “Love of neighbor… is not primarily emotional in nature. It is chiefly volitional, an act of the will. It is acting in the best interest of the other person…regardless of how you feel about them.”   This kind of love of neighbor, and indeed, love of enemy, leads to reconciliation.   Or perhaps on your journey when you stop for a potty break or a cup of coffee you will look at the news and see a world in disarray and wonder what you can do. Maybe you are sitting in a pew right now with someone who sees the same thing but comes at the issue from a completely different place than you do. Maybe God is calling you to be in relationship first and figure out how following Jesus leads both of you to respond to issues and problems and tragedy not as adherents of, say, a political party but as Christians. Followers of Jesus. Headed down the road on your John Deere, or your autotractor, or maybe, like Jesus, just walking, with your face set toward reconciliation in the Kingdom of God.