No, I haven’t gone Catholic, and I’m not laboring under a hugely debilitating awareness of my shortcomings and failures, numerous though they are. It’s just that new status updates and blog posts (things that are supposed to be done fairly regularly but that I allowed to lapse for months on end) always bring this phrase to mind. “It’s been 8 months? a year? since my last blog entry.”
Without further ado…here’s my most recent sermon.
FOCUS June 30, 2013 — Luke 9:51-62
9:51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.
9:52 And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him;
9:53 but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.
9:54 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?”
9:55 But he turned and rebuked them.
9:56 Then they went on to another village.
9:57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”
9:58 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.”
9:59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”
9:60 But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
9:61 Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.”
9:62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
I love this piano. It’s the piano my mom and dad bought in the early 40s so she could teach piano lessons at home, and have a place to practice her own playing.
It’s the piano I first learned to play on. There are some marks on the lower left part of the keyboard frame where I literally cut teeth by chewing on it. It tasted bitter.
My brothers and I have all had this piano in our homes at one time or another – it has lived with David and me for the last 28 years.
I love this piano.
But I need to find a new home for it. David and I are trying desperately to take control of our house again. We live in an old house that is a bit on the smallish side. We like it, but it just isn’t a huge place. If it were, I wouldn’t need to find a new home for the piano. This piano is on the large-ish side, and it dominates the only interior wall of the dining room.
We don’t and probably won’t use the dining room as a dining room because we need a comfy, quiet, inviting place to sit and read or visit with friends much more often than we need another table. We also need more bookshelves than we currently have because, even after having ruthlessly giving away dozens and dozens of books, we still have a lot of books and probably always will. And we have some weird and interesting objets d’art we would like to be able to have out where they remind us of people we love and places we’ve been. I even have a second piano – ok, electronic keyboard – that is full size and sounds good. I usually play it instead. It isn’t barricaded behind boxes of books and things that need a place. I can bag when I need to take it somewhere, or to make space for something else. It’s way more practical. It’s portable. It’s multifunctional. It doesn’t weigh a quarter of a ton. (I PREFER a “real” acoustic piano, though, on principle. So that when the power goes out, I can still play and compose those great works I’ve been working on…. Yeah, right!)
My beloved piano is an impediment to progress. It is the final log that needs to give way to allow the jam to break apart and let the river flow through. We’ve been talking about redoing this room for months, and the piano is still there.
David declares I’m stuck.
I hate it when he’s right. Because then I have to examine what’s behind my motivation to hang on to this instrument, or my lack of motivation to part with it, and that’s hard because it’s connected to everything else. It’s a log jam on a number of levels.
And I think it comes down to focus.
In today’s scripture, Jesus said three things that all work together to make one point.
The first was his response to the man who spoke to them as they were going along the road: “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 person, he said “Follow me!” but the person he said it to answered, “First let me go bury my father….” To which J answered, Let the dead bury their own dead.
Still another person said to J, “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.”
So what does he mean by all that?
It’s important to understand that this whole passage is framed by the fact that Jesus has “set his face toward Jerusalem.” He’s made up his mind to get with the program, to accept the mission, go the distance. This is not a pleasure cruise. He knows once he goes to Jerusalem, he isn’t ever coming out again. He is willingly heading into situations that will ultimately bring about his death. Jesus is resolute. He is intent. He is FOCUSED.
But it’s hard to be focused because as a human being, he is also still susceptible to temptations and distractions. Maybe that’s why his responses seem a bit extreme. He’s trying to stay the course.
When I was a kid, I used to feel sorry for Jesus, that he had no real place to call home, no place to lay his head. My home meant a great deal to me; it was sad to think that God’s son didn’t have any of those things that I knew in part even then were such blessings. What Jesus is telling the would-be follower is “Hey, this life is no picnic. This is a hard road, and you are not going to be comfortable or even safe in the way you have come to think of those things. Following me is not for fair-weather friends. You can’t be superficial. You can’t get distracted. You must have focus.”
In the second part, it’s Jesus who does the asking of someone. “Follow me!” he says. And the person says “Yes! –But…..” The “but” in this case is a worthy cause – a major one: burying one’s father. That’s what dutiful and obedient offspring DO when a parent dies. It’s expected. It’s important. Nobody is going to fault you for missing a beat when you pause to do this. They would more likely criticize you if you don’t. But Jesus is saying, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” That seems harsh. Cold. Unfeeling. However, the kind of focus Jesus has and that anyone must have to truly follow him is complete and total. Plus, he adds something that sheds a little light: “But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” In a sense, following Jesus and proclaiming the kingdom of God is the narrow passage to LIFE in all its fullness, and people who do not do that are already spiritually dead. At least, not as fully alive as they could be. They’re missing out. Jesus is not against caring for your parents. It’s that following Jesus trumps taking care of the dead. Yes – it is THAT compelling. It demands focus.
And the third person, who also says, “Yes – but….” It’s the same kind of thing. Yes, Jesus, yes, I’ll follow you, but let me say goodbye to my family first. Let me sell this house first. Let me get out of school first. Let me retire first. It’s so easy to chain all the excuses together until you have basically lived your life on your own terms until you absolutely can’t anymore and THEN you’ll follow Jesus, after you have nothing left to lose. Farmers who plow keep their hands on the plow and don’t let go. They don’t keep stopping and looking back. They. Plow. Jesus is saying don’t look back, don’t look down, look at ME . No excuses. And focus.
I think it’s hard for most of us to understand the magnitude of what God is calling Jesus to do, at least from our vantage point some 2000 years later. Dying for the sins of the world so that we could begin to understand that death is not the end is a big deal. I mean, as far as any of us knows, here in this place we have the amazing gift of one life. One life. God wants us to live it fully, which we can really only do by giving it away. Coming to believe that and DOING it are part of the intricate dance we engage in with God.
The kind of focus we need in order to be able to engage in this dance is itself illusive. It’s paradoxical. The harder you lock in on it, the more obscure it becomes. The harder you try to stay the course, the more you go in circles. It’s blocking out all distractions while opening yourself up in the midst of them. It’s holding tight with open arms. It’s losing your life in order to find it.
I believe God somehow has a purpose for each one of us, and I believe there is much value in living toward it, toward discovering it. I believe it’s important to live life as fully as we can, and sometimes that’s easier than other times even though we try.
God is like a gardener pruning a shrub. Sometimes shrubs need to be cut way back in order to grow, even if there are some pretty parts in what gets chopped. Sometimes people need to let go of a lot of things that clutter their lives in order to grow, even if they really like some of those things, like old family pianos. We all tend to hang onto things we don’t need, I think, whether they are tangible furnishings or far less visible things. Maybe there’s an old piano in your life, maybe in your home, maybe invisible to anyone but you and God. We attach all kinds of meanings to all kinds of things that ultimately serve to clutter our lives and our relationship with God. We do this for all kinds of reasons, some of them very good. But those things become distracting baggage, and it’s hard to follow God’s lead in the dance when you’re towing a lot of distracting stuff. It’s a tricky balance.
I don’t really think God cares whether I have an old piano or not. I could be wrong about that, but – it’s not really about the piano. The piano is just a symptom. My issues with the piano somehow run parallel to issues in my faith journey. I want to grow, simplify, use my time well, enjoy life, work hard, have adventures. I also want to remember where I came from and the family, friends, people and places that have been enough a part of my life to define it. Just like Jesus shows us what God is like in a way we can understand, this piano conundrum is part of where I live right now in my faith journey.
The things my faith journey and this piano issue have in common?
They re both about making changes that help me live life more fully, which is a lot easier without a lot of clutter and unresolved sentimental issues. Letting go of “stuff” can be hard. But hanging onto it – for me at least, in this situation – shows that I think I’m in control of….what? My past?? It shows my reluctance to forge ahead into the unknown of a new stage of life – being an empty-nester with a kid in college, being someone whose parents have both died, being someone who is past the half-way point in life and still doesn’t know what she wants to be doing in five years, or when she grows up. But there’s still music to be made, and a dance to be danced. And God doesn’t wait for us to get it “all right.” God meets us where we are, even if we’re over there in the corner by the piano.
Thanks be to God for that.