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Facing Forward

So, we continue our series on The Nameless in the Gospels with a story that involves three nameless travelers in Luke 9. In this story, we have three interactions between Jesus and some travelers.

The first traveler says “I’ll follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus responds, “Foxes have lairs, the birds of the sky have nests, but the Chosen One has nowhere to rest.”

The second traveler Jesus invites along, “Follow me,” he says. But the traveler replies, “Let me bury my father first.” Jesus responds, “Let the dead bury their dead.”

The third traveler approaches and says, “I’ll be your follower, but first let me say goodbye to my people at home.”  Jesus responds cryptically to them, “Whoever puts a hand to the plow but keeps looking back is unfit for the reign of God.” (Inclusive Bible)

Honestly, Jesus comes off as a bit harsh unless we put the passage in context. In Luke 9:51 we hear that, “As the time approached when he was to be taken from this world, Jesus firmly resolved to proceed toward Jerusalem…” Well, that explains a lot! This one line gives us a sense of urgency with which Jesus travelled. This wasn’t the beginning of his ministry; this was the final push to the end. Luke gives us the sense that Jesus is feeling the pressure from the authorities, perhaps Passover is approaching and he’s already planning to make his last stand at that time in Jerusalem.

Whatever the case, I think we can all understand why Jesus wanted people who were “all in.” if I were Jesus at this point, I'd want people with me who were committed to the movement, who understood the urgency, and who were loyal and unafraid of uncertainty. This wasn’t necessarily a joy ride, things could get tough. 

Geri Larkin, in her book The Chocolate Cake Sutra wrote, “On any spiritual path, it takes guts to keep going. Instead of forging ahead, we want to cling to the life we know.” We all know this, but the situation is different today. Jesus isn’t here. There is no urgency in moving forward on our spiritual paths now, or tomorrow, or even next year. So, what do we do with this passage? What do these nameless travelers have to teach us?

If joining Jesus on the journey is a metaphor for the spiritual path, I would suggest that these three nameless travelers provide three mirrors for us to look into in the hopes that we might see ourselves more clearly. So, let's flesh out their situations a bit.

The first traveler wants to join the band of followers, but Jesus basically says, “Remember, we’re not staying in 5-star hotels with breakfast included. In fact, I’m not sure where we’ll be sleeping. It may be on the ground out in the open. Foxes in dens and birds in nests might have it better than we do. So, think carefully about whether you can do this or not – without complaining! I’ve got no time for complainers.”

For us, today, I believe it asks us to examine how conscious and diligent we are about our spiritual growth. Are we willing to get out of our comfort zones, wake up early to get to church, forgo a day of personal time to serve others? Are we willing to let go of our need for certainty to embrace uncertainty and trust the process? Are we willing to risk?

Mark Nepo tells a great story about a friend of his who was painting his family room. He was up early and out the door to the hardware store picking up two gallons of red paint, the wooden mixing sticks, drop cloths and new brushes. He got home, mixed the paint outside, then tucked the drop cloths under his arms, put the brush between his teeth, grabbed a gallon of paint in each hand, and waddled to the door. He said, “I teetered there for minutes, trying to open the door, not wanting to put anything down. I was so stubborn. I had the door almost open when I lost my grip, stumbled backward, and wound up on the ground, red gallons all over me.” 

This amusing story applies to our spiritual lives as well. If we want to be able to open the doors in front of us, to take advantage of new growth opportunities, we sometimes have to put something down! We must be willing to order our priorities. 

The second traveler wants to bury their father before joining up, but Jesus says, “let the dead bury the dead.” Understood metaphorically, if we want to be fully alive, we can’t continue to focus on that which is dead, that which isn’t life-giving. There is a very old saying in North Borneo: “Whoever is able to cast off their skin shall not die.” This doesn’t mean that we can live forever, rather it means that the way to stay close to the Sacred Presence that runs through all things, is to be willing to grow and change. We must be willing to cast off that which no longer serves us, that which is dead in us. It may be dead ways of thinking, seeing, or believing. It may be dead relationships or draining relationships. It may be habits or behaviors which don't serve us. 

The third traveler wants to say good-bye to the people they are going to leave behind before joining Jesus. It sure sounds like a nice, caring, responsible thing to do. But maybe it is more about procrastinating, hedging?  Maybe Jesus was thinking if the traveler heads home they'll find too many reasons to stay home! It almost reminded me of buying a car. The car salesman knows that if you leave the showroom without closing the deal, there is a significant chance you won’t be back. 

There are so many obstacles that get in the way of our spiritual journeys. We get excited about the possibilities and then we take a step back and suddenly there isn’t enough time, we have too many commitments, it doesn’t seem as important, maybe we don’t really need it. And so, we let it go. We can always find reasons NOT to volunteer, NOT to serve the community, NOT to go on a retreat, or take a class or learn meditation. Why do you think we have sign-ups? Because then people feel some commitment. If we just hoped people would show up, what would happen? Nothing. Few, if any folks would show.

Jesus’ parting comment to this topic is that we can’t look back. He uses an example that made sense to his audience back then. He said if you’re plowing a field and looking back, your rows aren’t going to be straight! It will make weeding, cultivating, harvesting, and maintaining the field more difficult. 

It made me think of another story from my own life. Over 20 years ago now (yikes!) my friend Ann, and I, participated in a century ride in Death Valley to raise money for Juvenile Diabetes. It’s a 100-mile ride that took us all day through the desert. Well, we were about 13 miles into the ride and I was ahead of her. There was this awesome big hill I was going down and I was gaining as much speed as possible to get up the other side when I looked back to see where she was. Big mistake. I swerved off the road into the sand on the shoulder and went down. 

Face forward. Don’t’ be distracted by concern for the future or events in the past. Keep your priorities straight. Let go of what isn’t life-giving and don’t procrastinate! Keep forging ahead even though you may want to cling to the life you know. Life is precious, fragile and short and the fullness of life lies in opening the doors before us with hands open and ready to receive the lessons, love and opportunities before us.

Love & Light!