Rev. Maureen Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
June 30, 2013
“Follow the Yellow Brick Road”
Have any of you ever tried to bargain with God?
Have you ever lifted up a prayer and promised God that you would become a more faithful servant in exchange for an answer to your prayer?
Have you ever said, “If you do this one thing for me, God, I promise I’ll go to church every Sunday” or “I promise I’ll pray every day and give more of my time and money to those in need.”
Some of us may even take it to the extreme and say, “God, if you get me out of this bind, I promise I’ll become a priest or a nun or a missionary and dedicate my life in service to you!”
I sometimes wonder if people look at us in the clergy and think, “Dang, I wonder what kind of trouble she got into to make that deal.”
In our gospel story today, one of Jesus’ prospective disciples makes the promise that we all make as Christians. The man sees Jesus walking along the road and he calls out to him, “I will follow you wherever you go!”
But just as with us, Jesus knows this is a promise that the man is unlikely to keep.
We make a lot of promises like this in our lives, not just to God but also to each other.
We make those in-the-moment commitments that we swear we’ll live up to from this day forward - Assurances spoken in earnest with a genuine belief that we will never fall back on our word.
It starts when we’re young.
“Mom, if you let me get a puppy I swear that I’ll walk him and feed him every day!”
“Dad, if you let me borrow the car I swear I’ll never ask for anything else ever again.”
As adults the promises we make to each other may not be explicitly contingent on what we expect to receive in return, but the expectation is there all the same….even if we don’t say it at the time.
I promise I will love you forever….(unless you fail me in some way, or stop loving me).
I promise that I will always be there for you….(unless I’m distracted by what’s going on in my own life, or if it’s too painful for me to be present with what you’re going through).
I promise that I will never hurt you or let you down in any way……(but you know I will, because as human beings this is an impossible standard for us to live up to).
We break our promises to each other because rarely is life as simple as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Human relationships are messy, complicated undertakings, as we drag all the baggage of our upbringings, expectations, and past hurts into every encounter that we have.
If we have so much difficulty honoring our commitments to each other, how much more difficult is it for us to honor our commitments to God?
In our gospel reading this morning, we encounter three newly minted disciples who shout out to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go!” and one by one Jesus turns to them and says, “Are you absolutely sure that’s what you really want to do?”
Jesus has turned his face towards Jerusalem.
Which means he is preparing to journey to his death.
He knows that what he has done up until this point and what he is about to do in the holy city of Jerusalem will ultimately get him killed.
And here he has three fresh-faced disciples in front him ready to sign on without truly understanding the cost.
We too are eager to walk in the ways of Jesus and yet most of us have no idea what it is we’re getting ourselves into.
We’re like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, who joins the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion on an adventurous search for love, wisdom, and courage.
All we need to do is follow the Yellow Brick Road to find the One who will give us everything that we seek.
But while some may view Christianity as a roadmap to happiness, Jesus is quick to point out that following in his footsteps is a dangerous undertaking. The road to Jerusalem is chock full of roadblocks and landmines, and there is no marked path of golden bricks to keep us from wandering astray.
As with the novice disciples in our gospel story, before we even leave the comfort of our homes to step onto the road to Jerusalem, Jesus issues us three warnings about the conditions that we will face along the way….and the level of commitment that is necessary to see it through to the end.
“Although the birds have nests, and the foxes have holes, the son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” On this journey don’t expect to stay in four-star hotels, or even one-star dives in the sketchy part of town, because like Jesus, the message we have to share about God’s inclusive love and grace is not one that many people are willing to hear. We will have plenty of doors slammed in our faces, and we will spend many a night sleeping on the side of the road. This is not a life of power and comfort that we are committing to, but rather one of destitution and rejection.
“Let the dead bury the dead”… because as disciples of Jesus we have been resurrected and given new life. There is no time to waste. There will always be one more thing that we need to do before committing to the road of discipleship. One more bill to pay, one more loose end to tie up. Let those who remain attached to their old lives stay behind and tend to the dead.
We are called to preach the coming of the Kingdom of God, to ensure that one day death itself will be no more.
“Do not put your hand to the plow and then look back”… for those who turn away from their work end up plowing a crooked furrow.
We must keep our eyes ahead and watch where we’re going. We must detach ourselves from whatever it is that we’ve left behind, as these things only serve to distract us: Our home, our family, the responsibilities that have kept us rooted in place. We must let go of all of them to be a true disciple of Christ.
Now after hearing these harsh warnings many of us may be inclined to respond like the three hopeful disciples by saying, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Instead, we’ll return to our homes, our families, and our obligations, while doing our best to be observant Christians in our every day lives.
After all, the requests that these potential disciples made of Jesus were not unreasonable. Didn’t Jesus preach about love and compassion?
Shouldn’t he understand why one should be allowed to bury one’s father?
Or say goodbye to one’s family?
Isn’t it selfish to walk away from those who love us to go on a religious quest? What kind of person does such a thing?
In the mid 1980’s, American journalist Steven Newman left his life and family behind and became the first person to travel by foot around the world.
In his book, titled World Walk, he documented what turned out to be a four-year journey across the United States, Europe, northern Africa, southern Asia, and Australia.
Newman felt called to embark on this journey because he had a desire to learn more about the world and its people, but he also viewed his walk as a spiritual pilgrimage.
Newman’s decision to strike out on this journey was not an easy one.
His father was seriously ill at the time and was not expected to live the 3 to 4 years that the journey would take.
And yet, on a cold April morning in 1983, Steven Newman strapped on his backpack, said goodbye to his family and friends, and walked away from his home. He looked back only once, to notice the frail form of his father in his upstairs bedroom window, wiping away tears as he watched his only son leave home.
Newman spoke of the pain and sadness that turned his stomach as he walked away. He knew that it was most likely the last time that he would see his father alive, and that his mother would be left to deal with her grief on her own. But he walked away all the same.
We may think that Newman’s decision to leave his family and walk around the world on a spiritual pilgrimage was selfish and unwise.
If he was leaving home to follow some controversial religious guru we might judge him all the more harshly.
So what would be running through our minds if we were living in first century Palestine, standing with one foot on our family’s property, and the other on the road to Jerusalem?
Before us stands a man named Jesus, a religious guru touting controversial beliefs - beliefs that will most likely get him killed - and he’s looking us straight in the eye and saying, “Follow me.”
What would we do?
We’ve already watched him rebuke three men simply because they had other ideas about was expected of them as disciples.
Would he do the same to us if we wished to say goodbye to our families? Or bury a loved one? If we hesitated to respond because we didn’t like the idea of not having a warm bed to sleep in every night?
The cost of discipleship is something we hear a lot about in our churches.
But how many of us know what that means in modern day terms?
If it was hard for those in 1st century Palestine to walk away from what little they had, how much harder is it for those of us living in 21st century America?
Are we expected to give up our homes, our families, and all of our worldly possessions to be true followers of Christ?
Are we all supposed to live like Francis of Assisi or Mother Theresa?
It may reassure us to know that many scholars believe that Jesus did not intend for his words to be taken literally in this text.
He was most likely using hyperbole to make his point, as he did many times before. Jesus was not averse to employing exaggerations to get peoples attention - to break them out of their rutted way of thinking, to help them to imagine a new way of living in the world.
Perhaps Jesus’ objective in this text is not to tear his disciples away from their homes and families, but rather to stress the importance of getting the word out about the all inclusive Kingdom of God, and the role that we’re expected to play in bringing it about.
If Jesus could get some of his more casual followers to make the same commitment that his 12 disciples had then he could get the word out that much faster.
But before accepting any new disciples into his fold he had to determine whether they were up for the challenge.
Jesus’ words may seem harsh, but if we were about to set out on a journey that would take us far from home through potentially hostile territory, wouldn’t we want to know ahead of time what we were getting ourselves into?
Admittedly, committing oneself to following Jesus in 21st century America is much less fraught with danger then making the same commitment in 1st century Palestine.
Or is it?
Would you feel safe walking into a war zone, unarmed, carrying only a sign that read, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you?”
Would you risk arrest and interrupt a state sanctioned execution by standing up and saying, “You have heard it said, an eye for an eye, but I tell you, we are called to turn the other cheek – to practice forgiveness, not revenge?”
Would you be willing to not just serve up meals at a soup kitchen or volunteer at Anne Marie house, but to take it a step further by inviting a homeless person to live in your home? Or provide sanctuary to an undocumented immigrant? Or publically witness as a person of faith who stands up against racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and discrimination and injustice in any form?
These are hard questions, and truthfully, most of us would struggle to answer “yes” to any of them. But when we consider Jesus’ teachings, this is what the cost of discipleship looks like in our time, or any time.
Whether we stand in 1st century Palestine or 21st century America, with one foot in our front yard and the other on the road to Jerusalem, the commitment that Jesus asks of us is the same.
Perhaps you’ve seen the bumper sticker that reads: “If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”
Discipleship means living in ways we might not otherwise live.
When we make a commitment to follow Jesus we should be prepared for him to step right up to us and ask, “Do you know what it is you’re committing to?”
Because what we’re promising to do is hard, hard, stuff.
And it’s not just about participating in a church community and giving generously to those in need.
And it’s not just about standing up and publically speaking out for peace, equality, and justice.
Following Jesus is primarily about opening our hearts and treating every person we encounter with compassion, understanding, and grace.
It’s about swallowing our pride, not getting lost in our sorrow or anger when others have let us down, and being able to say to others, “I’m sorry I hurt you…what can WE do to move towards healing.”
To speak and act as Christians in our personal relationships is possibly the hardest requirement of discipleship.
Because it’s something we’re called to do every day of our lives.
We may be in search of a yellow brick road to follow, but Jesus has led us onto a road that will bring us to a much greater reward:
The healing of our human relationships.
The healing of our relationship with God.
The healing of our world.
The Good News is that all we need to do to get there is to answer Jesus’ call…
by saying, “I WILL follow you… WHEREVER you may go.”