Text: Luke 9:57-62
Theme Verse: “Jesus said, ‘ No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”(Luke 9:62)
What is the price of commitment to, well, anything? When Vince Lombardi was a basketball coach at Fordham in the early 1940s, he used to have his players make a pledge before each practice. He’d stand them behind the end line and say, “God has ordained me to teach you young men about basketball today. I want all those who want that training to step across that line.” This wasn’t just an empty symbolic gesture. Lombardi understood the power of making a conscious act of commitment. That’s why he wanted his players to cross that line every day. Did he learn this tactic from Jesus? Perhaps. Jesus’ hard line drawn for would-be-followers in this passage from Luke’ s gospel makes us ask ourselves: Are we willing to cross that discipleship line today?
opening : 'I Will Serve Thee' (arr. B.K. Sawyer) :: Billie Kay Sawyer, piano
reader : Roy Peters
preaching : Rev Mark Briley
closing : 'We Believe' (Newsboys) :: The Rising Band; Isaac Herbert, band leader & lead vocal
“Now you’ve crossed the line,” he said to you with his eyes without having to say a word. “I’m drawing a line in the sand!” she said to your team and at that moment you weren’t sure which side you would choose. “You better toe the line…” your boss said out of fear of losing control. “There’s a thin line between love and hate,” she quoted casually but everyone in the room knew the intensity of that reality. Madonna sang “You just keep on pushing my love over the borderline.” The Man in Black, Johnny Cash, sang in a much lower octave than Madonna, “Because you’re mine, I’ll walk the line.” There’s nothing all that complicated about a line itself – in fact, most of us learned how to draw as children by creating stick figures – simple lines that depicted a drawing of our family perhaps – skinny torsos with disproportionately sized heads teetering on top of them. But the kind of lines we think about every day of our lives represent no simple matter. In fact, everything may be at stake. Those lines represent what we stand for, who we love, how we believe. They often represent the price of commitment.
Vince Lombardi is a legendary coach whose name is on the most coveted trophy in the sport of football and is raised every February by the Super Bowl champions. At 26 years old, Lombardi started his coaching career at a High School in New Jersey where he also taught Latin, chemistry, and physics. In 1947, after elevating that team to arguably the most prominent high school program in the country, he took a job coaching the freshman football and basketball teams at Fordham University. Lombardi expected a lot from his players. When it came to his basketball team, he had a ritualistic start to every practice. He would stand his players behind the end line and say, “God has ordained me to teach you young men about basketball today. I want all those who want that training to step across that line.” This wasn’t just an empty symbolic gesture. Lombardi understood the power of making a conscious act of commitment. That’s why he wanted his players to cross that line every day. I’ve stood on some baselines in my day – usually waiting for coach to blow the whistle again to run another gasser. But what a picture – Lombardi asking his players to invest in the team again every practice. I couldn’t help but wonder if this coaching tactic was inspired by Jesus’ words in our focus text this morning from Luke’s Gospel. It’s a tough word. It’s a coach’s kind of word if you ask me. Jesus seemingly draws a line in the dirt and says to his would-be-followers, “God has ordained me to teach you about discipleship today. If you want that kind of training, step across this line.”
To be honest, I think Jesus was a little frustrated at this point. We don’t tend to think of Jesus being flustered at all but we see a number of places in scripture where he’s kind of put out with people. Have you ever tried to save the world? Maybe not a fair question. But I know you’ve attempted to do something of deep meaning and felt like what you’re dealing with most of the time were answering trivial questions about what color the streamers should be? In this little motif in Luke’s gospel, Jesus offers back to each would be follower, “Have you considered the cost? Run the numbers and then let me know if you want in.” Chapter 9 of Luke’s gospel is an eventful one. Read it through this afternoon and you’ll have a sense of the thick of the work Jesus is pouring himself into at this time. In that chapter alone, Jesus empowers the twelve disciples, setting them out to proclaim the kingdom. Herod’s feathers are ruffled and he’s after Jesus. Jesus gets frustrated when he asks the Disciples to feed the 5,000+ folks and they say, “We can’t do that,” but then Long John Silvers fish and hush puppies come through. Peter declares Jesus to be the Messiah. Jesus tells him he’s right but that he shouldn’t talk about it and then he clues in the rest of the twelve that suffering will soon be his. He tells them that anyone who wants to follow him must deny themselves and pick up a cross. That sounds hard. Then, he hikes up the mountain with his closest buddies where he is transfigured and holds a hologrammed meeting with Moses and Elijah. Peter, James and John are astonished by all of this but Jesus says, “Keep this quiet too.” When they go back down the mountain, Jesus is met by a man who not only wants his son healed but says, “I begged your disciples to heal him and they couldn’t do it.” Jesus mutters some stern words under his breath like Chris Farley’s bus driver character on Billy Madison but proceeds to heal the boy. While everyone was amazed, Jesus’ intensity was growing and he says, “Let this message sink into your brain – The son of Man is about to be betrayed into human hands.” Nobody understood what he was talking about but they were too embarrassed to ask. Instead, they begin an argument about which of them would be the most famous of Jesus’ entourage. And Jesus rolls his eyes. This is followed by two instances of the Disciples trying to keep others who were outside of their group from being helped. The second group, actually, had shown a lack of hospitality to Jesus and the twelve. James and John turn to Jesus and say, “Master, do you want us to call a bolt of lightning down out of the sky and incinerate them?” Jesus is appalled by the notion and rebukes them for it. All of this is found in Chapter 9 of Luke’s gospel before we get to the short pericope we’re looking at today. No wonder Jesus is a tad irritated.
So… when people flock to him wanting to be a part of the effort, it makes sense that Jesus is at a place of drawing a line. Time is of the essence. The kingdom he is building is not like a Sunday afternoon open house for the nosey neighbors to trape through your house on the market– no – only serious inquires please. The stakes are high. Jesus loves each and every one of those people he encounters but with the intensity ahead of him, he was growing clearer all the time of the cost of discipleship.
I wonder if we understand the cost well enough. There’s no question that the church is to be a safe haven for the hurting and struggling and Lord knows there’s not a one of us who doesn’t stand in the need of the grace of God. But never let us forget the practice that is required when it comes to living healthily in the kingdom work of God. Allen Iverson was famously criticized for sloughing off on the need for practice when he played in the NBA. The interview that played over and over again was Iverson’s response to reporters who wouldn’t drop the topic. “Practice!?!” he snaps back? “You wanna talk about practice!?! I’m supposed to be the franchise player and we’re talking about practice.” Twenty times in two minutes he says, “We’re talking about practice, man!” The YouTube clip that has been viewed over 10 million times ends with Iverson saying, “How the hell can I make my teammates better by practicing.” Everybody likes the glory. The Disciples wanted the glory moments – “Who’s social media post is gonna get the most likes…” Jesus had heard enough. Practice is where discipleship truly comes to life. And Jesus knew that the only way the movement would transform the world is if practicing disciples stepped across that end line every day, willing again to give their all to the cause.
This is an interesting time in Jesus’ three year ministry. Jesus wasn’t working for job security. He needed people to step up if this new Way of life was going to survive. He needed to work his way out of a job. It’s why he says in John 14 – “Whoever trusts me will not only do what I’m doing but even greater things than me.” That’s a crazy thought! But that’s the movement Jesus builds. He doesn’t create a sin management religion – that already existed. Richard Rohr says, “Sin management can hold a flock together for a while, but soon we realize that there is little maturity, or even love, in a flock that is glued together in this way.” Rohr says this in his book, Dancing Standing Still. And he’s preaching. And some would say he starts meddling. Listen to what he says next. “There is nothing in Jesus’ teaching to suggest there should be different levels of discipleship in his vision. We are all equally called to follow Jesus, but we created our own caste system; some people were supposed to “get it” and take it seriously, and some were just along for the ride.” Jesus puts out the same grace to everyone… and …the same challenge. “Follow me.” Practice the faith. Don’t get distracted from the effort.
So the first casual inquiry Jesus meets in this passage from Luke is from a fan perhaps who says, “I’ll go with you wherever!” Jesus says, “Are you ready to rough it? We’re not glamping. We’re not staying in nice places.” Another inquires and Jesus says, “Follow me.” And this two-word, cross-the-line invitation is met with, “Hey, yeah, Jesus, I’ll get right on that after we have dad’s funeral.” To which Jesus offers the stunning comeback: “Let the dead bury their own dead.” And everyone around him sprays their Carmel Macchiato’s right out their mouths. “What did he just say?” I promise you, when I took a course in Pastoral Care in seminary, they did not recommend saying this to someone when they say no to your request for them to set up tables for the church pot luck dinner because their loved one has died. Was Jesus just irritated and snippy? Maybe. Some commentators have said that the phrase, “Let me bury my dad first” was a common way of saying, “When my parent’s have passed on…” or “When the kids are out of the house…” or “Someday when we sell the farm…” as opposed to a comment of someone in the immediate stages of grief. Mourning was such a ritualistic experience and season in the culture that this context may be more likely but maybe Jesus just hadn’t had any caffeine yet that morning. A third person, because good biblical narratives often tell stories in threes, says, “I’m in too Jesus but let me get my house in order first.” Again, Jesus’ invitation is met with resistance and he says, “You can’t keep looking back.” Whatever excuse we might make for Jesus to soften the feeling we experience in this passage can’t really relieve the fact that Jesus is serious about what it takes to follow him well. One foot in and one foot out only works in the Hokey Pokey.
Jesus was focused and a little intense… okay… a lot intense… but some things are worth a dose of passion. Can we really follow him that way? Tommy Baker is a fitness and life coach that I’m not overly familiar with but a friend posted part of a word he shared recently that encouraged some two-feet-in discipleship (even though he was talking about fitness). He said, “If you really want to develop an unbreakable mindset, all it takes is a committed decision to learning, growing and expanding. And that means: You find ways to grow and expand every single day. You turn off Real Housewives, ESPN, and the Crisis News Network — and you invest in your mind. You quit making excuses and decide to hit the gym — working on your vitality and mental toughness. You commit to the ONE business idea instead of entertaining seven of them — and shut off all noise and distraction. Do these for long enough — and magic happens. Yes, it takes faith, grit, persistence, and endurance — but one day you wake up and you’re living in a different world. There’s a clear demarcation of who you’ve been, and who you are.” And I recently shared this word with you that he offers next: “This [clear demarcation of who you’ve been, and who you are now] comes in the moment people describe as ‘it just clicked’ or ‘it all came together.’ It’s what I like to call: ALIGNMENT. Alignment is felt in every cell in your body and every action you take. You feel at peace, you feel connected, inspired and driven. It’s out there, it’s available, it’s waiting for you. Go get it.” Then he signs off, “Resist Average, Tommy.” Now… this is all nice and infomercially but there’s a thread of truth in there if we’ll hear it and apply it to our faith. It’s a consistent focus. It’s a committed discipleship. It’s a passion for the things Jesus cared most about — prayer, welcome, lifting the poor, connecting with the need of the stranger, forgiveness, steady faith, … and-the-greatest-of-these-is-love stuff. We won’t achieve some discipleship height all at once. But stepping across the line each morning will serve the call of Christ well… and transform our lives and others along the way.
I know the struggle that I’m guessing you know too. It’s the middle of July. It’s hot. Many of our friends are at this very moment posting amazing pictures of their vacation on Instagram and you’re thinking, “Hey, don’t we get some credit for showing up this morning?” As always, yes. Showing up is a critically important part of crossing that daily discipleship line. But deep inside I think we all want to rise to a new level – to a deeper understanding, to a broader compassion, to a growing love, to a transformative hope – even when it scares us a little to imagine what such a risk will cost us.
Last Saturday, I officiated the wedding of my wife’s oldest brother, Ken. I met Ken for the first time at my own wedding. He was serving in the military and couldn’t come home until our big day. As Carrie’s father had died when she was 12 years old, Ken, as her eldest brother, walked her down the aisle. It was an honor to return the favor of sorts and stand with him in this big moment of his life. Ken and Crystal found each other following some hurtful and burned experiences in previous relationships. Maybe you have experienced such pain. If you haven’t, you know someone who has. The wedding took place on a gravel road near my mother-in-law’s farm. It sounds a bit strange but it really was a beautiful thing. It was a long enough lane that you couldn’t see the end of the road on either side. Here is the wedding party before we walked the aisle. Each side of the road was lined with beautiful trees that branched out over the lane creating the right amount of shade for an outdoor wedding in the middle of July. One groomsman did lock his knees for too long and passed out head first into the ditch off the side of the road but he amazingly came-to without a scratch on his face so we carried on. During the rehearsal, we drew little lines in the gravel where people in the wedding party were to stand and I couldn’t help but think a bit about those lines as Ken and I led the walk up the lane to begin the ceremony. In the middle, three little lines. One for me, one for him, and one for Crystal. We talked about the road – the metaphor it provided – the road behind them a reminder of all they had been through in the past. The trials and joys, the laughs and tears. We talked about the lines we stood on in that moment – the threshold moment into the life ahead – a place where a sacred commitment would be made and re-made day after day. The road they saw ahead of them, vanishing at its point where the eyes could no longer see, a vision of the future they would traverse together. They had every reason to be jaded toward such a commitment. They could easily fear the unknown. But they chose to cross the line together. At one point, they turned to face their friends and family who had gathered on that road to celebrate with them. There were thoughts about all they had shared. The times they pulled each other through. The times when they learned the value of a brother, a sister, a friend, a parent. It was a moving moment, standing on a line in a gravel road on a hot July afternoon.
What line are you standing on this morning? What courage do you need to step forward into the future? Whose face do you need to turn toward and see that knows the past, walked it with you, and nods even now knowing you have what it takes to take a leap forward into the unknown? Amid those faces, look for Jesus won’t you? He’s there. Connect with his eyes. His eyes are saying, “You got this. Come on now. Follow me.”
 Sacred Hoops. By Phil Jackson. Pg. 64. Hachette Books. New York. 1995.
 Adapted from Richard Rohr, Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer (Paulist Press: 2014), 55-57, 98.