Sunday, June 30, 2013

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 9
51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. 54When 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?’ 55But he turned and rebuked them. 56Then they went on to another village.
57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ 58And 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.’ 59To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ 60But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ 61Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ 62Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’

Time for a quiz! In the Bible, yes or no?

Never cast pearls before swine (Mt 7.6)
A house divided against itself shall not stand. (Mt 12.25)
Charity begins at home. (Sir Thomas Browne)
Moderation in all things. (Aristotle)
To thine own self be true. (Shakespeare)
God helps those who help themselves. (Benjamin Franklin)
Money is the root of all evil. (1 Tim 6.10)
Can the leopard change his spots? (Jer 13.23)
Cleanliness is next to godliness. (Wesley)
This too shall pass. (ANE proverb)
God works in mysterious ways. (Cowper)
The eye is the window to the soul. (Shakespeare)
Let the dead bury the dead. (Lk 9.59)

I’m trying not to judge you, but it’s kinda what I do for a living. But never mind that, focus instead on the proverbial Jesus. Clearly in Luke 9 Jesus is in a mood, or else he wouldn’t be so terribly oblique, vague, or cryptic. Where else can you find gems such as “let the dead bury the dead,” or “foxes have holes and birds nests,” or my favourite of the bunch: “No one who puts hand-to-plough and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.”

Actually, the last one is more folk-wisdom than proverb. At first glance it seems cryptic, until you imagine yourself on a plough, fastened to a powerful team ready to drag you, and have your head in the wrong place. You’re going to make a mess, and likely become a laughing stock. No one is going to come and say ‘this too shall pass’ if your field looks like something Picasso did.

In fact, you might argue that Jesus was being more prophetic than proverbial, channeling both Hosea and Isaiah to explain what it means to have a duty to the Kingdom of God. So let’s begin with Hosea—perhaps the most interesting prophet we find in the Bible—and see what he has to say about ploughing.

First, like George Stroumboulopoulos, I need to give you his biography. Hosea, like all prophets, is particularly attuned to God’s Word for humanity. He repeats the words God would have us hear, but he goes a step further: demonstrating in his life the way God and God’s people are getting along. And in a word, it’s not well.

Hosea marries a prostitute named Gomer, and she is meant to represent both Israel’s constant infidelity with other gods and God ongoing willingness to forgive. So he married a symbol. And he and his symbol had three kids, and the names of the kids also speak to the troubled relationship between God and Israel.

The eldest, a boy, is called Jezreel, named for the valley where Israel will suffer defeat. The next, a girl, is called Lo-ruhamah, which roughly translated means “receive no mercy.” This reflects how God will deal with a disobedient Israel. The last kid, another boy, is called Lo-ammi, meaning “not my people,” and this is the clearest message yet about how God truly feels. Despite this, just one verse after this alarming family portrait God says:

“Yet the Israelites will be like the sand on the seashore, which cannot be measured or counted. In the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ they will be called ‘children of the living God.’

No one said God would be consistent. Nevertheless, the real point of sharing Hosea’s bio is what comes when the prophet turns his attention to farming. And it sounds vaguely familiar:

Sow righteousness for yourselves,
reap the fruit of unfailing love,
and break up your unplowed ground;
for it is time to seek the Lord,
until he comes
and showers his righteousness on you.

So this is more farming-as-metaphor, but this time we get an actual lesson in ancient near-eastern farm practice. First, the farmer would break up the soil, then put hand to plow to create furrows, and then seeds are sown. We get an even better description in Isaiah 28:

Listen and hear my voice;
pay attention and hear what I say.
When a farmer plows for planting, does he plow continually?
Does he keep on breaking up and working the soil?
When he has levelled the surface,
does he not sow caraway and scatter cumin?
Does he not plant wheat in its place,[c]
barley in its plot,[d]
and spelt in its field?
God instructs him
and teaches him the right way. (Isaiah 28.23-26)

So we glean two lessons from our brief look at farming in the Bible: You reap what you sow, and God will teach you the right way to sow so you can live. This all seems rather pleasant and perhaps even a little obvious, until we go back to our friend Hosea:

But you have planted wickedness,
you have reaped evil,
you have eaten the fruit of deception. (Hosea 10.11-13)

It turns out that this metaphor is more common than we thought, appearing in the Book of Job, in Proverbs, in Micah and Jeremiah too. In fact, the Hebrew verb “to plough” can also mean “to devise,” more in the sense of plotting rather than planning. When people put hand-to-plough they are doing far more than simply readying the soil for planting, they are also demonstrating their intention to work for good or for ill, to follow God’s instructions, or follow their own way.

Now, what Jesus describes as a violation of Kingdom readiness or Kingdom intention hardly seems evil. ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’ Looks back, how? With evil intent? That doesn’t seem likely, given the context. If the dead should bury the dead and the Son of Man has no home in this world, we seem to be talking about priorities, and looking forward and not back, hardly the stuff of evil intent.

But let’s stretch it a little to imagine that ploughing is planning and you always look back. That’s hardly forward planning, is it? If you look to the past for your ideas going forward, where will you end up? Messy furrows and furrowed brows that only come when we have failed to look ahead rather than back.

In the article I read* that led to this line of thinking, the author suggests Hosea wants to show us that an incorrect perception of reality can lead to doom. And this idea seems to fit precisely with Jesus-in-a-mood who says ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’

If we think the answers to the complex problems facing the church lie in the past, we are sadly mistaken, and our incorrect perception of reality will lead to doom.

Let me give you an example. In the past, when we wanted to attract more people, we simply added more programs. More programs, more people: the formula seemed to work. Then something happened. People said ‘I can’t come through the week, I’m too busy, but if you make Sunday morning more engaging, I could at least come once a week.’ But that doesn’t fit with our assumption that only by offering mid-week programs can we call ourselves an active church. So we judge these people instead, and question their commitment. We’re looking back, and trying to plough ahead at the same time.

Let me give you another. At one time the General Council office was our go-to source for all things related to social justice. We operated on a top-down ‘this is what your should be thinking about this year’ model that seemed to serve us well in the past. Then it didn’t. The first problem was that the topic of congregational renewal, the thing that keeps the whole church operating, was never really addressed with any passion. The second problem was increased media reporting on issues related to social justice and greater connectedness through social media, which meant that clearer and more connected voices emerged. General Council was simply eclipsed by better and more compelling sources of information.

So the denomination is currently engaging in another soul-searching exercise, trying to find purpose amid the seeming indifference of the society around us. People look to us to be a religious organization and our leaders say ‘what can we boycott next?’

So the plough is moving forward, pulled by the strong oxen of societal change and spiritual need, and we look back to the ‘so-called’ glory days of the church. For us the Kingdom seems to mean a reconstructed society of people who come to agree with our issues, rather than a generation of people who look to God for comfort rather than the television.

In other words, we need to set aside our need to be right and focus instead on a need to be connected. The ploughing and sowing we do should be directed to those who yearn for God, and not the people who already think like us.

Finally, the lesson of Hosea and Isaiah and Jesus is that we are called to do our best, to be obedient to the Kingdom by preparing the land for the harvest to come. And after we have done our best, we need to let God be God and do the things only God can do: provide the miracle of growth, turn the heart to pray, and speak to our imaginations through dreams and visions.

This is Good News for today, thanks be to God. Amen.

*Wisdom in Ancient Israel, edited by John Day


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