Carlos Wilton, October 7, 2012; Non-Lectionary Sermon; Exodus 16:1-15; Luke 9:57-62 “Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’”
– Luke 9:62
Today, we embark on a journey together: a journey that, counting today, will last seven Sundays. You already know the journey is called “Committed to Christ: Six Steps to a Generous Life.”
Now, having heard that word “generous,” you just may say to yourself: “I know what this is. It’s a stewardship campaign. Just the church raising some money. Maybe this campaign is starting earlier than most, but it’s really all about getting me to part with my hard-earned dollars..”
You may be forgiven for thinking that. After all, the word “generous,” as most of us use it, clearly has to do with money. You go to a concert or play, and you’ll see, in the program they give you, a list of donors: “We are grateful to the following individuals for their generous support.” Then come the categories. First, the humble “supporters,” giving $100 or less. Then the “friends” — maybe up to $500. Next come the “special friends,” then the “sponsors,” and finally — topping the list, with lots of zeroes after those names — the “patrons.”
Generosity, in the world of the theater program, clearly has to do with money.
There’s not a thing you have to do to get onto one of the rungs of that ladder, other than write a check. You can be mean or cruel or bigoted. You can swindle your business partners. You can emotionally abuse your family. You could even be arrested for breaking the law — but, as long as that check arrives with your signature on the bottom, the management of that charitable organization will call you “generous.” That’s because generosity, in their eyes, begins and ends with the money.
That’s not how the Christian faith sees it. Paul, in listing the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5, speaks of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Generosity is a fruit of the Holy Spirit’s activity, along with the rest. Clearly, it’s more than just the money. It’s a way of life.
Truly generous people are eager not only to sign their name to a check, but also to offer their time; to listen deeply and patiently; to show a younger person how something is done, then let them do it; to pray for others; to live for others.
It’s a beautiful thing, this spirit of generosity. Most of us, when we encounter it, are filled with admiration and with awe: for in truth, true generosity is not so common as those lists of donors in the theater program would have you believe.
We human beings, you see, are not generous by nature: as any preschool teacher will readily affirm. We all go through a phase, when we’re young, of not wanting to share our toys. Some of us grow out of that — or are gently led out of it, by a teacher or parent who models true generosity. But, sadly, a great many of us never do. We may stop saying “Mine, mine, mine!” like a child in the “terrible twos,” but there’s a part of us that goes on thinking it.
The adventure on which we’re embarking today — that will take us clear through to Harvest Home Sunday — is an exploration of generosity, in every sense of the word. Inside your bulletin, today, you have a program that tells you what to expect. Each week we’ll consider a different spiritual discipline essential to cultivating generosity: prayer, Bible reading, worship, witness and service. Yes, giving is also part of it — that’s the next-to-last week — but it’s only a part.
There’s a commitment card to be filled out each week, but only that next-to-last one asks for an estimate of financial giving. I won’t say a whole lot about that subject till the time comes.
What I am going to be talking about is commitment. It’s the name of the whole program: “Committed to Christ.” A wise person once said, “Jesus isn’t looking for admirers, he’s looking for followers.” He wants disciples: men, women and children who get up from what they’re doing, and follow him along the road of life.
Jesus has no shortage of admirers, then or now. If you conducted a random, street-corner poll, asking passersby if they admire Jesus, it would be a long time before you found someone who said no. Christians and non-Christians alike would say they admire him. Who wouldn’t? For what person who’s heard anything at all of Jesus’ ethical teachings would say otherwise. Jesus is perhaps the most admired human being of all time.
Yet, that’s a far cry from seriously committing ourselves to living, day in and day out, as his disciples. That path to discipleship can be difficult and demanding, as Jesus himself declares in the little snippet of Luke’s Gospel we read today.
Someone comes up to him along the road and exclaims: “I will follow you wherever you go!”
One of the disciples steps right up, clipboard in hand. “We have a little application form for you to fill out…”
But then Jesus interrupts. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” In other words: “Don’t be so hasty, my friend. It may sound romantic to you, spending your days with my friends and me, walking the roads of Judea — teaching, preaching, healing, doing good works — but there’s something you need to know. Some days, we’ve only got a stone for a pillow, and only the sound of our growling stomachs to sing us to sleep.”
There are others. Some of them, Jesus actually invites to become his disciples. One of them says, “Let me first go bury may father.” Another says, “Give me a few days to go say goodbye to the folks at home.”
These don’t sound like unreasonable requests, until you realize that, according to Jewish tradition, “burying my father” probably means waiting around till the old man dies. That could take years! As for going back to say goodbye to the family, that too could turn into a much longer goodbye than anyone realized.
Then comes a sort of mini-parable, in which Jesus makes it crystal-clear what he’s talking about. How rare it truly is for believers — especially new believers — to commit themselves wholeheartedly to the Christian life: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Now, how many of you have ever plowed a field by hand, pushing an old-fashioned plow through the hard, lumpy earth, right behind a donkey or ox who really provides the muscle? I know I never have. I’ll bet you haven’t, either! Yet, one thing I’ve been told about old-school plowing is that it’s a very hard thing to keep the plow pointed in the right direction, so the row you’re digging is exactly parallel to the one beside you. The animal pulls in one direction; rocks and stumps push the plow in the other.
About the only way to do it well is to fix your eyes on a reference-point dead ahead: a large tree or something similar. Give that reference-point your full and undivided attention, and prepare to respond to every lurch in the wrong direction by throwing your weight against the plow’s handles. Pay close attention to the reference point, and maybe — just maybe — you’ll succeed in plowing a straight row. Abandon your reference point, though, and look to the right or left, and you’ll very likely mess up. Should be so foolish as to look back, it’s “game over.”
Plowing a field, as Jesus well knew — probably from personal experience — demands total commitment. Nothing less will do.
Elsewhere in the scriptures, he explains the level of commitment he needs from those who would become his disciples. In John, chapter 3, he’s talking to a Pharisee, Nicodemus, who’s dropped in to see him one night, when he thinks no one is watching. Nicodemus, it turns out, is something of a secret admirer of Jesus. He has a sincere intellectual interest in studying his teachings, comparing them against those of the other great rabbis.
Jesus sees right through him. He knows Nicodemus may be open to adjusting his way of thinking, but he has no intention of changing his way of living. That’s why Jesus tells him he must be “born from above” (or “born again” in some translations). “You can no longer be Nicodemus, learned scholar of the law,” Jesus is telling him (thought not in so many words). “You can only be Nicodemus, child of God.”
Yet Nicodemus, it seems, likes his old life a little too well. He’s not yet willing to make a total commitment.
The word “commit” comes from the Latin (committere), and literally means “to put or send.” If a lord has an urgent message to send to someone else, he’s likely to call a servant in, saying, “Here, take this to so-and-so” As soon as he gives that command, the master is committing his message to the servant. If, for any reason, the servant is unable to deliver the message — to fulfill the commission — then, the servant had better say so, right up front. For the master is depending upon him to get the job done.
We often use the words “committed” or “commitment” in a much less action-oriented way, to mean something like “holding a very strong opinion” — but that’s not what’s meant at all by a commitment to Jesus Christ. I said earlier that Jesus isn’t looking for admirers. He wants disciples who do more than simply talk the talk. He needs some followers who are willing to walk the walk.
Let’s say that, in our hypothetical example of the master committing a servant to do something, like delivering a message. Let’s also imagine that the master has something else to give him: a t-shirt with the name “Messenger” stenciled on the front, I big letters. Oh, how proud that servant feels to go out of the house wearing the “Messenger” shirt! “Look at me!” he wants to say to the world. “My master trusts me enough to appoint me his messenger!”
But the master doesn’t really need a messenger. What the master needs is someone to deliver the message. If the servant goes down to the marketplace and spends the rest of the day strutting around showing off his new “Messenger” shirt, but never carries the message to its destination, the master’s not going to be very happy. He will have committed the message to a person incapable of delivering it. What sort of commitment does that servant have, if he’s not going to follow through?
Today, this first week of the “Committed to Christ” program, you and I have the opportunity to renew a commitment we probably made long ago — or, maybe we’re making that commitment for the first time (if you are, that’s a beautiful thing). The commitment is to follow Jesus Christ, to consider him your Lord and savior.
Should you decide to commit (or recommit) yourself to him, you’ll have the opportunity, over the next six weeks, to explore six different ways of living out that commitment. (Once again, they are prayer, Bible reading, worship attendance, witness, giving and service.) If you check one of the boxes on the card indicating your answer is “yes,” that means you’re ready to deepen your relationship with Jesus Christ, in one or more of these specific ways.
If not — if, in all honesty, you don’t feel ready to make or renew that commitment today — then that’s OK. Please sign and submit the card anyway. We still hope you’ll journey with us over the next six weeks, trying one or more of these spiritual disciplines out for size.
Some of us are action-oriented types, more comfortable with “acting ourselves into a new way of thinking,” as the saying goes. If that describes you, then by all means check one of the “no” boxes: but please do come back, and join us in this journey of exploration.
Great journeys, as they say, begin with a single step. Won’t you take that step today?
Copyright © 2012 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.