Saying Yes to God: Yes, But
Someone mentioned to me this week that they enjoyed last Sunday’s sermon, that they felt it was speaking right to them. And I told them that people often respond this way to a sermon when I also feel that way about it - like I’m speaking, preaching to myself. This week is another week like that for me. This is a tough text. Not tough because it is hard to understand, but tough because Jesus’s words cut to my heart with their clarity and urgency, asking for a response. In Luke’s gospel, we find a series of people approaching Jesus, saying that they want to follow him. This seems to us perhaps like it would be great news. Jesus’s message is getting across, and people are interested. But Jesus rebuffs each one. The first approaches and says, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus responds, “Foxes have holes, birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” In other words, “Anywhere also means nowhere, no landing place. Are you sure you mean it?” Jesus extends the invitation: “Follow me” to another, and they respond, “Lord, first let me bury my father.” Jesus, apparently unmoved, says, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” A third offers to follow Jesus, “but first,” he says, “let me say farewell to those at home.” And Jesus responds, “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” That’s the whole passage. We don’t know what happens next for any of these folks - if they stay with Jesus or if they say “forget it.” The gospel moves on.
In my Bible, the subheading of this passage we just heard is called “The Would-Be Followers of Jesus.” I can practically see the air quotes around the phrase. I hear “Wanna-bes.” What springs to mind is John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, his sermon called “The Almost Christian.” Writing on Acts 26:28, where King Agrippa says to the apostle Paul in the King James that Wesley quotes, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” Wesley says, “Many there are who go thus far: ever since the Christian religion was in the world, there have been many in every age and nation who were almost persuaded to be Christians. But … it avails nothing before God to go only thus far.” This teaching of Jesus - it seems to demand our all, and leave no room for going only so far, no room for almost following Jesus.
Preacher and theologian Karoline Lewis writes, “When I started thinking about [this gospel text], my first response was, Sorry, Jesus. You are wrong. Sometimes we have to bury our dead and you are just going to have to wait. Sometimes we have to say goodbye to those we are leaving or to those we have lost, and we will catch up to you eventually. Sometimes we have a few things that need tending before we jump on the discipleship bandwagon. Like what, you might say, Jesus? Well, like grief, for example, for those close and personal, but also for whom our world continues to insist cannot be a part of your kingdom. Sometimes we just need some time. Thanks, Jesus.”
I agree, don’t you? I want to tell Jesus we have some important things to do sometimes that keep us from following God the way we want. Some things that just need attending to first so that we can be really ready to start. When I read this passage, I want to say, “Hey Jesus - isn’t at least a good thing that these folks want to follow you? Isn’t it better that they want to follow you but just aren’t quite ready yet, than not wanting to follow you at all?” As soon as I ask that question in my head though, I hear my mother telling me about an interaction with another parent, a friend of my mom’s, years ago. This friend’s daughter had gotten in trouble on the bus at school, along with another young person. The woman’s daughter was a church-going child from a fairly well-to-do family, and the other child in trouble was just the opposite. When relaying the story, my mom’s friend said, ʺWell, at least I know that my daughter knew better, so that gives me comfort.ʺ My mom said to her, ʺBut doesn’t that make it worse? If the other kid didn’t know better, he can hardly be blamed for his behavior. But your child knew what was right, and still chose to misbehave.ʺ My mom’s response, as you might suspect, did not win her any points with her friends.
My mom’s story makes me think about discipleship. If we know Jesus, if we know enough to have decided that we want to follow Jesus, I’m afraid, friends, that this doesn’t mean that Jesus goes easier on us. Rather, if we already know what is right, and how we mean to give our hearts and lives to Jesus, I think that means that in turn Jesus will expect more from us. If we know that God is the source of our being, the creator of all that is, and that God has called us to serve God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and if we believe that we want to make God’s way our way, and if we believe that in following Jesus we find abundant life, and find a way to work for the wholeness of the world that is God’s reign come to earth - if we know all that, and still want to put off actually following Jesus, isn’t that worse than not yet being sure about Jesus? Well, if not worse, exactly, I do believe this: just like the child who knew better on the school bus had more responsibility to behave rather than less, if we know Jesus and know that we want to commit our lives to following him, Jesus, it turns out, will expect more of us, not less. Elsewhere in the scriptures, Jesus says that to those who have been given much, they will receive even more, and I think this is the “more” Jesus means - more expectation of commitment, more responsibility. If we say we’re ready to follow Jesus because we know who Jesus is and know how following Jesus is the very purpose of our being, then Jesus expects us to start following. Not tomorrow. Not eventually. Not when we’ve got everything else settled. Not when we’ve just tied up some loose ends. But right now.
Rereading our gospel text, I notice that the second and third folks who come and say they want to follow Jesus, they start their “Yes, but” responses to Jesus like this: “Yes, but first let me.” “But first.” No matter how we shake it, these things we put into the “but first” category when God calls us are just that - things that we put first. God has some strong feelings about what we put first in our lives. We’ve talked more than once about idols. Consistently in the scriptures, one of the things we are warned against again and again is making idols, practicing idolatry. Although we might not relate as much to ancient peoples who crafted handmade images of other gods to worship, at the heart of it, idolatry is really whenever we give anything other than God the place of God in our life. When we let anything else hold the place in our heart, our lives, our world, that is meant to be for God, when we worship anything other than God, when we center our lives around something other than God - that’s idolatry. And from Genesis to Revelation, this is the sin that is most dire, the one that most often results in a breakdown of the covenant between God and God’s people.
I wonder: what is really first in your life? Are we saying to Jesus, “I will follow you,” but adding our qualification, our disclaimer under our breath, perhaps hoping Jesus won’t hear? God first, but really family first. God first, but really being successful first, career first, financial well-being first. God first, but really being good citizen, or being nice and well-liked first. God first, but really comfort and safety and security first. When God calls you, and you say yes to following Jesus, what are the “buts” that are on the tip of your tongue, or muttered under your breath, or the truth you really mean instead? How do you finish this sentence to Jesus, “I will follow you, but first let me…” what? This week, friends, I encourage you - as I will too - to spend some serious time soul-searching how we’re ending our sentence to Jesus. Yes, but first what?
Karoline Lewis eventually heard more in this text than she did at first read. She writes, “I began to wonder -- what if Jesus sees the importance of time, of a minute, of even a second, not just for the sake of the urgency of his ministry, the urgency of the kingdom he wishes to bring into its fullness, the urgency of making sure that all know God’s favor before those who reject God’s favor will silence him for good, but because being human means such urgency -- every moment really does count … Every moment has to count since God made the decision to become one of us. Jesus’ call is not an insensitive plea to abandon that which is important to us, who matter to us, make a difference for us. Jesus’ call to let go is a promise - that God becoming human means that moments matter. Time makes a difference. And that even seconds matter to God. Why? Not for the sake of your service alone, but for the sake of your being in the kingdom God imagines. Every moment matters because every one of us counts.”
Every one of us counts, and every moment counts. Jesus tries to convey to us a sense of urgency. The good news doesn’t have time to wait. The world needs the message of Jesus right now. Look around. Look at the news. Look at the headlines. Look at our nation. Look at our community. Look at our congregation. Look at your own life. We need the message of Jesus, the news about God’s reign on earth, the good news of God’s grace and favor and God’s way that rejects the ways of greed and selfishness and oppression and we need it now. And so Jesus needs disciples, messengers of the good news right now. People who are ready to say “But first you God, and then everything else can come next.” Putting God first is not easy. It is not just saying with our lips that Jesus is number one for us. It’s the daily call of discipleship to follow Jesus with everything we’ve got, trusting in God’s unwavering love and grace, trusting that if we put God first, God will always be with us.
What’s first in your life, really? What’s holding you back from saying Yes to God with your whole heart? What are your “Yes, buts”? Can we work to make God first? God is seeking disciples. Will you follow Jesus, now? Will you make God first? Amen.