Three dedicated followers, all wanting to be with Jesus, say “YES” to following him; and each comes with expectations or loose ends needing tied up. To each of them, Jesus responds; “clear the deck. It’s time to let go of your expectations and obligations and focus on your mission.” It seems extreme, and maybe it is; but these are the words of Jesus. And so, they beckon us to explore with curiosity and openness, what Jesus might be trying to tell these disciples, and by extension, us, about the nature of the kingdom of God.
John Wesley’s prayer; prayed every year at the Celebration of Life in Ministry service. It is prayed by everyone in attendance; a radical re-dedication of faith. As I begin I want to read this prayer for us, in light of today’s scripture:
● Our itinerant system
● Ed Coates; memories of earlier annual conferences, when it was routine for pastors to come not knowing whether or where they might be going in just a few weeks’ time. And in the days of John Wesley it was an even more more dangerous vocation.
● From an article dated March 7, 2018 on umc.org, the following depicts some of the challenges faced by early Methodist circuit riders:
○ Methodist Church records from 1844 record a church membership of over 1 million, with 4,000 ministers riding circuits in the U.S.
○ …one could travel days before reaching a town, and a day or so from one farm to the next, and that wasn’t even in frontier territories, which were often even more sparsely populated.
○ Some of their mementos give us a glimpse into their unusual circumstances.
○ A circuit preacher had to carry everything he might need; fishing lines in case he needed to go fishing, wax to seal letters, even bleeding instruments."
○ Typically, circuit riders traveled 200 to 500 mile routes on horseback. At times, they preached every day. Sometimes circuits were so large that it took six weeks to complete a cycle. Exhaustion, illness, animal attacks, and unfriendly encounters were constant threats.
○ Days and nights were spent in the elements, hunting or fishing for food and depending on the hospitality of strangers.
○ Barbara Duffin: "Circuit riders would have to spend the night with any family that would put them up and eat whatever was available to eat."
○ Ministers rarely served longer than two years on the same circuit. Theirs was a difficult and often short life. Prior to 1847, nearly half of Methodist circuit riding preachers died before the age of 30. But their passion for saving souls was unprecedented, then and now.
○ Wesley was famous for having said that Methodist preachers must be ready to preach, pray or die on a moment’s notice.
Somehow, Jesus’ words don’t seem quite so extreme now, do they?
Most Methodist preachers don’t have it quite so tough these days in North America. But we must not forget that ours is a global denomination, with churches spread throughout Africa, Asia and Europe, where clergy serve in war-torn and conflict-ridden places, where danger is an ever-present reality. In recent months we have been reminded of this as United Methodists clergy and laity have worshiped and engaged in mission together from dark bomb shelters, and in the midst of active warfare.
So let us not allow the discomfort we may feel in our relatively comfortable pews, here in Brookings South Dakota to drive us away from these words of Jesus; we are messengers of the good news of the Kingdom of God.
It is ironic, isn’t it, that in a sermon titled “Brought Home in the Spirit” we hear Jesus’ words; “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
It seems as though Jesus, with his fiery, controversial rhetoric, is trying to convey to these passionate, sold-out followers that there are some hard truths that come with a life of dedication to God’s kingdom. And he does it by giving surprising responses to these three disciples; all of whom agree to follow him, but with certain assumptions, or conditions. Let’s look a little more closely at these three disciples.
The first disciple promises to follow Jesus “wherever you go” in verse 57. Jesus responds cryptically, with an almost nursery-rhyme like phrase; “foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (v. 58)
The second and third disciples ask for allowances that, in any culture, seem totally reasonable, even commendable; to attend to the burial of a parent and to bid farewell to one’s family before committing to this total and complete act of personal sacrifice. To both of these disciples, Jesus offers a surprisingly stark rebuke; to the first he says, “let the dead bury their own dead but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God,”
(v. 60) and to the second; “no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom.” (v. 62)
There are times in life when we must hear a hard truth.; times when we must be disabused of our romantic notions of glory and our lofty visions of success must be tempered by the stark light of reality. Perhaps this is that sort of moment for the disciples. Taken in by the excitement of a new possibility, perhaps they hold expectations that this following Jesus thing is going to be like a pleasant road trip with their buddies. Knowing what is ahead of them, perhaps Jesus is preparing them for what really lies in store; suffering, conflict, hardship, even persecution and for many of them, death.
The words of John Wesley again come to mind; “Every Methodist pastor must be ready to preach, pray or die at a moment’s notice.”
It is a sobering thing to say “yes” to that kind of invitation.
It is true that this is my last Sunday with you here at Brookings First United Methodist. I have been so grateful for the time I’ve spent with you these past two years. Jim, Lucas and I have been blessed by your fellowship and care, and we have been able to participate in amazing ministry together.
And, I am called to move; like Jesus and his disciples, the nature of Methodist ministry is itinerant; we are in some ways, always mindful that at a moment’s notice (or maybe a few months’ notice, as it happens these days), we may again be on the move. This is a gift! It is a gift because it is a constant reminder that our security lies not in any place, or position, or in the opinions of others, but in the realization that we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to go and make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We are not called to be comfortable. The work of the Kingdom is an urgent, patient work. It requires our dedication and focus, as well as a keen grasp of the hard realities in which we live. It is not glamorous, or trendy. It is hard, holy work; and it is work that matters not just today, but for eternity.
But this way of ministry is not only a gift to us pastors; it is a gift to you. You also are given the opportunity to grow and strengthen in your faith. Like the disciples, you may come to recognize your own agency in ministry--you are empowered in mission and ministry. Think about it; what is the constant in a United Methodist church? It’s not the pastor--it is the congregation. Like Paul, who traveled from church to church throughout the ancient near East, the constant presence were the believers in each city, town and home who remained, who continued the mission, who endured the hardships and saw, day after month after year, the faithfulness of God as they continued on empowered by the Holy Spirit, in sharing the good news of Christ.
Pastor Pete will continue to lead this congregation as long as God calls him to this place; I am moving into a different role, and am already seeing how God is providing for your needs, inviting others to step into leadership roles in creative and innovative ways. You are continuing to deepen and grow as you fulfill the mission God has given you through the power of the Holy Spirit. It is not always easy; sometimes it requires a level of sacrifice that stretches and challenges you. But God is faithful. Continue to put your hand to the plow. Keep stepping out in faith on the path God has set before you. Let the Spirit guide you. And as you do, may you recognize that your home--your true home--is with the One who calls you out with the same words he called those first disciples; “follow me.”
The text doesn’t tell us what these three disciples decided to do; we don’t know whether they dropped everything and followed Jesus, or whether they decided the price was too high. Maybe the stark reality sunk in; maybe it scared them away. We don’t know. But one thing we do know is this; as followers of Jesus, we have the same choice. Will we follow Jesus when things get real?
As we close I want to invite us to stand and say together the prayer I shared at the beginning; it is a prayer that applies not just to pastors, but to any of us who accept Jesus’ call to follow him. As you pray the words, I invite you to give your heart wholly to God; in radical surrender to God’s will and way in your life.