My sister-in-law is a psychotherapist. She and her husband - my wife’s brother - came for dinner last Sunday and as we sat outside enjoying the pleasantly warm evening, I asked her what she liked best about her job. Not surprisingly, a therapist’s job offers both rewards and disappointments. When people go to therapy they are admitting they need help. The therapist’s job is to help them identify the problem and guide them to new ways of thinking and living. The rewards are to see how people respond positively to therapy, make changes and turn their lives around.
On the minus side, I was surprised to learn that psychotherapists can be sued by the family of a suicide. The grounds being that you have failed to prevent the death and so must bear the blame for the person’s tragic end.
I also asked my sister-in-law how easy it is for people to change, assuming that without change people get stuck in deadly routines. She replied that for one category of people change was almost impossible. She classified them as the people who say, “yes, but...” What did she mean? I asked. She explained that there is a person who is intelligent, insightful and who can see the need for change, but who in the end resists it. “Yes,” they will say, “I can see what I need to do, but I have all these other commitments and obligations right now which means the changes will have to wait.” There are subtle psychological reasons preventing change, such as fear of embracing new patterns of thought or new ways of living. Also, a person can become so invested in their misery that it becomes like a cloak that they wrap around themselves for comfort and for familiarity’s sake.
It reminded me of an old saying of my father’s, that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. When we intend to do something but end up doing nothing, we become a little like Shakespeare’s Hamlet. That’s what happens when our thoughts and intentions become an end in themselves.
We all know what happened to Hamlet, but if you don’t, it’s in the section of Shakespeare marked Tragedies. Hamlet was paralyzed into inaction by having conflicting intentions which set one action against another. That seems to me similar in some ways to what happens to the people Jesus meets in this morning’s gospel. Jesus, along with his followers, sets out toward Jerusalem. On the way, he encounters a number of people. To them he says, “follow me”, and one replies “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Another replies, “Lord, let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus’ unequivocal reply is: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
You will notice that what Jesus is offering is not a first century version of psychotherapy. What he offers is different: an invitation to follow him, to leave the past behind and travel with him on the way. That’s what the disciples did, when Jesus called them by the side of the lake or wherever they happened to be, and these words of his are as much for their benefit as for the new people he meets.
In this exchange Jesus makes clear that the kingdom of God is not fit for those whose commitments and obligations prevent them from immediately joining Jesus on the road. “Follow me!” Jesus calls, but he does not wait for those who have other priorities to attend to first. With him, the kingdom of God is always the first priority. Jesus is going to Jerusalem: are you going with him? “Yes, but let me bury my father first.” Jesus replies: “Let the dead bury their own dead.” Jesus asks you to go with him now. Are you ready? “Yes, but first let me say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus replies, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of heaven.”
I can feel some sympathy for the people Jesus meets and then reproaches. Are their responses that unreasonable as to deserve his rebuke? The answer is not that they are unreasonable, it is that they are not good enough.
To be fit for the kingdom of heaven - something to which I hope everyone here aspires - first requires a leap of faith. By which I mean not that you believe at once everything that Jesus says, but that you trust God to know the way ahead for you. Second, it requires a commitment to serve - the kingdom of heaven is a place where you serve others, not yourself. Third, it requires you to look forward, not back. Looking forward and moving forward - that describes us, the Church, or at least it should do. The kingdom of heaven is a present reality, an immediate call to leave the past behind and step into the future, to realize that God is in your life now and if that is so then things will never be quite the same again. Something very exciting is happening - Christ is calling you to join him. He is on his way to the new Jerusalem. Will you journey with him?
I know that when people take their first steps into the kingdom of heaven it often feels like swimming in Brighton Beach on a cold day. You put a toe in the water and then withdraw it quickly when you realize how cold the water is. Eventually, with courage you wade in and then there comes a moment when you have to take the plunge. In a split second you forget yourself and know only the sensation of the water. You swim with your whole body in the freedom of the water and it is bracing and exhilarating at the same time. That’s what we need to do as Christians: we need to reach a point where we immerse ourselves completely in the love of Christ.
Once you are in Christ he will equip you for the work that is needed. Of course you won’t feel worthy, or saintly. In other words, you won’t feel ready. But Jesus doesn’t call saints or the worthy; he calls sinners. He calls people in the mess of their lives to follow him. That’s why he won’t wait for you to put your affairs in order first. You follow him as you are - whatever your circumstances. You can be nostalgic for the past, or feel sorry for yourself, or for what might have been, but really God is interested in you, now, and is calling you this very moment. Your sins are forgiven: awake and be healed; let his love set you free to enjoy life in its fullness, as a son or daughter of the Most High.
That’s the invitation. He calls all of us to share in the life and work of the kingdom of heaven. So put your hand to the plow, and don’t look back, but follow Jesus and trust his way. Don’t say, “yes, but.” Say instead, “yes, now.”
Preached by Father David Beresford
26 June 2016
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia