As most of you know, this is my final Sunday at Saint John’s. According to the canons of the Diocese, I must leave when the new rector comes. After much prayer and tears, with the help of Father Stephen, I decided the most graceful way to leave would be at the end of the current liturgical year. I want to thank each and every one of you that has welcomed me into the parish and made me feel like I belonged here. I will forever cherish my time here – you are extraordinary people and your future is unlimited.
So, as my last sermon, I want to assure you of God’s love and challenge you to take the next steps to grow as people and a congregation. You knew, based on my prior sermons, that I couldn’t leave without giving you a challenge and something to niggle in your brain. I hope this gives you some cause for thought.
We heard in the Gospel:
While Jesus and his disciples walked along a road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And 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.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:59-61)
What did we just hear?
A series of ‘yes I will, buts. . .’
A series of excuses why these people weren’t ready to follow Jesus right then. Now, we don’t know if those were valid reasons or not, and really, it doesn’t matter. What we do know, is that Jesus was trying to tell us something important.
Jesus knew that there are times when we must simply move forward. His face was ‘set towards Jerusalem’; the city where he would share a last meal with his disciples; where one would betray and another would deny, and others would flee in fear and horror; where he would die an unspeakable death to remind us all of just how much God loves us. Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem and you and I are called to do the same as we follow him. And once we have heard that call there is no turning back. Not for anything. Not even those very good things which meant so much before. There is no turning back.
So we are urged to ‘set our faces towards Jerusalem.’ Every single day we must have our ears, our eyes, our hearts open to answer Jesus’ call, knowing that there is no turning back. Not now and not ever.
In these three encounters, Jesus calls us to leave behind one set of obligations and duties in order to take on a different set. Jesus calls us to unpack and leave behind nationalism, and racism, and social norms to embrace a kingdom that includes all people of all races and colors and languages from all over the world.
He invites us to leave behind selfish and narrow and localized devotion in order to accept a personalized love and duty for the salvation of the entire world, not just our little corner of it.
When Jesus set his face to Jerusalem, he turned his back on Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee, on his life as a carpenter and small-town rabbi. When Jesus set his face for Jerusalem, he knew he was going to his death, he knew he was, from that very moment, walking to the cross.
And he invites us to go with him. He invites us, calls us to follow him to Jerusalem, to the cross. He invites us to rid ourselves of those things that keep us from loving God and each other completely and fully and passionately. Jesus invites us to drop our heavy loads, to cast aside the cares and concerns that hold us back, to reject the judgments and hatreds that turn us away from God and toward the world.
Jesus invites us to empty our hands of all of that so that we can take up our cross and gladly follow him. When we have empty hands, we can reach out to others. When we remove the hate from our hearts, we have room for love. When we take the judgment out of our eyes, we then see others as God sees them, as precious children in need of love and forgiveness.
Jesus wants people who will walk in his footsteps daily, people who will be with him who mirror his compassion and his love, even when such love and compassion are unpopular.
This was Jesus’ message that day: get your priorities straight. Then (and only then) will you be ready for God to rule in your life.
Recently I read that only between 2% to 4% of those who went forward to be redeemed during major Christian crusades like Billy Graham held are still actively observing the Christian life now. This is not to say that these crusades had no impact; some people were touched, but, for most of those who went forward, it didn’t last. The point is, in some situations, we might say, “Yes, Lord, I am yours,” but Christ knows we’re just caught up in the moment. This was obviously the way it was with this first man who said to him,
“I will follow you wherever you go.” (Luke 9:57)
The three men whom Jesus asked to follow him suffered from the “But-First Syndrome”. The American Medical Association hasn’t recognized the “But-First Syndrome” as a disease yet, but that doesn’t mean that many people are not suffering from some of its symptoms. We all have had situations where our heart desired to do something, but the flesh had a thousand reasons why we couldn’t.
Is there a BUT that is hindering your Christian journey? A BUT that is keeping you from following Jesus?
Have you been asked to help with Sunday School? Did you say ‘I would like to BUT there are others better qualified’?
Do you volunteer to make phone calls to shut-ins, BUT say you ‘just couldn’t fit it in’?
Do you sincerely wish to come to church regularly, BUT ‘Sunday is the only day you can sleep in’?
Have you agreed to serve on a committee BUT then never came, saying ‘I just can’t get there from work on time’?
Following Jesus is not easy, it means we have to re-organize our lives so that we can make it happen. We have to change our priorities and forego some things, but it is the way we have been called to follow. Can you hear Christ calling you now? Saying in the still quiet of your heart; “Drop everything that is holding you back and follow, follow me to Jerusalem, follow me to Love.”
In Saying Farewell
So, as I leave, I know that there will be a hole in my heart that you all occupy; this is one of the hardest things I have had to do, and I know that I will be grieving for a long time. So many people have sent me notes or expressed their feelings for me; it is bittersweet and touches my heart and soul. And although I am leaving, I want to leave you with these thoughts and prayer:
You know it is going to be OK,
But too often it feels like it isn’t,
People come and go from our lives,
Sometimes friendships just slip away and fade with time,
Sometimes we move or they move,
But then there is death.
People leave our lives
and we don’t get a say,
Nor are we often prepared.
When they go,
We know deep down that it is going to be OK
Or at least we tell ourselves that
Not really feeling it,
But holding it in hope and faith.
We are thankful of the love that is shared,
Even though it leaves a hole in our lives,
When the people we share it with are not there to share it with.
We are grateful of the legacy of moments and memories,
Times which are cherished and treasured,
Which sustain us in connection with the ones that we have lost.
May we find time and courage to constructively give expression to our feelings.
May we have the patience that is needed to sustain ourselves until a new normal can be found.
May we hold the hope and faith that carries us,
Through the darkest of moments,
Until we can come at joy and happiness,
And bear the shadows of pain and sorrow which come as well.
Sustain and uphold us,
Comfort us in ways beyond our understanding.
For it will be OK in time.
We just need to wait for it to be so.
 Adapted from Jon Humphries, “Mike’s Prayer”, The Welcome Table
Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Worthington and Parts Adjacent, Worthington, OH; 30 June 2019