Keep Your Hand on the Plow

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For those who have not already started celebrating, what do you plan to do for Labor Day today and tomorrow?

Most of us like to celebrate by simply taking the day off, after all, that’s what Labor Day is about. I personally try my best to do as little as possible as long as I can help it from the time I get up until I go to sleep on Monday evening. But as with many things, Labor Day started out as something else.

The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City, in accordance with the plans of the Central Labor Union. The Central Labor Union held its second Labor Day holiday just a year later, on September 5, 1883.

In 1884 the first Monday in September was selected as the holiday, as originally proposed, and the Central Labor Union urged similar organizations in other cities to follow the example of New York and celebrate a “workingmen’s holiday” on that date. [1]

Labor Day marks the end of the summer season, when people get in the last of their vacation and kids start digging in for the school year. It’s a shopping-baseball-football-barbecue-auto racing weekend when good Southern ladies know to put away their whites until next Easter.

This celebration of laboring reminds me in a way of Sundays. When I stop and think about it, Sunday is a day that we gather together, sing and worship together, pray together, and in the process of all these things celebrate – or sometimes lament – the work and ministry of the previous week. It is a time when we as the body of Christ look back and remember those that created separation between us and those things that brought us closer to God and neighbor.

Another important aspect of Sundays is the encouragement that we get from one another to continue on with the journey. I know for myself there are Sunday mornings that I drag myself into the pulpit. Sundays that remind me of the spiritual adage, “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” – and probably a little spongier than it should be. But as I sing and preach and talk to you about your week, celebrate and cry about your joys and concerns, I find myself experiencing a sort of mini-revival in my spirit. It’s the connection between us and the reassurance of the Spirit that recharges the batteries and helps me to be energized and ready for another week of journeying.

But we need to make a distinction that I think Jesus is making here in the text. There is work and there is busy work. There are the things we do for the Kingdom and things we do that look like Kingdom work but aren’t really. I think a story might better illustrate what I am getting at and help us to see the difference.

Busy work versus real work

In my previous life, I was a graphic designer and media artist. Now this kind of work tends to be feast or famine, there is either an obscene amount of work to be done or it is dead as a door nail. One of the things I would do when things go dead was to brush up on my skills and try to learn new things or methods of doing things. One of my favorite things to use was the movie trailer.

Movie trailers are great fodder for visual artists in that they are quick snapshots of a bigger idea – the movie. In marketing, that’s what a logo or an ad is, a snapshot of the bigger idea – the company. So, I would watch movie trailers and look for certain shots or angles to use in the photography in my ads or videos and the titles for new typefaces and ways of creating text.

Some of my employers understood this and could the value of it but one employer in particular wasn’t having it. You produced quantifiable, product worthy art or you were goofing off. Even after an explanation and demonstration of how it had helped me create some the best art I had created for them they still could not see that it was work. I was told that it would be better for me to dust my desk and computer than to be watching TV at work.

I needed to be busy.

Being busy is about being seen – it is working to show others that something, even if it is mundane and seemingly meaningless – is being done. It’s a way of satisfying an anxiousness about justifying ourselves before those who would criticize our work ethic, a means of proving by concrete data that time – and I think in most cases money – is not being wasted.

Working is doing the things that actually need doing, whether anyone knows it or not (quiet disciple). It has real meaning and substance. It is what propels the greater vision, the greater task forward. In my estimation, it is the difference between dusting the computer rather than using it.

The people that Jesus meets along the road in Luke 9 have all found ‘busy work’ to do in comparison to the Kingdom work that Jesus is inviting them to do. They are doing things that are necessary in some sense but in comparison to following in the Way of Jesus they are temporal and to be regarded as secondary.

Let’s take the first man for instance. He is the first to addresses Jesus in their brief conversations. He makes a claim that I know I have made and many others I would think have as well. “I will follow you wherever you go.”

“Lord, send me to the Congo to live in grass hut. Lord send me to the inner city to live in a cardboard box. Lord send me wherever, and I’ll go.” It’s a bold statement to make. It’s a statement of complete surrender, a statement of offering ourselves to service completely in the Kingdom.

Jesus hears the man and as he has done so many times before, responds with challenge. “Foxes have dens and the birds in the sky have nests, but the Human One has no place to lay his head.” In other words, to follow me, to do as I do, live as I live, is life of uncertainty. Jesus is an itinerant preacher; no home, no stability, no idea what may come next. For me to follow Jesus is to follow when I am uncertain, when I cannot see the path, or better yet, may not know if there is even a path there. It is a life of faith. Not the kind of blind faith that disregards common sense but the kind of faith that looks for, recognizes, and gets involved with the work of God around us.

There is an old preacher’s joke – which means its bad – but I’ll tell it anyway.

A man was trapped on top of his house during a flood and someone paddled up to his roof and stopped.

“Do you need a ride?” asked the man in the boat.

“No, the Lord will save me.” Answered the man on the house and the boat left.

Another boat came by and again the man in the boat asked, “Do you need a ride?”

“No,” answered the man on the house again, “the Lord will save me.”

Finally, a helicopter hovered nearby and a man on a loudspeaker said, “The dam broke upstream. The river is out of control and the water will cover everything in this area in a matter of minutes. Let us get you out of here.”

“No,” said the man. “I have absolute faith that God will rescue me.”

The man of course drowned. And as he went to heaven and stood before God he said, “Lord, I had faith in you, I believed in you. Why did you let me drown?”

“What are talking about?” asked God. “I sent you two boats and helicopter.”

Again, faith is about looking for, recognizing, and getting involved with the work of God that is going on around us.

But there is a second potential disciple in our story. Jesus says, “Follow me,” to another man who responds, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” There is some discussion on what this might mean, when the man speaks of burying his father. It could mean that his father is dying and the man wants to be there to carry out the very important cultural and religious rites that go with a family funeral. It could also mean that his father has just died and he is going now to carry out those practices. In either case, the man is saying I have obligations that I have to take care of first, I have other things, important things to do and then I will follow you.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I can say that I have definitely been guilty of this. I knew I was called to the ministry several years, maybe even a decade before I responded to the call. It took me losing a lucrative job and having no other doors open for me to see ministry as the path God had for me to take. I think it’s safe to say that many people use obligations as a means of delaying our discipleship. Things like, “I need to take care of my family,” as we read in the story, or “I need to pay off this or that”, “I need to finish my education” and list goes on from there. We are good at using obligations, things that have some importance before our discipleship.

And what does Jesus say to this, “Let the dead bury their own dead. But you go and spread the news of God’s kingdom.” In other words, out of these two important things, the Kingdom is the most important. Let someone else take care of the ritual and cultural obligations, you, if you want to be a disciple, if you want to follow me, you go and live out the message of the Kingdom. As much as Jesus is saying this to the man in the story, he says it to us now. We too, are to put aside those things that we might elevate above the Kingdom and “spread the news of God’s Kingdom.”

Finally, a man calls to Jesus and says, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say good-bye to those in my house.” In other words, “Jesus I’m going to be a disciple but I have to make sure I get things sorted with what will become a part of my past. I need to make sure that I don’t leave on bad terms and that everything is sorted out before I go.”

Everyone has a past. For some it is a good thing, mostly. For others, it a bad thing, mostly. For most, I would say it’s a mix of those things. I can certainly look back and see things I would like to change but then what if I did? If I had gotten into the Naval Academy out of high school where would that path have carried me? If I had gone into law enforcement rather than marketing, where would I be? I could ask the question a hundred different ways and the truth of the matter is, it’s not important, I can’t change it anyway. Living in the past leads to regret. Living in the future leads to worry. Living in the present, living with Christ in a moment by moment existence right now, leads to a Kingdom life that connects you with the Spirit of God to do the work of God.

There is no Labor Day on the church calendar

I looked on the liturgical calendar and there is no religious observance called Labor Day. It’s not that Labor Day isn’t a good thing. I plan on enjoying it tomorrow with something or other on the grill. But for the Christian, we don’t cease in our labors. Jesus helps us, walks with us, ‘takes our yoke’ in times of trouble, but we never stop being disciples. God calls us to live a life of faith that looks for, recognizes, and gets involved with the work of God around us. He calls us to see our obligations as second to the work of the Kingdom. He calls us to live not in the past or the future, but to walk in the now with him.

Do I rest? Yes. Do I find time for stillness before God? Yes. Do I stop following? Do I take my hand off the plow, so to speak? I think Jesus answers that pretty sharply, “No one who puts a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for God’s kingdom.”

The question here is about discipleship, am I following Jesus or not? Am I following after Jesus with everything I have – loving God with everything I have and loving neighbor as myself, or am I on holiday. I think what Jesus is getting at here is the idea of overcoming our anxiety by casting our cares on him, following him, rather than chasing after the things of this world and the things which are temporary in this world. I believe his calling is one that asks us to see past the enmeshment of things of that are not focused on the Kingdom and Kingdom life. He says, quite simply, “Follow me.” And in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, let us do so. Amen.

 

[1] https://www.dol.gov/general/laborday/history

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