As they were going along the 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.”
I’m going to begin by sharing with you my first response to these words from Jesus: I don’t like them. I want to say to Jesus, “What? In order to follow you I have to let go of everything that is important to me, everything that matters, everything that makes my life worth living, my family and loved ones? Jesus you are asking to much of all of us. We just can’t do it. So, what are we supposed to do?” Perhaps you had a similar response. For these are difficult and challenging words and it is difficult and challenging to know what to do with them. So, I decided to do what I always do when I am confronted with challenging teachings from Jesus, I step back and look at the bigger picture—what is the nature of God and God incarnate in Jesus, as I understand it and as Scripture proclaims the divine nature?
As I read the whole canon of Scripture, all the books of the Bible, the overarching message is of a God who out of love created everything that is and continually seeks to draw this creation into the divine love, not through coercion or power, but through invitation and presence. Because God is not a God of coercion, all of creation, including human beings, has the freedom to choose to accept God’s invitation or reject it. Whatever our choice, to accept or reject, God never leaves our side. God is present in each and every moment of our existence seeking to draw us into the divine love, if only we will have the awareness and willingness to accept the invitation.
And what does it mean to accept the divine invitation to join in God’s love? Well, Paul tells us today in his letter to the Galatians, “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Care and concern for the other whether it be other people, animals, or the earth itself is the way we join in God’s invitation to join in the divine love. We are to love all of creation as God loves all of creation. When we do this, the Kingdom of God breaks into the world.
But more often than not, we human beings, don’t have the awareness that we are being invited to anything at all. We get caught up in so many other things. Preoccupation with the past. Anxiety about the future. And our preoccupations and anxieties cause us to make many choices that lead us further away from God and God’s love rather than making it easier to accept God’s invitation to join with the divine love. And our preoccupations and anxieties give us a false sense of control over a world that is ultimately uncontrollable.
Think about it for a moment. How much of your time do you spend in thoughts about the past or the future? Probably most of your time unless you have been consciously trying to live differently. For me, the future is where I have always been most comfortable, though the older I get the more I find myself pondering the past as well. I spend a lot of time thinking, dreaming, planning, and worrying about things that have not yet happened and may never actually happen.
Now, all people think about the past and the future. There is nothing innately wrong with this kind of thinking, but if you spend all or most of your time there then you never or rarely experience the life you are actually living. You are living in an unreality, because the past is gone, and the future does not yet exist. You will also have a very hard time experiencing the presence of God, because God does not exist in the past or the future but is with you right here and right now. Life and God exist in the present or nowhere at all.
And when we live our lives mostly in the past or the future, we make choices that are not choices that bring to life the Kingdom of God. When I live in the past, I will react to things happening to me now as if they were things that happened to me in the past. Maybe in the past I experienced a great deal of pain and suffering at the hands of other people. If I stay in the past, I will expect people in my present moments to treat me the same way, even when they are offering me love and acceptance. I will miss all the present opportunities to experience that which I did not get in the past. Or perhaps the past was a happy time for you, and the present is so different from that past time that you are afraid you will never experience that same happiness again. So, you try to make the present into the past, resisting any and all change. Again you miss all the present opportunities for happiness that are right before you.
Or maybe you are like me and spend more time in the future in your mind than in the past. You work more than you should because you are afraid of some possible scarcity in the future. Maybe you do some things that harm other people because you are trying to protect yourself from some possible harm that could happen to you down the road. In the meantime, you miss the abundance in front of you in the here and now.
We can only act in the present, not in the past or in the future. We can only experience God and God’s love in the present, not in the past or in the future. The Kingdom of God only exists in the present, not in the past or in the future. We can only experience this inbreaking of the Kingdom of God in the present, not in the past or in the future. And we experience God and God’s love and the Kingdom of God when we choose to love our neighbor as ourselves right here and right now in the present moment. When we let go of our attempts to control our uncontrollable world by living in the past or the future, God joins us in our out-of-controlness and we join God in the great adventure that is life.
I think this is what Jesus is getting at in his very enigmatic words in our Gospel passage for today. Remember Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem where he is about to surrender all illusions of control and face those who are most out-of-touch with God’s invitation to join in divine love, the secular and religious elite of his day. Jesus is saying to those who seek to follow him: forget about the past and the future, God’s kingdom is right now. God is with you right and in front of you right now. You need to choose to love your neighbor as yourself right now. You need to accept God’s invitation to join with the divine right now. There are no “but firsts,” there is only now. What do you choose?
And this living your life in the moment is hard to do. Maybe it even feels impossible for you. And in many ways it is. In our fear of losing control, we will always drift into the past and into the future. This is part of being human. It is ok. God does understand. And this is why Christians throughout time and place have practiced many various spiritual disciplines: reading scripture daily, joining the community in worship, contemplative prayer and meditation, reading the writings of other followers of Christ, fasting, penance, tithing, journaling, living a life of simplicity, mindfully praying, giving to those in need, working with those in need, working for justice and peace. When we practice these things, we are called back from the past or the future into the present where we can hear and receive God’s invitation to love. May you live in the present today and always where God can draw you into the Divine Love. Amen.