Keep Your Hand on the Plow

1917 Behind the Plough oil on canvas 67 x 100 cm Munch Museum, Oslo

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 8
June 26, 2016
The Rev. Glenn Chalmers
St. Paul’s Within the Walls

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

In a certain city, police cadets have to take a written exam before entering the force. And this is the question they have to answer:

You are on patrol in the central city when a great explosion occurs in a gas main. Stopping to investigate, you find a large hole in the middle of the street and an overturned van lying nearby.

Inside the van there is a strong smell of alcohol. Both the occupants – a man and a woman – are seriously injured. You recognize the woman as the wife of your police captain, who is out of the country for a conference.

As people gather around the accident scene, you can’t but help but notice one face in the crowd. You realize that he is the very man the entire police force has been searching for over the past seven months. A man wanted for a series of crimes.

Suddenly a man runs out of a nearby house, shouting for help. In the excitement, his wife had just gone into premature labor and needs help now.

Yet more cries are heard as a man and his young daughter are yelling out. The force of the explosion had thrown both of them into a nearby canal and neither can swim.

The exam question? Briefly describe what actions you would take.

One of the cadets thought about it and wrote down his six-word answer. “Take off uniform. Mingle with crowd.”

There have been times – no doubt – when we can empathize with that cadet’s response. Where there is too much to contend with. The obstacles before us too great. The path ahead too difficult. We, like him, can cringe and step back from the challenges we face.

I suspect this was just as true for those early disciples. In today’s Gospel from Luke, they are not in the best frame of mind. They had left everything to follow Jesus and the reception they were getting was anything but warm and fuzzy. When the people of one village rejected them – they called on Jesus to – well, literally, turn the people into toast. Jesus rebuked them – upheld the way of nonviolence even in the face of rejection.

Elsewhere, his words to others along the way are hard. And harsh.

Someone wants to follow him and Jesus’s response is that he has nowhere to lay his head. So fine – but be prepared to be homeless.

Another wants to follow but first he needs to bury his father. A reasonable request to be sure. But no, says Jesus, “let the dead bury their own dead.”

Another wants to say goodbye to those at home first before heading off with Jesus and his disciples. But again, Jesus is firm. “No one who puts a hand to the plow and look back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

These are hard sayings.

We do well to remember the words of the great theologian, Soren Kierkegaard. He noted that so many of Jesus’ words and commands are overstated to get our attention. They are, he wrote, like setting your alarm clock an hour early just to make sure you get up in time.

That may ease the rough edges of these words, but not their intent.

Haven’t we all, at one time or another, put our hand to the plow and looked back?

If so, we are in very good company

On January 27, 1956, a young pastor sat in his kitchen in Montgomery, Alabama. He held a cup of coffee, unable to sleep. His plan to integrate the city buses seemed to be collapsing. His own life had been threatened more than once. Earlier in the evening, a caller had warned, “If you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow your brains out and blow up your house.”

Then, as Martin Luther King, Jr. later recounted:

I bowed down over that cup of coffee . . . I prayed a prayer and I prayed out loud that night. I said, “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. I think the cause we represent is right. But Lord I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak.”

One of King’s biographers, Samuel Freeman, captured this scene. He added that Martin Luther King needed to hear and did hear at that moment the words of today’s Gospel: “Keep your hand on the plow and do not look back…”

Nothing of significance is achieved without struggle, without hardship, without being tempted to give up or to give in. The struggle for justice remains. The efforts to embrace all people as Jesus did endure. The way of nonviolence in a world rocked by hatred, bloodshed, and war still beckons.

As people of God, we strive to do the right things. And in doing the right thing, whom among us has not looked back, who among us has not had second thoughts.

Jesus’s words in today’s Gospel are meant to keep us keeping on – providing strength and courage for the journey before us.

Let us keep our hands to the plow. And not look back.

Let us not grow weary in doing what is right.


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