Sermon for Sunday June 30th 2013 – Six after Pentecost, Ordinary 13, Year C
‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’
There is need of only one thing. I’d like to begin with a story which I now will be familiar to one or two of you. It was told by the Christian writer, Rob Bell, and concerns a day he spent with his family on the beach.
As small children like to do, his sons had been collecting piles of lovely shells and had quite a handful, when one spotted a Treasure. There, a few yards out on the sea, bobbed a HUGE starfish! And so his son, screaming with delight ran into the waves towards it, but before he’d gone any distance he turned and ran back. Thinking he lacked a little courage to go that far into the water, his family yelled their encouragement – Go on! You can do it! Get your starfish! So he ran back in and went a little further, but turned back once more. Again, his family encouraged him – Go On! You can get it! So he ran back to the shore. A third time he ran, even further this time, but again returned – anguish written all over his face. And his family once more said, Go get your starfish, and he cried back at them “I can’t!”, Why they asked? “Because my hands are full of shells . . .”1
I have to admit that when I last listened to that story it triggered a deep emotional response in me. I connected to that sense of dearly wanting something, but being unable to take hold of it, because my hands were full.
Of course we know the familiar story from the gospels all about those ‘shells’. The rich young ruler comes to Jesus ad asks “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”, and Jesus tells him, put down all your shells, and follow me. The Danish Christian Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote a book entitled “Purity of heart, is to will the one thing” An exposition of the Beatitude, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’. Singleness of eye, of purpose, of living. Put down your shells and follow me
Last week we thought about the Gospel and how the Gospel Is Jesus Christ. Last Sunday evening in a fairly off the cuff talk I explored how that is true with regard to the whole of Creation. How Jesus Christ Is the gospel for the whole created order. Thus if we are to inherit eternal life, then our life must be with him – indeed He is the Treasure.
Today in our gospel we hear of the focus of Jesus, the one who lives to and lives from doing the will of the Father. This is his life and his sustenance. The bread from heaven is to do the will of the Father. And we see this clearly.
When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. Jesus’ mission is coming to focus. He has always known for what he came, but now that begins to be revealed to those with eyes to see. ‘He set his face to go to Jerusalem’. There are two significant Old Testament echoes here, or rather this is clearly prefigured twice in the prophets. Firstly in Ezekiel Chapter 212, in all likelihood the key allusion, we read ‘Son of man, set your face towards Jerusalem and prophecy against her sanctuaries.’, Secondly in the Servant songs of Isaiah, in chapter 50 we read,
The Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
he who vindicates me is near.
The direction of Jesus life known in his heart, now becomes visible in his life. His face is set to go to Jerusalem, like flint. He will not be distracted from the work the Lord has given to him. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. When Jesus mission becomes clear, like with Peter, people do not want to have anything to do with it. Hospitality drains away – there was no room for him in the inn, and there is no room for him in the Samaritan village
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.’ Are you paying attention? Have you seen how the doors close to me? You want to follow me? Do you? Perhaps he looks at this enthusiast as he might look at us – you say you are eager, but will you leave your comforts? Will you leave the warmth of your home? Will you leave all your little treasures? Will you put down your shells??
There is in Jesus an awe inspiring singleness of purpose that profoundly disturbs – He sets his face – the Samaritan village closes its doors – he walks on through – the disciples ask if like Elijah they should call down fire from heaven. But Jesus turns and rebukes them and on they go – on towards Jerusalem – on towards the cross.
As he goes he sees people, as he saw those fishermen on Galilee, he calls them ‘Follow me’ – join me, come with me, to Jerusalem. And they hear the command – they See the Treasure – but their hands are full of shells, beautiful and beguiling. There are other calls, calls which Jesus warns are Siren voices. Voices which keep us from Life. ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’
For the pious Jew, honouring Father and Mother was one of the greatest commandments. It would be unthinkable not to do this brief yet significant honour, But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ These traditions that you keep? One thing is necessary!
This interaction begins with the command to follow – it is as if Jesus is testing this individual – did you hear my command or not? If you heard my command you would know that it is life giving, in starkest contrast to a burial. If you heard my word, you would know that you shall call no-one father, for you have but one father, in heaven.
As we explored in our Lent course on the nature of the church, Jesus totally redefines ‘Family’, as he comes to create one new humanity, where all know their true identity as children not born of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. Did you hear My command? Did you hear My voice. The Voice that calls us from death to Life.
And having heard, do we like Jesus relentlessly pursue the course? 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 plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’
I have a friend who does agricultural contracting work in Western Australia. He works on a vast ‘farm’ where he is part of a team sowing seed, in shifts, 24/7. This requires him to drive the tractor and sow seeds in the middle of the night! And to do this her requires a GPS system which guides the tractor. A few weeks ago, he got into all sorts of trouble – the GPS failed. He couldn’t sown in straight lines. He lost sight of the direction.
‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’ We don’t as it were make this Christian life up – no! Christian Life is to follow Christ – keeping our eyes on him. This would be follower wants to turn back for a while – but Jesus is going on. What will he do? The Treasure that is Life in Christ is moving on.
Put another way, our hands are full of shells, the starfish is drifting further out to sea what will we do?
I remember many years ago having a conversation with a friend who was stuck on the shore watching the Starfish bobbing away. She said to me, ‘I’ve come to realise that this Christian life will cost me everything I have – I have to choose’ . . . I don’t know that she ever has done.
One thing . . . Follow me . . .
I wonder how this feels to you? I spoke at the outset of my own deep response to hearing that tale once more. It is Huge, no? 🙂
Well it would not be helpful pastorally for me to depart back to the UK, without offering some words of encouragement and hope. The gospel Is Jesus Christ. His Life is everything and his call demands everything. We have to put down our shells. He is the treasure of great price for which we sell everything
The gospel Is Jesus Christ . . . and We are his body . . . the difficulty with so much of what we might call challenging preaching is that it offers little more than a call to us individually to pull up our socks, so to speak. But, as I frequently mention, there is no such thing as an individual. All our lives are tightly bound together. The call of Jesus, demanding as it is, is heard here. In his church, in the assembly of the faithful. We are called together, to respond. We are not called to what seem to be to the individual heroic acts – rather we are to help one another so that we might follow Christ together.
In a world which values ‘Independence’, standing on our own two feet, we as the church renounce that and proclaim our interdependence, that our life is with our brothers and sisters3 – that we can only follow Christ in obedience in the context of that shared life.
So each week, we come together. Each week we hear these life giving yet totally demanding words of Jesus – Each week we need to strengthen and encourage one another in the walk. Calling back those who have turned away, finding fellowship with one another when the world does not receive Jesus, discovering the wealth of the new family that Jesus has established in his body.
The journey that lies ahead of us is to grow in that unity of life and purpose, that Christ becomes visible. When Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem, as it were Who he is becomes Visible. He is ‘the one who comes in the name of the LORD’. As we grow in fellowship with one another in His Body, so too His Light shines before others, as our Life together becomes visible, as we together set our faces towards God’s coming Kingdom
Let us let go of our shells. Together let us take up our cross and joyfully follow Jesus in the narrow way that leads to the fulness of Life in his precious name.