Sermon by Rev. Joel Crouse
While reading up on the gospel story this week, I came across an excerpt from a book called The Power of Focus. The goal of the book was to teach people “how to hit their business and personal targets with certainty.”
Online, someone had distilled down the eight lessons. I want to give you a sampling of what they are. To improve focus, the writers propose the following behaviours. Number One: Take one day completely off each week. Two: Spend time with your family. Three: Before going to bed, think about what you want to accomplish tomorrow. Number Four: Find one thing to make your day better. Five: Take a nap. Six: Ask for help. Seven: Be persistent. And Eight: Keep your promises.
I love reading lists like this. They sound so familiar. Perhaps, we have heard them before?
Perhaps, in one version or another, they have been spoken by the same guy who is giving us the gears in this morning’s gospel.
Jesus is certainly playing Bad Cop in the gospel text. He is in a moment of his ministry when he is making discipleship sound hard. So hard, we might be squirming in our seats a bit.
Someone says to Jesus: I will follow you anywhere. And Jesus basically says, come if you want, but we’re pretty much homeless, and foxes live better than we do.
He encounters another person and extends an invitation. This person agrees, but can he first go and bury his dad? Jesus fires back: let the dead take of themselves, he says.
A third potential disciple says, “I’m coming; just let me go and kiss my family good-bye.” “Whatever,” Jesus answers. “No one who puts a hand to the plow and look back is fit for the [Reign] of God.”
Was Jesus being a bit of a heavy? Absolutely. But his point was clear: discipleship is hard. In his day, it meant leaving your family, giving up a home and a comfortable bed, facing uncertainty, including the risk of arrest and death by the authorities. It was not a decision to be made lightly. We have it easier, living in Canada. But in our day, as the teachings of Jesus become less prominent in society, being disciples of the gospel also has its challenges. It is easy to lose focus.
But keeping focus, staying the course, and persisting is what Jesus is talking about today. What happens to the person pushing the plow if they get distracted and look backwards? They till a crooked line, or maybe the plow runs into a rock and gets stuck. If you are always looking to the life you wish you had, how can you truly live the one you have chosen? Faith requires Focus.
The gospel is never so lacking in nuance, even when the words of Jesus seem to be. The gospel is meant to be read as a complete story, and in context, and by lifting bits here or there. We can read the whole thing on a Sunday, so I get to preach on snippets, on themes. Today, Jesus is talking about focus, but he is also telling stories that highlight, in another context, the benefits of being open to distraction. And there have been plenty of times when Jesus lifted up memory, and family connection, and an awareness of ourselves as being bigger than one moment, as important parts of faith.
But, in this instance, he is talking specifically choosing discipleship when it is tough to do so, about the importance of deciding to be all-in, so you don’t waver at the first sign of trouble. It was going to be hard for the group he was gathering during the time in our story; and it is hard for us today to stay on that plow, never looking back. When we falter in those moments, when our plow goes off-kilter, Jesus reminds us to stay focused on God, on the gospel. Don’t worry about unfinished business you cannot make better. Don’t worry about what you don’t have. Don’t worry about mistakes you made you can’t fix. Look to what you can make better now, to what you can fix now.
So Jesus is talking about a singular focus, like following with thought. He is referring to the kind of focus that gives us energy, purpose and direction. Focus is a trait to adopt so all the other parts of our lives are more content, have more meaning, more love and space. And so it is interesting to hear those 8 points mentioned in a business book about focus.
Because - what were they again? Take off the Sabbath, care for your community, pray as you look to the next day; do something good that brings you peace; practice mindfulness; be open to support and wisdom; have the faith to keep going; and, as much as you can, do what you say you will.
We don’t need to buy a book for those rules; they are written here in the gospel. They are principles of focusing on a life that serves a greater good, a higher calling. Do not look behind, Jesus says, so that you become stuck among the things you cannot change; look ahead, with intention, and live well and honestly. Focus on the gospel, Jesus says, keep your hands on the plow of the faithful, and your harvest will be large indeed. Amen.