"As they were going along the road, someone said to Jesus, '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 Jesus 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 plough and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.'"
--Luke 9: 57-62
My dad used to bike cross-country. He's managed to do all 48 continental states in a continuous loop, which is pretty cool. Dad tells the story that on one of those trips--the first one, I believe--he was going up a long, steep hill near the Virginia-Kentucky border and passed a house where an old man was sitting on the porch. The man hollered at Dad, "Nice day for a bike ride, ain't it?" Dad said, "Yeah, only this hill's pretty tough." The man replied, "Yeah, but if there were no hills, we'd all be riding bikes."
Now that is wisdom. Sure, it's obvious, but it's poignant. If we ever want to accomplish something we must be willing to put forth the effort, work at it, and tackle the hills. Too many times we see those hills, and we say, 'No thanks. I can't do this!' The first time I ever rode bikes with Dad from our house into town, which was a 20 mile round trip filled with tough, steep hills, I told him I never wanted to do that again. It was too hard, it was too much work. But the things in life that really matter are the things that take the most work.
Chief among these, I think, are our relationships. What is life without relationship? There's a reason that there are two people in the creation story, and that's because we were never really meant to go through this life on our own. Think of your most precious relationships: a partner, a friend, a child. Could you possibly imagine NOT being in relationship with that person; after all, being in relationship is one of the most fulfilling pieces of life. That other person helps fill the holes in our lives and we do likewise for them. Still, being in relationship is also one of the most challenging pieces of life; it takes hard work, it takes a willingness to face the steep hills and keep pushing forward. It isn't easy but it is rewarding.
Our relationship with Jesus is the same way. Luke tells the story of three individuals who all have a desire to follow Jesus and be in relationship with him. The first says he will follow Jesus wherever he goes. WHEREVER! Sounds like he's making a promise he knows he can't keep, which is certainly something most of us have done in our relationships. We can almost see Jesus shake his head. He all but says, "You got no idea what you're getting into." He reminds the man that foxes and birds have homes but Jesus doesn't. A life with Jesus is a life of wandering, a life without the comforts of home and the routine that this man has come to enjoy and take for granted. Is he truly ready to be in relationship with Jesus if he doesn't understand that to follow him means giving all of these things up?
The second man says he wants to follow Jesus but first he must bury his father. It's important to note here that this line does not necessarily mean that the man's father is dead or dying. This was a common turn of phrase in the east, one which someone would say when they needed to stall for time. Once a person's parents were gone, then the person would be free to pursue their own dreams, but until then the person would be subject to the parental figure. Thus, what the man is staying to Jesus is, "Hang on! I'm not ready. I'll let you know when I am." Jesus' response is basically, 'No, it doesn't work that way. You either want to or you don't. You don't get to stall for time. Let the dead bury their own dead."
And a third time a man says he will follow Jesus but first he wants to go back home and say goodbye to those he loves. Jesus tells him that no one who puts hand to plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom, meaning that if you try plowing a field by looking behind you, you'll inevitably veer off-course. One cannot move forward into the future while looking back or hanging on to the past.
None of these three would-be followers understands the severity of entering a relationship with Jesus. The first doesn't see that to follow Jesus means letting go of the comforts and routines that he has known for so long. The second wants to put Jesus on hold until he finally makes up his mind. And the third wants to look back and hang on to something because he isn't completely willing let go of his past. Simply put: they are not yet capable of facing the adversities that go along with entering into a relationship with Jesus.
Relationships are hard. When we first enter them we are often starry-eyed and it's crazy exciting. But over time that excitement fades, maybe a little, maybe a lot. Doubts start to creep in sometimes, and we begin to question if we made the right decision. This certainly happened to Jesus' disciples, and it happens to us. I've doubted and questioned and stalled at various points in my relationships. I'm sure some of you have done that. Eventually, though, we come to an insurmountable hill, and we have a choice: keep moving forward one step at a time or turn back around and quit. Those of you who understand just how much effort it takes to make a relationship work are the ones who keep moving forward. You understand that, yes, you're going to make mistakes, yes you might end up wounding each other, but you have known how to forgive one another and keep climbing those hills together. To borrow a phrase from the You Mumford and Sons song, Thistle and Weeds, you understand what it means to "take the spade from one another's hand and fill in the holes you've made." That's what relationship is about. It's not about everything always being wonderful and happy and exciting, rather it is about moving forward together toward a new reality in which both of you are changed for good.
Our relationship with Jesus is just like this because it is the model for every relationship we have. Being in relationship with Jesus is hard and requires a ton of effort. We will make mistakes and wound him, but as we say in our baptismal vows we will repent and return to the Lord. Our relationship with Jesus takes work. It takes work to put the needs of someone else ahead of our own. It takes work to love our enemies. It takes work to even get up on a Sunday morning sometimes and come to church and worship as part of a community of believers. Our relationship with Jesus is not about everything always being wonderful and happy and exciting, instead it's about a journey together with Jesus to the cross, to the place where our old selves can die daily and we enter a new reality with him in which we are changed for good.
I eventually got over those steep hills in Virginia and joined Dad on a bike trip in the summer of 2007. This was taken outside Millbank, SD, part of a 140-mile trip we made over two days.