TEXT: Luke 9:51-62
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 plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’ (Luke 9:57-62)
The week before last (on June 10), I posted a blog which referenced the 1996 movie, “Leaving Las Vegas” (I guess it qualifies as an old movie, by now). Today, I’m going to talk about another movie from that same year.
How many of you have seen the Tom Cruise movie, “Jerry Maguire”? *
If you’ve seen it, you know the title character—played by Tom Cruise—is a sports agent who has a moral epiphany which turns out to be very costly.
As the film opens, life is pretty good for Jerry Maguire. He represents some of the most gifted and talented athletes in sports. He lives in the fast lane, dashing from one meeting to the next, wheeling and dealing in multi-million dollar contracts. But then something happens. He starts noticing the greed, the selfishness, and—most importantly—the destroyed lives that go along with big-time, professional sports. Jerry Maguire realizes something has to change. He can’t go on representing spoiled, overpaid athletes.
One night Jerry suffers a “breakdown” (religious types might call it a “dark night of the soul”). He tosses and turns in his bed, unable to sleep. Finally, he gets up, turns on his computer, and begins typing a mission statement for the future of his company. As he writes, he tries to recapture his own love of sports—the excitement he once felt simply watching an athlete perform.
He writes about the values that his profession once had, but has lost in its quest for more money and more power. By the time he stops typing, he has written 25 pages. He entitles it, “The Things We Think and Do Not Say.” In the middle of the night, he takes the document to a copy center and makes 110 copies. Then he gives a copy to everyone in his company.
The next morning, Jerry realizes what he’s done. Timidly, he walks into his office. To his surprise, he receives a standing ovation for his act of courage. One person says, “Finally, somebody said it.”
Jerry feels more alive than he has in years. He’s just 35, but he feels like he’s starting his life all over again. It’s a wonderful, exhilarating feeling.
However, a week later Jerry is fired by one of his closest friends, who believes that the “new” Jerry Maguire poses a threat to the company. The new Jerry Maguire does not conform to the company’s values and cannot achieve the company’s goals. So Jerry is tossed out onto the street. Within a few days of losing his job, he also loses his fiancée—a woman who does not want to be married to a loser.
Just like “Leaving Las Vegas,” “Jerry Maguire” has a stunning realism. When a person stands up and speaks out for what is right, and defends what is true, there is inevitably a high price to pay. Just as “Leaving Las Vegas” does not soft-pedal the deadliness of alcoholism, “Jerry Maguire” does not romanticize or sentimentalize the role of the courageous reformer. Jerry never gets his job back. He loses the contract for the number one draft choice to the man who fired him. He does not get revenge. The tables do not turn. Jerry Maguire learns that idealistic choices are expensive choices.
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus presents the high costs of discipleship—and his words are not easy to hear. You know, Jesus probably would have been a total flop at parish ministry. Pastors are supposed to be diplomatic and non-threatening … aren’t they? They’re supposed to comfort, not convict … right? Pastors are supposed to encourage, not demand. Jesus says all the wrong things. His words to his would-be disciples are sharp, tough, and unreasonable. The first disciple approaches Jesus beaming with enthusiasm offering his time and talents announcing that he is willing to follow the rabbi from Nazareth anywhere. Jesus tells the man, “If you follow me, expect to be homeless, hungry, and alone.”
In the second encounter, the would-be disciple just wants to attend his father’s funeral. You might think that Jesus would try to show a bit of compassion, and wait for the poor guy. But no. He tells the man that discipleship takes precedence over family. Your family commitments—your family obligations—must be put aside, if you want to be a disciple.
The third aspiring disciple only makes one small request. Before he signs on the dotted line, he wants to go home and say good-bye to his family. That seems reasonable enough. But once again, in his call to commitment, Jesus issues a rebuke. “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62)
I am reminded of a rather odd question that was put to me once (years ago) in a written examination. It was actually more of a thought-experiment than a question. It went like this: Imagine you have a time machine, and you go back to first-century Palestine and meet Jesus of Nazareth face-to-face. Imagine you spend some time with him. Imagine you listen to his teaching. Imagine you observe him as he interacts with other people.
Now imagine this: After you really get to know Jesus, you decide that you don’t like him! (And let’s face it—a lot of people who met Jesus didn’t like him!) Then you get back in the time machine and return to the present.
Now what? What, if anything, would change about your Christian faith?
The way I actually answered that question was to regurgitate some theological mumbo-jumbo about the Jesus of history being different from the Christ of faith. I think I also threw in some pop psychology about clashing personality types and how that shouldn’t be allowed to detract from Jesus’ underlying message. That apparently satisfied the examiner, because I passed the test!
But as I contemplate the story Luke serves up to us today, it occurs to me that I might answer that examination question differently if I was facing it today. Because I don’t like the Jesus I read about here! But, if I’m being honest about it, I have to admit that what I don’t like about him is the difficult challenge he’s putting forward. He’s asking his disciples—and that includes me—to be absolutely single-minded about discipleship. He’s asking me to care about nothing else besides following him—not my family, not my home, or my friends, or my career, or even my own well-being.
“I’ll follow you, Lord, but first I just need to spend half an hour to get my cholesterol level checked…”
“No! You don’t have half an hour. You don’t have five minutes. Follow me now!”
This Jesus guy is a hard case, isn’t he? On the other hand, he certainly did practice what he preached. Maybe that’s why he makes us so uncomfortable. Perhaps too many of us—myself included—have a sort of “bookshelf” approach to God. Most people believe in God, but they place him on the shelf to admire—or to refer to in the proper company. God becomes a possession—one commodity amongst many. Every home should have at least one. Then, when we invite company over, we can show off our new living room furniture, our new dining room table, our new kitchen cabinets … and our quaint little “bookshelf God.” And God will stay on the shelf until a crisis strikes. Then we offer a “bail-out” prayer, and we expect our “bookshelf God” to comfort, support and assist us with a miracle.
But the God of the Bible is nothing like that. The God revealed in Jesus is a God who makes discipleship an arduous—even back-breaking—thing. He is more than a sympathetic, hand-holding personal friend. He calls his followers to make difficult choices—decisions that require sacrifice and commitment.
I don’t like it, either. But discipleship is not about creating a safe, caring environment where people’s needs will be taken care of. No. It is about a radically different way of life. It is about making hard decisions. It is about responding in faith to the demands of the living God. That does not mean that the church should forget about maintaining a safe and caring environment. What it means is that we cannot create a loving and supportive community of faith unless people are willing to make sacrifices to the difficult demands of discipleship.
Jesus knew what that was about. He gave himself wholly. He committed himself fully—so completely that nothing was left over. Like it or not, that’s what he asks of us, also.
Now, there’s something to think about on our summer holidays! May God grant us both insight and courage as we ponder what discipleship means for us. Amen.