|Dover Chapel, Gardner-Webb University, Boiling Springs, NC|
July 30, 2016
Psalm 139:1-10; Luke 9:57-62
One afternoon in the spring of 2001, as I was preparing to leave Furman University to accept a call to the pastorate of the First Baptist Church of Greenville, South Carolina, I ran into Dr. Bill Brantley, a physics professor and friend, who engaged me in a conversation about the university and the church, the virtues and flaws of each, about what a calling is, and about why anyone in his or her right mind would leave the security and comfort of a tenured faculty position for the insecurities and inescapable expectations of pastoring a tall-steeple church. As our conversation ended, Bill pointed a finger at me and landed a parting shot before he turned to walk away: “Put your hand to the plow and don’t look back,” he said. His paraphrase of the words of Jesus in Luke 9:62 took me by surprise and made my impending departure from the college campus that had been my home away from home for thirteen years suddenly more real than anything else yet had. “Put your hand to the plow and don’t look back.”
Now, before I go any farther, let make it very clear that the Office of Alumni Relations wants you to look back and come back. And the Office of University Advancement wants you to look back and give back. And so do I. But Jesus’ words in Luke 9:62 are a first-century equivalent of the latter-century admonition to every student in Driver’s Education: “Keep your eyes on the road.” And this morning, those words serve as a reminder to the graduates and to us all that we are doomed to crash if we insist on driving by our rearview mirror. So on this occasion of Commencement, beginning, outset and setting out, I want to offer you a word of orientation and a word of encouragement.
First, the word of orientation. Jesus addressed the words, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God,” to someone who expressed a simple desire to say good-bye to family and friends. If it weren’t Jesus who said it, most of us would consider this remonstrance to be inconsiderate, insensitive, even. If you think about the family and social dynamics at play in the famous sequence of sayings of Jesus in Luke 9—“the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head”; “let the dead bury the dead”; and put your hand to the plow and don’t look back, as Bill Brantley paraphrased it—you will understand why many Jews and Greeks and Romans alike were offended by the teachings of Jesus and by the earliest Christian communities because they understood them to be contrary to family values and destructive to the fabric of ordered society. Sara Evans sang it in a country song titled “Suds in the Bucket”: “How can eighteen years just up and walk away . . . gone in the blink of an eye?” That’s exactly what Jesus said to do in Luke 9:62. That sudden departure without so much as a good-bye violates our family values and our assumptions about the nature of ordered society. Some of us know that violated feeling at home or work or church: We have experienced a departure that left us with a hole in our heart, unanswered questions in our mind, and an empty cavern in our soul. So here’s a word of orientation to those of us who are leaving and to those who are being left: Face Forward. “Put your hand to the plow and don’t look back.” The essence of a biblically grounded faith is not in how tenaciously we cling to the things of the past but in how expectantly we embrace God’s future for us and for the world: Facing forward, eyes on the road ahead, not longing for the sights and sounds of the past but embracing vistas of a future yet to unfold. Face forward. That’s the word of orientation.
Now for the word of encouragement. The underlying testimony of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation and the explicit witness of Psalm 139 is that there is no time or place, no circumstance or situation, outside the reach or beyond the real and effective presence of God. According to Psalm 139, no matter where you go or when you go there, you cannot escape the presence of God. You cannot run fast enough or far enough to arrive a place that God cannot reach you, a place where the effective presence of God does not surround you and hold you fast, even when you are not aware of it or even when you actively assert God’s absence.
Six years ago now, John M. Buchanan, who was then the Pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago and the editor and publisher of The Christian Century, recounted this remarkable description of the reach of the real and effective presence of God: “a minister I know had to lead her suburban Chicago congregation through an unspeakable tragedy: a member of the congregation shot and killed his wife and her son and then killed himself. The minister had to comfort her congregation and hold it together. She spoke at a memorial service for the mother and son. What is there to say in that situation? She told the congregation crowded into the sanctuary that there was a phrase in the Apostles’ Creed that had always bothered her: the phrase stating that Jesus ‘descended into hell.’ She told how the pastor of the church in which she grew up so disliked that line he went through the hymnals with a large black Magic Marker and crossed it out. ‘I grew up saying the creed without that line,’ the minister said. ‘Now, this week,’ she said, ‘I understand it. We have descended into hell together and Christ has gone before us, into every corner of it. The good news is that when life takes us there, when we have to go there, [Christ] goes with us,’” she said. (The Christian Century, March 23, 2010, p. 3).
The testimony of Scripture and the witness of the most ancient confessions of the Christian faith agree that there is no time or place, no circumstance or situation, outside the reach or beyond the real and effective presence of God. Songwriters Sam Tate, Annie Tate, and Dave Berg combined a quote from Winston Churchill—“If you’re going through Hell,” Churchill said, “keep going”—and an Irish toast—“May you be in Heaven five minutes before the devil knows you’re dead”—to come up with an infectiously singable chorus that Rodney Atkins took to the top of the country music charts: “If you’re goin’ through hell, keep on going. Don’t slow down. If you’re scared, don’t show it. You might get out before the devil even knows you’re there.” You might. Or you might not. But the Ultimate difference maker is not chance or the ignorance of the devil. The Ultimate difference maker is that when life takes us into hell, Christ has already gone before us into every corner of it; and when we have to go there, Christ goes with us. The essence of facing forward is not hoping that we will avoid or escape failure or fear, pain or suffering, grief or death or even hell for that matter. The essence of facing forward is the full confidence and trust that come whatever may, there is no time or place, no circumstance or situation, outside the reach or beyond the real and effective presence of God. That’s the word of encouragement.
So with Alumni Relations, I say, “Come back . . . any time.” And with University Advancement, I say, “Give back . . . all the time.” And with Jesus I say, face forward: Put your hand to the plow and don’t look back.
Copyrighted © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Rogers. This material may be copied or disseminated for non-commercial use, provided this notice is included. The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.