Not Looking Back: How Do We Move Forward?

Luke 9:51-62

journeyhobbitAs a kid, I read The Hobbit numerous times. I’ve reread it as an adult, too. There are many reasons why I like it—the good storytelling, the characters, creatures, languages, and cultures. The overarching theme, though, is what always draws me in. Bilbo Baggins, the little Hobbit with the hairy feet, is the protagonist. And he’s joined by others who are pulled from their comfortable or seemingly routine lives into an adventure they could never have imagined. Elves, dwarves, orcs, trolls, ghost kings, giant spiders, and oh yes, a dragon that talks.

Bilbo, at nearly every step of his journey, is reluctant to move forward.

He resists. From time to time, he looks back at his once-comfortable, mundane life in his hobbit hole called Bag End in the village of Hobbiton. He misses his plates and forks, his full pantry, his wine, ale, food, and pipe. But those moments of looking back don’t last long. Bilbo must keep moving forward on his journey towards the Misty Mountain. And even at the end of his story [at least the end of the book], it is obvious that Bilbo cannot go back to his old life. Sure, his hobbit hole will still be there, but he is forever changed. He is not the same Hobbit that a bunch of dwarves and the wizard Gandalf met some time ago. Since leaving Hobbiton, Bilbo can never go back. The Hobbit lifts up these themes: giving up control; taking risks; Compassionate, loving, reckless abandon.

Let’s take a closer look at another story about the journey, in Luke’s Gospel. Like Bilbo, Jesus of Nazareth sets out on a new journey. He is no longer in Galilee. Now, Jesus sets his face to Jerusalem. This is a new trajectory, a new journey, and one that will be paved with many adventures, much risk, and great danger. By this point, people are taking notice of this Jesus. So he sends messengers ahead to check things out, as they near Jerusalem and approach a village of Samaritans. Remember that Samaritans and Jews did not like each other. They were close in culture and religion, but a violent past had caused both parties to be resentful of each other. So it is no surprise that the Samaritans in this particular village on the way to Jerusalem blocked Jesus and co. Anything to do with Jerusalem was anti-Samaritan, as far as they were concerned.

Then James and John, part of Jesus’ entourage, figured it was time to bring down the hammer on the Samaritans. Why not? Jesus was like Elijah the prophet to them and they remembered an old story in the Hebrew Scriptures about getting rid of people who resisted Yahweh’s work. So they asked Jesus if it would be appropriate for them to command fire to come down and consume the Samaritans.

Really?

If there ever was a moment when I thought that Jesus’ disciples were totally lost, this is it. Are you kidding? It turns my stomach. Obviously, Jesus rebukes them, but still. What in the world were those disciples thinking?

So they go to another village (obviously) and now some people along the road are wishing to join Jesus’ entourage. But it wasn’t Jay Z’s entourage. There were no perks, free lunches, or nice hotel rooms.

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Even animals have a place to live, right? But according to Jesus, that was not a guarantee for his followers. This was no cush journey.

Then, yet another person seems to be close to joining Jesus on the journey, but he has some family business to take care of. Burying one’s father is a metaphor for family obligations. He wasn’t able to let go of those obligations to take this new journey. And then another would-be follower expresses willingness to follow Jesus, but he still needs to say goodbye to some people. Not good enough, says Jesus. Let the dead bury the dead and don’t look back.

In my perspective, this is a story about letting go—about moving forward, which means not looking back so much. Often people assume that being a Christ-ian, or a follower of Christ, is about believing something or following a particular religious tradition. That may be true for the various branches of Christianity over the centuries, but it was not true in the Gospels. Jesus was not leading a religion. Jesus was asking people to follow him to a new way of being. And this new way of being was different for each and every person.

For some, Jesus invited them to follow him, because they needed that. Perhaps they had never been invited in their entire lives. They were the outcasts, the untouchables, those whom the religious people didn’t want to hang out with. So Jesus healed them, invited them, and they joined the entourage of the mercy train.

But also, there were those who wanted to follow Jesus. They asked to follow. And each time, Jesus asked them if they were really sure about that. I mean, this would be no prosperity gospel; they would not gain anything materially; they might actually lose material wealth. They wouldn’t be heralded or esteemed; they might even be ridiculed or thought of as strange. And above all, they would have to let go—let go of their world views that were harmful; let go of their prejudices; let go of their attachments to beautiful temples and powerful armies and governments; they would even need to let go of family obligations and guilt. In short, for those who said they wanted to follow Jesus, it was the most difficult, because unlike the outcasts, these would-be followers struggled to let go.

I’ll close with some thoughts about letting go, because I know for many of you, letting go is hard. Let me start by saying what I don’t mean. By letting go I don’t mean that those of you who have been abused in any way, or who have suffered great trauma in the past [and are still obviously dealing with it], I don’t mean that you ought to just get over it. The things that were done to you were of course not your fault, and the healing process of coping with such trauma lasts a lifetime and is an everyday enterprise. Also, keep in mind that Jesus of Nazareth never said “get over it” to any of those who were considered outcasts or who were in need of healing. They were healed and invited on the journey.

What I mean by letting go refers to those reluctant people in the story [and any of us] who are attached to material things and human obligations so much that we cannot move forward. Those of us who are consistently looking back and so full of nostalgia [both good and bad] that the present day is less important and life is stagnant.

Here are some things that have helped me let go of such things obligations. I hope this is helpful for you:

Finding stillness and breathing. Okay, maybe this is weird for some? For me, meditation is helpful, but by meditation I mean just pausing. Really pausing. Stop, even for a few moments, and listen to your breathe. Try it.

Understanding. What has happened in your life? Don’t judge those things. Observe them. Be aware.

Accepting your history. Don’t try to change it. It’s done.

Letting go of judgements, expectations, and material things, as much as possible.

Assessing. What matters most to you in life? Are you pursuing this?

Allowing the Path to be revealed. Don’t force it.

Contributing to the well-being of others, even when you feel angry, sad, or hopeless.

Having fun and laughing. Life actually is short.

Being grateful. Let your gratefulness overcome any complaining.

What things help you to move forward and to let go?

Next week’s teaser: Luke 10:1-11: How Do You Measure Success?

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Josh grew up in Indiana and Iowa before completing a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. He has worked in a variety of settings, including the Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Church of Christ (UCC) in Philadelphia, Hawai’i, Mexico, and Michigan. Currently, he serves as pastor of Love in Action United Church of Christ, a progressive, Christian, LGBTQIA+ affirming and interfaith community in Hatboro, a suburb of Philadelphia. He also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre/Speech from Northwestern College (IA). Josh has worked with youth and young adult programs for 25 years regionally, nationally, and in Latin America. He is also a trained actor and performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, LLC. He has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in worship, youth groups, education, and group-building. Josh is also committed to promoting religious pluralism and partnering with people of all faiths and those who identify as atheist or agnostic to build bridges of shared values and cooperation. He is honored to work with the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia as a Fellow and a Consultant. Focus areas include: University alternative spring break and summer programs that incorporate faith encounters and service-learning for students; workplace diversity programs that promote understanding in organizations, corporations, schools, and hospital settings. Josh also enjoys playing basketball, strumming on the guitar, traveling, learning language, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philadelphia and thinks vegan cheesesteaks are amazingly good.

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