Sabbath Day Thoughts — “No Turning Back” Luke 9:51-62
When it comes to understanding our higher purpose as human beings, author, psychologist, and wilderness guide Bill Plotkin teaches that each of us is born to occupy a specific ecological niche—that’s econiche for short. Each of us is blessed with gifts, abilities, and aptitudes that are intended to fulfil a particular function in our families, communities, and beyond. You might even say that we are each created with a God-given purpose. By living faithfully and courageously, we grow fully into the people whom God created us to be.
Take my econiche, for example. I like to say that I am doing what God put me on earth to do: serving as a pastor and spiritual leader. I also feel that I am fulfilling that function where God calls me to be—right here in Saranac Lake. I believe that God called me to marriage with Duane, who has been a wonderful encourager and conversation partner for my life and ministry. A few years ago, I began to hear God calling me to use my writing to reach beyond the walls of the church and the limits of Saranac Lake. When I chose to live into that expanded econiche, doors opened: a book, a doctoral program, and an article in a literary journal this month.
Bill Plotkin writes that we are “each born to take a specific place within the earth community, to fill an individual ecological niche in the greater web of life.” We each have a holy purpose that serves the planet. Our personal growth and discovery of our econiche is part of God’s plan. It’s a fulfillment of our purpose and a blessing to the world around us. What is your econiche?
In today’s lesson from Luke’s gospel, Jesus resolved to travel to Jerusalem. Along the way, Jesus would share some of his most profound teachings and work some of his most compelling acts of healing. He would do all this while knowing what awaited him in Jerusalem: betrayal, arrest, conviction, torture, and death. Jesus knew his econiche. He knew the redemptive purpose that God put him on earth to serve and he “set his face” to fulfill it.
As Jesus embarked on that fateful journey, he was not alone. He was accompanied by “the women,” his inner circle of disciples, and other unnamed followers. Drawn by Jesus’ wise instruction or in search of a healing miracle, people came to see what Jesus was all about. According to Luke, some who came felt that God’s will for their life—their econiche—was to be a disciple. Indeed, in today’s lesson, Jesus was approached by three would-be disciples. All expressed interest in following Jesus, but there seemed to be impediments to answering that calling.
The first would-be disciple sounded eager. He promised to follow Jesus wherever he might go. Yet Jesus cautioned that following him would not be easy. Foxes have dens, birds of the air go home to roost, but, at times, Jesus and his friends would have no place to lay their heads. Being a disciple would bring opposition from Samaritan villages, scandalized Pharisees, and plotting priests and scribes. Jesus and his friends would make enemies. Discipleship would sometimes feel unsafe and inhospitable, lonely and under-supported. If this would-be disciple was going to answer the call, then he would need to be ready to face adversity.
If we are to grow into our God-given purpose—our econiche, then we need to be prepared to work through difficulty and adversity along the way. Benjamin Franklin was 10-years-old when his parents could no longer afford to send him to school. The resourceful Franklin resolved to teach himself. He read voraciously, studying late into the night with poor lighting after working all day as a printer’s apprentice. Franklin’s self-directed study equipped him for life as a patriot, scientist, and diplomat. He was an editor and signer of the Declaration of Independence, the inventor of the lightning rod and bifocals, and the American ambassador to France from 1776 to 1785.
A second would-be disciple approached Jesus. This man wished to join the Lord on the journey to Jerusalem, but he first wanted to bury his father. First century Jewish tradition taught that at the death of a patriarch a mourning period of seven days followed the burial. If the dead man were of high status in the community, that mourning period could extend to thirty days. This would-be disciple wished to follow Jesus, but it would be a while before he was available. Jesus’ response, “Let the dead bury the dead, but you go share the good news of the Kingdom,” sounds harsh. Some Bible scholars say this is hyperbole, an exaggerated rhetoric that makes a point. Clearly, Jesus is saying that discipleship takes unwavering commitment that is willing to set aside time-worn traditions.
Fulfilling God’s purpose for our lives may likewise demand that we make tough choices that depart from traditions and expectations. Those of you who are older among us remember the days when the only career options available to women were mothering, teaching, nursing, or being a clerical worker. Judith von Seldeneck’s parents thought she would make a great secretary – and she was, serving as the personal secretary to Sen. Walter Mondale in the 1960s. But Judith had different ideas about her purpose. She attended law school—one of only two women in her class. Then, as more and more women began to enter the workforce, Judith found her niche: helping women find jobs. The business that she launched, Diversified Search Group, is now a global leader in executive recruitment, with offices in fourteen cities across the US and global affiliates around the world.
A third would-be disciple approached Jesus. He hoped to follow the Lord, but first he wished to go back home and take his leave. Jesus sensed that this man’s past would have a powerful hold upon him. Like a distracted farmer who plows a crooked and shallow furrow, this man would always look back. He would not have the focus and commitment for discipleship. His preoccupation with the past would be a roadblock to moving ahead.
To grow into the people whom God calls us to be, we may sometimes need to leave something behind. This may include false beliefs about ourselves and patterns of behavior that are a stumbling block to our growth. In his book How Not to Be Afraid, author, storyteller, and peacemaker Gareth Higgins writes that many of us subject ourselves to “harsher judgment than that which we direct to people we might even consider enemies. We have likely judged ourselves worthy of public flogging more times than we can remember.” To move forward and grow into God’s purpose for our lives, we may need to leave behind our critical inner voice, or our failures, or even traumatic experiences that have kept us stuck. Sometimes, it’s the shame of our past mistakes or our feelings of sinfulness that hold us back because we fail to extend to ourselves the grace that Jesus so generously extended to others.
The research of author and professor Brene Brown has found that eighty-five percent of men and women interviewed could recall a school incident from their childhood that was so shaming that it changed how they thought of themselves as people and learners. What made those findings even more haunting was that approximately half of those recollections were what Brown calls “creativity scars.” The research participants could point to a specific incident where they were told or shown that they weren’t good writers, artists, musicians, dancers, or creators. Our potential is stifled when we accept the criticism of others as part of our self-understanding.
Making peace with the past so that we can move into the future takes prayer, reflection, and healing work. We may need a wise mentor, a caring friend, a listening pastor, or a good counselor to help us see that our past does not have to determine our future. Indeed, it is in our healing and growing that we discern and cultivate strengths and gifts that will serve us and the world around us. Like Rumpelstiltskin spinning straw into gold, those personal pains that once held us back can be transformed, equipping us richly to serve in the struggles of others. If we refuse to let go of the past, if we won’t take the risk of stepping out to follow Jesus and pursue our higher purpose, then we fail ourselves and the role we are meant to serve in God’s Kingdom goes unfulfilled.
What I find most fascinating about today’s reading is that we don’t get to see the choices that those would-be disciples made. Did they rise to move into that beautiful, if daunting, path of discipleship? Or, did they despair at the possibility of discomfort, cling too closely to outdated traditions, and let their pasts get the better of them? Call me an optimist, but I like to think they found their econiche. Those would-be disciples chose Jesus, chose growth, chose to become the people whom God was calling them to become. I like to think that they were blessed in that—and that they went on to become a blessing for others.
May we do the same.
Brené Brown. “The Most Dangerous Stories We Make Up” excerpted from Rising Strong, July 27, 2015. Accessed online at brenebrown.com.
Chris Crisman. “Women’s work: 12 stories of female success and struggle in male-dominated fields | Perspective” in The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 7, 2020. Accessed online at inquirer.com.
Marilynn Salmon. “Commentary on Luke 9:51-62” in Preaching This Week, June 27, 2010. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Michael Rogness. “Commentary on Luke 9:51-62” in Preaching This Week, June 30, 2013. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
David Lose. “Out of Control” in Dear Working Preacher, June 24, 2013. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
51When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55But he turned and rebuked them. 56Then they went on to another village. 57As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58And 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.” 59To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”