The ‘Oh, Yeah’ …Of Commitment

Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, S.C.
Readings for the Third Sunday after Pentecost:

Then I will follow you. (1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21)
No one who looks back is fit for the realm of God. (Luke 9:57-62)

This morning’s first song is the last number on hit for the Beatles. The Long and Winding Road hit number one on the Billboard charts on May 23, 1970. The song had been recorded on January 31, 1969, the day after the group’s legendary final performance on the roof of their Apple headquarters in London. Paul McCartney said he wrote the song at his farm in Scotland during a tense time for the group. But, it was producer Phil Specter’s remix of the original song, which added lush orchestration that brought the situation to a head for McCartney. He was outraged by the changes and nine days after the remix – he announced the breakup of the Beatles. Today, we’ll do this sad song as it was intended.

The long and winding road, That leads to your door
Will never disappear, I’ve seen that road before
It always leads me here, Lead me to your door.

The wild and windy night, That the rain washed away
Has left a pool of tears, Crying for the day.
Why leave me standing here? Let me know the way.

Roads are a challenge for me. I don’t like them very much because they have been the site of some unpleasant experiences. Anyone who knows me for about five minutes, especially if those five minutes are spent inside of a car with me, will learn quickly that I have problems with road rage. I regularly yell at drivers and flash the international sign of friendship whenever someone cuts me off or makes me angry in some way.

I once tried to curb my road rage tendencies by putting a “clergy” bumper sticker on my car. I thought that it might make me less apt to flip someone off because if my car was marked as a “clergy” car. What happened, instead, is there are a lot of people driving around Columbia who have told their friends, “Hey, a preacher flipped me off today!” Either that, or they think the car had been stolen …

Either way, the sticker didn’t work, and I’m still in the process of learning how to share the road joyfully and not take other people’s stupid driving habits personally.

Another reason I hate the road is because it has been the scene of a few accidents for me. The most harrowing happened in 2002 on I-85 just south of Atlanta as I headed home in rush hour traffic. At one point, all six lanes of traffic stopped. I was in the furthest left lane when I looked in my rear-view mirror and saw a white van bearing down on me. I knew – without a doubt – that he was going to hit me.

I had limited options. I couldn’t go to the right because there was car beside me. To my left was a narrow shoulder and a honking big concrete wall.

As anyone who has been in an accident can tell you, time goes all wonky while you’re in the midst of the accident. To anyone watching from a distance, the accident probably happened in a matter of seconds. From where I was sitting, however, it seemed like an eternity – watching as that van got closer and closer – bracing for impact. Then, something happened – it’s like instinct took over. In that matter of a few seconds it’s like I left and somebody else took over the wheel. I maneuvered my car to that narrow shoulder, but I wasn’t fast enough. The van hit my rear passenger side, shooting me up that shoulder at a pretty good clip. My motorcycle training kicked in at this point, because in safety class you learn that your bike goes wherever you look – and it’s true. So, in that moment, all I could think was “look straight ahead” because if I had looked at that wall, I would have hit it.

The van hit the car that had been in front of me, forcing her into the truck ahead of her. Later, by the side of the road she said, “I saw you moved out of the way so he’d miss you and hit me.”

“Lady,” I said, “I moved out of the way to give him more room to stop so he hopefully wouldn’t hit any of us.”

If I had stayed put … if I had not looked in my rearview mirror … I probably would have died that day, or at least been seriously injured. But, it didn’t happen that way. Whether it was instinct or the spirit or whatever – my actions had enabled all of us to walk away without injury from that crash.

All was not well with me after the crash, though. I did suffer from some post traumatic stress. I began hyperventilating whenever I would drive after that. I realized that when I got in heavy traffic, which is everywhere in Atlanta, I would hold my breath. It took me a good six months or so to stop hyperventilating on the road, though I’d still do it on occasion and have to remind myself to breathe.

So, when we’re on the road of life, we have choices – we can listen to our gut – our inner voice – our connection with the Holy, or we can be sitting ducks just waiting to get run over. What makes the difference? Commitment. When we’re committed to something we pay attention. When we’re committed to something we take great pains to make sure whatever we’re committed to happens or works out. Commitment means we are always vigilant, always ready to act.

Commitment isn’t easy, though, and often when we’re asked to commit to something, we hem and haw and make excuses for why we can’t do it. Many of us have a fear of commitment – but it is this commitment that puts us on the road to amazing things in life – things that bless us, change us, mold us, and transform us into new and increasingly holy beings.

All the commitment in the world, though, can’t stop us from still being dinged by life. After the accident, I was safe, but I still had a mangled trunk and bumper. There were still things in my life in need of repair and restoration. But, I was alive and well, and I could say, “Oh, Yeah.”

Many times I’ve been alone, And many times I’ve cried,
Anyway you’ll never know, The many ways I’ve tried.

And still they lead me back, To the long, winding road
You left me standing here, A long, long time ago
Don’t leave me waiting here, Lead me to your door.

In our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures tonight we find a young man named Elisha. He’s on the road of life and for him it’s a pretty good ride. In his world, he’s doing just fine. He’s got land and twelve yoke of oxen. With land and that much oxen, Elisha is considered a rich guy.

But, if he had taken the time to check his rearview mirror he would have seen this old guy – probably with a white beard – coming up behind him at a pretty good clip.

Elijah passes by Elisha and tosses his mantle over him. Now, a mantle is a piece of clothing – a cape that is worn usually to ward off the cold. But, this gesture, this tossing of his mantle to Elisha, meant more than just giving someone a coat to keep warm. In this moment, he was transferring his authority as a prophet to Elisha.

You could say Elisha was a bit blindsided by this action. I mean, imagine it: you’re plowing your field one day this dude passes by and throws his cape at you. This is not just any dude, though – this is Elijah – the rock star of prophets. Being a good Jew, you know what this gesture means – you’re the new rock star prophet. For Elisha, it’s like winning the lottery – or being chosen as the new celebrity apprentice.

Perhaps Elisha dreamed of this day, perhaps he didn’t, but here it was. His time was now. By tossing his mantle, Elijah asked Elisha to make a commitment – to put aside life as he knew it now and get on the road – a road that would definitely be long and winding – a road that would at times be dark and dangerous – but a road, nonetheless, that would lead to an amazing, life changing, and spirit-filled place.

We’ve all been where Elisha is – that moment of decision. We’ve all stood at a crossroad in our lives, wondering which direction we should take. We’ve all consulted the map, gotten out the GPS, and tried to decide which is the best road to take – even if we don’t exactly know where we’re going.

What did Elisha do when he was asked to commit to the prophet’s road? He did what we all do – he hesitated.

“Wait,” he said, “let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.”

“Wait! I’ve got a few loose ends to tie up – a few things I need to do – then I’ll get on the road.”

Don’t we all do that? When I have enough money, I’ll quit my job and do what I really want to do. When I have enough education, I’ll really be doing what I want. When my parents die, then I can live life like I want to.

When I find the right person to love me, then life will begin. When I get a little bit ahead, I’ll give money to the church. When I get a little more time, I’ll give more time to the church.

We’re just like Elisha – we’ve been asked to make a commitment, to begin a life-changing, spirit-growing, amazing journey, to go on a road trip with Holy, and we stall out. We think of a million reasons why we can’t. Oh, we’d really like to, we say, but we have all these other commitments, all these other worries, and concerns, and responsibilities. Let us take care of that – then, perhaps, we’ll climb on board.

But, the Holy says – get your butt in the car – and if you make the commitment, you’ll soon be saying, “Oh, Yeah.”

Breathe deeply.

But still they lead me back, To the long, winding road
You left me standing here, A long, long time ago
Don’t leave me waiting here, Lead me to your door.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

In 1991, Canadian singer Tom Cochrane wrote a song that would become his only number one hit in his native country. I guess you could call poor Tom a one-hit wonder. His song, Life is a Highway, peaked at number six on the Billboard charts in the US in 1992, and has sung by other artists including the country group Rascal Flatts, whose version we’ll try tonight.

Verse 1: Life’s like the road that you travel on,
There’s one day here and the next day gone
Sometimes you bend, sometimes you stand,
Sometimes you turn your back to the wind
There’s a world outside every darkened door,
Where blues won’t haunt you anymore
Where the brave are free and lovers soar,
Come ride with me to the distant shore
We won’t hesitate to break down the garden gate,
There’s not much time left today

Chorus: Life is a highway, I wanna ride it all night long
If you’re going my way, I wanna drive it all night long

The road I’ve been traveling for the past seven years has been an interesting, exhilarating, life-changing, and at times downright terrifying one. There have been twists and turns – long boring straight-aways – plenty of pit stops – a few flat tires – and one time when it felt like the road completely dropped out from underneath me. The whole journey, though, has been one of commitments. It was a commitment to a job that put me on this road. A commitment to a church has kept me on this road, and there was even a time of recommitment when the road finally rose to meet me. Without these commitments and recommitments, I would have been stuck. The commitments kept me going – gave me a destination. They gave my journey purpose.

One of those commitments is falling away. My job at the university ends in December, and I’m facing the prospect of being unemployed in the new year unless I can find something before then. For anyone who has lost a job, you know the terror of looking into your rearview mirror and seeing unemployment bearing down on you at a high rate of speed. Options – especially in this economy – can be limited. According to the experts, it takes the unemployed nearly 35 weeks to find a new job. That’s about six months and that’s a new record for length of unemployment. So, it’s not a good time to be looking for a job.

I realized the other day, I’m hyperventilating again. The prospect of having no job, and especially no healthcare, is stressing me out. I’m forgetting to breathe. I’m looking in the rearview mirror and wondering what I can do to get out of the way of the unemployed fate that awaits me.

Breathe deeply.

In our Jesus story, we hear echoes Elisha. This, too, is a story about the subject of commitment. Jesus and the boys are traveling through a village when someone comes up and says they’ve decided to follow Jesus. “I will follow you wherever you go,” the man tells Jesus.

Jesus had heard this line before, I’m sure. There were probably a lot of wannabe disciples who said they wanted to follow him, but fell along the wayside as time went by. They learned that following Jesus has a cost and Jesus tried to spell it out to this guy by saying:

“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

He’s telling the guy, “Sure, come on, but the road we’re on isn’t easy. It may have places to rest, but we’ll never be settling down. If you follow me, then the road is your home. You’ll live on the path – never in a cottage beside it – because this road continues into infinity – it’s a journey we’ll always be on – one that never ends, because we’re traveling with the infinite – with the Holy – and we never know where we’re going, and we never really arrive.”

His response is more poetic, but the message is the same – this is a road you have to commit yourself to, or you’ll never get to say, “Oh, Yeah.”

Verse 2: Through all these cities, and all these towns,
It’s in my blood and in it’s all around
I love you now, like I loved you then;
This is the road, and these are the hands
From Mozambique to those Memphis nights,
The Khyber Pass to Vancouver’s Lights
Knock me down and up again,
You’re in my blood, I’m not a lonely man
There’s no load I can hold,
the road’s so rough, this I know,
I’ll be there when the light comes in
Just tell ’em we’re survivors

Chorus: Life is a highway, I wanna ride it all night long
If you’re going my way, I wanna drive it all night long

Bridge: There was a distance between you and I
(between you and I)
A misunderstanding once, but now we look it in the eye

This new follower of Jesus is just like Elisha. He wants to come along, but there are some things he’d like to do first, like bury his dad. Unlike Elijah though, Jesus doesn’t give the guy a chance to do this. He tells him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the realm of God.”

When we take to the road with the Holy, we can’t look back. When we utter the “Oh, Yeah” of commitment, we say yes to the future and put the past where it should be – in our rearview mirror. We cannot take this journey if we are stuck in the past. No baggage from the past will fit in the trunk – we have to keep that open for new experiences, the souvenirs we’ll gather as we embark on this new journey.

The past has to be the past for the present to be the present and for the future to unfold.

Elisha finally understood this. The scriptures tell us he went back to his farm and slaughtered all of his oxen, used his plow for firewood, and cooked up his beasts of burden as meal for the people. In short, he made sure that he could never return to his past way of life. All his oxen were dead, his equipment destroyed. All he had now was the road ahead – the journey that the Holy had invited him to embark upon. Nothing in his life was more important than the highway of life, and he wanted to ride it his whole life long.

In the next chapter of Luke, we’re told that Jesus appointed seventy other people as his followers – but we’re not told if this man is among them. We don’t know what decision he made – but we’re clearly left with the terms of the decision: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the realm of God.”

What are you looking back at these days? What is it in your past that is preventing you from moving forward – from embracing that new highway of adventure and transformation? What excuses are you making for putting off that road trip with the Holy? What would it take to get you out of the rest area and back on life’s highway?

Are you ready to put your past behind you and get on the road to the amazing future the Holy is promising?

Breathe deeply.

I’m spending a lot of time these days looking back. I love my job for many reasons and I would keep it forever if they would let me, but the reality is, the grant money is gone and so is my job. I don’t want to accept that. I keep hoping for a miracle of a new grant and more money to stay on. Who knows? It could happen. But, I have to live like it won’t. The Holy is inviting me to make the past the past and embark on a new journey, a new adventure, a brand new highway of commitment. I can see the signs ahead that read “Jubilee! Circle” – and it invites me to breathe the “Oh, Yeah” of that new commitment.

I hope, too, that you all can see that sign – the one that reads “Jubilee! Circle” – because this, my friends, is a journey and we’re on it together. It will take the commitment of each one of us to make Jubilee! Circle the most amazing and wonderful place that it can be. I know that’s scary and for many of you it’s a big commitment. You may want to go off and consider it for awhile, weigh your options, or get things in order before making that commitment. But, I hope that, deep within you, is that “Oh, Yeah” of commitment to this endeavor. We’re seeking to be an intentional community that makes a difference in this world, but also makes a difference in the lives of each person in the room.

When Elisha balked at taking Elijah’s mantle and wanted to run back home before deciding to make his journey, Elijah said to him, “Go back again: for what have I done to you?” What’s he’s saying is this: “Do whatever you feel you need to do, because it’s not me who is calling you to this new journey. The Holy calls you. I haven’t done anything to you.”

Jubilants, I am not calling you to commit to this community. If I called you, some of you might commit because you don’t want to disappoint me or make me sad or mad. But, ultimately I don’t have the power to call you to that kind of commitment, only the Holy has can do that. I hope that’s a call you’re feeling. I hope that it is the breath of life, the spirit of this world, that is calling you so deeply to this commitment that you cannot help but say, “Oh, Yeah.”

If you choose to come along on this journey I can guarantee a few things. We will hyperventilate – a lot. We’ll have to remind ourselves to breathe deeply – a lot. Which is why we do that a lot in our celebrations! We will question our decisions – a lot. We will go in the wrong direction and get lost – a lot. We will wonder what the hell we’re doing here – a lot. But, if this is indeed a journey that the Holy calls us to, overall it will be a joyful one, despite any bent bumpers along the way. It will be a journey that inspires us, uplifts us, and makes us crank up the radio and sing along. It will be a highway we want to ride all night long – because we will be on the road with the Holy. That road means we are committed to work together to making this world a better place not just for us – but for all of us.

That, Jubilants, is a highway worth riding, because it’s the ultimate journey with the Infinite, and on that journey we can’t help but say: “Oh, Yeah!”

Chorus: Life is a highway, I wanna ride it all night long
If you’re going my way, I wanna drive it all night long

Oh, Yeah!