I really do tend to be an optimist. I do see the glass half full. But, I also once read that optimists tend to be late a lot. The theory is that this is because we always think there is more time to do more things before the actual appointed event. I know this all too well. In fact, we have a joke in our family that there is such a thing as “Vaccaro time.” Vaccaro is my maiden name. Vaccaro time is around 10-30 minutes behind. I ran on Vaccaro time a lot before I met Chris. But, he likes to be on time. I’ve gotten better. But, I am usually predictably early to one thing: worship. Anyway, I think all of this comes from something similar to what is going on in the Gospel today: the “but first” syndrome.
We’re on our way out the door “but first.” But first, I want to change out the laundry, take the dogs out, put those breakfast dishes in the dishwasher, and yell out every mom’s favorite phrase “did you go potty?” But I also wonder how many times I’ve said “but first” and missed out on something better. But first, let me finish this sermon. But first, let me finish this email. But first, I need to make a phone call. But first, I need to put this laundry away. All of us can probably think of a dozen “but first” instances that might have caused us to miss out on life. Two unnamed men in the reading for today desire to follow Jesus. But first… The first man says that he will follow Jesus but “first, let me go and bury my father.” The second man also desires to follow Jesus “but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Both times Jesus reminds them of the kingdom work that they both have been called to.
Being a follower of Christ isn’t the easiest thing in the world. I think we would like it to be. But, it’s not. It’s more than coming to church. Being a follower of Christ requires action, movement, and a commitment. And a lot of times, we have those “but first” moments that can interrupt our discipleship. Please hear me, my beloved, these but first moments aren’t bad things. I don’t want you to think that I am telling you to drop everything in your life and follow Christ. Because while that sounds nice in theory, and that is what Christ asks us to do, sometimes it’s the but first moments that often keep our lives moving. “But first, I need to add to my retirement fund a bit.” “But first, I need to get care of the cattle lined up.” Taking care of our future, our families, our livelihood, is important and good work. As nice as Shelly at Chase-MasterCard is, she will never waive a payment because you tell her you’re going to drop everything and follow Christ.
But what about the things we do tend to put in front of Christ that really could be back-burner items? What but firsts do we put in our lives that are actually stumbling blocks? Because in our story today, we’ve reached a critical point. Jesus has turned his face to Jerusalem. This can only mean one thing: he is starting to prepare himself for his death. All along Jesus has been encouraging those around him to follow him. And it hasn’t been too bad so far. And then he turns his face to Jerusalem. This is a rubber meets the road kind of movement. It’s as if Jesus is saying “I’m all in. Are you all in?” And we suddenly might be looking for all kinds of “but first” moments to get us out of this one. Because Jerusalem means sacrifice. Jerusalem means judgement. Jerusalem means chastising. And ultimately, Jerusalem means death. It would be about this time that I would be looking for any and all ways out.
That’s a hard reality to admit. Because my reaction to all of this is about me and has nothing to do with Jesus. What does it say about me that as soon as Jesus sets his face to Jerusalem, I want out? What does it say about me that when my idea of faith is challenged, I want to shut down? What does it say about me when someone challenges my ideas of social justice and I just want to use scripture as a weapon (something I know I’ve preached against). I don’t like it when my shortcomings are right in front of me, clear as day, begging to be examined and corrected and I just desire to make excuse after excuse. What wins out over Jesus time and time again is my desire to remain “safe.” I often forget that Jesus will keep me safe but my lack of trust keeps me in the shadows of uncertainty and but firsts. There are even topics I think about preaching, “but first…” And I rationalize it by thinking about it strategically, and thinking about what such sermons might mean in this context, and whether or not I want to keep this call. So, I try and stay fairly vanilla and not rock the boat too much. But that’s not what Jesus calls us to do.
What might it look like if we did follow Jesus with reckless abandon? What might it look like if we stopped making excuses, stopped stalling, and started moving? What might it feel like if we actually trusted God as much as we say we do? This isn’t about proving anything to Christ or earning his love. This is more about proving something to ourselves. This is about reminding ourselves that we are called and claimed and what that looks like on a day to day basis. This is about “leaning on the everlasting arms” on a daily basis and knowing that God will never lead us anywhere that God has not been. Stetson doesn’t know a lot of “but firsts” quite yet. He has learned the most important thing a baby can learn: trust. He trusts that when he cries, he will be loved. He trusts that when he’s wet, somebody is going to do something about that. He trusts that when he is hungry, he will be fed. Today, he will learn that God loves him in a way that no one else can. Stetson has been called and will be claimed in the waters, just like we all have. What if we looked at Stetson as an example of discipleship? When it comes to our needs, trust that God has it covered. It’s tempting to fight back and say “but first…” I think when Jesus calls we must resist the temptation to “but first” because we may miss out on something even better.
“Jesus does not choose to punish those who are reluctant to support him, even today. Instead, we are reminded again and again that ours is a Savior of love, who is not about punishing all who resist or compelling everyone to get in line or face the consequences, but one who invites those who believe to walk the journey with him” (Shaffer 192; Feasting on the Word). This baptism today is about love. It’s about the love God has for Stetson and for you and for me. And we need to be reminded of that love as much as we can. God does love you, my beloved. Even in those moments when Jesus is all in and you still want to think about it, God loves you. This is one of the reasons why it’s crucial that baptisms are done in the public square. This proclamation of love isn’t just for Stetson, it’s for all of us. We will soon see that promise in water in word. This is a reminder that we are called to be faithful, not successful. Our journey of discipleship will be filled with some failures. When it happens, Christ will be there, leading the way, encouraging us to keep going. No if, and’s, or but’s about it.