When I was farming, near Muir Beach in Marin County, in my twenties, we had two tractors. The Big tractor was for primary tillage. In the spring, as soon as the ground was dry enough to work, I would hitch up the hammer-flail mower, and drive out into the chest-high stand of winter cover crops and mow it down. I’d wait forty-eight hours for that green manure to dry, and then I’d plow it under with the disc plow. Then I’d hitch up the chisel plow, to break up the subsoil, and rip the fields first one way and then crossways, like a checkerboard; and then I’d finish off with a lighting disking, with the ring-roller on behind, so that each of the fields, one, two, two-and-a-half acres, would be one smooth surface, like a bed sheet tucked in tight from one windbreak to the next.
Then we’d turn to the small tractor, a lightweight crop-tending machine, and start marking lines, shaping up beds for vegetable crops, or furrows for potatoes. The goal was to make the first straight and then keep them straight and keep them parallel, because everything that came after, the planting, and laying out irrigation pipe, the cultivating, and fertilizing, and harvesting, all was done between the lines that the small tractor made on the freshly plowed ground. I think it was in my second year on the farm that I became something of a specialist in bedding-up with the small tractor, because I knew the secret to making straight lines. The secret was to not look back, and not look to the side.
I would get the bedder lined up square on the three-point hitch and tighten up the chains on both sides, and I’d adjust the top bar so the spades got just the right amount of bite, and I’d set the front tires where I knew they needed to be and then I would pick a point at the far end of the field, and start driving. And I would keep my eyes fixed on that point, not looking back, and not looking to the side, but just drive toward my mark until I got there and then I’d lift up the rear hydraulics and swing the tractor around and see my straight line. I’d put my right front tire in the track I’d just made and sight down the center axis of the tractor and pick a point on far end of the field where I’d come from and start driving, and just keep going like that until the whole field was done.
I think about that experience every time I hear this story from the Gospel of Luke about Jesus setting his face for Jerusalem, not letting himself be distracted by the stubbornness of the Samaritans or the foolishness of his disciples. I think about the words that Jesus says about how the man who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is not worthy of the Kingdom of God. Jesus seems to be saying “my goal is the ultimate goal, and I’m going to go all the way there. If you want to come with me, you need to set your eyes on that goal, and start walking, and to keep going toward it in a straight line.
Now, there’s nothing explicitly religious about the idea that we should have a goal for our lives, and be single-minded and focused in going after it. On any given weekend in airport hotels and convention centers all around the world motivational speakers and professional coaches are charging people good money to tell them just that. Where the religion comes in is with the faith that the only goal that is truly ultimate, that is really worthy of giving one’s whole-hearted devotion and single-minded focus to pursuing, is the goal for our lives that is in the heart and mind of God.
Only the gift of God’s purpose for our lives is precisely suited to bringing forth the nobler powers that are latent in our created natures, and expressing them, transforming us into the persons we most want to be in our heart of hearts. Only God’s goal for us is entrancing and fascinating enough to hold our attention and keep calling us back through all the wrong turns, and changes of perception, and reversals of fortune and course corrections, and swings of emotion that happen to us along the way, calling us again and again to consent to pursuing that which lies beyond ourselves, transcending our limited conceptions of what it is we truly want and need.
That’s what Paul is talking about in his letter to the Galatians when he speaks of the struggle between “flesh” and “spirit.” We have to be careful here not to make the mistake of thinking that Paul is denigrating the body, as if religious life were about sacrificing the body, with it its needs and pleasures and limitations on the altar of some escape into a purely mental, spiritual, disembodied realm. That’s not what Paul means here. What he is talking about is the inner conflict, the daily struggle that we go through in the painstaking process of learning what it is that we truly desire. “The desires of the flesh” is Paul’s symbolic shorthand for our maddening efforts to satisfy our ultimate longings by craving and clinging to things that never can. And Paul knows, as Jesus knows, that the key to untangling the knot of all that frustrated desire is love.
I just came back from a couple of weeks of vacation. It was such a refreshing change of pace—I had to do a little work, preaching and celebrating liturgies on Sundays, but the rest of the time I was free to simply enjoy the beauty of the Sierra Nevada, and read, and catch up on my sleep, and most of all to catch up with my family. When Meg and Risa and I get to spend long stretches of unhurried, un-stressed time together we remember how much we like each other, and love to be in each other’s company.
And so as we get ready to begin our fourth year here at St. John’s, I’m not just thinking about my professional goals, or my goals for the parish, but also about the goal of making room in my family life for more of that kind of time. And I’m sure this pertains to the ultimate purpose of my life. After all, how can I preach about God’s gift of unmerited grace and unconditional love in Christ, and about the Spirit’s gifts of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control, if I’m not taking the time to share those gifts with the people I’m closest to.
Because it’s not like Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem because he wanted to die. He did it out of love for God and for his disciples, and the desire to dispel forever their misplaced hope that any kind of political or military messiah could ever really set them free. And Paul didn’t set out on his missionary journeys, in the course of which he met with floggings, and imprisonments, shipwrecks, hunger, sleepless nights, and every kind of humiliation and hardship, because he enjoyed suffering. He did it out of love for the Lord, who, in spite of Paul’s being his sworn enemy, revealed to him the glory of his resurrection, and gave him the grace of an apostle to preach the coming of the Kingdom of God to the Gentiles.
As we seek for the ultimate goal of our lives, for what alone will make us truly happy and truly set us free, our only guide is love—the love we have for each other, for our families and friends, for our neighbors, for our fellow Petalumans, and Californians, and Americans, for our fellow human beings and fellow creatures on this earth, and our love for the creator of them all. Love is what will lead us on the straight and narrow way through our tangled forest of misbegotten desires and all the lies and hurt and violence that people do to each other because of them. And love, one and the same eternal and all-encompassing love, is the goal of the journey, that calls to each and every one of us in a voice that is uniquely our own.