57 “As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 And 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.” 59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”60 But Jesus[a] said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

-Luke 9:57-62


Luke 9: 57-62

The Reverend Phillip Blackburn

August 16, 2025

So, I’m old.  Yes, it’s true. I can admit it.  In just a few short days I will turn 40.  40!  You know what that means?  It means I can’t say, oh yeah, I’m in my 30s.  It means there is no one playing professional sports at my age.  It means that I am a mere 15 years away from an AARP membership.  It means that, according to every actuarial table, my life is more than half over.  Yes.  I must come to terms with a simple truth, I am now old.

As if to prove this sad fact, I just had a recent sad exchange of texts with my good friend Ben.  Me: “I just tweaked my knee opening the refrigerator.”  To which he replied, “I tweaked my knee getting out of my chair at work.”  Such are the vicissitudes of old age.

But one thing I have going for me is that I am Presbyterian and that means, that in my context, I will still be young for many years to come.  And because I remain young for my faith tradition, I have long been interested in reading books which might help me better understand my ministry context.  Therefore, I have read books with titles like “Growing Old in Christ”, and a memoir, whose title I have forgotten, about having a terminal illness at an advanced age.  Recently I picked up a little book by the renowned poet Douglas Hall entitled “Essays after Eighty.”  When I saw the title I immediately thought, “This might help me.”  Hall is, in fact, well into his eighties at this point and he can no longer write poetry, so he sticks with prose these days.  But Hall does one thing which I have found common to writers of his vintage.  Instead of lengthy reflections on the process of aging or the feelings he now has about the world and his life, he drifts off into nostalgia.  Hall writes about what has happened in his life, or at least his perception of it from his particular perch, as an octogenarian.

Hall’s first essay does talk about age; but as he gets further into the book, he talks about what was, writing about a road trip with his first wife through Yugoslavia and his many different trips to Washington DC.  These essays are thick with nostalgia, and you can tell Hall is still trying to make sense of some of his experiences.  At first blush, Hall’s exercises, in recalling what was, don’t seem like much help.  I am trying to understand what it’s like to be 80 and what I end up getting in these books are anecdotes and history.  But, that being said, I find the theme of nostalgia amongst writers of an advanced age does inform one thing.  As we age, it seems that more and more our perspective on the world is not oriented toward the future but rather toward the past.  Conversations about what was slowly begin to outnumber conversations about what will be, as we dwell more and more in what we used to do and less and less in what we will do.  And this makes some sense.  All of us, no matter the age, tend to be attracted to the past.  It is, after all, a safe place to dwell.

Another symptom of my own age is the slow encroachment of nostalgia in my own mind.  More and more I think about my 20s and early 30s as enchanted moments from a bygone era.  But there is a problem with this, and it relates directly to the kingdom of God.  As we look at this passage from Luke, we find something pretty interesting at its tail end.  We find 3 people who want to follow Jesus but all of them are held back by something.  The first wanders off after hearing that followers of Jesus may very well end up homeless.  The second is told to “let the dead bury their own dead.”  And the third, well, the third is the most interesting for our purposes.

A man approaches Jesus and boldly says, “I will follow you, just let me go and say goodbye to my family.”  Jesus’ reply is cryptic and alludes to the calling of the prophet Elisha in 1 Kings.  Jesus says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”  Uh Oh.  This doesn’t sound like good news for us who like to sit around and wax rhapsodic about the good ol’ days.  Don’t look back, Jesus says.  His example is a simple one that would have been easily understood by the farmers in the crowd that day.  If you are pushing a plow, or a lawn mower for that matter, and look back, you will inevitably begin to drift off line, and what would have been a field of straight furrows would instead look like something scrawled by a preschooler, with lines moving in every direction.  You can’t go forward in the right way, Jesus is saying, if you are looking back.

His reaction to the man seems cruel, but his point is a simple one.  The man’s family, the man’s past, was not relevant to his service in the Kingdom of God.  And in this we actually find some good news.  Let me tell you what I mean.  I mentioned most of Hall’s essays were about the past.  Well, the first one, entitled “Out the Window,”  was not about the past.  It was very much about the present.  Hall writes about being relegated to a chair in front of a large window in his home, looking out on the New Hampshire mountains.  He talks about watching the seasons pass and their significance, and he weaves in the order of the natural world with anecdotes about his own mortality.  One story he relates is from 2011.  Hall, already in his 80s and no longer up to walking long distances, was in Washington DC to receive a National Medal of the Arts from the President.  Hall, still very sharp of mind, wanted to go see some his favorite paintings at the National Gallery of Art.  His companion, Linda, was pushing him through the museum in a wheel chair.  The two had just finished their lunch when they encountered a friendly security guard.  The guard inquired to Linda, “How was your lunch?”  Then he leaned down to Hall, the great poet who would soon be decorated in a White House ceremony and said loudly, “How was your din-din?”  Hall, of course, was mortified.  His age had rendered him, in the eyes of the guard, the rough equivalent of a toddler.

And I have witnessed this happen to many of you.  I have heard people call you sweetie, or hon, in the same sing-songy tone with which they’d address a crying child.  People have treated you as something less than a full adult because you are now an older adult.  I remember making a hospital visit in Lincoln; I was visiting a woman named Jane Poertner who was dying of cancer but still very keen of mind.  As I approached her hospital room, a handful of candy came flying out the door and landed on the floor, followed quickly by a scurrying nurse.  I entered, looked at Jane, and said, “What happened?”  Jane looked at me and said, “She called me sweetie.”

Well, today, let me say this to you.  I understand getting old is no fun.  I understand that you are sick of not moving well and being treated like a child. I know you don’t want to be a burden to others.  I get all of that.  But I also know this, when Jesus tells us not to look back, he is also telling us something important; that as long as we are alive, we are called by him to work in the Kingdom of God.  God, you understand, does not see you as an old man or woman.  God doesn’t care if you don’t see as well, or move slowly, or if you tell the same story 3 times in one visit.  God doesn’t care about that stuff because God does not believe that being old disqualifies you from being of service in the Kingdom.  You are not useless!  Right now there are things God is calling you to do, and if you are wondering, “like what?” then my response to you is to pray and to put yourself out there.  Right now there is a young mother who doesn’t know what to do and needs a hug.  There is a family member with whom you need to reconcile.  There is a prayer that needs to be offered more regularly.  There is peace to be made, there are people who don’t know what Jesus Christ has meant in your life, there is Scripture to ponder.  There is always plenty of work in the Kingdom of God, and it may be that we are just the people to do it.

There is nothing wrong with nostalgia, it’s a fun idyll, but it is a distraction.  As long as we are alive, we are called to be Jesus’ disciples, and that means there is work to do.  Today, I say we all put both hands back on the plow, stop looking backward and get back to the hard but powerful work to which we have been called, the work of ushering in the Kingdom of God.  God does not care how old you are, God is calling you, right now, to work.  Thanks be to God, Amen.