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Thought for the week - 26 June

"No one who sets his hand to the plough and then keeps looking back is fit for the kingdom of God."

Many years ago, when I was teaching, I was often annoyed by the attitude of some of the pupils who, whatever the task I set them, would soon give up saying it was too hard. It wasn't really too hard; they just could not be bothered to put in the necessary effort. Or it meant that they would sooner do something that could be done easily. Or it meant they had not got sufficient confidence and faith in their own ability.

To illustrate what could be done with single-mindedness, determination, and a refusal to give in whatever the odds, I told them the story of the building of the Settle to Carlisle railway in the nineteenth century; a story which tells of a magnificent feat of engineering; of determination; of sheer hard work and, indeed of sacrifice.

It is the story of two men who, despite the tremendous difficulties of the task, dared to do and to achieve what many thought impossible and foolhardy. These two men, who worked for the Midland Railway Company, determined, in order to compete with their main rivals on the western line, to build a railway from Settle to Carlisle. The proposed route of 71 miles lay, as you know, over some of the bleakest and mountainous countryside in England. They estimated it would take four years to build and would cost two million pounds. In the end it took six years and cost six million pounds. About six thousand men were employed to build it and they lived in rough shanty towns high up on the Yorkshire moors. Many died in carrying out the work and are buried at Chapel-le-Dale. To carry the line over bleak and barren moorland they built twenty long viaducts, the most impressive being the Ribblehead, and blasted nineteen tunnels out of the sheer hard rock. They literally moved mountains.

After six years of hard labour, sheer determination, and the loss of many lives, the line was completed and still stands as an imposing and inspiring monument to the faith and confidence, some might say folly, of those who dared to do the impossible.

I tell this story as it seems to me to be a parable of what the human will can achieve given faith, determination and a refusal to look back. This is only one story of human determination that could be told to illustrate what human beings can achieve if they are determined to do so. The story of the building of the Dome of the Cathedral in Florence is an equally fascinating one. The architect was told it could not be done. But it still stands today.

The stories do not need to be stories of a monumental nature, like the making of a railway or the building of a dome. Each and every day people make great efforts to achieve things. Those working with people with learning difficulties often experience the tremendous effort that goes into doing something that we would do normally and easily.

What these people have in common is faith and determination; single-mindedness and a refusal to look back or give in no matter how hard the odds may seem.

I was reminded of all this by today's gospel reading, since the Christian life is all about faith, determination a refusal to look back or to give in. To be a follower of Christ is to be dedicated, to be determined, to be faithful. Christ calls us to his service but urges us to count the cost before we embark on the journey with him.

As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, "I will follow you wherever you go."

Jesus replied, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head."

By all means, says Jesus, follow me, but following me will not be easy for I have nowhere to lay my head.

Still another said, "I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good-by to my family."

Jesus replied, "No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God."

These are very hard and difficult sayings for us to take in. They are perhaps sayings that make us uncomfortable, sayings we would rather not hear. Ignore the ties of duty and family, says Jesus. "No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God."

But, like so many of the hard sayings of Jesus we cannot ignore them or pretend they were not said, or that they do not apply to us. We can't ignore them. Jesus does not compel people to follow him, does not compel us to follow him.

But, he says, if you do freely choose to follow me then you must follow on my terms not on yours. What he expects from us is faith, determination, dedication, no looking back. We might falter, we might fall. We will falter, we will fail. But that does not matter. What matters is that we carry on determined to walk with the one who has called us, the one whom we have chosen to follow. We have his assurance that he is someone worth following and that the journey's end will be one of great reward for our journey is non other than in and to the Kingdom of God - But

"No one who sets his hand to the plough and then keeps looking back is fit for the kingdom of God."


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