Sunday,June 27, 2004

Fourth Sunday in Pentecost
1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21
Psalm 16
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Luke 9:51-62

Thou wilt show me the path of life: In thy presence is fulness of joy; In thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.

Elijah was in a pretty bad place. Jezebel threatened to kill him for slaughtering the prophets of Baal. She was a powerful woman and Elijah was afraid. He ran away toward Horeb and cried out to God, “It is enough; now, O Jehovah, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers.” He was ready to die because he was not accomplishing anything of substance and God would certainly be more merciful in death than Jezebel.

God doesn’t let His servants go so easily. Elijah still had work to do. The Lord gave him strength to make it to Horeb, and there appeared before Elijah. In one of my favorite passages, Elijah is hiding on the mountain when God asks him why he is there. Elijah answers, “have been very jealous for Jehovah, the God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword: and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.” The voice tells Elijah to wait for the presence of the Lord. First a great wind came, but the Lord was not in the wind. Then an earthquake shook the earth, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. Then a great fire came, but the Lord was not in the fire. Finally, there was a gentle whisper and Elijah fell on his face knowing that it was the Lord.

God assured Elijah of His presence and gave him the work he was still called to do. This is what we hear in today’s Old Testament lesson. God told him to go back and anoint Hazael as king over Aram and Jehu as king of Israel. He was also to anoint his successor, Elisha. These three would be used by God to bring divine judgment on Israel so that they would turn back to Him.

This was not an easy thing the Lord asked Elijah to do, and I can imagine he was not thrilled at the prospects of going back. As he was traveling through the Desert of Damascus he came across Elisha plowing in the field. He walked up to him and put his cloak over his shoulder. The cloak, or mantle, was symbolic of Elijah’s position. This was his way of designating Elisha as his successor.

Elisha answered immediately, “Let me, I pray thee, kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow thee.” Elijah’s response has always puzzled me, particularly in light of the Gospel lesson for today. When a man said the same thing to Jesus, He answered, “No man, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” Yet, Elijah told Elisha to go. “What have I done to you?”

I suppose, if we think about Elijah’s state of mind, we might consider this the most logical answer he could give. After all, he had just given away the burden of his life as a prophet. The things that had to be done could be done by Elisha. As a matter of fact, it would be Elisha that would anoint the two kings. If Elisha left him, then Elijah would be free of the responsibilities and could die in peace.

But Elisha was not giving an excuse to avoid the call from God. As a matter of fact, Elisha returned home to destroy everything of his old life so that he would be completely free to follow God’s calling. He slaughtered the oxen and used the plow to cook the meat for the people. He gave up his wealth, family and livelihood and followed Elijah.

In the story from Luke, Jesus knew that the men were just giving excuses. “Let me bury my father.” “Let me kiss my family good-by.” These were just reasons to put off following Jesus. If the man’s father was already dead, then he would have been too preoccupied with the burial to even be talking to Jesus. If the other man had returned to kiss his family good-by, would he have done as Elisha and completely cut off all ties?

This is why Jesus’ response is so important. He did not have time to lollygag around with people who were uncertain about what they wanted to do. He could not wait so that His followers could take care of their business. He was setting out on the most difficult part of his journey – the final leg that would end up on the cross. His time for glory had come and nothing could stand in His way, particularly half-hearted followers.

Jesus did not say that they could not come, but He was completely honest with them. It costs to follow Him. “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the heaven have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.” Following Jesus would not mean they would have a cushy job in a palace. They would not have rich food or fine clothes. He was calling them to put behind everything about their old life and walk into the unknown with nothing but faith and trust in God.

They were in Samaria on their way to Jerusalem. We do not really know the identity of these men. Were they Jews living in Samaria? Or were they Samaritans who had heard about Jesus and wanted to follow Him? The Samaritans were enemies of the Jews, half-breeds because they had intermingled with Gentiles through marriage. They did not worship in Jerusalem as did the Jews. Yet, despite the animosity between Jews and Samaritans, Jesus had mercy on them. In the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus used the Samaritan as the example of the good neighbor. Jesus treated the woman at the well with compassion and revealed Himself to her there.

They weren’t always so welcoming to Jesus. In the first part of today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus sent some of the disciples ahead to prepare a place for them to stay. It took about three days on foot to get from Galilee to Jerusalem. The Jews usually took the long way on the east side of the Jordan when they went on pilgrimage for feasts and festivals because the Samaritans were quite hostile to the pilgrims, in spite of the common understanding of desert dwellers the necessity for hospitality. Yet, you can see why they might be unsympathetic to the Jews. To them, the Samaritans are outcasts, unfit to be accepted as children of Abraham. In the weeks before a festival, they could see hundreds of pilgrims – more than they could afford to feed. Why risk your own sustenance for someone who thinks you are scum?

So, when the disciples went to the village, they were sent away. James and John, otherwise known as the “Sons of Thunder” for their quick tempers, asked Jesus if He wanted them to call fire down on the village. There is power that comes from being a follower of Christ, yet Jesus does not give us that power to bring harm to people. Instead, we are called to be merciful and filled with grace.

When Elisha wanted to go kiss his family good-by, Elijah gave him the freedom to do so, and the freedom to follow. Jesus also gave that freedom to those who called, but He established some parameters. Following Jesus had a cost – giving up the old life for something new. The mission of Jesus was not to destroy, but to bring life through forgiveness. The freedom we have in Christ is not a freedom from rules, but the freedom to live within the will of God.

Without Christ we are bound to world, slaves to the flesh and easily overcome by sin and death. We are slaves to our old lives, to the gods of this world. The gods are not always the semi-divine entities we try to worship, like Baal whose prophets were slaughtered by Elijah. Our gods are those things that keep us from being in a full and committed relationship with God. For the men in today’s Gospel lesson who enjoy their homes, their gods are their warm bed and hot food. Duty to parents and attachment to our friends are two more gods that we still deal with today. We all make excuses to hold on to our old life while we try to follow Jesus. We can’t do both. As Jesus said, “No man, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”

In today’s epistle lesson, Paul describes to the Christians in Galatia what our life in Christ should look like. He talks about this freedom we have in Christ. We are no longer bound to the laws, no longer burdened by the keeping of the rules for our salvation. We don’t have a checklist for our righteousness. “Ok now, I’ve not murdered anyone today or stolen anything, but I did lie. I guess I have to work on that. Maybe tomorrow I will be perfect enough to go to heaven.” In Christ we are freed from having to work our way to heaven.

Yet, Paul reminds us to stand firm in the Gospel so that we will not be burdened by our sinful flesh. The freedom that this world gives is an even greater burden – because then we are bound in slavery to our own flesh. That’s the irony of our life in flesh. We seek the freedom to pursue our desires and yet it our desires that keep us in bondage. We want to be rich and in America we are free to become wealthy, but it is our pursuit of wealth that keeps us at work seventy hours a week.

James and John had the power to call down fire on the Samaritan village, and yet their desire to do so was keeping them in bondage to their anger and hatred. Life in Christ does not give us the freedom to do what we want, but the new life we have in Him frees us from our desire to follow our flesh. In Christ we are freed from this world to serve others in love and mercy.

Paul lists the works of the flesh in today’s lesson – fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousies, wraths, factions, divisions, parties, envyings, drunkenness, revellings, and such like. At times these are quite easy to recognize and yet there are times when we do not even realize we are sinning against God with our works. It is easy to see idolatry when the god we are worshipping is a stone figurine. It is not so easy when our idols are our parents. We make excuses, just like those men on the road to Jerusalem – now is not the time for me to do that, let me take care of something first.

Yet, Christ calls us to be free from our old life. If we keep turning back, we will never be free to preach the kingdom in this world. Instead of being bound by the works of the flesh, Christ lives in us to manifest the fruit of the spirit. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control; against such there is no law.”

Certainly there is a difference between the works of the flesh and the fruit of the spirit. In one, we see actions that can hurt and destroy, emotions that bring pain and suffering. In the other, we see the goodness of God shining through the lives of the faithful. We who follow Christ turn away from our old life and keep God before us, trusting that He will accomplish His work through us. Elisha set his face toward doing God’s will by following Elijah. He took the cloak and was prepared to give up everything. Jesus set His face toward Jerusalem and walked forth in faith, knowing that God was going ahead of Him to prepare the way.

The cost of discipleship is great. It means letting go of the past and putting God ahead. It means living in freedom from our flesh for the sake of others, loving as God first loved us. David wrote in today’s psalm, “Their sorrows shall be multiplied that give gifts for another god.” While our gods might not require our blood, they do tempt us to set God aside while we pursue the desires of our flesh. David continued, “I have set Jehovah always before me: Because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.” We may face Jezebels and inhospitable Samaritans in this world, but with God’s presence we can face them with mercy and grace.

Along with David, Elisha and Jesus we can sing in thanksgiving and praise, “Thou wilt show me the path of life: In thy presence is fulness of joy; In thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.” Elisha did not know what he would face as he followed Elijah and then took over his mantle. Jesus knew He was headed for the cross. Yet in such difficult times, both walked in faith and joy, knowing God was with them to guide their steps and bless. We can live in the same assurance. For Christ has made us free to live and love to the glory of God our Father. Thanks be to God.

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