Sunday, June 27, 2010

Time After Pentecost – Lectionary 13
1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21
Psalm 16
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Luke 9:51-62

O my soul, thou hast said unto Jehovah, Thou art my Lord: I have no good beyond thee.

It is easy to become exhausted when you feel the weight of the world is on your shoulders. It is also easy to run away when you think that what you are doing is not worth your time or energy. We think that we are the only ones who care. We think that we are the only ones willing to do anything. We think we are all alone. And that’s when we burn out. That is when we give up. That’s what happened to Elijah.

Elijah was fighting against a people who had turned away from God. They were worshipping the Baals from the top all the way down to the common man. If the king worships a god, the people follow, for the king is powerful and wise. He has the priests to keep him informed of right worship practices. He has the resources to secure everything needed. If the king has an altar prepared, then it must be the right thing to do, correct? The people were led down a wrong path, and they followed willingly because they trusted in their king.

Now, Ahab might have been a decent king, but he married a foreign woman who was very strong and powerful. She insisted that the nation worship the gods of her choice, and had altars erected for that worship. Elijah faced the prophets of Baal alone, but not really alone. He felt alone because he was the last of the prophets of God in Israel. But God was with him, and with God’s help he defeated the Baals and killed all the priests. The powerful Jezebel was upset by this turn of events and vowed to destroy Elijah, leaving him feeling even more alone than ever. He was afraid and ready to quit. He ran away to hide.

You might be able to hide from a wicked queen or incompetent king, but you can’t hide from God. The Lord spoke to Elijah and offered him words of comfort and encouragement. “I am with you.” We might think we need to be among thousands to get something accomplished, but in God’s kingdom all we need is Him. In today’s passage, Elijah is given a bit of hope. “I’m sending you to anoint some helpers, kings and a prophet who will change the course of the nations.” This was enough to give Elijah the strength and courage to continue to do God’s work in the world.

That’s the background for the main story in today’s Old Testament lesson. God has promised Elijah that Elisha would take the mantle of power from his shoulders, and in this story we see their first meeting. Elijah, perhaps tired from the journey or just anxious to be rid of the responsibility, flings the mantle onto Elisha’s shoulders. The mantle, the symbol of Elijah’s power and authority, it handed over to God’s chosen successor. Elijah doesn’t try to hold onto it, he readily passes it on to the next prophet, happy to know that he’s not really alone in this work against the people who have turned from God.

Elisha seems willing to accept the responsibility, but asks for enough time to kiss his mother and father. “Then I will follow you.” Elijah’s answer seems odd. He sends Elisha away. “Go back again; for what have I done to thee?” We might find this to be an odd response to Elisha’s request, especially in light of today’s Gospel lesson, but Elijah just keeps going. It isn’t up to Elijah to convince Elisha to follow. If Elisha is the right man, God will do the convincing. It wasn’t Elijah calling Elisha to follow, it was God. And God will be with His chosen people.

Elisha doesn’t return to the work of his farm; he slaughters the beasts and feeds the people. His first act as a prophet is to sacrifice his livestock and fill the bellies of the people he is about to abandon for God’s work. We might think that Elisha isn’t worth of being the prophet because he’s not willing to drop everything to follow Elijah. And yet, in this story the wait seems to have some religious significance. It was a necessary part of cutting himself from the old life and beginning the new one.

In my reading today, it isn’t Elisha’s pause, but Elijah’s seemingly apathetic passing of the mantle. He doesn’t seem to care. “Come, don’t come. Do whatever you want.” Do we ever feel that way? Do we know someone who feels that way? Even with the personal encounter with God, Elijah is ready for his time as prophet to be over. He goes on as Elisha follows. He encounters other prophets who seem to know that Elijah is finished. They want his job. But Elisha continues unencumbered by Elijah’s indifference and the other prophets’ attention, ready to take over.

Perhaps Elijah isn’t indifferent; he is willing to pass on the responsibilities of office to the one who has been chosen by God. He knows now that’s not alone. He knows that he doesn’t have to do it all himself. He knows that God’s message will go on without him. Sometimes, when we have reached the end of our rope, we simply have to let go and let others take control. We don’t, however, because we don’t think there is anyone who can take our place. We put that burden on many of our leaders, relying on them for everything. I wonder how many pastors finish their years of ministry with the exact same attitude as Elijah. I wonder how often it is our fault that we have allowed this to happen.

God promised Elijah that there would be a remnant in Israel when His latest plan is complete. Elijah found Elisha, but that’s no where near the seven thousand (probably a symbolic number meaning the full measure of God’s chosen remnant,) promised by God. Where were they? What were they doing? They weren’t worshipping the Baals, but they weren’t there to help Elijah. They were also afraid of Jezebel and Ahab. They were also hiding. Do we do that to our leaders? Do we allow them to feel like they are alone in the world while hiding from the things that make us afraid?

There is a cost to following God. There is a cost to following Jesus. The three calls stories in today’s Gospel lesson help us to see that, but Jesus’ response to their responses is completely different than Elijah. In the first encounter, a man tells Jesus that he will follow Jesus wherever He goes. Jesus answers, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the heaven have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.” We don’t know how the man received that piece of news, but in context it is probable that it disappointed him. What about the call of Christ makes us question whether or not we should follow Jesus?

Jesus said to the second man, “Follow me.” He wanted to bury his father. Now, this seems like a plausible reason to postpone following Jesus, but it is likely that the man’s father was not yet dead. In other words, the man was telling Jesus, “I’ll be glad to join you when my life circumstances change.” Unfortunately, we often put off following Jesus until a better time. Jesus answered, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” How often do we push aside the work of God’s kingdom to do the tasks of this world that do not change lives or glorify God?

A third man tells Jesus, “I’ll follow you Lord, but first…” In this case, the man just wants to say good-bye to his family. Isn’t that just what Elisha did? Yet, Jesus says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.” Elisha went back, but he didn’t stay there. He broke all ties, getting rid of his cattle, saying farewell to the people in his town. He didn’t just say good-bye; he left forever. Are we willing to give up everything for the sake of the Gospel?

The cost of following Jesus is heavy. It means giving up everything including the family ties and the work we have think we have to do. It is easy to find excuses to put off the work of the kingdom, but Jesus is not willing to accept excuses. He was on His way to the cross. Time was short and there was too much left to do. Those not committed at that moment would never survive the next test. They would be the ones to fall under the pressure of the crucifixion. They would not have the strength or courage to wait until the resurrection.

When the going gets tough, we tend to fall back into old habits. Take, for example, the smoker who finally manages to quit the habit, only to search high and low for that last hidden cigarette at the first sign of a stressful situation. The men may have wanted to follow Jesus, but Jesus knew that the cost was too high for half-hearted commitment. Following Jesus would require the whole self. No one whose mind or heart was divided, or whose flesh would quickly fall to selfish desires, would be able to stand up against the pressure and persecution they would face.

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.

The Samaritans 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. If the Samaritans were outcasts, unfit to be accepted as children of Abraham, why should they grant hospitality to the pilgrims? 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. The selfish lusts that caused the disciples to make mistakes also lead us to make mistakes in our ministries. James and John were certainly zealous about the work they were doing with and for the Lord. But they didn’t always think through the way they dealt with the people they were called to serve. We can’t imagine calling down hellfire upon those who do not welcome us or our ministry, yet James and John were ready to use their power to destroy a whole 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.

Lives filled with grace and mercy are ordered, free from the burdens of slavery to the chaos of fleshly desires. We are also freed from the need to earn our way to heaven. Paul doesn’t give us a checklist of things we cannot do and things we have to do. He shows us how different life is when lived in the Spirit of God. The irony of life is that we seek the freedom to pursue our desires and yet it is our desires that keep us in bondage. James and John were bound by their anger, so they sought a violent answer to the rejection of Jesus. 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. God gives us the faith to produce good fruit, fruit that glorifies Him.

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 sometimes 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, 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.”

There is a difference between the works of the flesh and the fruit of the spirit. In the former, we see actions that can hurt and destroy, emotions that bring pain and suffering. In latter, 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.

It sounds so easy, doesn’t it? Trusting in God should be the simplest thing we do, especially for those of us who have been given the Holy Spirit at our baptisms. However, we learn very quickly that it isn’t always easy. Elijah was constantly blessed by God with power, and he even experienced the presence of God in a way that few others have ever known. In the end, even Elijah was burdened by his flesh, afraid to go on and tired of fighting. James and John were in Jesus’ inner circle, but they fell prey to their own anger. We, too suffer from the same temptations. We share in the same failings. We fall under the same burdens. But when we trust in God, knowing by faith that we are never alone, and live by the Spirit rather than the flesh, then our lives will reflect the grace and mercy of God.

David writes, “Thou art my Lord: I have no good beyond thee.” When we follow the desires of our flesh, we turn from the God who gives us all good things. Though we may not bow down at the altar of the Baals like Jezebel and Ahab and the people of Israel, our gods are as dangerous to our well-being. They might not even seem like gods. After all, how can we hold it against someone who wants to bury his father or say good-bye to his family? How can it bad to have a bed on which to sleep or a roof over one’s head? Can our relationships, our homes, our jobs, our lives become like gods to us, taking our attention away from the one true God? Yes, those things and people can become our gods. While our gods might not require our blood, they do tempt us to set God aside while we pursue the desires of our flesh.

The fruit of the Spirit is manifest in the life of the one that says, “Thou art my Lord: I have no good beyond thee.” Dwelling in God’s presence, the faithful are not burdened by the desires of the flesh, but are set free to live in God’s mercy and grace. This is the life that is given wholly to God—heart, soul and body. This is the life that accepts the call of Christ to go and proclaim the kingdom of God.

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