Sunday, June 30, 2019

Pentecost 3, 2019: Follow and serve for the sake of love

Lectionary: 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20; Galatians 5:1,13-25; Luke 9:51-62

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Lectionary: 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20; Galatians 5:1,13-25; Luke 9:51-62

En el nombre del Dios: Creador, Redentor, y Santificador. Amen.

Our stories today from 2 Kings and the gospel of Luke share a theme: what it means to follow God. In the OT story, Elisha is tested three times by Elijah, a process played out in John’s gospel when Jesus asks Peter ‘Do you love me?’ three times, after his trifold denial of Jesus.

Elisha passes his test. His faithfulness is rewarded and he is divinely appointed as Elijah’s spiritual heir.

In the gospel story, an unidentified person traveling with the Jesus says, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ I’m sure they meant it – but more in the way a groupie would. Jesus knows what’s about to unfold and doesn’t need groupies. He needs servant leaders willing to bring love into the hateful circumstances about to come.

This is why Jesus rebukes two of his closest disciples. The background of the story is this: in order to get from Galilee to Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples must pass through Samaria. As you know, the Jews judge the Samaritans as being racially and spiritually impure – having intermarried with the Assyrians who conquered them centuries earlier. Since the Samaritans were unwelcome at the temple in Jerusalem due to their impurity, they built their own temple and actively sought to stop the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem.

It is in this context that Jesus sends messengers ahead to Samaria to tell them he was passing through - on his way to Jerusalem. It’s no wonder the Samaritans offered no welcome.

The judgment in this short story isn’t on the Samaritans, with whom Jesus had had relationship earlier in this gospel – even curing the Samaritan leper. The judgment is on his disciples who respond out of their tradition rather than from the new way Jesus has taught them.

When James and John ask Jesus if he wants them to bring down fire from heaven to destroy the Samaritans for their insult, they are referring to the story at the beginning of 2 Kings when Elijah called down fire from heaven to kill the ruler of - you guessed it, Samaria: Ahaziah (son of Ahab and Jezebel) along with 50 of his men for their unfaithfulness to God.

Elijah did it – why can’t we? It’s funny how the disciples remember that part of the story, but not what happened next. Fire was not sent from heaven. Instead, an angel of God told Elijah to go to Ahaziah, which he did. Ahaziah died, but from injuries resulting from a fall he took, not from a destructive, punitive exertion of divine power.

When Luke says Jesus rebuked James and John, he was indicating the Jesus expected better from his disciples. After their years of ministry together, didn’t they get that the reign of God wasn’t about the exertion of power, but about love being brought to unify people who had been divided?

The discussion about following, however, truly does have an edge to it – a cutting edge – and Jesus says it like a Yankee would: directly. Anyone with conditions or hesitation about following him isn’t “fit for the kingdom.”

I’ll bet someone in that group said, “I don’t have a problem with what he said, just how he said it.” Jesus was heading to his trial and death. There was no more time to teach in the usual rabbinical ways. They had to hear it plain.

So when the person in their troupe promises commitment, Jesus’s response is equally direct: you say you will follow me? Do you realize that where we are going is nowhere? We are not going to a place where we will settle in and establish a new kingdom like David did. We are going to keep moving, adapting, and proclaiming until the whole world is transformed by the only real power there is: love.

Then as now, there is no earthly blueprint for this – no laws, no system. God will show the way each moment and we must be willing to follow, keeping our faces set toward the marker at the end of the row we are called to plough.

To the two who spoke of family obligations – a very big deal in ancient Jewish culture, and a pretty big deal in our culture now – Jesus was just as plain: if you need to look back, don’t come at all. You aren’t ready.

Jesus’ responses in this gospel story seem to me to obviate any inclination toward religious conservatism, and most certainly fundamentalism. The “we’ve always done it this way” approach isn’t fit for the kingdom.

That isn’t to say tradition has no place. It certainly does! We stand on the foundation of those who went before us, as our Collect reminds us. Each Sunday when we gather to worship we experience again how our tradition connects us in real, visible, divine ways to all who came before us; and through our church conventions we strive to pass our living, ever-adapting tradition faithfully along to those who will come after us.

Our adherence to tradition cannot, however, lock us down and restrict the Spirit’s free movement among us, which it only does when we look with earthly eyes alone. As the author of Galatians warns: be careful about getting caught up in earthly experiences and definitely don’t count on your ancestral heritage to shield you from the consequences of your sin.

In Jesus’ time, it was a traditional belief that, as the chosen race, the Jewish people would all be fine, even if they sinned against God and one another. They could do purifying rituals and be square again.

It’s kind of like what I learned as a kid in Catholic school about confession. When you sin, just go to confession and that dark blot on your soul will be wiped away. This approach is why so many early Christians, including the Emperor Constantine, waited to be baptized until right before their death – so their souls would be clean and they’d go straight to heaven. Baptism became as an ecclesiastical “get out of jail free” card.

I’m sorry to inform you that there is no “get out of jail free” card in the kingdom of God. In fact, following Jesus means going into the jail and proclaiming the good news there too!

The wisdom not to be missed in this letter to the church in Galatia is two-fold and is plain to see in our world today. First the writer warns, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself. If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.” If our out-of-control gun violence doesn’t show this to be true, I don’t know what would – except maybe the real and escalating nuclear threat in the world today. We are biting one another, and we risk destroying ourselves.

Second, the writer says: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Are we seeing those fruits in our churches? In our country? In the world?

Followers of God in Christ have willingly sacrificed our earthly passions and desires in order to be guided by the Spirit so that we can do our part in the divine plan of the reconciliation of the whole world to God. In practical terms, that means, maybe we let go of our favorite way of being church in order to invite a new generation of worshippers; or we shift our familiar system to welcome new ministries.

Maybe we sacrifice our reputations to speak out against the victimization of immigrant children or we risk friendships calling for a sane approach to personal weapons. Maybe we ask our political leaders to build relationships with our enemies rather than threaten to call down fire from heaven on them.

Jesus expects better from us. We are the disciples who bring God’s love by bringing ourselves, temples of God’s Holy Spirit, into the hateful, hurtful circumstances of the world because that’s where Jesus is found: in the face of the unsupervised child in a cage on the border; in the broken heart of the parent whose child was shot at school; in the people of the nations of the world who long to live free from threats of war and conquest.

This is our test. Pass or fail, God will stay with us until we are ready and able to proclaim to our world as the author of Galatians did to his: “For freedom Christ has set us free…” So let’s not use our freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but for the sake of love let us serve one another.”

In that way, the whole world is transformed, person by person, church by church, nation by nation, in the love of God.


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