Sunday, June 27, 2010

Pentecost 5-C: Followers of Jesus' Way

Lectionary: 1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21; Psalm 16; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62

In the early church, believers were called followers of The Way. It’s a name I wish we would use more today because it speaks to an important reality for us Christians. We are on a lifelong journey of faith in Jesus Christ. We are called to follow him and his Way.

At my first formal meeting on my call to ordination, my bishop asked me what I thought would be the hardest thing about being a priest. I thought for a minute, then censored myself, knowing that if I told him what I was thinking, I would probably ruin my chances of ever getting ordained. I tried to come up with an alternative response, but my mind was blank. I sighed, and just looked at my Bishop. His eyes were filled with love for me, and he smiled and said, “Just say it.” Figuring that my priority wasn’t so much about getting ordained as it was being faithful in my journey as a Christian, I gave my answer. “Obedience,” I said. “What if I were to find myself in the position of having to choose between obedience to my Bishop and obedience to God? I think that would be the hardest thing.”

This is the kind of conflict being discussed in today’s Gospel from Luke: choosing between loyalty to earthly ties and authority, and loyalty to God and God’s will.

Luke tells us that Jesus has set his face to go to Jerusalem. (Lk 9:51) We know, being graced with knowledge of the rest of the story, that this trip to Jerusalem will be Jesus’ last. He will be arrested, tried, and crucified there. Jesus’ disciples knew this too because he had been telling them, but I think they truly believed that somehow, the end of the story would be one of triumph, not submission – one of strength (as they understood it), not of weakness.

But as Mahatma Ghandi once said, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

There is an old Indian story of Maskepetoon, a Cree Indian chief, whose father was murdered by a Blackfoot Indian during an ongoing war. When the two tribes gathered to forge a peace treaty, one of the warriors present was the man who had killed the Chief’s father. Maskepetoon, who had only recently been converted to Christianity, went up to the man who murdered his father and said, ‘You killed my father…now you must become a father to me... wear my clothes, ride my horse [and] tell your people that this is the way Maskepetoon takes revenge.’

That’s a far cry from how the disciples responded, and hardly how the world generally responds to retaliation and revenge. One of the best examples of how the world responds is found in Inigo Montoya who, in the movie "The Princess Bride" repeatedly said, “Hello! My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!”

When Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem, he was not heading toward a city. He was setting in motion the events that would ultimately and finally bring about God’s will on earth – events that would begin in Jerusalem and continue until the second coming.

The Gospel writer tells us that as Jesus journeys toward Jerusalem, he calls two people to follow him. Both reply, OK, but first let me take care of something important. One had to bury a dead member of the family and the other wanted to say goodbye to family.

In the Old Testament reading, Elijah makes a similar response when Elisha calls him to discipleship. Elisha gives Elijah leave to go back, confident that Elijah would return because God had acted powerfully within him.

Jesus, on the other hand, responds differently: ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; he says [and] No one who puts hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

His responses seem a bit harsh, don’t they? It’s always a little unsettling when our Lord sounds harsh and uncaring. But that’s the danger and shortcoming of reading these stories too literally. In his answer, Jesus is employing a technique commonly used by rabbis in that time. This technique was meant to jolt people out of their complacency in order to make a point. And the point Jesus was making was the same one he was about to live out: following God’s will leads first to the cross and grave, and ultimately to eternal life. This way isn’t safe and it isn’t easy - but it is faithful.

Once we set our faces on The Way, there is no looking back. Our faces are set on eternal life – that is, life in the eternal presence of God – here, now, and forevermore.

As followers of The Way, we are called to be steadfast in our faith, aware that along this Way we will meet up with inhospitable neighbors, friends who betray us, injustice at the hands of earthy authorities, and even death. Just as importantly, along this Way we will walk away from justifiable revenge and retaliation and follow Jesus’ Way: a way of humility and forgiveness.

St. Paul advises the Galatian Church to do that by becoming slaves to one another. We hear these words with the ears of a modern people who have not been subject to slavery lately. But when Paul spoke them, slavery was commonplace, and an ever-present threat. Paul’s words would have been shocking to his listeners… become slaves …by choice?

Yet that is the truth of it, and in that truth is our freedom. As followers of Jesus’ Way, we have the freedom of living in and being guided by the Spirit of God. And here are the fruits of that freedom: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

We can love everyone God brings into our lives – without judgment and without fear – and we can let them know that we do… and why we do. We can enjoy our lives and live them in peace – the kind of peace that isn’t attached to circumstances (which may be good or bad at any moment in time). This is the kind of peace that by-passes our understanding and lives deeply in our hearts. We can be patient while God acts to redeem, knowing that God IS acting to redeem everyone and everything through the perfect Love that died and rose again for us.

Therefore, freed from the need to worry about or earn our salvation, freed from the need to judge and fix circumstances or people, we can be kind and generous to everyone. We can be gentle with ourselves as we grow in our faith and gentle with others who may not have been treated very kindly or gently by the world and, therefore, may not believe that they really matter – to us or to God. (Note: that can be any one of us at sometime in our lives.)

As our faith grows, so does our self-control, so we can hold our tongues when they need to lash out, because we can choose to let gentleness reign in our hearts. We can share all that we have until we have no more knowing that, in the big picture of God’s abundant love, there will always be enough - for them and for us. And we can love sacrificially knowing that the pain of that kind of love was first felt by our Savior on the cross – and it opened to us the way of freedom and peace.

We are followers of Jesus’ Way, and as such our faces are set on eternal life – life in the eternal presence of God – here, now, and forevermore.

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