Southern-food-and-cooking-lady Paula Deen has had a long week. What has made it even longer is that in the midst of her troubles around accusations of racism and unfairness in the workplace, Paula has kept on talking. I was especially struck by one thing she said. “I is what I is, and I’m not changing,” she said. “I is what I is,” or as Popeye put it, “I yam, what I yam.” This idea that we are who we are,– stable, solid, unchanging—has a certain attraction to it in shaky times. But for people of faith, this idea is nonsense. The idea that creation is somehow frozen or locked in time, culture and circumstance is false. It is abhorrent. It is heretical.
Think back to the story from Exodus when Moses first encounters God. Moses wonders just who it is that he’s dealing with. The older English translations of the Bible put it, “God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And [God] said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.'” (Exodus 3:14). But if you check the footnotes to the translation or look a little deeper, God’s answer about the Divine Name is much more dynamic. The Hebrew is much more in the sense, “I will be who I will be.” The encounter with God and Moses suggests that God never stands still and nor should Moses. Nor should we.
The scriptures today offer several occasions in which people try to turn back. They want to suggest to God, to Jesus, to themselves, that they simply are who they are, meaning, they are someone in the past, back there, at some other time when things (on hindsight, of course) seem clearer and less confusing, less demanding. If we look back, then we don’t need faith. Having already lived the past, we know what’s there—no surprises and no interruptions of our own will. But there is also very little room for miracle in a staid and static past.
In the Gospel, Jesus is future-oriented. Luke uses the great phrase that Jesus’s “face was set toward Jerusalem.” And it’s exactly this pointed direction, this intention, this energy of Christ that points forward and will not be stopped, that the Samaritans can’t deal with. They either ignore, or outright reject Jesus and his teaching.
The disciples can’t quite figure out how to respond, so they suggest calling down the wrath of God—as though they have the power or authority to do that. James and John ask Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Jesus barely heard them. He’s moving forward. Jesus has already forgotten the unbelieving Samaritans.
I can’t help but hear a bit of our own current events in this Gospel. This week the Supreme Court ruled that people of the same gender who are married are entitled to the same federal rights and benefits as those who fit the traditional, Western idea of marriage. The court, in a sense, (and by a narrow margin—Samaritans can wear black robes, too) said “we’re moving forward.” Now, I know that a few of us might sympathize with James and John—“Can’t we call down fire from heaven on our enemies, on our opponents, on those especially who twist the words of God into words of hatred and violence?” But Christ says, “No.” Move forward. There’s a lot to be done. We’re going to Jerusalem and there’s no time to look back. There’s no time to settle old scores. There’s no time for vengeance or gloating.
In his Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul pushes this point further. If victory, justice, and fairness bring some privileges, they also bring opportunities that should be carefully navigated.
For freedom Christ has set us free…. do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another…. “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.” And so, live by the Spirit, whose gifts are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:1, 13-25, passim)
Back in the Gospel from Luke, Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem and the trouble with the Samaritans is only the beginning. The joy and love of Christ is infectious, so as people hear him and meet him, they want more, and they want to follow.
One says just that. “I’ll follow you wherever you go.” But Jesus warns him, “It’s not going to be easy. It’s not a life of palaces and fine dining. It will be more often a way of homelessness and heartbreak.”
Jesus invites another to follow, and the man seems willing but offers what sounds like a reasonable excuse for delay. “First, let me go and bury my father.” Here, Jesus sounds heartless as he says, “Let the dead bury the dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
Jesus and many of his followers probably thought the end of the world was upon them in some way. There is apocalyptic urgency to the preaching and living and the moving toward Jerusalem. But even when the end of the world is delayed, the urgency still stands because God’s kingdom is already breaking in on us—on those who will be a part of it. That’s what Jesus is trying to convey—don’t miss the kingdom for the checklist you’re trying to complete. Don’t wait until you’ve got this done or that done, or you’ve gotten beyond this hurdle or that one—the kingdom of God calls us to move forward, toward Jerusalem—the place and way of justice, peace, mercy, forgiveness, and love—the place where we do our best to live out those values Paul just talked about in Galatians.
Finally, a third person wants to follow Jesus but first needs to go home to say goodbye. Again, Jesus sounds harsh, saying, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
No time for looking back. These words of Jesus recall the story from our first reading, from the Book of the Kings as Elijah gives way to Elisha. Things are changing. There’s a new king to be anointed and new prophet to guide the king. As Elisha is called and ordained… he wants to turn back, to kiss his parents goodbye. Elijah seems to let him do that, but says, “take care, for something important has just happened to you and you’ll never be the same.” Elijah probably watches as Elisha goes to speak to his parents knowing full well that Elisha is already changed, already transformed, like a kid returning from summer camp, and his parents will probably only barely recognize him. The future has taken hold of him. God has taken hold of him and things will never be the same again.
No one who looks back is fit for the kingdom of God. This is not to say we ignore history or ignore the past. But we don’t let it hold captive, either. Some of us grew up with racial stereotypes. We are slow to move out of prejudice with regard to color, or class, or size, or age. We have a long way to go before we arrive at the Jerusalem of scripture, that place where all are one in the kingdom of God.
But the good news for Paula Deen is that she “ain’t who is is.” She’s not who she thinks she is. But she, Justices Alito, Roberts, Scalia, and Thomas… and all of us— if we’re open to God, then we’re not so much not “who we were,” or “who we are at the moment,” but we are “who we are becoming.” That is the miracle of following Christ. We change. We grow. We get better. Of course, we stumble, we hurt others and ourselves, but day by day—following Christ—we become more like him. And we lose interest in wanting to look back.
One of my favorite commercials on T.V. is a Pepsi ad that you may have seen. A young mother is talking with her baby, who is lying on its mat. A man comes in and unloads the new Pepsi “Next.” The man and woman get so excited about the new Pepsi that they completely miss the baby in the background. First, the baby stands. The parents don’t notice and they take out their camera to take pictures of the new Pepsi. The baby starts break-dancing. But again, the parents are talking and not looking at the child. The baby does more and more outlandish things, finally doing a Russian Cossack dance, all the while, the parents are oblivious.
I love that ad because I relate to it. So often, I’m obsessed by some equivalent nonsense about as important as a new brand of soft drink, all the while, I’m missing some absolute miracle that is going on right beside me, right behind me. It’s easy to put off following Christ—there are things to do, people to see, skills and character traits to develop, and plenty of reasons for us to get distracted or delayed. But Christ calls us to come, to look ahead, and move in his love and live into the kingdom of God. May we be strengthened to follow him.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.