A sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, June 26, 2016. The lectionary readings are 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14, Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20, Galatians 5:1,13-25, and Luke 9:51-62.
Listen to the sermon HERE.
I have a friend who commutes from Westchester every day, and he often has trouble finding a seat on the train. There are sometimes seats available, but if the seat isn’t facing in the direction the train is going (if it’s one of those seats that is turned around) he won’t sit in it. He’ll walk from one end of the train to the other in search of one seat, facing the forward direction. If anyone asks him about his seating preference, he just says, “Never look back—on trains; in live.” “Never look back.”
In today’s Gospel people DO want to look back. They’re just not ready to move ahead, and they long for the past. It might be that one prefers a simpler past (or at least their memory of a simpler past). Others are weighed down by to-do lists, and obligations, but really, these thing belong more to yesterday than today. Sometimes living in the present takes the wind out of us, and makes us lose faith. It used to be easier, we think. And 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.
I wonder how much of this was going on in this week’s vote in England to leave the European Union. Along with concerns about jobs that have shifted away, entire trades that are no longer in demand, and cultural challenges with diversity, the European Union became the symbol of all that just felt like it was moving too fast. And so the vote was an effort to stop it all. Freeze things. Take a breath and re-evaluate. But the problem is that the world keeps moving, and if one country simply stops, it will be bypassed and pushed aside.
God, also, keeps moving—sometimes quickly, sometimes at a glacial speed—but moving forward. This is what Jesus is pointing to in today’s Gospel. Luke uses the great phrase that Jesus’s “face was set toward Jerusalem.”
And it’s exactly this direction, this intention, this energy of Christ that points forward and will not be stopped. When Jesus and his disciples visit a village of Samaritans, the Samaritans can’t be bothered. They’re not impressed and don’t feel compelled to follow Jesus.
The disciples are confused by this, and can’t quite figure out how to respond. They err on the side of action, and suggest calling down the wrath of God. James and John ask Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”
But notice that Jesus barely hears them. Jesus is moving forward. He’s already forgotten the unbelieving Samaritans, and has moved an inch or two closer into the Kingdom of God with no time for holding grudges or getting slowed down by people who “don’t get it.”
When we think of some of the bullies and “bad guys” of our world, we 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 is saying, “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, he argues, they also bring opportunities that should be carefully navigated.
For freedom Christ has set us free…. Don’t use freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become servants (slaves, even) to one another…. “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)
Jesus shows us how to live in that kind of freedom. As the Gospel from Luke describes it, 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, but some want to follow on their own terms, or to follow at some future day, just not today.
One volunteers, “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.” But Jesus is calling that man to move forward.
During Jesus’s life, there was a strong sense that the end of the world was upon them in some way. This is a part of the urgency to Jesus’s preaching and living and the moving toward Jerusalem.
But, as the disciples and the early Church began to understand later, 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.”
In other words, like my friend on Metro North, there’s no time for looking back. God moves forward. We see a bit of this in our first reading about Elijah the older prophet and Elisha, his protégée. Elijah is ready to move with God, but Elisha isn’t sure he’s ready for God’s plan to unfold. Can he just stay with his teacher and mentor a little longer. He’s not ready to go it alone. As so, as Elijah tries to move forward into the full presence of God, Elisha refuses to let him go alone. Finally, Elijah leaves this world, and there Elisha is left—alone, disoriented, and not sure what to do next. But then, he notices something. Before he died, as he was moving away, Elijah left his mantle, his cape, symbolizing all that Elijah had taught the younger prophet. The mantel symbolizes that God is with him and will continue to be with him. He
has what he needs to follow.
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 us 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 may have a long way to go before we arrive at the Jerusalem of God’s dream, but with faith, we make our way forward, one day at a time.
The month of June has become a special time in which Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender people march, and speak, and love with pride. Some people wonder—especially with the relative advances made in our country—why make such a big deal with a weekend like this one, with rainbow flags and a parade. Well, as with almost any celebration, the occasion will mean different things to different people, but especially for Christians. Not only is the acceptance of all God’s children as they are a basic characteristic of following Jesus, I also think the Pride celebration can serve as a reminder for us to follow Christ forward—in body, mind, and soul. Follow Christ forward, resisting the prejudice of the past, the misplaced shame of the past, perhaps the misunderstanding or rejection of ourselves or others in the past. Follow Christ forward, and once there has been forgiveness, embrace the full calling of Jesus Christ and don’t look back.
Whenever we have a baptism, or when we reaffirm our baptismal vows, after saying the Apostles’ Creed together, there are additional questions.
Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers?
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
The answer to each of those, which we say together, is of course, “I will, with God’s help.” But notice especially the language in the baptismal covenant: “will you continue…,” “will you persevere…,” “will you proclaim…,” “will you seek and serve…”, “will you strive…?” All of these point to following God, together, stumbling and falling along the way, but following God into the future.
Following God and being a part of God’s kingdom can look very different, depending on who we are and how we choose to follow. You might have noticed that the fashion photographer Bill Cunningham died yesterday. Mr. Cunningham was not in any way outwardly way, especially religious, but he pointed to beauty and wonder and delight. And his eye was always attracted to energy and life. He was 87 years old, and until very recently, continued to ride his bicycle all over Manhattan, photographing the latest styles. He took pictures of rich people, and poor people, big and small, famous, and anonymous. But wherever he pointed his camera, he looked for a sense of style, a little flair, a spark of something. He never looked back, but only in front, ahead, to see what was new, what was filled with life.
What if we were able to follow Christ with the spirit of someone like Bill Cunningham? What if we accentuated the good we say in others? That person loves beautifully, notice her. That person cares deeply; notice him. That one laughs with the love of God; remember that one. Another person helps, another prays, another sings, another works— what if we celebrated each of those little ways that we live in the present and move into the future in faith? Wouldn’t THAT create a kind of living rainbow of faith, inviting others into God’s Kingdom?
The Jesuit theologian Teilhard de Chardin wrote,
Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge.
Whether we feel Christ’s hand pushing us slightly from the back, or gently leading us from in front, may the Spirit give us what we need to follow in faith.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.