St. Michael and All Angels, Albuquerque
The Rev. Carolyn w. Metzler+
1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62
Of all the lessons I have preached on that make me squirm—and there are lots of them—today’s make me the squirmiest. The distance between what I will say to you today, and the security of my own life—is downright embarrassing. My journey of authenticity is about closing the gap.
Let me tell you about the day I was seized by this journey. I was 16. Having been bored out of my mind by the church we had attended, I had been flirting with the Baha’i faith. They did community REAL GOOD and if the theology was a little sketchy—hey, at least they had enthusiastic prayer. After announcing to my parents that I had wanted to convert, they—almost speechless with sorrow, asked me to wait a season. I agreed. My family was on vacation in North Truro, Massachusetts at Lloyd’s Cabins, a series of rustic, somewhat dilapidated cabins high on a sand dune overlooking Cape Cod Bay. Earlier in the evening that summer day we had gone to see a play about Jesus’ second coming and his outrage at our treatment of the earth. Christ reached through the play, pierced my heart and laid claim to my life. Numb with shock, I spent all night sitting on the creaky wooden steps which led down to the ocean, its rhythm of waves crashing under infinite stars. Overhead the Milky Way whirled mirroring the giant turning of my soul back to Christianity and, as Eliot would say, “Knowing it for the first time.”
The thing was it was the physical Jesus I wanted to follow. I wanted to be one of the twelve. I wanted to walk those dusty roads, stand within sound of his voice, smirk at his banter with Pharisees, be handed a piece of dried bread from his beloved hand. I did not know how to do that from my 16 year old life in northern New Jersey. More than anything I wanted to BE there. I can tell you that longing has never left me. It is why I am Anglican. Our incarnational theology defines my yearning to this day. Everything I have done and chosen since then has been in the hope that I am following Jesus in the flesh, him perhaps just around the next corner.
So today’s lessons live in my gut. I am so there it hurts. Elisha, a man of some means, had not been in the synagogue reading Jewish mystical writings when the revered and hated (depending on where you stood in the political spectrum) prophet Elijah showed up. He was in the fields, working the earth with 12 yoke of oxen. He was dirty, smelled bad, and the sweat ran down into his eyes. Suddenly a shadow crossed his path and there stood the man of God with eyes like flame. Elisha—with some effort—pulled the oxen to a stop and wiped his brow. The prophet did not speak. They locked eyes. Elijah slowly removed his mantle, a cloak made of animal hair and held it before him. Elisha hardly breathed as he slowly began to understand. With one quick move the mantle had filled with air and settled on his own broad shoulders. In that moment Elisha understood nothing would ever be the same. Elijah spun on his heel and started to walk away quickly. Recovering his power of speech, Elisha ran after him. He said Yes. And had to bring his old life to a close. Elijah’s response in essence says “Think hard about this. It is God who is calling you, not me. Do not respond lightly. Consider the cost.” But the decision has been made and Elisha quickly did what he needed to make a complete break from his old life. The oxen were sacrificed and burned with the yoke, his family and neighbors fed, his bridges burned with the wooden yokes. He had chosen freely and was now a disciple and servant of the Man of God.
The call of Elisha is unique in all the calls of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. It is the only one which is passed down from the older generation, the only one to use the mantle, that ancient symbol of authority. All the other prophets are called directly by God. Elisha is mentored into his full authority. He shares the hardships of the prophet, the dangers, deprivations, the confrontation with the powers and principalities of his age. He doesn’t get it all at once. It is a journey.
Our Gospel today begins what’s known as Jesus’ traveling stories. For Luke, discipleship is always a journey and discipleship is usually linked with hardship and rejection. Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem, the place where he will be abandoned, suffer, and die. Jesus is on the move. All we will hear from now on will be in the context of this journey to Jerusalem. Jesus becomes increasingly impatient with the quibbles and power mongering of those around him. His time is getting short. They don’t GET IT yet, and if they don’t GET IT by the time he reaches Jerusalem, it may all be for naught.
So Jesus sends messengers ahead to those heretical, hated Samaritans. The promise of rejection is immediately lived out. The Samaritans will have nothing to do with him—and that curious line—“because his face was set toward Jerusalem.” It is a strange connection, to reject someone now because of where he is headed. Perhaps they understood that this is a hopeless Messiah, a failed mission which cannot possibly end well and we want nothing to do with it. Those poor slobs who associate with Jesus will probably regret it. Losers. And they closed and barred their doors.
So this ragged little band continue on their way. Jesus never imposes himself where he is not wanted. As they walk, three people run up to him. The first, not called or invited, offers to come. Jesus’ response tells it like it is. “Honey, you have NO idea what you are asking. You cannot possibly understand that following me means you belong nowhere, that you own nothing, that you have no security except in God. No one can volunteer for that life without being called.”
But then Jesus turns to the second person and calls him. “Well, OK, but first I have to bury my father.” Of course that is the legal obligation of the son. We are not totally sure if the father has actually died yet! Jesus shakes his head and turns away. There is no room in discipleship for people who are consumed with the obligations of the law. We are not saved by the law. We are saved by grace. The call of Jesus takes precedence over everything else. Nothing is more sacred than our full-hearted acceptance of this call. But-but-but--Elisha said the same thing and Elijah allowed it! Yes. But the mission of Jesus is even more urgent. Nothing can come between us and that.
A third would-be disciple steps in Jesus’ path and offers to come but only after first finishing his own agenda. Jesus steps around him and goes on. Discipleship is not a career choice, not a job, not a possibility only after his own terms have been met. The man probably expected a clap on the back and a welcome to the little band of disciples, maybe even a membership card. But instead he threw up a barrier between himself and Jesus, a barrier which disqualified him from full participation in the Kingdom. Now some might see Jesus’ response to these would-be followers to be harsh and uncompromising, and they would be right. Discipleship costs us everything. Christianity is not for wimps.
Shortly before his martyrdom at the hands of the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about the difference between “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” I quote him:
Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline ...absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field...the pearl of great price... Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man may knock.... It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life... Costly grace is the Incarnation of God... Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus; it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. Grace is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Luke never identifies the three people who would meet Jesus on his way to Jerusalem and so there is a universality to these people. I am quite sure one of them is named Carolyn. Perhaps one of them carries your name also. In belonging nowhere, Christ belongs everywhere. In belonging to no one, Christ belongs to all people, and all who respond to his call belong to him. We are sealed with the cross of oil at our baptism, marked as Christ’s own forever.
I think it is both easier and harder for us 2000 years later to follow the call of our Lord. It’s easier because most of us here, anyway, have a comfy bed, a sufficiency of food, a relatively safe place to close our eyes. But the rest of it is harder to nail down. I remember that night on Cape Cod Bay when my soul exploded with yearning to trudge along behind Jesus no matter where he went. Have I in fact done that? Do I put this first in the midst of all the other things I do, ostensibly for God? Or have I made it into a career, a set of expectations and obligations I must follow? Do I slip into cheap grace? Do I sneak into that Samaritan village on occasion and put the “Gone fishin’” sign on the door and hide in the broom closet while Jesus passes by? I must admit, it is never totally clear to me when I am following Jesus and when I am following my own holy agenda.
And you? What have you paid to be on this journey? Do you feel it to be a great sacrifice, or do you count it nothing for the joy of belonging to Christ? We have the freedom to choose, but the irony is that in being set free of our own petty little legalistic lives, we are freed to a life of service to Christ through each other. What do you need to be freed from? What do you need to be freed for? Our lessons invite us to wrestle with both those questions. So the next time you are plowing the fields and a man with fire in his eyes stands before you and says “Follow me,” what will you say?
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship, pp. 64-66