Sermon, June 2: But…

Elisha, says our first reading, was willing to take on Elijah’s mantle and his role as God’s prophet to Israel, but he wanted to say good-bye to his parents first. “Go ahead,” Elijah said, “I’ll wait.”

Centuries later, a man said to Jesus, “I will follow you, but first let me say good-bye to my folks.” “No way,” said Jesus. What changed? What happened in the meantime to make this complete difference in responses?

It’s worth noting that this week – the one between the commemoration of the ascension and the celebration of Pentecost, the story looks back to a moment before, a moment when Jesus made his extraordinary choice.

Up till the time he felt this choice was necessary, Jesus’ ministry in Galilee had made him incredibly popular. When he had healed a man with leprosy, he began to draw even greater crowds; and then, when he healed a paralyzed man, the people were filled with awe. By the time he gave his famous Sermon on the Mount, he was drawing crowds from all over the empire.

And so it went, in the golden days in Galilee, until ordinary stories of grace filled encounters morphed into extraordinary tales meant to convey a sense of Jesus as other, with mastery over storms and demons, even life and death itself.

But through all this, the disciples had been mystified. Again and again, Jesus pleaded with them: “If anyone has ears, let them hear.” He wanted his friends to understand that his new consciousness – what he called the Kingdom of God was worth dying for.

But it seems that Jesus’ new understanding was often too much for human minds to cope with, and so the disciples tried to protected themselves by arguing about human priorities, such as who might be the greatest among them – much like we still do today.

Then we come to this odd twist in the story. As Jesus and the others continued their journey, they met people who wanted to join them. Jesus said to one of them, “Follow me.” He answered, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said, “Let the dead bury their own dead…”

Some people read this story and what they hear is a warning – not only to the early disciples – but also to us. It goes something like this: “If you want to follow Jesus you must do so absolutely wholeheartedly. There is no middle ground. You cannot proclaim the good news unless you’ve left everyone and everything else behind.”

These are the people who insist on a celibate clergy or a strict adherence to keeping all the laws of kosher or any other fanatical allegiance to denominational purity. If Jesus’ message depended on extraordinary people practicing flawless non-attachment, then I wonder if anyone but Jesus ever proclaimed it.

Jesus’ way of seeing reality is so different from ordinary perception that it turns ordinary common sense self-interest upside down. But ordinary common sense activities are what ordinary people know, so they were what the disciples – then and now – keep trying to do. But is it what the gospel stories are saying?

Maybe the people who understand these words to mean “you’re not good enough to follow Jesus, don’t even try,” don’t have it right. Maybe what they need to consider is that Jesus was about living out the extravagant love of God wherever it took him, whether he understood it or not.

If we could touch the holy without considering our ties to this world, we might be living examples of the kingdom of heaven here and now. But it matters more, I think, that we throw our hearts into the way we choose to be church today, even if we would perhaps prefer our community to be different somehow – bigger, maybe, or more traditional or more progressive or more single-minded. It’s not the size or the doctrine of a church that matters most, I think. It’s the heart. It’s the willingness to go on with Jesus on the journey no matter where it leads. It’s the coming of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Posted by Rev. Barbara Ewton

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