Monday, June 27, 2016

Hard Road Ahead


Yesterday, I preached a tough sermon. It was tough for me and tough for the congregation, too. It embraced the urgency of Jesus' call to discipleship and his work to bring the kingdom of God to fruition. Using issues like gun control and sex trafficking and poverty, it contrasted our current society with the kingdom of God. It proclaimed that the world is desperate for the transformation that the kingdom of God will bring and that Jesus is asking us to be agents of that kingdom right now--without delay. There is, of course, hope in that message. Jesus' death and resurrection have brought the kingdom to us in an immediate way, but the hope that that kingdom brings comes in the midst of deep and lasting societal challenges.

On the way out of church, someone remarked, "I was really hoping to be comforted today, but I didn't get that." We both chuckled a little bit. I took his remark as a comment on my choice of sermon--that he would have preferred that I preach a feel-good message--so I put the challenge right back to him. "You know, Jesus wasn't comforting today. The gospel lesson wasn't comforting." He nodded in agreement. Then, I continued with a gentle warning: "You know, now that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, things aren't going to get much better. We've got some hard weeks ahead. But the road to the cross is supposed to be difficult."

And then I woke up this morning and looked at the gospel lesson for Sunday and thought, "I'm in the mood for comfort, too, but I'm not going to get it, am I?"

At the beginning of Luke 10, Jesus sends out seventy missionaries to go and prepare the way for him. As they leave, he tells them, "See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road." Fun times, huh? Jesus commissions them to be vulnerable. They go out underprepared, learning what it means to trust that God will provide. They are sent out to a world that doesn't really want them, making them sensitive to how the Spirit will help them make peaceful, nourishing relationships with strangers. They are given the same message to proclaim to those who will receive them as well as those who reject them: "The kingdom of God has come near."

Perhaps thankfully, the gospel lesson skips over verses 12-15 and the woes to unrepentant Chorazin and Bethsaida and Capernaum. When it resumes in verse 16, however, we find the surprisingly hope-filled return of the seventy. They "returned with joy, saying, 'Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us.'" They marveled at what they were able to accomplish. When sent out with so little, they were still able to do great things. But, before they get the "big-head," Jesus calls them back to reality, refocusing their joy on the nature of their work: "See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven."

It's Monday. I've got five days to listen for hope and joy in the midst of challenge. Honestly, I'm still a little spiritually hungover from yesterday, and I'm looking for a little shot of joy to get me through this week. Perhaps I'll warm up to the reality of the challenge in the gospel lesson by the time I climb back into the pulpit. Or maybe I'll preach on the "glorious bosom" in Isaiah 66. Regardless, we're all on this journey with Jesus. For the rest of the summer, we'll be headed to Jerusalem. There's joy at the end of the road, but it's going to take us a while to get there.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

God's Kingdom Cannot Wait


June 26, 2016 – The 6th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 8C
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
 
Rarely is God’s will for our lives communicated as clearly and definitively as having the most famous (or infamous) prophet in Israel come alongside us and throw his mantle over our shoulders. I don’t know about you, but, even though I’ve felt like I heard God’s call for me a time or two, never has it fallen out of the sky and hit me on the shoulders like that. Right there, in the middle of a field, without invitation or introduction, Elijah walked up to Elisha while he was plowing behind some oxen, and, without saying a word, he threw his cloak upon him. One could not ask for a clearer sign, yet, still, I am surprised that Elisha said yes.

Keep in mind that, at this point, Elijah was a wanted man. Just a few verses earlier in 1 Kings 19, Jezebel, the wicked wife of Ahab, the most wicked king in Israel’s history, was enraged at him because he had killed all of her false prophets. She invoked a curse upon herself, saying, “May the gods [strike me dead] if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow” (19:2). And if anyone could make good on that murderous promise, it was Queen Jezebel, so Elijah ran for his life and hid in a cave. There the Lord spoke to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah? Go and anoint a new king over Israel and a new king over Judah and anoint Elisha as your successor.”

So he went and found this young prophet-to-be and foisted the authority and the burden of being God’s chosen one literally upon his shoulders. The Holy Spirit must have been present in that moment in a powerful way because, even though it likely meant a terrible death, Elisha said yes. “But, first,” he continued, “please let me go and kiss my mother and father goodbye and let me make some preparations for them, and then I will come and be your disciple.” And Elijah said, “Sure,” because, after all, he hadn’t really given Elisha a chance to say no, and it seemed only right that, before taking this man away from his family for good that he would let him tell them goodbye. The fact that he slaughtered the oxen and used the wood from the plow and yoke to fuel the fire suggests to us that he wasn’t planning on coming back. This was a farewell for good, and the honorable thing for the son to do was to go and take care of his parents before setting out on this new and permanent journey.

Who would begrudge Elisha that momentary pause to care for his parents? Wouldn’t we expect a holy prophet of God to obey the fifth commandment and honor his father and mother before accepting this new vocation? Who would criticize him for tending to his family before answering God’s call? Well, Jesus would.

To a would-be disciple, Jesus said, “Follow me.” But the man replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury the dead.” Another man came up to Jesus and said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me say farewell to those at my home,” which sounds like a familiar, reasonable request. But Jesus’ reply was dismissive and condemnatory: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” I don’t know if that man was a farmer, but that’s not the point. Jesus chose to invoke the image of Elijah calling Elisha to make a point about the urgency of God’s kingdom: If you’re not willing to drop absolutely everything and follow me, don’t bother; never mind. And, this morning, I’m curious whether we are in danger of hearing Jesus say to us those two terrible words: “Never mind.”

Why would Jesus be so harsh? Why would he be so inflexible? Why would he use the story of Elijah and Elisha to show us that that kind of answer to God’s call isn’t good enough? And why isn’t it good enough? It was good enough for the greatest prophet in Israel. Why is Jesus and his call to discipleship different? What make it so urgent that it can’t even wait for a farewell or a funeral? And, if it really us that urgent, what does that mean for us?

The hardest part about this urgency is that Jesus isn’t asking us to prioritize God’s kingdom over and above our own worldly desires. He’s not asking us to give up a self-indulgent vacation or a round of golf. That, perhaps, would be easy—at least understandable. Instead, Jesus is asking us to sacrifice good and godly things in order to follow him. An eldest son would have an obligation to bury his father. Only the man’s child could fulfill that role. Burial was a critical custom in the Jewish faith. There were rules about who could touch the corpse, and the son was honor-bound to carry out this duty for his father. If he didn’t do it, the dead man might not get a proper burial. Yet Jesus threw that holy obligation aside as if it were nothing. Likewise, he dismissed the man who asked permission to go and say farewell to his family. Why wouldn’t a follower be permitted—even encouraged—to go and take care of his family just as Elisha did? Jesus wants us to see that the kingdom of God will not wait even for these holy responsibilities. He shows us that there is an unparalleled, unsurpassed urgency to his ministry that calls into question even our most basic assumptions about what it means to be faithful to God.

Why? Because Jesus had set his face to go to Jerusalem, and there was nothing that could distract him from that. When the Samaritan village refused to receive him and James and John wanted to call down fire from heaven to consume it, Jesus couldn’t be bothered. He was focused on something else. When people asked if they could follow him, he was happy for them to join him on the trek to the holy city, but he wasn’t willing to wait on them to get their affairs in order. He couldn’t wait. Jerusalem couldn’t wait. Jesus knew what would happen when he got there. He knew that God would use that moment to break through into this world and establish his kingdom here on earth. Jesus knew that the events that would transpire in Jerusalem had the power to transform the whole world, and that was too important—too urgent—to be delayed.

Today, the world still needs transformation. The world needs God’s kingdom, and that kingdom is right around the corner. Jesus’ face is still set on that kingdom-goal, and he isn’t going to wait on us to get ready for it. It’s coming whether we’re ready or not, and, if we aren’t ready, Jesus is going to look at us and say, “Never mind.”

For the first few decades after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, his disciples believed that he would come back at any minute. They knew that the fulfillment of the kingdom, which Jesus had inaugurated, was near. But years went by. And Christians started dying. And persecutions came, and the suffering that Christians endured was terrible. And, still, Jesus did not come. And, as time went on, disciples of Jesus stopped expecting the kingdom to come at any minute. And, now, two thousand years later, we have forgotten what it means to believe in the urgency of God’s kingdom. Because of that, it’s easier now than ever to find a good and godly excuse to delay our answer to Jesus’ call, which means that now, more than ever, we are in danger of hearing Jesus say to us, “Never mind.”

This world we live in is desperate for transformation. Violence and greed and death are reigning in this place. Evil people with evil intentions have access to semi-automatic weapons with enormous firepower—the kinds of weapons that belong only on the battlefield. Mass shootings have become shockingly commonplace, and they will not stop until we do something about it. Men and women and children are being targeted for harassment and abuse and violence simply because their skin is darker than ours or because of their sexual orientation or their gender identity or because they are Muslim or because they are immigrants. Those of us with power and privilege can do something about that, but will we? Thousands of teenage girls who have run away from home are being exploited by human traffickers, who use them as prostitutes. Even right here in Alabama sixteen-year-olds, fourteen-year-olds, twelve-year-olds are working as sex slaves. What will we do about it? Although the rich are getting richer, poverty is running rampant. Here in Decatur, there are children who do not have enough to eat. This summer, the same boys and girls who sat next to our children and grandchildren in their classrooms are lining up at the CCC to get a wholesome meal. But what about breakfast and dinner? And what about the other five days of the week when the CCC doesn’t serve lunch? Is it too much to ask that every child and every adult in this town gets enough to eat every day of the week?

That is the community we live in. All of those things happen right here in our home. But those things don’t happen in the kingdom of God. They don’t happen when God is in charge. They don’t happen when the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection reign here on earth. The world is desperate for God’s kingdom. And Jesus came and lived and died and rose again to bring that kingdom here to earth, and what is our response when he asks us to follow him and be a part of that kingdom? What do we say when he asks us if we will be the agents of change that God will use to bring that kingdom here on earth? “I’m sorry, Jesus. Can it wait? Does it have to be today? You want to me to do something about it now?” And Jesus looks at us and shakes his head and says, “Never mind.”

If we are going to be disciples of Jesus, we have got to stop pretending that the kingdom of God will come to earth someday. It isn’t someday. It’s today—if we will let it. But it’s costly. And it’s urgent. And it isn’t going to wait. It might cost us our friends. It might cost us our families. It might cost us our comfortable place here in St. John’s Church. It might cost us our jobs. It might cost us our savings. It might even cost us our lives. But none of those things matters when the kingdom of God is on its way. Will you be a follower of Jesus? Will you stop hiding behind an eschatology of convenience that pretends that there will always be another day—another chance—to work for justice and peace and the dignity of every human being? Will you give your heart and your soul and your strength and your mind and your voice to the movement that is bringing God’s kingdom here on earth? In other words, will you follow Jesus as your Lord? He’s waiting. He’s waiting at that altar, and he’s waiting at that door. And he asking you to follow him—not tomorrow but today, right now. Will you go with him into God’s kingdom?

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Best God in the Whole World


In my sermon prep, I usually read the psalm and then move on. Sometimes there are clear resonances with another lesson or two ("I am the Good Shepherd" and Psalm 23), but, more often than not, in our worship the psalm serves as a liturgical element like a hymn or prayer, drawing the congregation together in an act of worship. Because of that, psalms rarely feature explicitly in my sermons. I doubt mention will be made of Psalm 16 this week, but, when I read it this morning and heard the psalmist pray, "But those who run after other gods shall have their troubles multiplied," a funny thought popped in my head: "Do we miss the days of polytheism?"

As a way of explanation, let me offer a brief sketch of how Judaism became a monotheistic faith. It started with Abraham, who in the Genesis account answered Yahweh's call to leave his home and go to the land that this God would show him. At that time, there were other gods being worshiped by other people--even, presumably, Abraham's kinsfolk--but this particular divinity, whose name is Yahweh (often abbreviated the LORD), spoke to Abraham, and Abraham listened. The rest of the Hebrew Bible is about the relationship between Abraham and his descendants and this particular God. But, as all the pages between Genesis 12 and Malachi attest, that wasn't a straightforward thing.

Anthropologically speaking, ancient cultures believed that gods resided in certain places and with certain peoples. If you lived in this area, you were protected by this god, whom you worshipped. Your neighbors might worship a different god, and, when you went out to do battle against them, it wasn't just a matchup between armies but also between divinities. In the earliest days, before the traditions and laws of Israel were codified, the descendants of Abraham were like their neighbors--monolatrous. They believed in the existence of other gods but had faith that their god--Yahweh--was the one who would protect and save them. If you have any doubts about that, flip through the psalter, which offers a glimpse at the oldest sacred texts in the Judeo-Christian tradition (e.g. "There is none like you among the gods, O Lord" Psalm 86:8). That sounds strange to us, but that's what it meant to be faithful in the ancient world--to believe that your particular god was the best god in the whole world.

Then, everything changed--and a lot more recently than you might think. Sometime during the Babylonian Exile (middle of the 6th century BC), Judaism became monotheistic. During that time of captivity in a far away land, a relationship with Israel's God was maintained not through cultic worship and festivals but through prayers (i.e., the psalms), historical teaching, dietary observances, and circumcision. This separation from the mechanics of worship forced God's people to think about their access to God in completely new ways. The content of their faith was held in contrast with that of their captors, who worshipped "false gods." Clarity was the gift of the Exile, and, when they returned to Palestine, they took with them a new sense of the uniqueness of Yahweh and left behind even the acknowledgment that other gods existed.

I wonder whether we wish for simpler times. In Psalm 16, the poet asserts his faithfulness to God, writing, "I have said to [Yahweh], 'You are my Lord, my good above all other.'" Critical of his enemies for their faithlessness, he writes, "But those who run after other gods shall have their troubles multiplied. Their libations of blood I will not offer, nor take the names of their gods upon my lips." His expression of steadfastness is cast as invocation only of Yahweh and worship only of him. As a contemporary Christian preacher, I often call people to steadfastness of faith, but I never think to exhort our congregation to abandon its worship of Baal.

Still, we worship false gods. They don't have names like they did in the Hebrew Bible--Amon, Asherah, Baal, Dagon, Molech. Instead, they are so much harder to pin down--image, success, happiness, control. "Money" is often labeled as the false god we worship, and money has a lot to do with it, but not worshipping this false god isn't as simple as being poor or giving money to charity. It's deeper than that. It's a recognition, as the psalmist says, that the Lord is "[our] good above all other." It is confidence that God alone "will not abandon [us]to the grave, nor let your holy one[s] see the Pit."

What is it that we believe will save us? And I don't mean "save us from the fires of hell." I mean "save us from today--from hunger, from fear, from disease, from calamity, from war, from distress." What are we counting on to save us? Back in the old days, when human power was fleeting, everyone was faithful to some sort of god. A divine power was your only hope. And faithfulness meant identifying the source of your salvation as the one, true God. Today, we all assume that there is only one God, but we still put our faith somewhere else. Maybe the prayer of the psalmist is more important now than ever.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Circumcision Omission


Finally a lectionary omission that I can live with! On Sunday we will ready the opening verse of Galatians 5 and then skip all the way down to verse 13, and I don't mind one bit. Sure, the preacher should take time to read the intervening text and understand the fullness of Paul's "becomes slaves to one another" argument, but I think it's perfectly fine to leave out the part about circumcision.

No, I'm not squeamish. I have no problem saying or hearing the word "circumcision" in church (even the six times that it is used in the omitted verses). In fact, I find it funny when Paul writes hyperbolically, "I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!" No, I think we can omit these verse because, in this case, the issue at hand (circumcision) isn't as important as the conclusion Paul reaches (freedom). In fact, taking that a step further, I think the particularities of the issue actually detract from the passage's teaching today.

Who cares about circumcision? I remember my mother speaking to me before I went to summer camp about boys whose penises might look different than mine, but I don't know of any Christian parent who debates the issue of whether to have their newborn son circumcised because of a ritual observance of the Jewish law. Unless you're in an interfaith marriage where you might be fighting with in-laws about whether circumcision is necessary as a sign of the covenant made with Abraham, you can pretty well skip these 11 verses. There are more important fish to fry in today's church.

Paul urges the Galatians to take their freedom in Christ seriously: "Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery." He has circumcision in mind, but that doesn't mean we need to. The fact remains that, in Christ, we have been set free--not for self-indulgent behavior but for grace-actualized love for one another. We are not justified to God under the law of "thou shalt..." and "thou shalt not...," but, in Christ, we are free to act as Spirit-filled, Spirit-guided agents of God. That principle of grace is threatened in today's church, but it isn't circumcision that is threatening it.

What has become the sine qua non of a religious life? If Kevin Bacon taught us anything in Footloose, it's that rock music and dancing aren't the issue. Likewise, I don't hear a lot of people complaining about "mixed bathing" anymore. So what is it? What has replaced circumcision as the legalistic thing the contemporary church is fighting over? For what reason are we dismissing would-be Christians and Christian movements? Is it because they don't gather for worship in a pretty building? Is it because they meet for church on a day other than Sunday? Maybe it's because they don't believe in the personification of evil known as the Devil, or maybe it's because they do. Real wine or grape juice? KJV or NIV or NRSV? Seminary-educated clergy or Spirit-called, Spirit-taught ministers?



In our denomination, we seem to have mutually anathematized each other over the issue of human sexuality. If you support gay marriage, you must not believe in the bible and, thus, aren't a real Christian. And, if you refuse to support gay marriage, you must not believe in the inclusive ministry of Jesus and, thus, aren't a real Christian. What would Paul say to us? "For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another." Those are powerful words. They are spoken from a place of true freedom, which is to say effective vulnerability to others because of the invulnerability provided by Christ. Whatever our circumcision issue, we have forgotten what it means to love one another so fully as to become slaves to one another--to say to those with whom we vehemently disagree, "Whatever you want, master." We have been using our freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence. It's time to try mutual slavery and see if our shared freedom can become an inseparable bond of love.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Firestarters


I don't think I have ever seen the entire film Firestarter, which features a young Drew Barrymore as a child who is able to start fires with her mind. When I was a kid, it was too scary for me, and, by the time I was old enough to persevere through the whole thing, I had lost interest. When I was in high school, however, I discovered The Prodigy, a techno group who helped launch the "big beat genre." One of their songs is "Firestarter," and, if you're feeling a little lethargic or, perhaps, angry for no reason, it's worth a listen.


Drew Barrymore and The Prodigy have their own version of kicking up some flames, but Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 9:51-62) contains its own line about some "twisted firestarter[s]" that might get missed in most sermons (quote from the song, not the bible).

Luke 9 is a pivotal chapter in this gospel account. It starts with the sending out of the twelve, whom Jesus gives the "power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases." Pretty big stuff. Then, after they return, Jesus feeds the 5,000--an important story that is skipped in this year's lectionary. Right after that, Luke fits in Peter's confession of Jesus as the Christ, which initiates a remarkable shift in Jesus' ministry. He begins to predict his suffering, death, and resurrection and uses that prediction as a call to total discipleship. Then, there's the trip up the mountain with Peter, James, and John, who get to witness Jesus transfigured--his divinity shining through. And, when they come down, there is one more exorcism followed by a second passion prediction and its implication for discipleship ("who is the greatest?"). Then, as we begin Sunday's lesson, Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem, and the rest of Luke will be a journey to the Paschal mystery of death and resurrection.

But, as soon as Jesus "set his face to go to Jerusalem," he and his disciples encountered some resistance. Luke tells us that he sent messengers ahead of him to prepare the way, but, when they came to a village of Samaria--practically the first stop between Galilee and Jerusalem--the people of that town would not receive him "because his face was set toward Jerusalem." In other words, Jesus was on his way to fulfill his destiny in the holy city that the Jews identified as the center of worship, but the Samaritans, who were dedicated to Mt. Gerazim, a rival hill where they believed the focus of divine-human transactions was to take place, wanted nothing to do with this Jerusalem-bound prophet. But the best part is the reaction of James and John, those "Sons of Thunder." They ask Jesus, "Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?"

Dang! Fire? Really? James and John are so in touch with their identity as disciples of Jesus that they feel confident that they have the power to call down a destroying rain of fire upon a village of rival Samaritans? And James and John are so out of touch with their identity as disciples of Jesus that they think that calling doing a destroying rain of fire on a village of Samaritans is an appropriate response? This is bizarre. Jesus, unsurprisingly, chastises them. And then the story moves on.

I don't think it's likely to get a lot of mention in any sermons on Sunday, including mine. Given the Track 2 OT reading from 1 Kings and Paul's exhortation to "be slaves to one another" in Galatians 5, the theme of the urgency of discipleship is more likely to come to the fore. But I'd like to stop long enough to marvel at the power that has been given to these disciples and the danger of using it in the wrong way. Surely there's a second sermon in there. (But, please, only preach one.) As we explore the theme of radical discipleship and its urgency, it's worth holding in our minds and in our hearts the power that is given to those who follow Jesus in faith and the danger that comes along with it. This is real stuff. It's powerful and humbling. No wonder Jesus takes it so seriously.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Going Off Script


Each week when I preach, I write out a whole text, which I publish here on the blog, but I don't bring it with me into the pulpit. I have found that, if I know well the biblical texts and the sermon that I have written, a few bullet points are enough to keep me on task. That way, I can connect with the congregation, react to them, listen for the Holy Spirit, and adapt the sermon as I go along. Sure, it's risky. Occasionally, I'll get to a point where I cannot remember what I intended to say next--a sign that I'm slavishly tied to the text--but eventually I find my way back. Worse, every once in a while I will say something I did not intend--something that, if given the chance to take it back, I would. Several months ago, when rattling off a list of empty, idolatrous practices, "going to church" popped out of my mouth, and I wanted to say, "Wait, I didn't mean that!" but it was too late. Sure enough, one person told me that was her favorite part of the sermon. (Sigh. Of course it was.)

Going off script can be dangerous. Preachers say things that they regret. Candidates make promises that they can't keep. Parents use words that they hope their children won't remember even though they know that they always do. And, in Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 9:51-62), Jesus makes a comparison that he surely did not intend. A would-be disciple approaches Jesus and says, "I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home," and Jesus responds, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."

Um, Jesus? What were you thinking? Why didn't you stick to the script? We practiced this. I know that you are doing something special, and I know that you believe that there is an urgency to your movement, but you can't say that. You can't compare yourself with Elijah if you're going to call him out like that. You can't tell these people that the greatest prophet in Israel's history was wrong. As your messianic campaign manager, I'm pretty sure you're going to need to walk that back. Let me get with some people to formulate a strategy, and we'll come up with a plan. We can fix this.

But, of course, Jesus did mean it. Gospel accounts aren't transcriptions of Jesus' conversations. They have been filtered through the oral and written traditions, telling and retelling, writing and rewriting, always guided by the Holy Spirit, until what we have in Luke is surely what God is giving to God's people. Even if Jesus didn't mean it or, depending on your hermeneutical perspective, didn't say it, the gospel writer gives it to us as an intentional, provocative proclamation of Jesus. And its total shock-value shouldn't be lost on us.

In the Track 2 reading from 1 Kings 19, the Lord tells Elijah that he has selected Elisha to be "prophet in your place." When he finds him plowing behind a dozen oxen, Elijah throws his mantle over his successor as symbol of the selection and a sign of the beginning of the transfer of power and authority. In other words, the choice has been made. Elisha could not have missed the meaning of that act. He accepts this appointment, leaving the oxen and running after Elijah, but, before they continue on their journey, he asks Elijah to delay: "Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you." It's a reasonable request. Presumably Elisha had familial duties to uphold. Once he is given permission by his new master, he takes the oxen and slaughters them and boils their flesh with the wood from the yoke that held them together behind the plow--signs of the finality of this prophetic appointment--and gives the stew to the people. Then he leaves to follow Elijah.

And there's nothing wrong with that...unless you're preparing to follow Jesus. "Follow me," he says to someone, but that man asks leave to go and bury his dead father. "Let the dead bury the dead," Jesus says, offering a shocking reply that calls into question everything his contemporaries knew about filial obligations. Another offers to follow him but asks leave to go and say goodbye to his family, but, simultaneously invoking and questioning the tradition of Elijah and Elisha, Jesus replies, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God." Can this be? Did he mean it?

Yes, Jesus meant it. Yes, it's difficult. Yes, it's shocking. Yes, it throws everything we think we know about duty and honor and family into question. And that's the point. Following Jesus can't be a secondary priority. The kingdom that he is ushering in doesn't have room for uncommitted participants. This week, as I prepare to preach, I'm looking for ways in which contemporary Christians like me find excuses to delay our commitment to the kingdom. What is our plow? And how does even the most logical, reasonable, honorable intention still get between us and the kingdom?

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Un-Evangelists


In the story of the healing of the demon-possessed man in Geresa (Luke 8:26-39), there are two examples of evangelists--one bad and one good. The first is the group of swineherds, who witnessed Jesus set the demoniac free from his possession. And the second is the demon-possessed man himself once he had been set free from his affliction.

Luke tells us that the demons inside the man "begged Jesus to let them enter" a large herd of swine there on the hillside. Speaking from within the man, Legion, as the demons identified themselves, recognized that Jesus was the "Son of the Most High God," and, before Jesus even began to express his power over them, they knew that they would be defeated. Instead of asserting any power, they chose a defensive strategy, attempting, as Luke tells us, to avoid being send "back into the abyss." When Jesus gave them permission, they left the man and entered the pigs, which then rushed down the steep hill into the sea.

Watching this unfold were the swineherds--men who saw their livelihood drown in the water. "When they saw what happened," Luke writes, "they ran off and told it in the city and in the country." And, by the time the people from that area came out to see it for themselves, their minds were made up. They were afraid. They saw the man, sitting in his right mind, and they were filled with fear. Unable or unwilling to tolerate this disruptive presence in their midst, they agree--all of them--to ask Jesus to leave their territory. And immediately Jesus got into the boat and left.

But that wasn't the end of the story. We don't know what happened, but the story didn't end there. The once-demon-possessed man "begged" Jesus (note the use of the same word that he had used earlier) to let him become a disciple. "Let me follow you, Jesus!" the man might have pleaded. But Jesus said no. He would not let him. Some presume it is because of his Gentile identity--that this would have disrupted his ministry among his fellow Jews. Regardless, the result is the same. The man is not permitted to follow Jesus, but he is given a charge. "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you," Jesus said to the man, sending him away. "Go share news of this," Jesus told him. "Be my evangelist in this place."

He had his work cut out for him. Everyone in the town had turned against Jesus. The testimony of the swineherds had poisoned the well. They had made up their minds that Jesus was dangerous--that his presence among them was a reason to be afraid. But the man had another story to tell. The same Jesus--the same power that he represented--had given him back his life. In fact, Jesus had set the community free of this man's nuisance. I wonder how it went. I wonder whether anyone's heart softened. I wonder if the man had a wife and family. I wonder whether his rightmindedness convinced them. I wonder...

I am an evangelist. And, if you're reading this, you're probably a follower of Jesus, which means that you are an evangelist, too. We have good news to share--news of the power of God who has come to us and set us free from the oppression of sin and death and the devil and has put us in our right mind. That is liberating news for a world that is shackled by fear and hopelessness and frustration. But there are others who have a different message to tell. They have been hurt--not by Jesus but by a  misplaced religion that operates in his name. They tell of woundedness in the church. They speak of losing their time and money and spirit to those who wrongly promised them freedom and peace. They have been spiritually swindled by those who pretend to witness to the power of Jesus when, in fact, they are only preaching of themselves.

The power of Jesus has the power to set us free, but the powers of darkness work against it in insidious ways. They are often the ones with the proverbial microphone, espousing hate and greed and fear in the name of Jesus. When the world thinks of Christians, does it think of Jesus or of them? When people hear of "mission" and "evangelism" and "revival," does it think of freedom or oppression? We have much work to do, but it is good work, liberating work, holy work. And we do it not only in the name of Jesus but animated and empowered by his spirit.