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?