Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Spiritual Exercise


July 31, 2019 - Ignatius of Loyola
1 Corinthians 10:31–11:1; Luke 9:57–62

Do you ever feel like we catch Jesus in a bad mood? In Luke 9, as the disciples and Jesus are walking down the road, several would-be disciples come to Jesus and offer to follow him, but Jesus seems disinterested if not annoyed by their requests. "I will follow you wherever you go," one of them says. But Jesus replies, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." Jesus invites another person to follow him, but, when the man expresses a desire to go and bury his father, Jesus replies, "Let the dead bury their own dead." A third offers to follow Jesus but first needs to go and say goodbye to his family, but Jesus, in a direct rejection of Elijah's willingness to wait on Elisha to do the same, declares that no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for God's reign. Grumpy Jesus, indeed!

I wonder, though, whether Ignatius of Loyola knew this passage from the gospel and knew it in a way that didn't hinge upon Jesus' attitude. I wonder whether he heard something else in this story.

Ignatius, like so many saints of old, was quite the rabble-rouser before he became a devout Christian. He was a fighter--actually a mercenary--who enjoyed fully the vanities and pleasures of the world (see Lesser Feasts & Fasts 2018). Once, after being gravely wounded in battle, he was convalescing in Loyola, where he experienced a great spiritual awakening. During that time, he felt God calling him to become a knight in God's army, and he was determined to devote his life to the service of God.

But Ignatius was not a priest. He was a soldier. He did not know theology. He knew fighting, discipline, and the art of war. Yet he used what he knew to pursue a life of service in God's kingdom. Like a skilled tactician, he made notes of his experience and began to share them with others. His notes evolved into a text now known as the Spiritual Exercises, which spoke of deep intimacy with Jesus Christ and the need for all to respond to Jesus' invitation, "Come, follow me."

His teachings were profound in their accessibility, and more and more people were drawn to them, but officials in the wider church were suspicious. Ignatius wasn't a priest. He wasn't a theologian. He was a convert-soldier who had had a profound religious experience. The religious experts rightly had been trained to be suspicious of ordinary people who sought a cult following after having a religious experience, so they pushed back, making Ignatius' work for God difficult. So, at the age of 37, Ignatius went back to school, to the University of Paris, where he trained to become a priest. While there, he did what he knew how to do--he shared his notebook with some fellow students, and, in the midst of their studies, he and six companions took vows to lives of poverty and service of the poor. Six years later, their order was officially recognized, and the Society of Jesus--the Jesuits--was accepted into the church, and Ignatius was accepted as its first Superior General.

To those who wish to follow Jesus but who need first to stay behind and take care of some business, Jesus seems to say, "Don't bother." But Ignatius shows us that one doesn't need to give up everything she knows in order to answer Jesus' call, "Come, follow me." Ignatius was a soldier who became a soldier for God. He did what he knew how to do--that which was his business--but he did it for Jesus. "I will follow you anywhere," a would-be disciple says, and Jesus replies, "There is nowhere--no hole, no nest, no bed--where we are going." Maybe following Jesus doesn't lead us to a particular destination. To the one who needs to bury his father, Jesus replies, "If you think you have to choose between discipleship and family, let the dead bury their own dead. But maybe it's possible to be faithful to my call without ever leaving home." To the one who needs to settle his affairs before setting off with Jesus, Jesus says, "You can't look back and be fit." But Ignatius knew what it meant to have his hand on the plow while still looking forward. Ignatius knew how to follow Jesus from where he was, from what he knew. He knew what it meant for all of us--soldiers, doctors, lawyers, farmers, therapists, teachers, homemakers--to answer Jesus' call.

Sometimes I preach a sermon on this same passage, and the point of the sermon is to remind us that following Jesus is costly and that, unless we are willing to give everything up, we can't be a part of the way of Jesus. That's true, too. And I think Ignatius of Loyola would recognize that in Jesus' call. But Ignatius reminds us that the call to follow Jesus is not for a select few. You don't have to be a theologian, a preacher, a Sunday school teacher, a member of the Altar Guild, or a Eucharistic minister in order to hear and respond to God's call. Whoever you are, Jesus is calling you. Whoever you are, you can say yes.

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