Sunday, June 27, 2010

Proper 8C

I Kings 19:15-16, 19-21; Psalm 16; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62

I'm going home tomorrow, back to Spartanburg, South Carolina, where I went to high school and where my mom still ives.  My friend Sherry and her family still live there, too, and I hope I'll get a chance to see her.  Or at least to pass her a little note.

We were skilled note-passers in high school, filling sheets of notebook paper with giggles and gossip, hopes and heartbreak, doubts and teenage drama.  Then we folded the paper in that time-honored fashion, tucking one corner in to make sure it didn't unfold accidentally, revealing it's sacred contents to just anyone.  In the hallways or at our lockers or at the end of lunch, we passed the notes to each other and hurried to our next class so that we could read them before the bell rang.

Now, a traditional feature of our notes was the question.  It could be any question, but it was usually something like, "Do you think he's cute?" or "Would you ask him out?" followed by three empty squares drawn in pencil with the instructions, "Check one: yes, no, maybe."  And you thought very carefully about your answer before you checked a box, folded it back up, and returned it to your friend because after all, it was important - it was about relationships, about love.

I don't pass notes anymore.  Sherry and I keep up through email and Facebook and the occasional phone call or visit.  But I think about those boxes often - every time, in fact, that I update my computer or download a program or create an on-line account and a window appears with the words "End User License Agreement" followed by a long, long, long note filled with...well, to be honest I've never read one all the way through.  It's the contract that states you'll use the software appropriately, and at the end is a question: "Do you agree to these terms and conditions?  Check one: yes, no."  We should think very carefully about our answer because after all, it is important - it is about a relationship, and if we agree to it, we'll be asked to exit all programs and restart our computers before we can run the new program.

Papyrus was harder to fold than notebook paper, I suppose, and anyway Jesus much preferred to ask questions in person instead of in a note, to meet people face to face.  So it is that Jesus met three would-be disciples on the road to Jerusalem and he presented to them the terms and conditions of following him.  Turn away from your home.  Turn away from your family.  Turn away from your work, from whatever your livelihood is.  Exit all programs.  Restart.  Then follow me.

If it sounds harsh to us now, imagine how it must have sounded in a time and place when no one ever did anything new.  Most people never left home but instead worked the same land of labored at the same skill their parents had learned from their parents.  Wages earned were solely for the care and keeping of one's extended family, often including multiple generations dwelling under one mud and straw roof.  The ancient law given to their ancestors, once a breathtakingly new expression of relationship, of love, between God and God's people, had become in practice rigid and rote, binding and brutal.

How drawn they were to Jesus, a breath of fresh air they would come to know as Spirit, a rabbi, prophet, and - dare the hope? - messiah who spoke of things like life and love and healing and a magnificent kingdom of God in which the blind would see, the deaf would hear, the lame would walk, and the poor and lowly would be lifted up.  I will follow you wherever you go, someone exclaimed, overcome by the wonder of it all.

Long before the days of Facebook, which also has boxes you can click in response to things other people say - "Check one: like, ignore" - long before the days of Facebook allowed us to express our enthusiasm for things without actually acting on them, Jesus needed to make sure this would-be disciple understood that the box he was checking was important, that it was about relationship, that it was about love.  Not the "Do you think he's cute, would you ask him out" kind of love but, rather, love that is resolute, love that is fierce, love that is generous and unwavering and free.  Love that restarts everything.

In fact, while this gospel story has long been read as a strong statement on the difficult demands of discipleship, demands that disciples devote themselves without remainder to following Christ, that they check "yes" knowing that they are choosing everything he stands for, everything he loves, everything he lives for, everything he dies for...while this gospel story has long been read as concerning discipleship, some have suggested that it also reveals something of the kingdom of God that disciples are called to proclaim, something of the reign of God's love, something of the relationship between God and God's people.  Scholar Richard Shaffer even wonders if the heart of the story, underneath all the terms and conditions, all the questions and boxes, if the heart of the story might be "Jesus' singlemindedness of purpose that is prompted by God's profound love for humanity and all the world."

It has sounded harsh ever since that day on the road when Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem.  What is it that in ever age has lured would-be disciples into a singlemindedness of purpose that serves only ourselves, our desires, our needs, our wants?  That makes it difficult to choose a singlemindedness of purpose that serves love, which is to say, that serves God, and serving God, serves others?  Some say it is self-indulgence that causes us to hesitate over these boxes, wondering which to check.  Some say it is greed, some say it is evil, some say it is fear.  Fear of scarcity, fear of finitude, fear of limitations.  Sometimes, overcome by the wonder of it all, we say to Christ, I will follow you wherever you go.  And sometimes, like the townspeople in our gospel story, we refuse even to welcome him.  Sometimes, like James and John, our first choice is destructive anger.  Sometimes, like so many other would-be disciples, we give up, we procrastinate, we make excuses, we get distracted, we turn back, we check "maybe," or maybe "no."

But if Christ's singleminded purpose is God's love for all the world, then the kingdom is not lost; indeed, it is among us before we even know to choose it.  Listen again to the gospel story, how Jesus reveals himself and God's kingdom to those on the edge of discipleship.  Jesus, love incarnate, in whom God's reign has come, has no place to lay his head because love cannot be contained in a fox hole or a bird's nest or a building of any kind.  Love's home is everywhere, and indeed it is so vast that all things are at home in it.  Jesus, through whom all things were made and who made the earth a new creation, cannot be stopped by death or its trappings.  He has overcome the power of death to consume us, and bids us lay aside our fear.  Jesus, who for love set his face toward Jerusalem and never once looked back, in every miracle and parable and teaching and touch showed that God's reign is gracious and generous and vast and lovely, such that even those things that seem most important to us and demand our attention pale in comparison to it.  We would-be disciples are urged not to let anything in all the world delay us or weigh us down or hold us back from our "yes" to relationship, our "yes" to love, our "yes to following everywhere Jesus goes.

And so we, when like so many disciples before us we trembling check that box...yes...we become part of the good news, part of the kingdom unfolding.  He meets us on the roads we walk, in homes we keep, in the families we have, in the livelihoods we lead, and there he calls us to a singlemindedness of purpose - his purpose.  The terms and conditions are these, that in all the relationships in our lives, all the places we inhabit, all the work we do, all the roads we walk, all the strangers we encounter, all the courage we muster, all the hope we humbly hold...that everything we are and everything we do derive its meaning and joy and mission from God's profound love for humanity and all the world.

Perhaps the apostle Paul was baptized according to the Book of Common Prayer, for he writes often of the choice to follow Christ, and never once does he presume that he can meet the demands of discipleship alone.  I will, with God's help, it is as if he says over and again in his letters to the disciples and would-be disciples of his day.  Of course that's what following is, right?  We go not be ourselves but in relationship, we go with the one who goes before us, each step bringing us further into the knowledge and experience of God's reign all around us.  When left to our own devices, bound to our fears in a world where love and life's resources appear scare, finite, limited, we choose such things as lust, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, factions, envy...Paul's list is long and accurate.  Living by the Spirit, though, understanding that God who cannot be contained in any dwelling yet dwells in our hearts, we are able to choose love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, kingdom fruits.

Thomas Merton, 20th century monk, priest, poet, scholar, and disciple, knew as did Paul, as do we when we are honest, that we find ourselves still trembling and hesitant on that road to Jerusalem, desiring in our deepest hearts to follow, knowing that it is important, that it is about relationship, that it is about love.  I offer you Merton's prayer:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.  I do not see the road ahead of me.  I cannot know for certain where it will end.  Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following you does not meant hat I am actually doing so.  But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire for all that I am doing.  I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.  And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.  Therefore I will trust you always, though I may seem lost and in the shadow of death.  I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me.  Amen.

Artwork: Image from; "Pilgrimage," by Grace Collins; "Thoughts on Communion," by Barbara Desrosiers; "Looking," by RaRa Schlitt; "A Cloud of Witnesses," by Mary Melikan.

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