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Third Sunday after Pentecost
Pastor Eric Deibler
- 1 Kings 19:15-21
- Psalm 16
- Galatians 5:1, 13-25
- Luke 9:51-62
How many of you remember George Burns? For those of you who don’t know, George Burns was a comedian and performer. He was one of the few entertainers whose career successfully spanned vaudeville, radio, film and television. He was famous for his gravelly voice and ever-present cigar. His career got a second wind at the age of 76 with his appearance in the movie The Sunshine Boys, for which he received an academy award. Although another one of his films, Oh, God!, was probably better known, in which he played, of course, God. When he was 96, he signed a life-time contract with Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, including a performance on his 100th Birthday. When that day actually came, however, he was too weak to deliver the planned performance. He released a statement joking how he would love for his 100th birthday to have “a night with Sharon Stone”. Technically, Caesar’s could have sued him for breach of contract. But, given his age, there was most likely something called an “escape clause” in the contract, which would exempt the promisor from any kind of punitive action, should the contract go unfulfilled. Unfortunately, it seems like we’re always looking for some kind of escape clause.
Elijah is a remarkable figure. His spiritual commitment is remarkable. Emerging from out of nowhere, he single-handedly (or so he thinks) confronts Queen Jezebel, whose very name is synonymous with wickedness. At a time when pagan idolatry was rampant among God’s people, God used Elijah to demonstrate who really was the Supreme God.
After this time of spiritual conquest, Elijah is completely drained—spiritually, physically, and emotionally. He runs from Jezebel, who has promised to take her revenge. He gets to the point of wishing he could just die.
God grants him a time of respite but will not let the prophet go. For Elijah, there is no escape clause.
So, today we see God calling Elijah back into ministry. God has demonstrated compassion in sending an angel to provide food and drink for his exhausted prophet. Out of the experience of having a “still small voice” speak to him, God rouses Elijah once more. Elijah probably would have been just as happy to have God say to him, “You’ve done a great work. You are the only one who is still serving me. But, since Jezebel is still on your case, go back to Tishbe and enjoy your retirement.” God reminds Elijah that there is still—and will always be—a believing remnant and tells him that he has a new challenge for him.
A lot of the time, when we feel like it’s time to retire or retreat or give up, what we really need is something new to which we can devote our energies. Elijah is called to anoint new leadership—political leadership for Aram and Israel and spiritual leadership for Israel in the person of Elisha. So not only does God correct Elijah’s understanding of the faithful people remaining in Israel. He also let Elijah know that the work of the prophet will continue, but through another. There will be a successor to his ministry.
When Elijah comes upon his successor, he finds him in the field plowing behind a team of twelve oxen. He throws his cloak around him in an act symbolic of anointing. The cloak is the symbol of Elijah’s authority.
We know nothing about Elisha. The first we hear of him is when Elijah meets him. But the prophet’s background is not nearly as important as his availability to be God’s spokesperson. Elisha recognizes at once what Elijah’s act means and runs after him, showing that he has accepted the call of discipleship. It kind of reminds us of Jesus’s disciples dropping their nets and following Jesus.
Elisha wants to have the opportunity to say goodbye to his family. It’s a reasonable request, which Elijah doesn’t dispute, although I do find his response a bit odd. “Go back again; for what have I done to you?” In 25 years of ministry, I’ve never found a satisfactory explanation for it!
Elisha makes clear his commitment to follow the Elijah by slaughtering his beasts of burden and using his plowing equipment for the fire to cook them. His actions make it clear that his commitment to his new vocation is absolute. He turns back, but it was only to, as it were, sell all, distribute the money, and follow his new master. Elisha burns his bridges behind him quite literally. His discipleship leaves no room for an escape clause.
Elijah wanted to escape the responsibilities God had given him. Elisha makes sure any temptation to turn back from following God will be done away with.
Pastor, scholar, and Professor Fred Craddock once delivered a sermon on “The Gospel as Hyperbole.” In it, he pointed out that the gospel is loaded with statements that are, on the face of them, ridiculous. We’re told to remove the pole from our own eyes before criticizing others. We’re told that if we have even a smidge of faith, we can move mountains into the sea. We’re told stories like the one about a man who was forgiven a debt of a gazillion dollars who then turned right around and about choked another man to death for the 50 cents he owed him. Ridiculous.
But he goes on to point out, that it’s all a little less ridiculous once you realize that the kingdom of God Jesus came to announce, really does contain the cosmic power for salvation for all people and all creatures. If the kingdom of God is anything close to what we think it is, we really can’t overstate its power or beauty.
So, let’s not take the radical language of Luke 9 too lightly. No, not all believers are called to leave family and home behind, but some are. Whether we’re called to serve in our home or overseas, we are all called to a radical commitment to the gospel. Maybe answer the call to faith doesn’t mean leaving home. But what if it means turning down a promotion? What if it means saying hard things to our children? What if it means denying our families the dream vacations taken by others, or any number of other sacrifices both great and small in service to the power and beauty of the gospel… Well, in all honesty, we shouldn’t be surprised.
James and John are called to give up their aspirations to power and their desire for violent retribution. In Luke 9:54 Jesus rebukes James and John for their Rambo-esque desire to fry off a few Samaritans, who violated the ethics of hospitality. The reason for that was clear enough: Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem to save all people (including Samaritans, therefore) and so it made no sense for Jesus to kill in judgment the very people for whom he was soon going to die in mercy and grace.
Given that, it may seem a little odd to see this same Jesus immediately pivot from that to verses 57-62, where he seems off-putting when it comes to the kingdom of God. The same Jesus who was deferentially kind toward rude Samaritans who refused to welcome him now seems a bit rude toward some folks who seem eager to hop onto the kingdom bandwagon. Why would Jesus scare off one man by promising him a homeless existence? Why would Jesus seem so brusque toward a man whom he himself called at the same moment the man was sunk deep in grief over a dead father? Why would Jesus refuse so much as a familial farewell for the final guy? It all seems rather over the top.
Again, are we supposed to conclude that followers of Jesus are never going sleep in their own beds at night? Is the take-away from Luke 9 the idea that funerals are forbidden to followers of Jesus? Does loving our families and having normal attachments to them count as disqualifying looks back from the plow when it comes to kingdom work?
This is one of those hyperbolic gospel passages that tempts us to chalk it up to mere metaphor or overstatement so that we can be free to translate it into something kinder and gentler. Jesus said to be homeless. So, we say, “Well, we have homes but shouldn’t be too attached to them.” Jesus says to let the dead bury their own dead and to not be so attached to loved ones that we feel the need to say good-bye to them before taking a mission trip. So, we translate that to mean that we have to love God more than spouses and children and parents, but we can and will still love spouses and children and parents.
Is this a reminder of gospel commitment in the midst of our ordinary lives? Or, is it a call to quit our ordinary lives in favor of a gospel-focused ministry that will shove aside all the usual trappings of life? The first is an escape clause. The second is the calling to true freedom in the Gospel.
Of course, God can and does work through people who own homes and who love their families and who attend the funerals of their loved ones. But let’s not be too quick to relegate this text to the back burner, because it’s inconvenient when we try to apply it to our neat, orderly, and established lives. If we wonder what all the fuss is about because being a Christian makes so little dent in our lives, then we really, really need to pay attention. Do we understand the radical, quite total demands of the gospel?
Barbara Brown Taylor once said that if a man in the church loses his job, the pastor may well call this person to offer sympathy and prayer. But suppose that a pastor one day got wind of the fact that a certain member of his congregation had gotten a big promotion at work along with significantly more pay. And suppose the pastor then called this person and said, “Charlie, I’ve heard your news and so was wondering if it would be OK if I came by sometime to pray with you about this. I’m concerned about the temptations this new venture may throw your way as well as what it may do to your ability to serve here at church. So, I’d like to pray for God’s strength for you in the face of this new success.” Probably we’d be taken aback. But as Brown Taylor notes, that is only because we cordon off parts of our lives from the total claims Jesus makes on us.
We certainly act as though we have supreme sovereignty over our own lives, so why would the church have anything to say to us so long as life is chugging along smoothly? But when we ask that, we reveal how we quietly resist the same self-denying sacrifice to which Christ calls us. The only way we will ever see this self-denial as a source of comfort is if we die and are reborn. God calls us to kill off ordinary ways of defining value and to bring to life a whole new set of values.
The place to start is by admitting that without God, we are lost in sin’s wilderness. And we can’t find your own way out. But once we know that, we are wide open to the call of the one who says, “Follow me.” And that, brothers and sisters, is when we are truly free: Free to follow Christ, as he calls us to follow him. Free to give completely of ourselves, knowing that Christ will fill us again and again and again. Free to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, to visit the imprisoned, to release the captive. Free to bring healing to a broken world. Free to speak up on behalf of the voiceless. Free to cry for justice by proclaiming the love and grace of God. And there is no need for an escape clause. AMEN