Pastor Annabelle P. Markey
Year C – Third Sunday after Pentecost
Community Lutheran Church, Sterling, VA – June 30, 2019
It’s summer and many of us are setting out on vacation. And whether we’re traveling to the local pool or beach to escape the heat, or around the world, we all know that vacation means escape. It means freedom from the grind of the everyday, from some of the cares and worries we normally shoulder, and from the endless torrent of work e-mail and communications. But no matter where we go, in our work and in our play, we are to be following Jesus.
All our texts today speak about the cost of discipleship. Or what following Jesus looks like. In the first reading, the prophet Elijah passes the mantle to Elisha. Elijah, the mentor, passes the torch and calls Elisha to take the steps toward the next phase of his journey – being a prophet in the school of Elijah. Elisha runs after Elijah, eager to follow, but first stops to kiss mom and dad goodbye. Elijah responds brusquely, telling him that time is short and the choice is his. And so Elisha fully commits. He kills his yoke of oxen, which the “Oregon Trail” game of my childhood tells me is a drastic maneuver. I mean, it’s his livelihood, so he’s showing he’s all in. He kills his oxen and destroys the plow to cook the beef and feed those around him. He leaves his old life to become a servant and student.
Jesus, too, sets his face toward Jerusalem. Toward death, resurrection, and ascension. There’s no turning back. At the same time, he calls his disciples to follow in his footsteps. But following is not easy. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer so famously said, “When Christ bids a man to follow, he bids him, ‘Come and die.’” It is the ultimate in obedience and letting go, but surprisingly it is also the ultimate freedom. We follow and learn bit by bit to die to ourselves, our idols, and anything we’d set up in God’s place. In doing so, we find true freedom and abundant life. We discover what it means to locate life, love, and joy in service and in our own sacrificial love of others. However, I repeat, discipleship is not easy. It will mess with your head and your heart, in the best way possible. But it’s still going to mess with you. It asks us to love others who are different than we are. It pushes us to take risks. It calls us to walk ahead into the dark with Christ as our light – a beacon providing hope and reassurance in places of uncertainty, doubt, and fear.
And so we hesitate. We make excuses. Let me say goodbye to my parents first. I need to do what’s socially and culturally acceptable. I can do this on my own – I don’t need anyone to show me what to do. I can’t or won’t do this because it doesn’t benefit me. I don’t have the time. I have other commitments. I’m afraid. This makes me uncomfortable. Hmmm… getting involved – can I really be effective or make any difference? How will I be received or perceived if I do this?
In the Gospel, Jesus tells his would-be followers to count the cost. “‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’” If you’re looking for comfort, safety, and security, following Jesus isn’t the best place to find it – at least not in the conventional sense. The comfort and security he provides isn’t attached the things of this world. “‘Follow me,’” Jesus says to another. “‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’” Jesus tells him not to wait until his father has died to decide to follow, but to instead come now and proclaim the kingdom. The time is now. He tells his listeners not to spend their time looking to the past or the good ole days, but to look forward to what God is doing in the kingdom of love, grace, hospitality, and justice breaking in. “‘No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’” If we’re fixated on the past or other distractions and not paying attention to what’s happening in front of and around us, how can we expect to see, much less participate in, what God is up to?
We all do this. We are easily tempted and distracted. I know that I am often tempted to say that I am “too busy” to read or spend time with God. But if I am honest, my time spent watching Hulu and Netflix in the evenings tells me otherwise. This is why we begin our worship with confession and forgiveness. To remind ourselves as we come before God to be honest – not only with God, but with ourselves and others. And to hear again that there is no sin that can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. To hear in Paul’s words to the Galatians, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” In Jesus Christ, we have been set free. Free of our sins and mistakes. Free of the weight of unrealistic and unhealthy expectations. Free of the need to achieve or to make a name for ourselves. Free from the desire to have everything figured out or feel responsible for everything. Freed to be welcomed, loved, and accepted wholly and completely as we are – regardless of our skin color, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, country of origin, or anything else we might use to divide ourselves. Don’t ever fall back into slavery or bondage to anything. Live in the freedom of the love of God.
But we can’t stop there. Paul reminds us that this freedom is never only for our sake: “For you were called to freedom; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. … ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ …If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.” Because we know the awesome freedom and joy of Jesus’ love, we will willingly become slaves to one another in sacrificial, Christ-like love.
It’s here that the urgency of Jesus’ call to follow him becomes apparent. We are at a crossroads where we are being called to follow Christ in ways particular to our time. Church attendance in mainline denominations is in decline, so how will we remain faithful and imaginative as we share God’s story? Stress and anxiety and constant bombardment from technology compete with God for our attention. And in our nation, we find ourselves with a crisis on our border. There are innocent children suffering and even dying. I know we may hesitate, protest, be tempted to turn away, or say nothing, but I don’t believe we can do that. We may desire with every fiber of our being to say, “it’s not my concern, my problem, or my politics,” but the tension arises when we look at the One we are following. Jesus, God incarnate, had no place to lay his head in life or even in death. When he came into the world, there was no room for him in the inn and he had to be placed in a makeshift cradle. As a toddler, his family became refugees, fleeing King Herod and escaping to Egypt. In his ministry, he relied on women and men to welcome and support him. And in death, he was laid in a borrowed tomb. Knowing their plight intimately, Jesus is deeply concerned about those who have no place to lay their heads. No safe place to be. No warmth or compassion to embrace them.
In baptism, we have been united with Christ in his death and resurrection. And so, we too, are called to care about the things God cares about. We are freed by Christ, not to use that freedom for our own good, comfort, or pleasure, but to lovingly become servants – no, even stronger than that – slaves to one another. Because God loves us, we love our neighbors as ourselves. We may disagree politically about what to do about immigration. But we are disciples of Christ, the One who determinedly set his face toward suffering to meet it with love, compassion, vulnerability, strength, and grace. And we are to follow him and do likewise. We are called to care for children, cold, alone, helpless, and afraid who happen to be growing up in a world that has seemingly failed them. We are freed in Christ to meet the suffering of those forced to leave their treasured homelands due to violence, persecution, and fear. We are called to set our faces determinedly toward love, compassion, and justice for all of God’s beloved children made in the image of God. We can do this through prayer, advocacy, and serving in our own community. With the Holy Spirit at work in us, we are never powerless. Jesus has conquered death and torn the veils that divide us. We are completely free to love and serve, and nothing can take that from us. That isn’t good news only for us, but for the transformation of our neighborhood, country, and our world.
Following Jesus will mess with us. It is costly grace. As Bonhoeffer says, “It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.” We are invited to follow the way of the cross, which asks us to change our thoughts and hearts and challenges us to be open to the Spirit’s leading instead of our own. It is a difficult road, but it is the road Jesus has already walked and it is the road the risen Christ walks with us even now. He will never leave us. And his grace will meet us with love and forgiveness, challenge and transformation again and again. Thanks be to God. Amen.