Third Sunday after Pentecost, Luke 9:51-62
So many stories in the Bible involve the nomadic nature of human life. The people of Israel spend forty years traveling in the wilderness after their liberation from slavery until at last they reach the promised land.
Jesus’ ministry takes him and his disciples from place to place. The book of Acts and the letters of Paul tell of the missionary journeys of the apostles and their establishing churches in various cities throughout the ancient Near Eastern world.
Indeed, the whole story of humanity is one of migration, of our species’ spread to the farthest points on the planet. Some of this migration has been propelled by curiosity – wanderlust. Most of it has been driven by need, as we continue to see today throughout the world with refugees fleeing war and oppression, famine, and now the ravages of a changing climate.
Ultimately, we are all descended from immigrants. Moreover, our life journeys have taken us from place to place for education, jobs, and more. Many of you have served abroad in your careers in the military or state department and other careers.
I, myself, have lived in eight different states during my six decades. And I will soon make a decision that would result in my journey having taken me to nine states.
Amidst all of this is Jesus’ invitation to us, “Follow me.” Responding to Jesus’ invitation can take us to places that we least expect and on journeys characterized by some itineracy. For as Luke records in today’s gospel, Jesus observed, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
Jesus said this in response to someone accompanying Jesus on the road, on a journey, who exclaimed perhaps with some naïve exuberance, Lord “I will follow you wherever you go.”
The other exchanges in today’s gospel reveal how the human condition inevitably interferes with Jesus’ invitation to follow him. In the recounting, Jesus bid others on the road to follow him. One person’s response was this: “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Then another bargained, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.”
Jesus’ response to these folk and their bargaining reveals the uncompromising claims of Jesus’ call to discipleship: “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the dominion of God.” And: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the dominion of God.”
And yet, on our own, we’re stuck in the ambivalence of competing claims and desires, captive to the reality that we are simultaneously saints and sinners with circumstances that are complicated which make it impossible for us by ourselves to will one thing (the very definition of purity of heart according to Soren Kierkegaard). With our wills in bondage, captive to competing claims, we persist in various forms of ambivalence, again, when we’re left to our own devices.
As for me, it’s the competing claims of my commitments to you as pastor of Resurrection Church and then also the claims of the fatherhood of my son, both of which arguably involve my discipleship of Jesus Christ, my responses to Jesus’ invitation to follow him.
And you have your own stories to tell about difficult junctures in your lives where decisions had to be made, decisions that have great effects on the lives, circumstances, and well-being of others. We tremble at the precipice of making such decisions for good reason, stuck as we are amidst the competing claims of our responsibilities.
But here’s the thing: only Christ, not us, can set his face to Jerusalem, the place of cross and empty tomb, of death and resurrection, without looking back.
And because Christ goes to Jerusalem without ambivalence, hesitancy, or a conflicted will (though he had his moments – “Let this cup pass from me, but not my will, but yours be done, O God”) – because Christ’s face was set to Jerusalem in such a way that resulted in his death and new life, we, then, are liberated by grace, mercy, and forgiveness, and freed from our own bondage to our compromised capacities to follow and to serve. This freedom is ultimately available to us only in Christ Jesus.
So it is that Paul can write in Galatians, today’s second reading, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
Which is to say that forgiveness, mercy, grace, and all the blessings that flow from Christ’s death and resurrection are available to us, to you, to me, wherever we happen to be and whether we stay or go in our nomadic journeys of both life and discipleship.
And every Sunday, here, there, or the other place, becomes a new occasion for emancipation, for freedom, for release from our various forms of captivity.
At the font we are given the gift of absolution, of forgiveness, of being set free from our captivity to sin. In this place of the proclamation of the gospel, the word emancipates us, breaking through our conflicted wills, to set our face also to the cross of Christ and the empty tomb, our source of freedom. At the table of the Eucharistic feast we hear again and again Jesus’ own words, “given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sin,” and in eating and drinking receive the reality that the words signify.
I’m drawn in particular to today’s reading from 1 Kings in light of our gospel and second readings which gives us the chance to see the story of Elijah’s call to Elisha through Christian lenses. Elisha was engaged in his work of plowing with a dozen oxen when the call came. Unlike Jesus, it seems Elijah let Elisha return home to say goodbye to his father and mother.
But then in response to Elijah’s call and in quite the dramatic act, Elisha slaughtered the oxen and used the plowing implements, the sources of his livelihood, to start a fire to make a feast for the people so that they could all eat and be fed. Only then did Elisha leave to follow Elijah.
So it is that, following the example of Jesus, who made do with what he had, namely his own body dead, slaughtered, on the tree and alive again out of the tomb, we make do with bread and wine, ordinary gifts of creation, that Christ’s body and blood become for us a feast to feed us for the journey, wherever it happens to take us, that we may also feed a hungry world.
In this place, through these means of grace, is our freedom to do the best we can in our attempts to follow Christ, day by day, one step at a time, trusting in the forgiveness and mercy of God, and using our freedom in Christ to serve our neighbors wherever they are and whoever they may be.
Again, here’s Paul in today’s second reading: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Thus, journeying in the Spirit, by God’s mercy and grace in Christ, our serving each other and our neighbors beyond these walls, has the possibility of reflecting the features of life in the Spirit, namely, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
May it be so among us as we continue this journey in the coming days, trusting that, whatever the outcomes, Christ’s mercy remains with us, follows us wherever we go, here or there. Thus, we make our way, ever falling into the merciful, loving, forgiving arms of God in Christ, the only source of true freedom. God in Christ help us in the power of the Spirit. Amen.