Please pray for me as I venture to speak on behalf of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Today’s OT and gospel lections appear to be similar – but they are actually very different – and here’s why. One difference is that when Elijah’s mantle falls from the whirlwind onto Eli-sha, it confers Elijah’s mysterious and prophetic powers to him. But when Jesus ascends to hea-ven his disciples do not replace him – they continue as his followers and he remains with them as their living Lord. Another difference is that Elijah’s call to Elisha to suceed him as a prophet (I Kings 19:19-20) is not urgent and does not require immediate action. So Elisha says ‘not just now – let me kiss my father and mother goodbye, and then I will follow you’. And that was fine with Elijah – his call could be added to Elisha’s existing responsibilities. But not so with Jesus’ call. As Luke’s three ‘call stories’ illustrate, when he calls would-be disciples they are to give up pre-existing responsi-bilities immediately. They may be given back later, but they will always be less important and subordinate to their primary vocation of following Jesus.
(1) In the first encounter Jesus meets a fellow who has supreme confidence and declares “I will follow you wherever you go”. But Jesus suggests that he has promised more than he can deliver – and then he chastens that man’s enthusiasm, saying that following him will entail vul-nerabilities and deprivations similar to that of animals in the wild. The implied question, I think, is “so are you that much committed to following me?” (2) In the second call Jesus says, “follow me” – and this fellow procrastinates. “I need to bury my father”, he says – whereupon Jesus tells him that the commitment of his disciples can have no boundaries. No reason for delay, however cre-dible and noble, even sacred family obligations, can supercede the urgency of Jesus’ call. “Let the dead bury the dead” is Jesus’ powerful rejoinder. (3) In the last call story another would-be follower repeats Elisha’s procrastination, ‘I will follow you, Lord, but first let me tell my family good-bye’. Then using an agrarian metaphor that farmers would appreciate, Jesus tells him that he’s missed his opportunity. “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” If you have ever plowed with a mule, you know that Jesus’ meta-phor was spot-on and that your row will be crooked if you look back.
I think it would be disingenuous were we now to move quickly to the virtues and practi-ces that are marks of Jesus’ followers – traits like compassion and beneficence and justice and peace – and thereby ignore the solitary message of these three ‘call stories’. I think they plainly tell us that when Jesus calls us to follow him, no other loyalty is permitted to come between him and those who say they will follow him – nada – not anything – not good intentions or family obligations or occupation or possessions or other ostensibly good and noble duties. Following Jesus is serious business – discipleship is non-negotiable – nothing can qualify or modify loyalty to Jesus. So the three lukewarm, half-hearted wannabees in these ‘call stories’ offer us instruc-tive case-studies. Over the years I have met these folks and know them well.
All of us should be saddened that political campaigns nowadays demonstrate how ‘double -speak’ has become an acceptable kind of discourse. Even the FBI’s redacted its initial report of the Orlando massacre. I think the genesis of this phenomenon probably lies in Richard Brimsley Sheridan’s 1775 novel, “The Rivals” which many of us my age read in high school. The principal char-acter is a ‘Mrs. Malaprop’ – a comic quipster who gives birth to grammatical goofs, usually in a humo-rous way, that we call ‘malapropisms’. One of hers was “she’s as head-strong as an alle-gory on the banks of the Nile”. More recently we have heard Yogi Berra’s malapropisms – “it’s like deja vu all over again” and “Texas has a lot of electrical votes”. Or here is a letter from the Department of Social Services in Greenville, S.C., that read: “Your food stamps will be stopped effective March, 1992, because we received notice that you passed away. May God bless you. You may reapply if there is a change in your circumstances.” Or maybe you remember the for-mer mayor of Washington, D.C., saying that “outside of the killings, Washington has one of the lowest crime rates in the country.” My all-time favorite was a review in New Scientist that a new study has provided “a vast suppository of information”.
But that aside, there is no double-speak in two messages that I hope you will hear in to-day’s sermon. Our gospel begins with Jesus’ personal example. Knowing the danger that awaits him in Jerusalem, he nevertheless ‘sets his face’ to go there – so the 1st message is the resolve, the sheer determination and disregard of the cost, that Jesus displays in obedience to his vocation as our savior. And the derivative 2nd message is that our identity and vocation is similarly to set our sights so firmly on Jesus that all else will be forsaken for the sake of his gospel. So these three little ‘call stories’ are strong medicine for the soul. The urgent question they pose to us is “what does it mean – what is at stake – when we answer the call to follow Jesus with the same resolve that he displayed in going to Jerusalem?” And the answer is that, just as nothing could deter Jesus from his mission, nothing should come between him and us, his followers. Nothing that qualifies or modifies loyalty to Jesus is acceptable. You’re either for me or not for me – there is no half-way house, no middle-ground for disciples with divided loyalties. Discipleship is a non-negotiable commitment. No buts – no maybes – no ‘in just a minute’ – no ‘let me get back to you on that’. Of course, none of the fellows in Luke’s account, like their 21st c. counterparts, flat-out tell Jesus that they have something more important to do than following him just now. They do not tell him point-blank. They double-speak – they dissimulate – they feign interest – they offer counterfeit commitment. But their message is clear: if Jesus will just be less demanding and more accommodating, they will follow him when and as it suits their convenience.
A friend recently participated in a church-women’s conference that was a workshop on conflict resolution. The leader explained that the group would be divided into pairs – that one person would present something that upset her – and the other would say ‘that’s your problem – what is your real concern?’ My friend – I’ll call her Frances – was paired with a good friend who immediately offered to state a problem. She said she gets really upset when people say that the church is important to them, but that they can’t help with a ministry or project because they have something else to do. Her examples were of people who say things like “I really think children are a top priority, but I can’t help with Sunday school because my children sleep in after being up late Saturday nights” – or “I think church outings are important fellowship times, but we can’t come because my son has baseball practice then” – or “I notice that some other folks also feel well enough to be out and about during the week, but don’t feel well enough to be in church on Sundays”. Her other examples were similar excuses. After listening, Frances said, “OK – that’s your problem – what is your real concern?” Her friend said, “my real concern is that I wish we could kick all the ‘buts’ out of the church”.
I’m not clairvoyant but in my infrequent prophetic moments I sometimes ask myself, what does it take to awaken us 21st c. followers to the urgency of Jesus’ call – to recognize its challenge to our other commitments? What will it take to shake us out of our lethargy – out of assumptions that we can conveniently fit the rigorous and radical demands of following Jesus’ into a mold of our own devising? If these sound like harsh questions, today’s gospel reminds us that becoming Jesus’ disciple is a most serious choice – and that it severely judges those of us who need to take care of other things instead of joining Jesus on the road to Jerusalem. That’s a good reminder anytime – but maybe especially in the summertime when gardening or golfing or weekends at the beach beckon us to neglect our duties to Christ’s holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. The people in Luke’s account say plainly that they have something more important to do than follow Jesus. We do that, too.
I once heard a Scottish preacher on Edinburgh radio ask a group of children ‘What is the biggest room, children?’ ‘The living room, pastor, one child said. Other children said ‘the bed-room, pastor? the kitchen? the bathroom?’ ‘No, children,’ said the preacher – the biggest room is the room for improvement!”
That’s a childish story and a bit banal, but there is truth in it! None of us ever perfectly and unconditionally say ‘yes’ to Jesus and all of us have plenty of room for improvement. We know that but we don’t despair of our shortcomings. We continue to attend mass, confess our sins, accept absolution, and receive Holy Communion -and those are good, however imperfect, attempts to signify our discipleship. So we can be glad that so many in this congregation take seriously their commitment to Christ and his church -and we can take modest satisfaction in our witness to Jesus through the several ministries we undertake here and in the larger world that could be neither initiated nor sustained apart from loyalty to Jesus. All the same, and for all the obvious reasons that we know full well, summertime offers special challenges to a congregation like ours. With God’s help, we can meet those challenges as we pray in the post-communion prayer to do ‘all such good works as God has prepared for us to walk in’. We know that being faithful disciples and doing that good work is our vocation. Keeping our baptismal vows, avoid-ing hollow excuses, and denying first-place to other commitments before following Jesus are all at the heart of the matter. So today’s gospel is a serious reminder to us that who we are and what we do here is grounded, first and foremost, in being Jesus’ faithful followers. That’s how we honor and glorify God. That’s how we follow Jesus, even sometimes at a distance, on his jour-ney to Jerusalem.
So I have meant to challenge you not to fritter away Jesus’ call, as did those foolish, exemption-claiming fel-lows in Luke’s stories. Reading today’s gospel with utter seriousness, I invite you to keep a sharp ear and listen carefully for Jesus’ call – and when you hear it, gladly embrace it with all your heart and mind and soul as your identity and vocation in this time and place. That will have the double benefit of plowing straight ahead with eyes on the prize and enhancing our fitness for the kingdom of God.
Grant us the will, dear God, to be wholly devoted to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Rev. Harmon Smith, Ph. D.
Emeritus Professor of Ethics, Duke University
Harmon Smith is an Episcopal Priest, Emeritus Professor of Ethics, and an avid golfer.