Tuesday, June 29, 2010

No Turning Back

Scripture for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost includes Galatians 5:1, 13-25, and Luke 9:51-62

To read a Gospel is like paging through a family scrapbook. Today, we point to a snapshot of Jesus and his disciples as they head to Jerusalem for his final days, the stormy days of his arrest and crucifixion. Along the way, they entered a Samaritan village. Though they were ethnic cousins, Jews and Samaritans did not get along.

Let me tweak something I just said. To read a Gospel, we should imagine the earliest apostles and the children of those apostles poring over the family scrapbook, and listen-in on what they might have said.

“Do you remember that day? It was your father Andrew and his brother Peter who ran on ahead to arrange rooms at the inn, but the Samaritans slammed the door in their faces. ‘You’re going to Jerusalem, that whore of a city? Then you’re the wrong kind—be off with you!’ Isn’t that what they said?”

“Oh, and what an explosion came next! James and John, those sons of thunder, witnessed it all and threatened to command lightning to strike ‘em all dead, those hard-hearted Samaritans…”

“Yes, and the air was blue when the Master let ‘em have it, the two boneheads! No wonder his words aren’t kept, this time—he was really disappointed in those two loudmouths. It wasn’t a pretty scene. Old Simon here says he was there, and the Master was just as sharp with them as he was with those money-changers in the Temple, whittled them down right to their knees, took them down a peg or two.”

Palestine was an occupied territory of the Roman Empire, something of a military state with soldiers common on the streets. So perhaps it’s idealistic to picture the disciples as pacifists. Just don’t ask me to give up my understanding of Jesus as peacemaker, and in keeping with that I see him patiently—sometimes impatiently—coaching his companions in non-violence. He can’t let James and John have their thunderstorm without it soaking the whole of his public ministry.

He knows there are storm clouds ahead, gathering over violent Jerusalem. The sky will turn black on Good Friday before the sun’s rising on the third day reveals his empty tomb. And this is as it must be, that he will take upon himself the animosity and violence that even his disciples would visit upon others, showing themselves still slaves to the old evils.

St. Paul tells us today, “For freedom Christ has set us free.” Powerful words—seditious words-- in a land under military occupation. Powerful words in a religious culture yoked to laws that tell people what they must not do, laws that prohibit but do not empower, laws that evoke fear rather than inspire love.

“Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Commentators say that in this first verse of the fifth chapter of the Letter to the Galatians, Paul presents the core of his Gospel. And it is a revolutionary modern message: that people may choose, in the face of oppression, to exercise their conscience and resist evil, to insist on a way of life that bears the fruit of the Spirit of God: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. “There is no law against such things,” he says (and I wonder if his apostolic tongue wasn’t in his cheek). These are the powers within the reach of everyone.

Or maybe not everyone. The Gospel scrapbook today has three more snapshots. In each, Jesus is in conversation with a different person. First is the fellow who approached him on the road, gushing, “I will follow you wherever you go.” The Master picks up the truth, that here’s someone running away from home, someone who needs kinds of security that aren’t part of the missionary call. Jesus doesn’t say no, but makes it clear that the benefits package may disappoint him. There will be lots of people like this first fellow, ready to greet Jesus at the gates of Jerusalem, hoping for some excitement, ready to shout Hosanna-- but that’s it.

Second is someone Jesus approaches, saying, “Follow me.” This person replies, “I like the idea of following you, but it’s going to have to wait.” Why? Because he must first bury his father. Has his father died? Or is this man saying, “Maybe in a year or two --you know, my parents are elderly and I’m obligated to take care of them until they die.”

Jesus won’t wait. We know why, with his warm front about to collide with that cold front in Jerusalem, Jesus sees how few are the days left in his public ministry. His words sound harsh, but the context of his own impending death gives our Lord a unique voice when he says, “Let the dead bury their own dead; your call is to go and proclaim the reign of God. That kingdom is about to break in upon all the ordinary processes of living and dying, when my death opens the gates of eternal life to all who will choose to live fully now by the Spirit that I give them.” But this second person seems fixed on what might be called obligations of biology, and isn’t receiving on the level of spirit.

Third, not unlike the second, promises (like the first) that he will follow, but right now has a to-do list at home. Does he mean only say farewell to his family, or does he also mean paint the front porch and while he’s at it fix the gutters?

“If you’re plowing a furrow and you look back, it will go crooked,” suggests Jesus.

Not a one of these three would-be followers shows even enough promise to follow, let alone lead. But step across from chapter nine in Luke to chapter ten, as we’ll do next Sunday, and we’ll see that Jesus has recruited seventy-two disciples beyond the twelve, and will send them out ahead of him to the towns he will visit en route to Jerusalem.

So why these three stories of apparent failure? If they are stories of failure, perhaps they illustrate the conventional wisdom that, while everyone may choose, in the face of life’s oppressiveness, to exercise conscience and resist evil, to insist on a way of life that bears the fruit of the Spirit of God-- nonetheless, a person must choose. No one can do it for me. Nor can I inherit it. I must choose.

Now, what if these are not three vignettes of failure, but snapshots of the moments when each person resisted grace because it felt scary? Can you relate to that? Who among us has not resisted grace, pushed away an invitation to change?

We aren’t told what became of these three. We assume that each headed home. Along the way, were there changes of heart? Did these three come to terms with their call, catch up with Jesus, and join the seventy-two? Were their resistance snapshots kept to humanize the story of the Jesus movement? Did apostles find their own experience in the shrinking-back of these three? Did some say, “I had moments like that…”? Did some say, “That was me…”?

Or did these three come to terms with their call precisely by returning to their homes, one to face whatever he might have been running away from, one to be a caregiver to his father, and one to paint that front porch? Our lesson from Galatians today does say, “through love become slaves to one another.” Doesn’t such love start at home?

But it wouldn’t be enough that such love remain at home. The Jesus movement is not primarily about increasing satisfaction at home, not about improving quality of life for me and mine. It is, as Paul observes, about implementing the great love, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

And on that day when the twelve entered a village of the Samaritans, their Master intended to teach them how all-embracing a word “neighbor” must be. All told, it turned into a rather scary lesson. Our three would-be recruits pick up on exactly that fear that will always be evoked by the Christ who calls us to exceed biology and culture and religion by recognizing and choosing the way of the Spirit, whose fruits alone satisfy, and whose truth alone sets free.