Monday, July 1, 2013

Watch Where You're Going!

Scripture for the 6th Sunday of Pentecost includes II Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20; Galatians 5:1. 13-25; Luke 9:51-62

Running through these readings today is a simple theme of paying attention. For that reason, there will be a quiz at the end of this sermon. Just kidding.

Oh, there will be a quiz, administered by life— because this theme of paying attention is central to everything: to our Christian formation as we learn to recognize God at work in the world in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit… central to our health as we learn how to read our physical, emotional, spiritual, social needs… central to the success of all our ventures, our marriages, our parenting, our careers, our communities, our churches, our cooperation nationally and globally.

This theme of attention is implied in the collect we prayed together. To join us together in unity as a holy temple, it will be required of us that we be set square and true on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ the chief cornerstone. The work of the Holy Spirit is to position each of us to be load-bearing, simultaneously supported mutually by the true leveling of all the living load-bearing stones around us. The metaphors abound, in some ways helpful, in others maybe not so much?

Two voices from the Hebrew Bible express this theme of paying attention. Young Elisha knows that if he is to inherit the prophet’s mantle from the ageing Elijah, he must not take his eyes off his master: he must actually see Elijah pass from earth to heaven.

This makes me think of the crowds keeping vigil outside that hospital in Pretoria where Nelson Mandela, founding father of South Africa’s multiracial democracy, lies in his final days. The essence of a vigil is to be part of the great transition underway, to be as close to it as opportunity allows, aware in some transcendent way that participation confers power.

And the psalmist sings the very reason why we spend such time and effort being attentive to holy scripture. “I will remember the works of the LORD, and call to mind your wonders of old time. I will meditate on all your acts and ponder your mighty deeds.” Why? So that this living memory of salvation in our past (the psalmist refers to the Exodus, when God led the people of Israel “like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron,”) may encourage us to expect and recognize God achieving freedom for his people in our own day. It is essential to the people of South Africa (and to the world) that they sing psalms of praise that will remind future generations to remember their own Moses, Nelson Mandela, and how he helped God deliver his people from bondage.

Two voices from the Christian testament make the case for paying attention. St. Paul exults over the freedom into which Jesus Christ has brought believers. Stand firm in that freedom, Paul urges us. We’ll do that firm standing by fixing our attention on the single commandment that sums up the whole law: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This primary focus will keep us free to live by the Spirit, single-minded, single-hearted. To be guided by the Spirit of God is to freely attend to our opportunities to do good and be faithful (he lists many attractive examples), by contrast to being fixated on the flesh, which has a powerful tendency to capture our attention and not let go (he lists several unappealing examples of that).

Our second New Testament voice belongs to Jesus. He has set out on his final journey, heading to Jerusalem where the pivotal battle will occur between him and the forces of church and state that would destroy him—the ultimate battle between, in Paul’s terms, the way of the flesh and the way of the Spirit. He has set his face to go to Jerusalem.

On the way, he and his disciples enter a village in Samaria. You’ll recall the story in John’s Gospel, when Jesus approaches a Samaritan woman and asks her to give him a drink. She is astonished, since she realizes he’s Jewish, and, John tells us, “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” This is one more example of the human capacity for cousins to hate cousins and neighbors to despise neighbors. Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims, Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda… the list does not get shorter with the passing of time, does it?

The disciples pay attention to all the wrong things. When the Samaritans fail to offer basic hospitality, the disciples take offense and pathetically offer to command lightning to strike the village. Such petulant men, these disciples. Jesus tells them so.

Then come along three disciple wannabes, eager to sign up but not impressing Jesus as having much staying power. What are they paying attention to? In the first case, it’s where this fellow will sleep that night. In the other two, it’s family responsibilities, and it’s hard to fault them for that, isn’t it? But the net result is that all three of these people fail to recognize the opportunity given them in that moment of now. Their minds and hearts are preoccupied. These men are not free.

Jesus sums up these slim pickins with a wonderful figure of speech that seems timeless and universal. Last Sunday’s Gospel ended with some seriously disadvantaged pig farmers. Just verses later, Jesus turns to farm life for this sharp little proverb: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

It takes just a little imagination to figure out what he means. Take your eyes off your target, and you’ll miss the mark. Look back over your shoulder to see how you’re doing, and instantly you’ll veer off course. Watch where you’re going, or you’ll go where you’re watching.

It’s tempting to look and see if the guidance you need, the encouragement you lack, the satisfaction you long for, can be felt by checking out where you’ve already been, what you’ve already done. But in cultivating the Kingdom of God, there is no sitting on one’s laurels, and no room for being preoccupied with the past. What a lesson there is here for the Church! Aren’t we trained to look back, to be consistent with tradition, true to the past? Yes, but… it’s all to train us to recognize God’s presence now, to respond to God’s new work of creation in Jesus Christ in the present. To be vigilant, to participate, to be load-bearers and so to be free.

Catch all these images of attention. Elisha refusing to blink lest he miss the moment. The psalmist remembering to keep looking for the works of the LORD. St. Paul standing firm, guided by the Spirit. Jesus setting his face to Jerusalem, no turning back, no turning back.

“Keep your eye on the prize”, the phrase (it’s a song title, based on a spiritual) that captured the spirit of the civil rights movement, catches the theme of these readings.

In our national life, there has been gratifying cause, this past week, to rejoice at how freedom can be furthered when we do keep our eyes on the prize. And there has been sobering cause, this week, to recognize how vulnerable progress can be—and how so much depends on what people are paying attention to.

The prize may be that perfect unity that we mean by heaven. The prize may be a specific practical achievement of social justice on earth. We need clear vision of it to train our attention on the love that helps get us there, the grace that is given us, and the vigilant commitments required of us.