Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Jesus and Company

Sermon delivered at Church of Our Saviour,

Mill Valley, California
on the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

July 1st, 2007

audio available

Readings for Proper 8

With so much action this morning focused on Elijah and Elisha as they approach the Jordan, the eastern boundary of Israel, I’m fascinated by this curious verse from our reading from Second Kings: “Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan.”

Just who were these guys? These fifty nameless prophets lost to history except to the possible collective name of “Elijah and Company?” I wonder, too, what they might have said to one another as a series of extraordinary sights met their eyes: the parting of the waters, the whirlwind, and the chariot of fire. This text, so emblazoned into our psyches that it affects our language – from the words to Swing Low, Sweet Chariot to the almost cliché expression of “taking up the mantle”. . . this text about Elijah and Elisha is filled with the encounters of a wandering life without family, where the other followers become our family, even without a home, at the edges of the tradition and culture.

In its own way, the Jordan River serves the story as the boundary between heaven and earth.

These fifty are like the rest of us, men and women, children and elders, followers of famous figures, part of the crowd pursuing truth and witnessing to what we have seen on the edge. Sometimes we are wayward. Sometimes we are uncertain. Sometimes we are confused by what our leaders are telling us. But we are here, with Elijah and Elisha, at the Jordan River, seeking something great and awesome, watching the passing of the mantle to a new generation of prophecy.

In the gospel we encounter a Jesus this week that few of us want: a Jesus who has, in the words of Luke, “set his face” towards Jerusalem for a final showdown with the religious and political authorities. He is going to confront the powers that be for the ways they have brought misery to the masses, the way they have arrogantly claimed God for themselves but no one else, the way they have maligned the ancient traditions and substituted coldness for compassion, cowardice for courage, and self-righteousness for humility.

It takes no amount of genius to realize how such a confrontation will likely end. The Romans aren’t fools, after all. They’ve shown the world in general, and Israel in particular how rebels and criminals are dealt with. And anything that even remotely threatens the peace or the free flow of tribute to support the sprawling Empire is harshly swept away.

Nor are Jesus' followers and fans fools either, although, like us, they can be foolish in many ways. The Samaritans, outcasts from the greater culture of Israel, take on a special place in Jesus’ ministry. We know the beloved parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke’s gospel. We remember the Samaritan woman at the well who has a profound theological discussion with Christ in the Gospel According to John.

While the Samaritans are friendly to him in most cases, today we hear that they refuse him hospitality. Opposed to the primacy of Jerusalem as the heart of the Temple cult and the seat of Jewish religious authority, the Samaritans are offended by Jesus’ single-minded determination to go there.

His closest disciples reveal their own stress over the direction the movement is taking, wanting to summon wrath on the Samaritans for not allowing Jesus and his followers a respite.

Strain is starting to show in all kinds of ways. We no longer have a kind, soft-spoken Jesus (now did we ever, really?) but one who confronts those who wish to follow him with an edgy, cutting set of pithy teachings. God and the Gospel must come first. First before family. First before kin and country. First before the home.

In the Eastern Christian tradition, as my spiritual director is fond of noting, "water runs thicker than blood." Do you remember your baptism? Many of us don’t. Have you yet fathomed its consequences? We pledged to put God in Christ first. Or, for many of us, our parents and godparents dared to pledge it on our behalf.

This is a bold claim Jesus places on his followers, on all of us. Like Elijah and the company of prophets, Jesus and his companions across the ages are not beholden to deep roots. Baptism leaves us all rootless and even, in a profound sense – especially for those of us. . . all of us. . .who are wealthy in the grand scheme of things – in a profound sense, we are all left homeless.

“The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

And we must be prepared, when necessary, to “let the dead bury their own dead.” We are not subject to the past any longer, but to the future with God.

Nor do we spend all our time and energy on saying goodbye, looking back to what we might or could have been.

We put God first, in front, ahead, before all else. And in doing so, any family that might travel with us will see us slowly but surely transformed. Any friends we make or have begin to recognize that we belong to no one, but ever to Someone else.

The Good News today we hear most from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. He reminds an early Christian community and us twenty centuries later that we have been blessed through our discipleship by the Spirit, and we will know its work in our midst by its good fruits. No longer with our identity ultimately found in bloodlines or lineages, we are part of the family of the Spirit now, prepared to seek and nurture all those good things that flow from the heart of God in Christ: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

The waters of baptism do indeed run thicker than blood for us as Christians, and the best works we have known here at Church of Our Saviour and in the greater church and amongst our sisters and brothers around the world witness to that fact.

But where Jesus calls, we must follow. Sometimes through suffering. Sometimes through joy. Often through both at once, and always through grace. That is our lot in life as Christians in community, seekers on a journey, the frequently unnamed but ever present body of disciples and Teacher, Lord, and Savior – perhaps best known collectively as “Jesus and Company,” that community with few roots as the world would recognize them. . .

That community that breaks bread and shares the cup.

That community that revels in water, in song, and claims no ultimate home here.

But only an ultimate home elsewhere. . . in what is not yet fully realized. . .

Home in the heart of God.


benhelmer said...

A good sermon, which I wish I had read before I preached mine last Sunday, which was a wash out - I could tell by their eyes. I'm not plugged in to Filipino culture enough yet, but I'm talking and listening to them.


R said...

Thanks, Dad, for the comment!

For friends and fellow bloggers, my Dad's just started serving as vicar of the Episcopal Churches on Guam. You can read more about it here. . .

We love you, Dad! Hang in there. . . You know better than I that the talking and listening will win hearts!

Paul said...

Great sermon, Richard. Would that we all had a glimpse of what our friends were planning to say before we wrote our sermons instead of afterward.

If Ben glances back here, I read of your new challenge and wish you every grace in this new ministry.

Nice to see the father-son interchange here as you both serve God's people and God's world in your own niches.
Paul Strid

June Butler said...

Richard, thanks for speaking of the many cultural references in the Elijah-Elisha story which still resonate today. I noticed them, too, on Sunday.

I want "Swing Low..." at my funeral/memorial service. Don't worry, I'm not dying yet. At least, I don't think so. Of course, we don't know the day or the time.

KJ said...

Amen (Regarding the sermon -- not Grandmère's passing).