So far in this series we have watched the author Luke follow Mark’s account of the life of Jesus into the uncertainty of new places, new beginnings and ultimately death. With today’s readings we are brought face-to-face with Luke’s single-minded understanding of this ministry of Jesus and what it means to be his disciple. The journey is rough and uncertain. Part of the text depends on a version that Matthew used but most of the words here are the Luke’s own or from Luke’s sources.
Let me draw your attention to Luke’s preoccupation with Jesus’ ministry in Samaria. We know from comments in the Gospels that Jews and Samaritans were implacable enemies; they avoided each other’s territory and treated each other as outside God’s concern. In other words, today’s text introduces us to the disciples’ shaky standing and uncertainty with strangers, and to their bigotry and self-centredness.
We meet these disciples at their lowest level of understanding the values Jesus lived by. They were locked into the past; they were motivated by prejudice; they could not see beyond family and friendship loyalties. Jesus’ challenge was to explore beyond the narrow horizons that all too often control church life and witness.
In the mid 1990s I heard Edwina Gately, an English Catholic laywoman, speak about her work on the Chicago streets with the homeless and women in prostitution. That week as part of the same conference we heard and met with some young men in the Black Muslim, Nation of Islam movement. In both cases we stood on the streets, went into the bars and saw first-hand contemporary Christian and Islamic evangelism. With members of the youth movement of the Yonge Street chapel in Toronto, I again experienced a parallel ministry that could cross boundaries. Away from the conference I stayed with the pastor of a small Congregational Church, no larger in numbers that St George’s. He introduced us to the workers who were reclaiming derelict houses and resettling people in the high-rise run-down district of Far Rockaway. Each of these people showed us that evangelism is possible for people being comfortable with uncertainty and willing to cross boundaries.
Luke introduces us to Jesus’ ministry in such a context: he says quite directly ‘they entered the village of the Samaritans to make ready for him’. Jesus centred himself there, despite the fact that he was a Jew and despite the obvious rejection that would follow from this. He saw his ministry as reaching beyond the confines of family and past acquaintance. The point being made by Luke to his audience is that when disciples of Jesus, find themselves in awkward, uncertain places they can discover there new ways to identify with community. Out of their own uncertainty they can begin to understand the motives and values of the people among whom they choose to live. This demands a radical review of the values and relationships that up to this point had dominated their lives.
If you think I’m reading too much into these few verses read further in the text. From verse 57 on Jesus outlines the basis of what we can only call radical discipleship. On first reading this may seem disheartening. How might a congregation such as ours face similar consequences in our own environment? Without turning Jesus’ words into precise rules of life, maybe together we can ask radical questions about the way we use property, or respond to the inclusion of people who might otherwise never enter the doors of the church. Most importantly, if we set Jesus’ ministry example at our centre, how might we maintain these contacts without clouding our relationships with a churchgoing agenda.
James and John who feature in today’s reading are examples of how not to undertake outreach: they have only a message of judgment against the world around them. This is a place where we need to look closely at our liturgies: they offer us a negative dialect too often used in Christian conversation. It is easy to fall into the language of sin and judgment: it is so much harder to speak with reverence and affection to those who do not follow our path or share our values and ideals. This demands of us a radical rethinking of our religious language and a willingness to be less certain, less sure of ourselves.
All too often we invoke the God of power to judge our opponents. James and John testify to this same attitude in today’s text. I have no doubt that as Luke records this he has in mind stories of the prophet Elijah as recorded in the Second Book of Kings. There, in chapter 10, Elijah is said to have called down fire from heaven to consume God’s enemies. Luke draws on that story both to identify Jesus with Elijah and to demonstrate that a greater than Elijah was there. Luke’s point is to contrast everything that the Gospel stands for with our long history of discrimination and racial prejudice. Discipleship means that we begin to ask radical questions about our lives and our relationships and to ask these questions out of uncertainty and vulnerability.
At first reading these verses in our text look like a series of slogans: ‘Let the dead bury their dead … No one who puts their hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God. It is the context that gives them meaning. Let’s stay with this a moment longer.
One of my strongest memories of childhood is the slogan: ‘A good soldier never looks behind’. It focused when, as a three-year old, I rode my dinky around the Muswellbrook pub where we lived and my parents worked: ‘You don’t look to the left or to the right; keep your eyes straight ahead’. I know now that they said this with the best of intentions: the guests at the hotel did not want to be disturbed by a child’s interference. The slogan was meant for the moment but it was an impossible rule for life. Can you never be curious about people and events? No, ‘never look behind; look straight ahead’.
As each of us passed into adolescence that sort of slogan kept repeating itself – somewhere over the rainbow, waiting for the right time, hoping for the next opportunity, and then as Christians ‘looking for the coming’. I recall it being specifically shaped for me once I began training for ministry: ‘no one having put their hand to the plough and looking back is fit for the kingdom of heaven’. There is no room for doubt, no space to change your mind – there is only a resolute one way, a one-view direction.
So, does the gospel resolve itself into a series of similar slogans? These are words for the moment not words to be applied literally: you will bury the dead and you will change your mind and choose another course. If I offer you an up-to-date illustration you may more quickly see my point: you don’t reach the end of your journey by looking through the car rear-vision mirror. There are significant moments in your life when you face a forward moving uncertainty.
Turn this into a slogan and you lock yourself into an adolescent religion. Many of you have had to close the door on the past. Most of you have faced the trauma of loss. At those times you knew you could not look backwards. You had to leave the past and move on to discover what the present might offer you. You did not need friends or preachers to tell you either to savour the past or long for the future. That moment of decision was fundamental for your life. You may have been alone, bereft of friendship and hope. But you knew the power of the moment you had chosen.
This how Edwina Gately explains what I am speaking about:
For it is time. It is time for all of us who follow Christ to recognize him and to proclaim him. It is time to be prophetic about the Christ we know is present in the folks who are pushed aside, dismissed, left out, undermined, underfed, unhoused, or simply unseen and unheard. It is time for the people of God to stop marching along with the status quo in search of security, power, and control, but to stumble instead towards the margins where we will encounter a magic and a mystery that will plunge us trembling but rejoicing into the Realm of God (Edwina Gately and Robert Lenz, Christ in the Margins, Orbis Book: New York, 2003).
Quite a while back I was asked to write part of the history of this parish beginning with the Ministry of Bruce and Zandra Wilson and ending with Clive and Glenda Watkins. To do this I scoured the parish archives. The parish has seen great times over those years with an active Sunday school, a committed youth group, an alternative presentation of Christian values through Eremos, a counselling program and a strong interfaith and ecumenical involvement. What are the challenges of this moment for your discipleship? What are the ‘margins’ this parish needs to cross?
It is not the place of an Acting Rector in an occasional sermon to attempt a working answer to this, but it is the place of any sermon on this reading from Luke to raise these questions for your serious consideration. How would you apply to your parish agenda Jesus’ words: ‘let the dead bury their own dead; and as for you go and proclaim the kingdom of God… No one who puts their hand to the plough and looking back is fit for the kingdom of God”?
I suspect that you would go on valuing St George’s as a place where you have found friendship and sanctuary. You would seek to build on that for another generation. I suspect that you would value your liturgical tradition but ask fresh questions about the way liturgy intersects with the world you live in. I suspect that you would treasure your property inheritance and then begin to ask fresh questions about how you use it. Then maybe you would be in a position to add to Edwina Gately’s words this insight of Eckhart Tolle:
When you become comfortable with uncertainty, infinite possibilities open up in your life. It means fear is no longer a dominant factor in what you do and no longer prevents you from taking action to initiate change. The Roman philosopher Tacitus rightly observed that “the desire for safety stands against every great and noble enterprise.” If uncertainty is unacceptable to you, it turns into fear. If it is perfectly acceptable, it turns into increased aliveness, alertness, and creativity (Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth: Awakening to Life’s Purpose, p.164.)
Luke directly asks about our willingness to create an agenda for community outreach that acknowledges our uncertainty and never settles for the status quo. Hear these contemporary challenging words about mission as we too serve in our own multicultural, inter-faith and secular Samaria, with broken words in the name of a broken God:
If God prefers the poor, is the destitution, the pain and suffering of those millions whose plight draws our compassion due only to the human fault – sin? Or is much of it the outcome of historical and natural conflicts and forces beyond the capacity of any individual human, or any government, or any nongovernmental organization, to alleviate, not to mention eliminate? If God prefers the poor, is God impotent to fulfill that preference? Or is it up to Christians, and non-Christians who often better marshal their powers, to actualize God’s preference for the poor? … It is clearly the Christian mission to prefer the poor and oppressed. But if that is a purpose of the Almighty, the Almighty is not Almighty (James M. Gustafson, An Examined Faith: The Grace of Self-Doubt, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004, p. 105).
The writer of those words meant them as a critique of the theology of modern mission methods. I take them as a positive challenge to live vulnerably in the presence of the vulnerable God (J. Jayakiran Sebastian ‘Interrogating Missio Dei: From the Mission of God towards appreciating our Mission to God in India Today’).
A Meditation Homily based on the Gospel reading for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Luke’s Gospel chapter 9 verses 51-62.
28 June 2013