Enigmatic Jesus, Sermon Proper 8 (C) – 2016


[RCL] 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20; Galatians 5:1,13-25; Luke 9:51-62

That Jesus: he can be quite enigmatic.

His disciples ask if they should command fire to come down from heaven and consume unbelievers, and he sternly tells them, “No.”

A village does not welcome him, and he simply moves on to another village.

A convert says she will follow him, “wherever you may go,” and he replies, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests.”

He invites a stranger to follow him, and that one replies, “First let me go and bury my father”—and then he says, “Let the dead bury their own dead.”

And another asks simply to say farewell to his loved ones. To this one, Jesus says, “No one who puts a hand to plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of heaven.”

So, in sum: he refutes retaliation or violence as a response to inhospitality, and he avoids conflict by simply moving on from an uncomfortable situation.

But then he seems to say something like, “If you wish to follow me, you must drop everything and everyone in your life. Just give up everything and follow me.”

And just where is he leading? To Jerusalem, as it says in this passage “to be taken up.” To his betrayal, crucifixion, and death.

Can he really mean this? Can our Lord and Savior be ordering us to put down our livelihoods, to put aside our relationships, and to abandon our property in order to enter into pain, suffering, and the very jaws of death?

Well, it sort of depends on whether you see Jesus as someone to worship or someone to follow. Now, both of these have merit, both have their supporters, both are completely orthodox. But, for today, let’s consider the possibility that Jesus is asking us to follow. For, were we to worship him, we might expect him to save us from trials, to rescue us from danger, to keep us from harm.

That’s what an omnipotent God should do, right? That’s how the Almighty really ought to treat those he loves. And that’s exactly the problem. For this is to make Jesus into a mere religion, instead of a journey toward union with God.

The theologian Richard Rohr has provided this insight, and we can benefit from following his logic for just a while longer. Rohr tells us that this shift—from following Jesus to worshipping him—made us into a religion of “belonging and believing” instead of a religion of transformation. And that’s where the significant difference lies. A religion of belonging and believing is concerned about who’s in and who’s out, about what specific doctrine people subscribe to, and about how they support the institution called the church. A religion of transformation, on the other hand, focuses on change. Changing ourselves into more and more of whom God is calling each of us to be, and changing the world around us into a more hospitable place for all of God’s creatures.

What Richard Rohr is suggesting is much harder work. What Jesus calls us to do is much harder work. We can be like Elisha and ask for a double share of Elijah’s spirit. We can wait around for the whirlwind to pull us into heaven. And we can hope for divine power to part the waters before us. Or we can settle down and do the work given to us: to share love, to spread joy, to wage peace, to foster patience, to nurture kindness, to exhibit generosity, to seek faithfulness, to cultivate gentleness, and to strive for better self-control.

This is what it is to follow Jesus, rather than just worship him. To accept our baptismal calling to become dead to sin and alive unto righteousness. To seek, by word and example, to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly—following our God on the same path. This path that may lead us directly into whirlwinds or even through the valley of the shadow of death. But also the path that will lead us from sin and death to the kingdom of heaven and everlasting life. The path can and will leave a world behind us a little better, a little kinder, and little safer. The path can and will leave us stronger, more spiritually fit, and better able to cope with whatever lies ahead.

As St. Paul puts it, we are “called to freedom” and this freedom comes by leaving things behind.

Maybe not every possession, maybe not every relationship, maybe not every thing and everyone—but certainly we are called to leave behind what Paul calls “the works of the flesh.”

To leave behind strife.
To leave behind anger and quarrels.
To leave behind dissensions and factions.

And to follow Jesus on the journey toward unity: union with others, union with the world, union with the universe, and union with God.

Jesus’ promise to all of us—that we will be inheritors of the kingdom of heaven: this does not promise us avoiding all difficulties in this life. The spiritual life is not one without pain, without suffering, without challenge. But if we truly follow Jesus, we have an amazing trailblazer ahead of us.

One who never repaid anyone evil for evil.
One who sought only love—with others, and with God.
One who set his face on Jerusalem, knowing that what lay ahead was torture and death.

And who one who renounced the devil and all his works, renounced the vain pomp and glory of this world, and turned away from all covetous desires of the same—and then on the third day conquered death. So that we might be endued with heavenly virtues, everlastingly rewarded, and become the people of the way.

The way from sin and damnation.
The way through pain and suffering.
The way to unspeakable, unimaginable, ineffable joys prepared for us all.

This is what comes of following Jesus. Not a mere religion of belonging and believing, of who’s in and who’s out, of what’s correct and what is not. But a lifelong journey, following Jesus along his same path. A lifelong journey of transformation of ourselves and of the world around us. A lifelong journey toward greater union with God. Amen.

Download the sermon for Proper 8C.

Written By The Rev. Dr. J. Barrington Bates

Written by the Rev. Dr. J. Barrington Bates. Father Barrie has served Episcopal and Lutheran congregations in California, New York, and New Jersey over the past twenty years—most recently as Interim Rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Essex Fells, New Jersey. In his free time, he enjoys boating, opera, and fine dining. On an especially good day off, he finds time to pickle dilly beans. He has led Celtic pilgrimages, served on many a diocesan committee, and participated in the work of the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation. He welcomes comments, questions, even corrections to his message (revdocbates@gmail.com).

Getting past the distractions, 6 Pentecost, Proper 8 (C) – 2013

June 30, 2013

2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62

Elijah and Elisha. What an epic story. It’s pure Hollywood! Mix together “Lord of the Rings,” Harry Potter and Indiana Jones, and this would give just some of the ingredients.

There are wicked kings and queens (they featured a couple of weeks ago), wild-bearded ascetic revolutionaries (that’s Elijah), wide-eyed acolyte disciples eager to drink from the deep well of the master’s wisdom (that’s Elisha), sacred, powerful garments (that’s Elijah cloak), incredible scenery (mountains, deserts, huge rushing rivers).

And we have not even considered the special effects. And what special effects they are. George Lucas would be so proud. Whirlwinds, rivers magically parted, firestorms beyond our pyrotechnical dreams, deep, booming, cavernous, thunderous, deafening roars.  Sparks, spectacle, energy.

Fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry – oh, wait – those aren’t from Elijah’s story, they’re from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians.

And what a letter it is! Here’s that list again: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing and things like these.

Whatever those Galatians were up to, it certainly wasn’t stamp collecting. And what themes Paul raises: the dangers of replacing slavery of one kind with slavery of another – slavery to self-gratification and self-indulgence.

Let’s look at this in detail.

What a vivid description of Elijah: the whirlwinds, the fire. Rather like the disciples in that Samaritan village. They must have been thinking about Elijah as well. They ask Jesus if he wants them to summon down fire on the Samaritan village because the townsfolk didn’t receive him. What an extraordinary episode. What on earth were those disciples thinking, wishing a fiery immolation on that village?

“Foxes have their holes, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

“Let the dead bury their own dead.”

“No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.”

But weren’t we talking about the Galatians? We seem to have been distracted by Elijah, or was it the Samaritan village?

And that is precisely the point. There are so many wonderful, exciting, vibrant, insightful, diverting, important things that could be said about all of our readings today. We could so easily flutter from one to the other, alighting on some little vignette that takes our fancy, and then another. And what we’d end up with would be a glorious Technicolor mess.

In this day and age, distractions abound like mushrooms in a damp, dark basement. Far from avoiding them, we appear to seek them out. The term “multitasking” doesn’t seem to have negative connotations: In fact, we tend to view the ability to do more than one thing at a time as a virtue. Texting during a meeting? Sure, why not? Checking Facebook at a dinner party? Why, yes! Doesn’t everyone? It persuades the people around us that we have full, busy, important lives. Most probably we persuade ourselves, too. We flit from one shiny thing to another, wowed by things that are sleeker, faster, bigger, higher.

And that, also, is precisely the point. There are so many distractions, diversions. But each of these conspire to take our minds off the ball. Faced with a bewildering array of choices, we can easily become unfocused, lose our single-mindedness.

All of the characters that we meet in today’s readings – apart from Jesus – are distracted by something. The disciples of Jesus are distracted by their mistrust of the Samaritans. The people that Jesus and the disciples meet on the way are distracted by their material possessions, duties and social conventions. The Galatians are distracted by all manner of ephemeral, selfish gratifications or petty jealousies. Elisha is distracted by the thought that he might not inherit Elijah’s special powers.

Even Elijah had been distracted. Much earlier in his story, he had challenged the pagan prophets of Baal to a competition atop Mount Carmel to see which of their respective deities was the more powerful. In a story as equally full of impressive special effects as today’s, in which the pagan gods were crushed, the triumphant Elijah orders the massacre of all 450 of the prophets of Baal.

After all of this spilt blood, Elijah falls into a depression and hides in a cave. No doubt there were functional reasons for his dejection and his hiding, since there was probably a price on his head. But there was more to it than that.

“Enough, O Lord,” Elijah says. “Take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Remarkably, this is nothing less than Elijah’s conversion. He had set his God, Yahweh, in competition with the gods of Baal, but all Elijah had achieved by this was to put himself on the same level as the pagan prophets he’d claimed to despise. The contest on Mount Carmel had merely ended up being a show of strength between rival shamans. Elijah had spent his life seeking God in the earthquakes, the winds and the fire, but had eventually found him in the still, small voice.

In his book “Faith Beyond Resentment,” the Roman Catholic theologian James Alison calls Elijah’s dark night of the soul his “un-deceiving” – his realization that what set his God apart from all others was not that he was more muscular, and whose religion was “more efficacious,” but that he was, in fact, the very antithesis of all that.

Elijah’s conversion experience seems not to have filtered down to Jesus’ disciples. They – along with the rest of their contemporaries – seem to prefer Elijah in his noisy showman phase. When Jesus’ disciples suggest raining down fiery destruction on the Samaritan village, their understanding of God is just as off-target as Elijah’s had been. Time and again we are shown how the disciples just don’t seem to get it. We know that eventually they do, but it’s a long journey for them to reach the realization that God’s strength is in weakness, God’s rule is in servanthood, God’s power is in humility and God’s judgment is in forgiveness.

Before we congratulate ourselves on being smarter and more insightful than those first disciples, let’s just take a moment to consider if we ourselves – and the church in general – get it any more than they did.

In “Faith Beyond Resentment,” James Alison suggests that what Elijah’s conversion experience tells us is that our own religious identity might need turning upside-down, too. “Here we are,” he writes, “face to face with the collapse of the sacred, a real demolition of personal structures and ways of speaking about God. This collapse is the crucible in which theological development is wrought.”

More and more people are saying that the church is at a pivotal point in its life. Some even describe it as a collapse. Certainly it is a time of wholesale reassessment.

But maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Perhaps, as Christian commentators like Diana Butler Bass and Phyllis Tickle suggest, it is that we are on the brink of a new Great Awakening. Perhaps it is where we will hear afresh the still, small voice of God, and what his voice is inviting us to do, and where we will understand much better how to break free of the slavery of distractions.


— The Rev Nils Chittenden is missioner for Young Adult Ministry in the Diocese of North Carolina, and chaplain of the Episcopal Center at Duke University. After attending seminary at the University of Cambridge, he was ordained in the Church of England in 1995. His ministry since then has been varied, encompassing cathedrals, campuses and community organizing as well as parishes. He moved to the U.S. in 2010. He and his wife have two cats and two beehives.

Keep your hand on the plow, Pentecost 5, Proper 8 (C) – 2010

[RCL] 1 Kings 19: 15-16, 19-21; Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9: 51-62

Listen to the way Eugene Peterson translates Psalm 77 in The Message:

“I yell out to my God, I yell with all my might, I yell at the top of my lungs. He listens.
I found myself in trouble and went looking for my Lord;
my life was an open wound that wouldn’t heal.
When friends said, ‘Everything will turn out all right,’
I didn’t believe a word they said.
I remember God – and shake my head.
I bow my head – then wring my hands.
I’m awake all night – not a wink of sleep;
I can’t even say what’s bothering me.
I go over the days one by one,
I ponder the years gone by.
I strum my lute all through the night,
wondering how to get my life together.
Will the Lord walk off and leave us for good?
Will he never smile again?
Is his love worn threadbare?
Has his salvation promise burned out?
Has God forgotten his manners?
Has he angrily stalked off and left us?
‘Just my luck,’ I said. ‘The High God goes out of business
just the moment I need him.’”

How many times have we felt like the poet? How many times have we felt bereft, abandoned, hopeless? How many times do we face the dark sleepless night of despair?

It has been said that the poetry of the psalms is the language of God. This is language God understands. They represent the collective history of our people talking to God. And in most cases, as in Psalm 77, they convey our deepest feelings as we try to get God’s attention.

The poet describes our feelings when we are feeling under attack, when we are feeling rejected, when we need some reassurance that someone out there cares – and that “someone” had better be God, the Lord, the Almighty, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus.

Elijah knows these feelings well. The entire nation had abandoned God for a competing deity, Baal, the god of King Ahab’s wife, Jezebel. Even after soundly defeating the prophets of Baal with the remarkable kindling of wood soaked in water, there was still a price on Elijah’s head. He was a hunted man. So after sitting under a broom tree and sulking, God instructed Elijah to commission Elisha to finish the business he had begun. The only strategy Elijah and Elisha seem to know how to employ amongst the great apostasy in the land is almighty, powerful, fire-breathing lightening and flames from heaven. And Elisha orders up a double of whatever powers Elijah can muster. And as we know, Elisha strikes back at any and all opponents, even summoning a couple of she bears to gobble up forty-two of the little boys who taunt him about his bald head!

So we can somewhat understand, with this in the background, the disciples wanting to rain fire from heaven on the Samaritans who want nothing to do with Jesus because he wants to worship on Zion in Jerusalem and they worship on a different mountain. And when we are honest with ourselves, we would all like to take care of annoying, recalcitrant, threatening people this way. Why not?

Well, as it turns out, “Why not?” turns out to be Jesus, who says, “No, we don’t do that kind of thing. No time for that. Keep your eyes on the prize. Set your faces toward Jerusalem. Keep your hand on that plow; hold on. Hold on, hold on, Keep your hand on that plow; hold on.”

There are several important things in this. Luke is asserting, once and for all, that Jesus is not Elijah. Before, Matthew, Mark, and Luke had all believed that Jesus was Elijah. But when Elisha took his hands off the plow and asked to have a farewell party with his family before following Elijah, Elijah said, “Sure, go ahead.” Not so with Jesus. No time to bury your dead father. No time to say good-bye. No time to turn back to the way things used to be. Set your face toward Jerusalem, keep your hand on that plow, and hold on.

Secondly, the later prophet Malachi had said, “I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children, and children to their parents.” Whereas we hear Jesus talking of turning fathers against sons, husbands against in-laws, and all the rest. We hear Jesus saying there is no time for traditional family matters. The urgency of proclaiming the kingdom of God calls for a radical break with tradition and familiar institutions. Set your faces toward Jerusalem, and keep your hand on that plow, and hold on. Hold on, hold on, Keep your hand on that plow; hold on.

Jesus is carving out new territory and new strategies for dealing with rejection: keep focused on Jerusalem, keep focused on the good news of the kingdom of God, plow a furrow straight into the heart and mind and love of God, where there is no place for silly displays of power and destruction of one’s enemies – no room for ancient quarrels.

Jesus seems to be saying:

“Remember who I am. I am not Elijah. God raised up Elijah to get your attention refocused on the one God who matters, the one God who cares, the one God who, at the end of the day, will lead you, just as God led you out of slavery into freedom in the hands of Moses and Aaron. Now God has sent me, has actually come down as me, to dwell amongst all ya’ll and help you to see that it is useless and meaningless to dispute which mountain you will use for worship.

“What is at stake here is serving God and serving your neighbor. And guess what; those stubborn Samaritans, like it or not, are your neighbors. Later I will tell you a story in which you will learn that on some days the only person who seems to understand what I am really saying, doing, and urging you to do, will be one of those Samaritans you want to reduce to heavenly barbeque! There are good Samaritans everywhere. You cannot judge a book by its cover. How many times must I tell you that?”

Now Jesus could just as well have started in as Psalm 77 does. Facing rejection among the Samaritans he could, like Elijah, sit under a broom tree and complain:

“Will the Lord walk off and leave us for good?
Will he never smile again?
Is his love worn threadbare?
Has his salvation promise burned out?
Has God forgotten his manners?
Has he angrily stalked off and left us?
‘Just my luck,’ I said. ‘The High God goes out of business
just the moment I need him.’”

But Jesus knows what Paul Harvey called “the rest of the story.” The poet in Psalm 77 sits down feeling utterly abandoned and begins to remember. As Eugene Peterson translates in The Message: “Once again I’ll go over what God has done, lay out on the table the ancient wonders; I’ll ponder all the things you’ve accomplished, and give a long, loving look at your acts.”

When we set our faces toward Jerusalem, that place, that singular place on earth, where God makes God’s name to dwell on top of the holy hill of Mount Zion; when we hold on to the plow without looking back at all the distractions, all the rejection, all the hurt, all the brokenness; we see, we remember the things God has done. We remember God’s care for God’s people. We stand in awe of the mighty things the Almighty has done all the way back to the beginning, the “In the beginning,” taming and ordering the chaotic waters of creation.

Jesus knows that fixing our hearts and minds on this God of the Bible will lead us away from senseless controversies, away from any feeling of abandonment, and reset our faces toward Jerusalem. This God will once again give us the strength to put our hand to that plow and hold on. It’s the gospel plow taking us straight to the heart of God and God’s love.

Hold on, because God has new, awesome, and amazing things for us to do and to experience. Some of it we may not like. Hold on with Jesus and you will be sure to face rejection of all sorts.

But when we “strum our lutes all through the night pondering how to get our lives together,” Jesus acknowledges that it will be in the singing of poetry such as the psalms that our God will not only hear us, but will hold us in his hands. It’s like singing the blues, like singing those old-time gospel blues:

Keep on plowing, don’t you tire,
Every round goes higher an’ higher,
That gospel line gets mighty hot,
Just hang on with all you got,
You can talk on me as much as you please,
For your talkin’ ain’t gonna stay on me
I heard the voice of Jesus say,
Come on to me, I am the Way
Keep your hand on that plow, hold on
Hold on, hold on,
Keep your hand on that plow, hold on

When we keep our hands on that gospel plow, when we sing these psalms of old, when we take time to remember what God has done, we find ourselves staying away from stupid, senseless controversies. Then and only then can God’s healing Spirit begin to pour into our hearts to heal our brokenness and bring us back from the dark sleepless nights of our despair.

Keep your hand on that plow, hold on!

The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek is rector of St. Peter’s Church in Ellicott City, Maryland, a parish in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. He also travels throughout the church leading stewardship events for parishes, dioceses, clergy conferences, and diocesan conventions. He has long been involved in the work of The Episcopal Network for Stewardship (TENS), and the Ministry of Money. He frequently uses music and storytelling in his proclamation of the Word.

The path, Pentecost 5, Proper 8 (C) – 2007

[RCL] 1 Kings 19:15 -16, 19-21 or 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Psalm 16 or 77:1-2, 11-20; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62

Today’s gospel reading doesn’t make Jesus look like a very good recruiter. He’s turning away willing volunteers! What’s more, at first he seems to be discounting the value of home and family, the very things we hold most dear.

“The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Does following Jesus really mean becoming rootless and homeless?

“Let the dead bury their own dead.” Could Jesus really be asking us to neglect our basic human instinct to honor our deceased?

“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Could Jesus really be saying that following him means not giving so much as a backward glance to the ones we love?

How different Jesus’ admonitions seem from the story of Elijah and Elisha in 1 Kings 19. Elisha literally has his hands to the plow when Elijah calls him as a prophet by casting his mantle over him. Elisha does look back, and asks to kiss his parents goodbye. Elijah doesn’t reprimand him, but allows him to return.

But look at how Elisha goes about his farewells: he slaughters his oxen, and burns the yoke and plow to cook his parting feast. What he is doing is sacrificing all the implements of his old life and career. He’s bidding farewell not only to his family, but to his entire former role and identity.

Elisha understands that the prophet’s mantle is not only a new garment, but a new life, calling, and identity. He grasps the total commitment involved in following the path of the Spirit, of walking in the way of the Lord.

Jesus is trying to convey to his followers a similar understanding of total commitment, and perhaps his stern-sounding words at first make it sound like the sort of commitment that is born out of a grim sense of obligation. Is Jesus’ mantle really so much weightier than Elijah’s that one cannot turn aside from following him even for a moment?

What at first sound like harsh rebukes, however, also turn out to be teaching moments about the nature of God’s kingdom. Look at the contrasts that Jesus draws, and you will learn more about what is so valuable about the Kingdom of Heaven.

The first key comes in Luke 9:60: “Let the dead bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” The kingdom of God is not something that can dwell on death or even be slowed down by death. The kingdom is about life abundant, life always new, life that transforms everything so that our old concerns are swept away. Not to be focused foremost on proclaiming the kingdom is to be like a dead person oneself. Setting out truly to follow Jesus, means leaving behind all fears of scarcity and finitude, limitations and death.

Next, consider the words that make Jesus sound so much less flexible than Elijah: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” The kingdom, Jesus tells us, is not something you would ever turn aside from, if once you truly caught sight of it. Even the things in this life that seem most important and have the most call on our attention will pale in contrast to the promise of a life infused with God’s healing and grace.

Jesus also says, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” There is a restless energy in the kingdom of God, an energy that seeks constantly to make all things new. That energy sends people out with missionary zeal to all corners of the world, and it cannot simply be content to look inward towards a secure home.

If Jesus doesn’t sound like a good recruiter, that’s because he isn’t just seeking a following for himself. Rather, he’s seeking followers on the path that he himself is walking. That path can be hard indeed. It can keep you restlessly on the move; it can call you to a new life’s work; it can lead you unflinchingly to death itself.

Nevertheless, the path that leads to the kingdom of God is the way that leads to true life in fullness and abundance of the spirit. The fruit of that Spirit, Paul tells us in the letter to the Galatians, is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” The psalmist sings to God that “You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”

With that sort of path to look forward to, who can look back?

Written by the Rev. Cole Gruberth
The Rev. Cole Gruberth is a recent graduate of General Theological Seminary and a newly ordained deacon. He is an associate rector at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Poway, California.