Sunday, June 30, 2013

Nothing more than everything

Living in ordinary time: Hand to the plow
1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21; Luke 9:51-62

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I assume you noticed the plow symbol this morning.
It’s not overly subtle,
being front and center, and filling the entire altar table.
We thank the Valley Brethren Mennonite Heritage Center
for loaning this substantial piece of equipment to us this morning.

This visual symbol is appropriate,
because both the Bible stories we just heard, from 1 Kings and Luke,
talk about a plow.
I’m sure you caught the plow reference in 1 Kings.
The plow and the oxen pulling it,
play a central role in this story.
You might have missed the plow reference in Luke 9.
Because Jesus only mentioned it once at the end,
“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back
is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Both these stories do to our thinking,
what a plow does to the earth.
Turns it upside down.
These stories, and this plow,
take what is smooth, firm, settled, and stir it all up,
and in so doing, create conditions that might produce new life.

Maybe you didn’t catch just how radically life-altering these stories are.
So let’s take a second look at them.

You might want to follow along with me in 1 Kings 19.
This first story is about Elisha,
when he was called to be a prophet, an apprentice of Elijah.
This story confounds me.
When I read it, I think, “What dedication!”
Then I think, “What stupidity!”

Elijah was well known as a powerful and trustworthy prophet.
One day Elijah found Elisha out plowing in the family fields.
This was a big operation.
Elisha was working 12 yoke of oxen, 12 pairs,
each pulling a plow not unlike the one we have here.
The 12 were working in a line, with 11 hired hands ahead,
and Elisha himself working the 12th yoke,
in other words, in charge,
in a position to see if any teams ahead of him
were getting off course.

So Elijah walks up beside Elisha
and throws his mantle over Elisha’s shoulder.
This was a powerful symbolic act.
Elisha knew exactly what it meant.
It meant Elijah, this renowned prophet,
a prophet both loved and hated throughout the land,
was choosing him to be his successor.
Elisha literally dropped the reins of his oxen,
and started walking after Elijah.
But then he said, “Let me go kiss my parents good-bye.
Then I will follow you.”

What Elisha was referring to here was no simple peck on the cheek
and “See you later, Mom and Dad!”
He meant, let me bring proper closure
to my life as part of this family,
to my role in the clan,
to my life’s work.

This is the part of the story that I said turns our minds upside down,
like the plow does to the soil.

For starters, this was a terrible time for Elisha to walk away.
It was plowing time,
his father was depending on him
probably grooming him to take over the farm.

Some of you are, or have been, connected to
a multi-generation family business, or family farm.
You know first hand, and the rest of us can imagine,
that passing on a business or farm to another generation
is not something that happens on a whim.
You need to prepare.
You work hard, for years, getting ready for a smooth transition.
You think through all the implications,
financial, structural, and otherwise.

Imagine being head of a big company,
and you’ve been grooming your child to take over the business,
and it’s about ready to happen.
One day your son or daughter, the intended heir,
comes into your corner office,
and says, “I don’t want this anymore.
What I really want is to run a hotdog stand.”
I think that’s what Elisha did to his parents that day.

Not only did he walk away from his family responsibilities,
away from a secure and stable future.
He walked into a future anything but secure and stable.

And on top of that,
Elisha goes and slaughters his team of oxen.  He butchers them.
He chops up the wood from his plowing equipment,
builds a fire to boil the meat,
cooks a feast,
and serves it up to all the people.
It doesn’t say who the feast included.
Were his parents there, too?
How did they feel about this?

This must be one of the most rash, reckless, and ridiculous acts
in all of scripture.
This is worse than James and John
walking away from their fishing boats
when Jesus called them,
leaving their father Zebedee holding the nets.
At least James and John didn’t sink their boats
and cut up their nets.
If they changed their mind later on,
they could go back to their father and go fishing again.
In fact, after Jesus’ death,
they did go back to their boats and go fishing.

But Elisha completely destroyed his current means of livelihood,
before he left to follow Elijah.
What if this prophet gig didn’t pan out as he hoped?
Too bad.
Elisha just burned and boiled his Plan B.
There was no turning back.

So that’s the first shocking story of the morning.
The second is from Luke 9, if you want to follow along there.
Here Jesus talks to three different people about following him.
Three would-be disciples.

Now, we all know how important it is to follow Jesus.
How much Jesus wants us to follow him.
How blessed it is to be a follower of Jesus.
We sing songs about it all the time.

But when we read this story from Luke,
we wonder if we misunderstood something.
Jesus is doing all he can to keep people from following.

Someone comes up to Jesus and says,
“I will follow you wherever you go.”
Ah, such enthusiasm, such commitment!
What more would a master want in a disciple?
But Jesus says, essentially, “Don’t bother.
You don’t know what you’re saying.
Foxes have holes and birds have nests.
But if you follow me, you won’t even know
if you have a place to lay your head.”

Then Jesus does invite someone else to follow him,
and the man says, “Yes, I will,
but first let me go bury my father.”
And Jesus gives him the cold shoulder.
“Let the dead bury their own dead.
I need you now to proclaim the kingdom of God.”
What’s with that??
There was nothing more important or honored in that culture
than the duty of the eldest son to bury his father.
Not to carry out that duty would bring him lasting shame.

This is a hard response by Jesus.
Bible commentators jump through all kinds of logical hoops
to make it sound a little more palatable,
make it seem like maybe the son was out of line here.
But no matter what spin we put on it,
the request was not unreasonable.
It was perfectly in line with cultural expectations.

Then a third person says, “I’ll follow you,
but first let me go home and say goodbye to my family.”
And then Jesus uses the plow analogy.
“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back
is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Harsh.  Disturbingly harsh.
Elijah gave permission to Elisha to go back and say goodbye,
and even to hold a big farewell feast.
Couldn’t Jesus give these people the same consideration?

Does that bother you?  It bothers me!
Isn’t our commitment to our family part of our divine calling?
Would God ask us to do something
to intentionally bring pain and grief to our family?
I can’t imagine it.

Obviously, we don’t fully understand the culture here in Luke.
We can only guess about what these excuses really meant.
Maybe they really were delay tactics.
Maybe it was a convenient way to put Jesus off,
to postpone a decision they didn’t really want to make anyway.
We can’t really tell.

But I do think we can draw one solid conclusion from this story,
and that of Elisha.
When God calls us, and we hear that call accurately,
and others confirm that call,
there is nothing more important than obedience to that call.
Not personal security.
Not self-fulfillment.
Not the expectations of others.
Not protecting other people from disappointment.
When God calls us,
when Jesus invites us to be disciples,
we are expected to give all for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
All our energy, all our time, all our relationships.
All our talents, all our money,
all we have and all we are.
That’s all God wants.
Nothing more than . . . everything.

That’s not a message that’s easy to hear.
That’s not a message that will entice many people
to jump on the Gospel bandwagon,
or put their hands to the Gospel plow.
That’s not a message will sell.

But that is the Gospel message we heard this morning in Luke 9.
And it’s the message in every other Gospel.
We can’t avoid it.
We can’t water it down.
We can’t interpret it into irrelevance.
It keeps coming back to us in different words, in different shapes.
“Take up your cross and follow me.”
“Everyone who holds onto their life will lose it.”
“Forsake all, if you want to be my disciple.”

I’ve been pondering why that message
is so hard to hear these days.
So hard for me to hear.

For one thing, I probably have a whole lot more to forsake
than lots of the people in Jesus’ day.
I have a lot more accumulated wealth,
than I suspect most first-century Palestinian Jews had
under foreign occupation, with Caesar taxing them to death.

And secondly, I’m not so sure the impact of God’s grace and salvation
has captured my emotions and imagination so much,
has so overwhelmed me and thrilled me and seized me
to the point that I would gladly forsake all worldly possessions,
for the sheer joy of following Jesus.

I’m a more rational disciple than that.
I’m more nuanced in my expressions of faith.
Yes, I have committed myself to Christ as Lord and Savior.
I will seek to follow Jesus in life.
I will look to him as a moral example, as an inspiration.
But I’m not going to get all crazy about it.
I’m not going to get all emotional and go overboard with it.

Now, clearly, the call to be a disciple of Jesus
will, in fact, look very different to people today,
than it looked to 1st-century Palestinians under Roman rule.
And it will look different to me, than it will to you.
It may well not be a call
that demands you sell all your worldly possessions.
It may. Or it may not.

But I don’t think we can easily escape the reality
that when we answer the call of God to follow Jesus in life,
it means we’re all in!
It means we give our all.
All. Nothing more than everything!

My all may be quite different than your all.
But it’s still all.

But having said that, let me add another wrinkle to it:
In a way, this call to “give our all” has a familiar ring to it.

Our culture actually thrives on a kind of “give it your all” attitude.
There is a certain driven-ness in our culture,
that rewards all-out efforts.
We get pretty close to even worshiping those in our culture,
who give their all to a certain cause.
Especially athletes,
who push their bodies and minds and spirits to the limit,
to accomplish extraordinary things.
Climbing high mountains, running long distances fast,
hitting baseballs hard and far,
sinking baskets with amazing precision.
Or musicians that practice 8 hours a day, 6 days a week,
and perform with virtuosity that takes our breath away.
Or in any field of expertise,
we stand in awe and wonder,
at the amazing accomplishments of those
with such self-discipline,
who devote their whole lives to doing that one thing well.

So “giving our all” as a disciple of Jesus,
could be seen in much the same way.

Some of us, influenced by our own culture’s obsession with greatness,
could set out to do the extraordinary in following Jesus.
Some of us may feel a genuine inner desire and drive
to give discipleship our all-out effort,
to give it our best energy,
to give the perfect, abundant, and impressive offering of ourselves,
and of all we have at our disposal,
even to the point of sacrificing personal wealth and comfort,
going to far places,
setting aside other personal goals and comforts.
In return,
we enjoy the satisfaction of being extraordinary.
And we enjoy the admiration of others,
who remark on how much they admire us
for what we have given up
or what we have accomplished.
And thus, we feel worthy.

I’m sorry to say,
I don’t think the take-home lesson
from these texts from 1 Kings, and Luke’s Gospel,
is that we are called to seek admiration,
or a sense of personal accomplishment.

It is not that we are called to do the extraordinary.
You might remember, this season of the church year is
Ordinary Time.
We are reflecting together on how to live well,
in the midst of the ordinary stuff of daily life.
So we might guess that the main point of these texts
is not to strive for the extraordinary.

When we are asked to “give up our all” for the cause of Christ,
we may, in fact, need to give up a lot of things—
time, resources, energy, comfort, security—
and that might impress some people.

But the more difficult thing for us to hand over to God, I’m afraid,
the thing I struggle, mightily, to give up, is
my need to succeed,
my need to accomplish something worthwhile,
my need to have the goodwill of others,
my need to demonstrate to others, and myself, that I am worthy,
my need for praise and affirmation.

What if I was called on a particular path of discipleship
that would not be admired by anyone else?
Or worse, might not even be noticed by anyone else?
Would I still be willing to give all,
without the reward of being ascribed as worthy by others?
Would I still sacrifice everything, if no one even noticed?

It might be in the context of very ordinary, very routine life situations,
where you and I now live,
where the sacrifice is being called for.
Our giving of “nothing more than everything”
might—at least in part—unfold
in the context of a demanding workplace
where we quietly embody the gracious spirit of Christ,
instead of joining in negative office politics,
or in the context of a marriage that is hard work, constant work,
to maintain even a modest level of personal satisfaction,
or being a parent to a very challenging child,
who only acts out when in private, at home,
or relating graciously and generously to a neighbor,
who offers nothing in return.

Our giving of “nothing more than everything”
might, at times, even mean rejection and ridicule,
rather than admiration.
Others may find our choices, our convictions, hard to understand.
And they may never understand them.

If so, am I still ready to give everything?
Am I still ready to walk from the known into the unknown?
Am I still ready to burn up and boil my oxen and plow? My Plan B?
Am I still ready to go, without a place to lay my head?
Am I still ready to say to Jesus, here, take it all?
May it be so for me, for you, for us all.

Let us sing our praise to the Lord,
whose love in humble service, bore the weight of human need,
Who upon the cross, forsaken, worked Your mercy’s perfect deed:
We, Your servants, bring the worship not of voice alone, but heart;
Consecrating to Your purpose every gift which You impart.

—Phil Kniss, June 30, 2013

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