The Third Sunday after Pentecost
Father Chris Harris
2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20
1 Kings 19:15-16,19-21
When I first began attending the Episcopal church, I have to admit I was desperate for the Episcopal 101 class because I didn’t grow up going to church and I really didn’t know what I was doing. I had been surviving off my peripheral vision trying to know when to stand, when to sit, when to cross myself, not that I had any idea what any of those things meant. And so when it came along, I signed up and I was so glad because they taught me not only what I was doing but why we were doing it.
And I discovered that liturgy is actually about formation that everything we do in our worship, all the movements, all the gestures, they all are teaching us something often without words about what it means to be a disciple and a follower of Jesus. And I’ll give you just an example. Just moments ago, we processed the gospel down from the altar and we brought it down into the midst of the pews. What do you suppose we are saying about God when we do that? Could it be that we are saying that we don’t worship a distant, aloof God whom we can’t see or can’t really know? But in fact, Jesus came to live with us, came down into the mock of humanity to share our joys, to share our trials, to grieve, to experience suffering. And we worship a God who knows, who’s been there, who’s had the world throw everything it has at Him. And so when it happens to us, we know we’re not alone. We know that there is a God who’s been there and is right alongside us and would be waiting for us on the other side.
That’s a pretty powerful statement, isn’t it? That’s good news alone and we haven’t said one word yet. And then what’s the next thing that happens? When the gospel comes into our midst, what do you do? Do we not turn to face it? And is that about being polite so we don’t have our back to the person who’s doing the reading? Or is there something more going on? Are we saying to ourselves that when the light of the gospel comes into our midst, that we are called to turn our lives, to reorient our priorities, to change and turn from our old life and our old priorities, and our old prejudices to this new way of being, this new life, this new form of humanity that we’re called to live into most fully, most alive?
That, too, is a pretty significant statement, isn’t it? And then what happens next? You noticed the priest, Father Bill did it today, they do a little sign of the cross? That little gesture? What does that mean I wonder? Is that like a secret handshake between the priest and God? Is that like a little – are we doing a little magic there?
One way that I found to understand that is that we are saying to ourselves that this turning of our lives, we’re praying that it might permeate our whole being, that it would affect our mind, change the way we understand ourselves in the world, that we might see each other with new eyes, that we might change the words that we use, that Christ might be on our very words so that we might speak the words of forgiveness that need to pass our lips sometimes, or speak with the humility that we need to own up to more often, to offer words of encouragement to those who need them.
And then that last one, we cross our chest right here. What do you suppose that’s saying? Could it be that we’re praying that God would be on our heart, that God would change our whole way of being, that we might love with a new sense of abundance, that we might love like God loves, that we might offer our heart out to the world without reservation, with no conditions, with no expectations of anything that comes in return, with no strings attached, whether or not somebody deserves it or not, that we would just let our love flow out and fill every nook and cranny of the world like God’s does.
Again, we’ve just said a lot there and the gospel hasn’t even been read yet. The preacher hasn’t even said a single word. In fact, I would say if you don’t understand the gospel on a given day and the sermon’s kind of boring, it’s worth coming to church just for that. That’s a big part of the whole Christian message right before us, isn’t it? And it’s something that we all can stand to be reminded of from time to time, if not every week. And if you look at our readings today, you’ll notice that virtually everyone in these readings is struggling with that very question of turning around. What is my response?
Elisha is past the mantle of the prophet Elijah, and he’s not just quite ready, is he? He needs to go and tend to affairs at home. The Psalmist warns us about running after other gods. That is all those other things that we put our trust in, ourselves, our plans, our credentials, our education, our expertise, our ability to control our situation.
The Galatians to whom Paul is writing, they are distracted by what he calls the desires of the flesh, which isn’t nearly as salacious as it sounds, but it’s really are addiction to our self indulgences and our self-centeredness. Our slavery, if you will, to all those kinds of desires to put ourselves first, our needs always first. And so Paul is saying, we need to free ourselves from that so that we can actually become slaves to one another, slaves to the world.
In the gospel, James and John, they are distracted by what? Maybe a kind of self-righteousness, if you will. They’re upset that the Samaritan village won’t receive Jesus, and so they’re like “Do you want us to bomb them?” They’re distracted by their, I don’t know, resentment, their anger that there might be people in this world who don’t see the world the same way, or whose faith might not look like theirs.
And then there are those unnamed disciples at the end. They’re a little bit like Elisha. They’re saying, “You know what, Jesus, we’re ready to follow You. We’re ready to go. But I’ve got one or two things I got to take care of first.” And Jesus doesn’t seem to have much patience for that, does He? In fact, Jesus almost sounds a little unreasonable here because of them says, “Look, I just need to go bury my father. Can I go do that first?” Jesus seems a little bit urgent, a little bit unreasonable, perhaps. But maybe, maybe He’s being so uncompromising because He knows that we need to be called out. That maybe He’s calling us out for our tendency to always have some excuse. Some other reason why we need to put off reorienting our lives in the ways that God calls us. We always find a reason to put off that turn.
Don’t we do it with our health all the time? We can relate to that, right? Do we not say things like, “You know, I’m going to start exercising again just as soon as the kids are in school.” Or “I’m going to start that diet just as soon as the holidays are over.” What about our spiritual health? Do we ever see a volunteer opportunity in the communicant where we could serve in the world and say, “You know what, I’m going to do that this time just as soon as I get that project done at work.” Or “You know, I’m really going to commit to prayer. I’m going to start praying everyday when I get up in the morning just as soon as I get that to-do list under control.” Or how about this one, “You know, I’m actually going to start finally tithing. I’m going to give 10% of my income, finally, just as soon as I get that kitchen remodel finished,” or “Just as soon as I get that raise or that promotion.”
Whenever our faith calls us to sacrifice something, to really turn our lives and let go of some part of that thing that we’ve expected and held onto for so long, we can become really good at coming up at excuses, at explaining why the timing is just not right. “The planets aren’t quite aligned properly but I promise I’m going to get to that real soon.” And Jesus is trying to warn us of that tendency. I experienced all of that first hand. Not long after I took that Episcopal 101 class, the dean of the cathedral where I was attending came up to me at a coffee hour, after I’d opened my big mouth about what we need to do and why we should get somebody to help with evangelism, and why we need to get someone to help with newcomers, and blah, blah, blah, he says, “You know, Chris, you’re absolutely right. I’ve been thinking about you.” And my first response was, “What?” “Yes, Chris, I’ve been thinking you should give up your law practice and come to work for the cathedral.”
And immediately, I was in the place of those disciples in this gospel. Immediately, my mind starts racing through all these problems. What about my student loans? I had $150,000 in student loans from a private law school. How was I possibly going to pay for those with the church’s salary? Maybe I should wait until I paid those down somehow. Well, what about my clients? I had all these cases going and they had hired me, and relied upon me. Shouldn’t I wait until I have all those wrapped up? Or I’d only been a Christian for maybe a year. I haven’t read the bible yet. Shouldn’t I wait until I know something a little more about Christianity? What about my house? I had this great house, with the view and all this stuff. Maybe I should wait until I paid that mortgage down.
And of course, the biggest roadblock of them all, and if you’ve heard my story you’ve heard this, the sailboat and the Maserati. Up until this moment, this conversation on the courtyard during that coffee hour, I will confess that Christianity for me, it hadn’t really cost me anything. It was all upside so far. I had a whole bunch of new friends. I heard this amazing gospel that reminded me how loved I was. I had this amazing faith community of people who cared about me. I was enjoying volunteering. I was helping out. I was going to the eight o’clock service because I could get to the kick off in time at 10:00. It was all going really good. I even pledged. I gave money. But in truth, it was like membership dues. I wasn’t really giving anything that was causing me discomfort. It was affordable. I was very safe. And that was kind of my Christianity at that point. It was very comfortable.
And then God came along and said, “I want to invite you to think about turning around radically.” And all of that was upset. And you know, I eventually – I kept my hand on the plow for a little while, but I eventually did say yes. And I did so without figuring out the solutions to all those excuses. They were largely still there. The boat, the Maserati were easy to let go of, but I’m still paying on those student loans. We downsized the house. When we came out here, we have a house that’s half the price of our old one. It is still probably too big.
I went to seminary. I read the Bible. But I still have a lot to learn. But what I noticed that along the way something happened. I started to experience the fruits of the spirit that Paul talks about. Somehow amidst all that change and that redirection, and that disorientation I was experiencing, I was noticing a sense of peace that I’d never felt before. I had more contentment, more joy. And all that downsizing I was forced to do, I experienced more abundance. And even though I was earning half of what I used to, I found that I started to actually tithe for the first time. I don’t know. I cannot tell you to this day how that all happened. It just seemed to come together.
And what I learned through that experience is that we already have – all of us have what we need already. God has already prepared us to do what God is calling us to do. We don’t need to go and get our life together. We don’t need to go and join a Bible study first. We don’t need to get all of our ducks in a row.
In fact, as it turns out, dropping our plows, setting our face toward Jerusalem, that’s actually how our life comes together. I noticed that all those loose ends, all that messiness of my life started to come together in a way that it had never done before when I was in control. I think that is the salvation that Jesus is talking about. And it waits for us. It’s not something we experience when we die. It’s waiting for us just around the corner. Right today. If we can just turn.
And so that’s the question I think we’re being asked today. Because it’s not a one-time event, it’s on going. We all have these moments that come back again and again. How is God calling us to turn and what is holding us back?