PROPER 8, C
1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21
For a few moments I want you to put yourself in Elisha’s sandals. This young man was plowing in the field. The fact that there were 11 other yokes of oxen ahead of him indicates that his family was very well to do, and they were plowing a very large field.
There he is, just minding his usual business, maybe thinking about the pretty girl he’d like to marry, when along the edge of the field comes this old, cranky man called Elijah.
Elijah was a prophet called long ago by
God to speak the truth to the people of Israel, but who recently walked into the desert, laid down, and asked God to let him die. He’s sick of being alone, talking to people who don’t want to hear him and refuse to listen. So God sends him off to find a companion, a servant, who will grow up to take his place.
So Elijah waits for his chance and then throws his mantle onto the shoulders of Elisha. This outer garment acts as a symbol of Elijah’s position as prophet. Just think for a moment what this interruption of Elisha’s life was like for him. The implications are huge. To follow Elijah, he has to give up a comfortable hearth and home; he has to give up all thoughts of marriage and children; he must leave his parents.
It’s so surprising that he indeed does just that. He responds to the call in spite of the cost. The cost of discipleship is also a major theme in today’s Gospel. Jesus points out to the first unnamed man that to follow him is to live without a real place to call home. To the second he says rather harsh words, “don’t bother to honor your father by burying him properly, but just go out and proclaim the Kingdom.” And to the third unnamed person, who offers to follow Jesus, but first wants to go home to say goodbye, Jesus says this: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Talk about harsh! Remember that Jesus is responding to the way we often respond to God’s call, “yes, Lord, but . . . . Jesus is saying that one’s response to God must be unconditional. That is another way of saying that our fidelity to God is supposed to come before our fidelity to family, tribe, or nation. And he is reminding us that the cost of discipleship may be very high indeed.
One thing that hit me this week is that the generation that most of us belong to did not grow up expecting to be called. Certainly not by God. We were the flock who went to church to hear the minister. He was the called one. “Call” only applied to clergy. Therefore we didn’t need to worry about it or even think about it, much less listen for it.
Then along comes this new stuff about Total Ministry, and suddenly we are told that everyone is a minister. What? Since when? What do you mean we’re all called to be disciples? Maybe the team, maybe even the vestry, but everyone?
Don’t you just hate it when the rules get changed like that? Well, it’s true and not true, because the idea of everyone being ministers or disciples was clearly the way of the early church. So this isn’t really new, it’s just not what we were brought up with.
Because of this change, though, it’s important for us to pay attention to these lessons about call and about the cost of becoming disciples.
At text study this week we talked about what an interruption in anyone’s life it is to be called. Think of Elisha with the mantle, Moses with the burning bush, the rich young man who wants to live righteously but can’t give up his wealth. Call can come in many forms, but it most often shows up in the interruptions in our lives. These may be times of crisis, when someone we love dies, or we have been terribly hurt by another person, or we lose our jobs. These sudden changes in our reality give us a chance to reconsider, to change our lives in significant ways, and maybe to listen more closely to the voice of God.
I know that my most powerful experiences of God all came in the wilderness, which clearly means I was on vacation, which itself is an interruption of our daily routine. Because it was outside my normal experience anyway, I think I was more open to experiencing the reality of God. No, I didn’t hear a voice, but these experiences changed my world view.
Any interruption in your normal routine may be an opportunity to pay closer attention, to listen to the silence more carefully. This also can happen on retreat, in meditation or prayer, on a walk, or driving your car. The question is, are you paying attention or just spaced out?
Since I firmly believe we are all God’s children, I do believe we are all called to be disciples. The tough part is figuring out “called where and to what?” The even tougher part is responding positively. When I first figured out that I was being called to priesthood, I pointed God to someone else more worthy. Then I found several other excuses. Then I actually figured out what it would cost to go to seminary and realized I would come out of school entirely broke, in my mid 50’s, and the possibility of not being hired because of being a woman was a very real.
To do something so irresponsible was contrary to everything I had been taught. Like the rich young man, even though I was far from rich, I could not make that sacrifice. Luckily, many of the stories of call, both from the Bible and from our own communities, show us that when God doesn’t succeed the first time, God always tries again. And again. And again. I think this modifies to some extent what Jesus says in today’s Gospel.
While it may be true that anyone who puts their hand to the plow and then turns back is not fit for the Kingdom of God, the many people who refuse to put their hand to the plow are usually given many chances to change their minds. I’ve heard many such stories, often prefaced with something like: “It took three times before I listened, or got it, or understood what God had in mind for me.” Sometimes it’s 10 times or 15 times.
No matter how many times you feel you have been called, whether it’s none or some or frequently, the important thing is that you keep listening. Treasure those interruptions in your life that give you the chance to hear with a new ear, consider with a new outlook, or experience God’s love in a new way.
We are all called to be disciples in one way or another. And while the cost may be high, so are the rewards. I’m not talking about gaining stars in your crown or guaranteeing your admission to the pearly gates. I’m talking about the rewards you gain in this life from being a disciple, including the joy of serving others, the peace of being in tune with creation and God, and the knowledge that you are doing your part to create a better world. Living as a disciple of Jesus is a great way to live.