Tuesday, July 3, 2007

David Smith's Sermon on July 1st

Proper 8 – Year C (RCL)
2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Luke 9:51-62

Lord Jesus, stay with us; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of your love. Amen.

Before I begin the "official" portion of the sermon, I want to say something: Thank you! Thank you for taking me in ten years ago as a seminary student, to provide me with opportunities to learn skills for ministry and to reflect on those experiences. Thank you for having me as a staff member, and for the privilege of having served with you as your Lay Associate and Minister of Music for the better part of seven years. Thank you for the many ways in which you have formed me, challenged me, and affirmed me in my discernment toward realizing a call to ordination. Thank you for your prayers, support and love. Thank you for the honor you have entrusted to me to stand before you as a Deacon on my way to becoming a Priest. And thank you for the gracious way in which you opened your arms, your hearts and the doors of this beautiful Church to host the ordination and reception yesterday. I am truly honored to have been so blessed by you; and wherever this journey takes me, you will be with me in my heart.

Now… speaking of journey, I would like to turn our attention to the work of journeying today. We have two journeys before us in the readings this morning: Elijah and Elisha make a journey to the other side of the River Jordan in our first reading, and Jesus begins his journey toward Jerusalem in the Gospel of Luke. And both of these journeys are characterized by some intriguing details.

The story of the parting of Elijah from Elisha is one of my favorites. It is a story about turning from old leadership to new leadership. It speaks about passing important values from one generation to the next. It tells about the wonderful relationship between a mentor and a student. But mostly, it speaks about greatness coming out of chaos.

Chaos is a powerful concept in the Hebrew Scriptures. In the minds of our ancient forebears in the faith, chaos was what happened whenever and wherever God wasn't present – without God, things fall apart, death and destruction have a heyday, and there is no semblance of order or meaning to the existence of anything. What is so fascinating to me is that the author of this portion of the Bible uses the whirlwind – a metaphor and symbol for chaos and destruction if ever there was one – as a means of describing the way in which Elijah was taken from Elisha, who must have been very terrified!

Yet, terrified as he was, Elisha performs a customary ritual of mourning by tearing his clothing, he picks up the coat left behind by Elijah, and uses it to divide the Jordan and cross over to the other side. And as he does so, he asks a great question: Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah? In asking this question, he accomplishes two things. First, he acknowledges the chaos into which he has been thrown by this strange journey beyond the Jordan where he witnesses his mentor's disappearance, knowing that he is utterly alone. Second, he acknowledges the power of God to be present with him, and to help him move on. And move on he did! doing things even greater than Elijah in proclaiming the word of the Lord.

The other journey before us today is in Luke. And, just like Elijah, the journey is taking place so that Jesus can be "taken up." And, also like Elijah, this act of being taken up requires a journey to a specific location. But for Jesus, the location isn't beyond the Jordan; it's the holy city of Jerusalem. The author of Luke makes that clear by a phrase that I have come to love: he set is face to go to Jerusalem. And, as we heard in today's reading, not everyone that Jesus encountered was eager to receive someone who had their face set toward Jerusalem.

Now, as Jesus set out on his journey, he had some peculiar conversations on the way. When someone offered to follow him, Jesus made it clear that foxes and birds have better living conditions than he did – following Jesus on this journey was to essentially be homeless as they went from place to place, proclaiming the kingdom of God on their way to Jerusalem. And to those who wanted to delay the invitation to follow, Jesus reminded them that the need to proclaim the kingdom of God was more important than anything else, including the standard social customs of the day. We could easily say that Jesus, through the pen of St. Luke, is telling us that as we set our own faces toward Jerusalem, and follow him in proclaiming the kingdom of God, we will no doubt be engulfed in a whirlwind of chaos!

We are all familiar with whirlwinds of chaos. I became reacquainted with it myself, when I forgot to bring my sermon with me today, leaving it on the chair by the front door. And we all know how chaos can surround us, confuse us, and take our life journeys into places that we never would have dreamed possible – whether good or bad. But the kind of response that we make to that chaos is what will make us or break us. We find examples of how to engage that kind of chaos in Elisha and Jesus. With Elisha, we see how to ask the important question: Where is God in this mess? and how to pick up the pieces left behind by a whirlwind, and use them to do God's work. And in Jesus, we see how important it is to have our faces set toward that which empowers us to proclaim with him the kingdom of God.

Now, we humans don't like chaos. We actually like things to be tidy, and neat and bound up in little packages with some semblance of order and control. This is why we have things like laws – to bring order to the chaos of human existence. And it is this human need to order our lives that St. Paul was writing about in today's reading from Galatians. Paul was a great observer of human behavior. He knew that we are creatures of habit and predictability. He knew that within us is a great conflict raging between our human desire for order and our human tendency to get caught up in disorderly conduct. He knew that we as human creatures like to compound chaos with more chaos. And this is what he is getting at in today's reading. Paul gives us several examples of things that lead to unruly living – impurity, licentiousness, enmities, dissention, factions, and so forth. To avoid these things, we have laws, guidelines, social customs and moral values that are there to help us from falling into chaos. And Paul speaks about the way that we humans tend to look at those laws and values as being restrictions binding us to correct patterns of behavior. But, Paul wants us to know that in Christ we have freedom from those laws – freedom to end the chaos of wanting order on the one hand, while on the other resenting that which keeps us orderly. Paul tells us that in Christ we are free to bear forth what he calls the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And then he makes this outrageous statement about these so-called fruits of the Spirit – he says that there is no law against them! I think that this is hysterical… Paul is appealing to our chaotic desire to be free from restriction, by urging us to freely participate in these things that are not illegal.

Imagine what it would be like if love were illegal. Wouldn't it be fun to go out and love people just so that you could say that you broke the law? And if peace and joy were somehow not valued by society, wouldn't it be outrageously decadent to sneak around spread them everywhere we went? Well, Paul is saying that in Christ we are called to be countercultural like that – we don't have any laws binding us and preventing us from participating in these wildly freeing characteristics known as the fruit of the Spirit. We are released from chaos! We are, in fact, unleashed to create a new chaos of love, joy, peace, gentleness and kindness.

Like Elijah and Elisha, and like Jesus and his disciples, today we are on a journey. We have been called in Christ to proclaim the Good News of God as we go forward. And in our journey, we will no doubt face chaos and uncertainty. But we can be confident that we have been empowered by our Baptism to step out of the chaotic moments of life with a sense of resolve to continue the work that God has given us to do. Like Elisha, we can pick up the pieces that have fallen all around us, and use them for God's purposes as we work to discern where God is present in the midst of life's chaotic moments. Like Jesus and the disciples, we can continue to proclaim that today is the day of the kingdom of God. And like Paul, we are free to live in the power of Christ, bearing forth the fruits of the Spirit. So let us press on, come what may. And may God's empowering blessings inspire us until our journey is ended. Amen.

David Grant Smith
1 July 2007

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