By the Rev. Darren Miner
On April 25, 1993, Mathew and I attended the LGBT March on Washington. That Sunday, we worshiped at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square, the so-called “church of the presidents.” Some 800,000 people were gathered right outside the doors of that church. Yet, the preacher never once mentioned the event. And the only hint that anything was going on outside was in the Prayers of the People, where there was a brief intercession for “those who struggle for justice.” I left dismayed and disappointed by that particular Episcopal church. While today’s sermon is not exactly a Pride Day homily, I don’t intend to repeat the mistake of that preacher in 1993. About one million people will line Market Street today to celebrate Pride Day. This celebration will remember the advances made in the 47 years since Stonewall, as well as the tragedies along the way, such as the massacre just two weeks ago in Orlando. Undoubtedly, there will be a continuing reminder that the AIDS epidemic is still with us. I am proud to say that our bishop will be marching in the parade, and Episcopalians will be marching alongside other Christians to spread the message that God’s love is more inclusive than we can even imagine.
But enough about Pride Day! Let’s take a look at today’s scriptures. The reading from First Kings is about the calling of Elisha to be an apprentice prophet. It’s helpful to recall the context. Elijah was tired to the point of despair, and he had been sentenced in absentia to death. So, he sat down under a tree and prayed for a swift and painless release from life. Instead, God gave him a mission: first to anoint new kings for Israel and Aram, and then to anoint a successor for himself. Elijah obeyed…sort of! Instead of anointing the two kings, he sought out his successor first and ordained him as his apprentice by placing his cloak over him. The anointing of the two kings would have to wait—for Elijah needed his helper!
Elisha, a wealthy farmer, accepts his new role. But he asks to say good-bye to his family first. In a roundabout way, Elijah gives him permission. At the farewell party, Elisha makes an irrevocable break with his past. He slaughters a yoke of oxen to serve up at his farewell party, using the oxen’s equipment as kindling for the fire. From this point on, there is no turning back!
Jumping forward some 900 years, we find Jesus headed for his crucifixion in Jerusalem. And he is desperately trying to find disciples to succeed him when he is gone. Some come to him of their own volition and offer their discipleship. To them, he warns of hardship. For he needs dedicated disciples who will not change their minds when the going gets tough. Others are called by Jesus to be his followers. One such person quite reasonably asks to bury his father first. Jesus’ rather harsh response is to “Let the dead bury their own dead.” The urgency of the call can brook no delay, even if for a pious purpose. Another would-be disciple makes a request similar to that of Elisha, “Let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus’ response is more severe than was Elijah’s. He states that such a detour would disqualify him as a disciple. For the followers of Jesus, not only is there no turning back, there is no looking back!
In today’s Gospel story, Jesus seems particularly harsh and demanding on those who want to be his followers. My sense is that Jesus felt an overwhelming urgency to set up his replacements in the world before his upcoming death in Jerusalem. There simply wasn’t time to wait the better part of a day for a funeral to take place. There wasn’t even time for a would-be disciple to say a quick farewell to friends and family. Clearly, the urgent call to discipleship took first priority, and every second counted!
A question we should all ask ourselves today is this: “Is Christian discipleship my first priority?” I hope your answer to this question is an unequivocal “Yes!” For Jesus clearly taught that duty to God takes precedence over duty to country, duty to family, and duty to self—most especially duty to self!
At this point, it makes sense to look at the reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians. For there, he contrasts the selfishness of life in the flesh with the selflessness of life in the Spirit.
Paul starts out by proclaiming that Christ has set us free. For one thing, the 613 commandments required of the Jews no longer bind us. And to the extent that we live our lives as true disciples of Jesus Christ and open our hearts to the Holy Spirit, we are freed from slavery to selfish desires that ultimately harm ourselves and others. We are freed from slavery to self-gratification, self-indulgence, and self-centeredness. In short, we are freed from slavery to the self! That is our freedom from.
But what about our freedom for? What does this freedom in Christ allow us to do and to enjoy, that we would otherwise miss out on? St. Paul lists some of the fruits of this freedom in Christ: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” These are all gifts of the Holy Spirit and are quite rightly the objects of our desiring. According to the constant teaching of the Church, as we open ourselves to the Spirit, as we submit to the call of God in our lives, we find that we are, slowly but surely, transformed, that our desires become righteous desires. And as a result of this spiritual transformation, we reap the fruits of the Spirit enumerated by St. Paul. (Theologians refer to this spiritual transformation as sanctification.)
Quite simply put, we were created to love God and our neighbor. And we are freest when we order our desires and our lives toward those two pursuits. When we speak of freedom, we often make the mistake of focusing only on the freedom from, and not on the freedom for. I suspect that the recent “Brexit” is a case of a nation wanting freedom from difficult relations with foreign nations, instead of freedom for a more healthy relationship with those nations. I can’t help but ask, “Where is the love of neighbor in the Brexit?” More close at home, “Where is the love of neighbor in the building of walls to keep our needy neighbors out?” Now, there are valid reasons, I’m sure, in favor of the Brexit, but xenophobia was undoubtedly a factor with some British voters. To the extent that the British voted out of the fear and hatred of foreigners and a “Britain First” mentality, they failed to love, and they failed to know freedom in Christ. Likewise, to the extent that our own debate about immigration policy arises from xenophobia and an “America First” mindset, we too fail to be free in Christ. For it is only in loving our neighbor that we can know that freedom in Christ for which we were created. It is only in loving our neighbor that we can be faithful followers of the Lord. And it is only in loving our neighbor that we can be fit for the Kingdom of God.
© 2016 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.