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Focus and Choose (Elisha and the Boanerges)

June 30, 2013 Leave a comment

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Knowing that I grew up in a coal mining town in the hills of western Pennsylvania, might give away who some of my childhood heroes were.  My first was a second baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates by the name of Bill Mazeroski.  I still remember my Grandpap calling our house on that late summer day of 1960 when “Maz” hit the game winning home run in the final inning of the final game of the World Series!  He became a household name for many years to come, as would the likes of Clemente and Stargell.  Now my talents weren’t close to theirs and there wasn’t much of a chance for me to become like them, but in my mind when I practiced on the ball field I would imagine my body was going through every motion exactly as they appeared on the games I saw on television.  But the biggest thrill of all for me that left the biggest impression on my mind was actually going to baseball games at Forbes Field and seeing these idols perform before my eyes.  Oh, how I wanted so much to play at the level they did!  A competitive spirit was growing in me and would soon show in everything I did.  As much as I’d like to think I’ve settled down with the competing aspect of sports, my wife still brings to my attention from time to time that some things in life aren’t and shouldn’t be a contest.

Now I mention these sports figures not to brag about a particular team, city, place or time, but because as I look at the characters of Elisha, James and John, I see the image of some young people going about life with the same zeal for God that many youngsters have for sports.  There is an enthusiasm here that can get one in trouble depending on what you’re doing – and that is true to the point so much that James and John are told to settle down and start paying attention.  It’s also true in showing where our own passions and desires lie in our lives.

For Elisha it lies in wanting to be able to do more than Elijah does.  He sees the good that Elijah has demonstrated throughout his life, knows that it’s God who does the work, and so wants to do the same his desire to please God is evident everywhere.  Several times he’s told to stay at a certain spot, yet each time he insists on going the distance.  Some might classify this as a test of will and strength.  When we know we are heading toward an unpleasant situation there is always the choice of sitting back and saying no.  As we get closer to the end and we are given an option of not having to witness the final moments of it what will we choose?  Elisha is prepared to stay with his friend to the end.  His request for a higher blessing is met with a condition.  “If you see me as I am being taken from you… then it will be granted.”  Paraphrasing it might sound like this; “If you keep your focus on the ways of how I showed you to live your life up to the final moment, and never take your eyes off of the ways of God and look back to the past, your blessings will be increased.”  So Elisha, formerly a rich man who left his wealth and luxurious life to follow a prophet of God, gained a new life in the rich blessings of the Holy Spirit.

For James and John, their passion for God was so intense they were given the name “Sons of Thunder.”  Jesus seems to have a liking for giving out new names to his followers, especially the twelve, the ones closest to him.  Have you ever stopped to think about what he might name you if he were around now?  This is one passage many consider to be the main reason Jesus dubbed them “Boanerges.”  As they pass through the Samaritan village they are treated badly.  Take into consideration that during the first century CE the relationship of a Samaritan to a Jew then is what the relationship between an Arab and a Jew is today.  They barely tolerated each other; to the point where I read New Testament historian C. Bernard Ruffin tell us to imagine signs on the hotels reading “no Jews allowed.”  That is what is meant by the more polite statement here made by Luke, saying that Jesus’s face was set toward Jerusalem.  Another spiritual lesson is taking place, this time in humility.  James and John are so riled and offended at the apparent hatred being thrown at them they’ve allowed their thoughts to be brought down to that same level.  They want to throw hate back at hate and so ask Jesus to send down lightning bolts from heaven.  They have seen him numerous times control nature by calming the storms and walking on water.  If he can stop the wind and waves from turning over a boat full of fishermen, surely he could shock a few bodies or at least rattle them with some rolling thunder.  Combine that attitude with their presumably powerful voices echoing the good news of Jesus through the huge crowds –the Sons of Zebedee become the Sons of Thunder.

But Jesus tells them to let it be.  They are not traveling through this place or any other place to retaliate and get into arguments and fights.  The mission is clear, at least to their leader.  He is travelling to the place and time where soon He will be taken up.  Just as Elijah has related to Elisha, the focus has to be on God and the Holy Spirit to make it through the entire journey.  Now to drive this point further home, Luke presents some issues that cut through centuries of time and generations of culture.  What about my family?  What about those I love?  What about the things I put above all else every moment of the day?  The people say; “Lord, I would follow you anywhere but you see, I have a wife and 3 children, another family member has passed away and the winds and rain are coming so I must harvest the wheat and there are all these things I must attend to in my daily life, but after I take care of those things, then, yes, Lord, I’ll start following you.”  And then the final request of them is to “let me go and say goodbye to family.”  First of all, it’s my hopefully humble opinion that in none of these cases is Jesus literally telling us to leave everything we have or we will never be able to serve God the way God is to be served.  I do not believe He would tell us to forget about family values or socially acceptable customs or business ventures that keep us clothed and fed.  If that is the case, then we certainly wouldn’t have been given the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Luke’s presentation of the gospel and Jesus’s words are directed to a society where family life was considered central and was more tightly knit than we are today in the western world.  So we must keep this in mind when reflecting on these very shocking words of how to realize the Kingdom in this world.  Jesus knew that all these things were important to people or I doubt these situations would have been put in the gospels.  He understood that family was a prime subject but he wanted to remind everyone that God should be at the top of the list.  He tells us that before everything we do, we must consider what is most important.  Everything is in its place.  We go to our jobs and perform our work but we keep our moral and ethical values no matter what kind of deals are offered.  We tend to the sick and dying with the respect and honor they need and deserve but we don’t forget about our commitment to the living while we mourn.  We value time with the family on weekends but we make certain that some of that time is spent together in church or prayer.  And we look toward the future with each other but we do it prayerfully and thoughtfully keeping God front and center in the decisions and plans we make.  Instead of following that idol from childhood we must now start following the Christ that Jesus has become.  We are Its body.  Through Him it is realized.  By us the work is done.  Will we be like “Boanerges”, daughters and sons of thunder?  Like Elisha, desperately wanting more?  The answer lies in where we choose to place God in our lives.  Amen.

(Scripture used from RCL for Year C, Proper 8.  2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14  Luke 9:51-62)

Forgiving Grace

June 16, 2013 1 comment

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I’m pretty much on the fence when it comes to using the saying “What Would Jesus Do?”  We may also add “What Would Jesus Say” to the mix of these slogans.  They are designed to make us stop and think about the actions we take in life’s challenges.  Some argue we don’t know what Jesus would do because he never encountered some of the situations that occur in our modern world.   Still others hold the question relevant and adaptable to any and all situations.  Take for instance the story of a family who had two young children in the house.  One evening after supper Mom heard the two boys arguing in the kitchen.  She went in to find out what the commotion was all about and as she got closer she heard the younger one say, “but you had the last piece of chocolate cake last week!  It’s my turn and I should get the last piece of this one!”  And the older brother was saying “I’m the oldest, so I get what I want!”  Mom entered the room and says, “Boys, what do we do when we start arguing about things?  Don’t we ask ourselves ‘what would Jesus do?”  Well, the older brother stops and drops his head in apparent guilt, and the younger one says, “Jesus would say “here, you have the last piece of cake.”  Mom said, “Very good, now work it out between the two of you without fighting.”  She turned and walked out of the room with a smile thinking she had finally gotten through to her sons when she hears the older brother say “Okay, I’ll let you feel important, you be Jesus!”

That scenario may not be exactly like the story in today’s Gospel, but what it does is start the conversation of how we decide who in society is relevant and who isn’t.  Obviously, in the joke, the older brother maintains that his age gives him a status that places him above anything the younger one might think, even the option of taking turns.  What we have with Luke’s story is someone who is recognized as an authoritative figure in society; a Pharisee who expects his position in the community to give him an excuse for neglecting certain customs and courtesies.  He was a poor host and a prejudiced one at that.  The Pharisee has lost sight of the big picture.  He is so drawn into keeping the laws he has lost his compassion for humanity.  He fails to see God’s unending Grace and forgiveness being poured out to all regardless of wealth or status.  The focus is on Jesus allowing a sinner to fuss over him.  He doesn’t care that she is tending to the needs of his guest that he had neglected to provide for him.  Instead of noticing the good that is being done, all the attention is drawn to what could be wrong with the woman’s actions.

How often do we recognize this situation in the world around us?  We can become so concerned about who others are, what they have, what they don’t have, or what they are doing, that we lose sight of the bigger picture; or more importantly, lose sight of the real nature of how we are supposed to live with each other.  God’s grace was flowing abundantly and freely with the forgiveness that Jesus was giving to this caring soul yet few knew it.  The host was so full of himself he failed to offer the common courtesies of the times; a welcoming kiss, a bowl to wash up in, and a towel to dry off.  Simple things, of course, but it took a common person from the streets to notice this and willingly and compassionately do for the host what he himself failed to do.  We know the love that Jesus gives, so maybe you can imagine beginning there in person, being able to provide for his personal needs and having that love given directly back to you?  Love so deep the tears of joy could not be held back.  So many tears you wouldn’t need water.  Perhaps it would be in this moment that we see God’s grace in both the simple and complex issues in our lives.  Apparently this is nothing new.  We see examples of it throughout 4,000 years of recorded history.  We see it in our first reading with David’s want of another man’s wife.  Again it appears as a Pharisee’s jealousy over Jesus’s attention to a sinner.  And we find it in today’s world in a modern day greed that disregards all the beatitudes and the tenth commandment (you shall not covet … anything).  It may be difficult at times to grasp what it takes to see the big picture, to be fully human and see God’s grace given without distinction of class or culture.  That’s what the Gospels do.  That’s what the Good News is.  That’s what Jesus is teaching us:  How to be fully human.  The laws and commandments are there to guide us and provide everyone the foundation and framework to care for each other, but He says “Don’t stop there.  Don’t stay in the box.”  Boxes are restrictive and confining.  The host of this dinner, Simon, who knows the laws, has put all his energy into living by the law, putting everything into a tiny, neat box.  How unfortunate for the many people around him who could use his help?  And how unfortunate for him that he doesn’t recognize this gift that he can’t see?

He has taken the law to the point of making it his idol and has forgotten how to be human.  He segregates, judges and divides people based on their obedience to a code instead of their spirit and ability to be transformed.   Jesus sees beyond the structure, removes the barrier and sees the person in their true human nature.  He knows that we make mistakes.  For the text to mention that this woman was a sinner means whatever she had done, it was done with the public’s knowledge.  Everyone knew about it.  But it doesn’t keep her from recognizing who was in her midst.  We are also shown that Jesus recognizes when someone is genuinely sorry and he knows we are capable of making those mistakes more than once.  He knows this because he knows the world and knows temptation because he, too, is human as well as divine.   I recently had a discussion where we were talking about how hard it is not to confine God to our expectations where we say “this is what God is and this is how we are supposed to worship.”  That method is perfectly fine for starting out in life because we need structure and discipline to form us, and it takes practice to make sure we don’t keep falling back into bad habits.  But growth doesn’t happen when we resign ourselves to placing people in categories by our own errant judgments.  We ignore the human and put people in their places based on what side of the street – or river – they live on, where they got their degree or whether or not they have one, and even how they pronounce words or use words that don’t really exist like some of yinz do.

Personally, the more I read and reflect on the Gospel of Luke, the more it becomes central to the decisions I make in my life and the more I refer to it as a model of how to take the Good News out into the world.  Mainly, I’m drawn to Luke’s Gospel because of its inclusiveness and ability to bring the most neglected people into the picture.  He allows those on the fringes of society that are generally left out of so many important texts; the poor, the sick, the children, and the women to assume the actual roles they play in society.  I also believe there is a connection between those who are a part of our parish and the naming of our church as St. Luke’s.  I always tell the other deacons I know in and outside of our diocese how you make my job easy.  A big part of the work of a deacon is to take the gospel into the world and identify the needs of the people, taking those needs back to the church and moving the people towards those needs.   I’m overwhelmed at times by the number of you who have come to me, letting me know who needs help and attention.  The church and the community are much better because of it.  Perhaps that’s why I like this particular reading and how it adds the beginning of chapter eight to the end of it.  Luke doesn’t present a Jesus that does one kind thing for someone and goes back to being on top with the “in crowd.”  He starts at the bottom, with those who have been declared the least, and spreads his good news upward.  He prepares the way by showing the world that the way to salvation is not through laws and good deeds but through forgiveness, love, and grace.  His followers don’t stop with twelve men.  He gets support from women he has healed like Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and others who have been called sinners.  What was once denied to many by a few is now free to all from one.  Still today, as we follow Him we are also blessed by the grace received through it.  The love continues on.  The forgiveness never ends.  The grace never stops.  Amen.

RCL Proper 6 (Luke 7:36-8:3)