Luke 9:57-62; 2 Kings 2:5-14
Just before Elijah’s fiery Uber arrived to transport him skyward, the charismatic prophet had an uninspiring conversation with his protégée, Elisha. It went something like this.
Elisha said: I had a great night’s sleep and a fabulous breakfast. When do we start?
Elijah responded: I sleep with one eye opened and haven’t eaten anything but bread and water for years.
Elisha: No wonder you want to retire. Well the good news is I am here to pick up your mantle.
Elijah: You are such an idiot. No one wants my job. The hours are ridiculous, the pay is non-existent, and I only survive thanks to the hospitality of inhospitable widows.
Elisha: I think you are exaggerating. I have witnessed your work. You stood toe to toe with Jezebel.
Elijah: Well my last act will be to stand toe to toe with you as I beg you to go home.
Elisha: Am I not worthy?
Elijah: No one is worthy. Yahweh is a hard God who is never satisfied. Run away before it is too late.
Elisha: I shall only run toward you.
Elijah: Then kiss your life good-bye. I see my ride coming. Son, you are on your own.
Imagine showing up at church, excited to hear the word of God, and the minister’s opening line is, “Why don’t you just go home? The life God has planned for you is too hard. It will leave you broken and discouraged. Get out now while the getting is good.”
One thing for certain, that minister would never have to worry with a building campaign. Who in their right mind wants to follow footsteps that deep? We prefer the responsibility of faithfulness be reversed. We are happiest when singing, Fear not I am with thee, O be not dismayed, for I am thy God, and will still give thee aid. I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand, upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.
Thank goodness Jesus came along to rescue us from disillusioned prophets like Elijah. Thank goodness Jesus understands that we each have a life. Thank goodness Jesus appreciates the sacrifices we make by showing up here one hour each week. And thank goodness Luke 9:57 only shows up once every three years in the lectionary.
In case you were sleeping as the gospel was read let me refresh your memory.
Jesus said: Follow Me.
The Disciple responded: I would follow you anywhere.
Jesus: You will have no place to lay your head.
Disciple: I understand. And I will catch up with you as soon as I bury my father.
Jesus: Let the dead bury their own dead.
Disciple: But Jesus, we are talking family. I need to say good-bye to those I love.
Jesus: If you are going to look back, why do I need you?
On reading this text Barbara Brown Taylor remarked, “Even Pharaoh gave the Hebrews a day off to bury Joseph.” Regardless if you are the eager Elisha who wants to follow in the footsteps of his hero or the converted disciple inspired by a story of Jesus, no one wants their aspirations dashed before the first cup of coffee.
This is a hard, but necessary text. Nothing easy comes after conversion. There are two important truths about our faith I hope all of you embrace. The first is, God is faithful. Our God does not quit and our God persists in doing justice and righteousness through thick and thin. There are times I have doubted this. There are times I have wondered if God had gotten lost. But as I have reviewed history from a theological context, I have witnessed remarkable examples of healing and reconciliation in a world bent on self-destruction. If in 1970 you had told me in my life time Viet Nam would be a treasured vacation spot, a Black man would become president, and women and gay men would be running for the presidency I would have thought you were crazy. But looking back with theological eyes I have to admit God’s ways are mysterious and God’s ways are beyond my understanding but when it comes to justice and righteousness, God is faithful.
And that leads to a second truth concerning our faith. In terms of justice and righteousness, God expects us to be faithful. Our Bible study group just finished the book of Judges this week. That experiment in faithlessness can be summed up in one sentence, “Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.”
It is so easy to imagine that all we have to do is believe in Jesus and everything will be alright. If that were true then no one would be bugging me with the ridiculous question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” If no one has taken the time to inform you, bad things happen to all people. The real question becomes how people of faith respond to misfortune, particularly the misfortune of others. This is the radical question asked by a God who insists we are our brother’s and sister’s keeper and our linage has nothing to do with bloodlines. Faithfulness eliminates boundaries. If a family needs wood we don’t ask if they belong to a church. If a child needs food, we don’t ask her to come to this church to receive it. If a prayer request is made, we don’t ask if the recipient is Christian. We deliver wood. We fill backpacks. We increase our prayer list. We have discovered faithfulness is easy when the request is close to home.
So what happens when we see the picture of a father and child lying face down in the Rio Grande just inches from our border? Now faithfulness becomes hard. Elijah said to Elisha, “I don’t want you to witness what I have seen. I don’t want you to have to stand in the midst of human misery and realize our God expects a response. God’s expectations are too hard. Go home.”
Jesus sees a possible disciple coming his way and Jesus knows that disciple cannot endure the road ahead. Jesus wasn’t headed to a revival. He was headed toward an encounter with death. It was not going to be accidental. It was not be an unfortunate encounter with a mysterious disease. It would be the premeditated elimination of a voice crying out for mercy for those enslaved by deceit, greed, and power. Jesus knew this particular disciple would never be ready to follow him. So Jesus told him to go home.
Most days it is easy to be a disciple of the Lord. It seldom conflicts with our social contacts, our lifestyle, our political leanings, or our love of our nation. But then we see a picture. We are horrified. We cry out, “How can this happen?” And then we turn the page or switch the channel when life becomes too horrific. We depend on our family, or our neighbors, or even our political affiliations to tell us what to think. But how often do halt our lives and prayerfully ask, “Jesus, what would have me do?” (STOP)
I give thanks that God is faithful. Too often I am not.