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Preacher: Canon Peter Collier QC, Cathedral Reader
Date: 26th June 2022 11am
Readings: 1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21; Galatians 5: 1, 13-25; Luke 9: 51-62
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing to you, O lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen
In our OT lesson and in our Gospel this morning we heard two conflicting accounts of how discipleship should begin. Elisha’s immediate response to Elijah’s call to follow him was to say “let me kiss my father and my mother and then I will follow you”. Elijah did not demur and that was what Elisha did as we shall see in a moment.
But in our gospel passage when someone said that he would follow Jesus but that first he wanted to say farewell to those at home, Jesus said no. He told him that no one who puts their hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.
So what is going on? Why is there a difference?
Let’s begin with the Gospel account. It is a very significant moment in Luke’s gospel. Luke says that from this moment onwards Jesus set his face to journey to Jerusalem to the place where he would suffer and be crucified.
The idea of a journey lies very much at the heart of Luke’s writing. Luke tells us in Acts 9 that Saul who seeking out those who belonged to the Way to bring them in chains to Jerusalem. The Way is expressive of journeying, or pilgrimage. And journeying and pilgrimage are words that have always been very symbolic of discipleship, of following Jesus who is the way the truth and the life.
Many people were attracted to Jesus by what they saw and heard, his miracles and his teaching drew the crowds. And of those who came, some expressed a desire to become disciples and to follow him much more closely.
Luke tells of Jesus’s interaction with three such people. The first said he would follow Jesus wherever he went. Jesus speaks to him about the hardship that will inevitably come to those who follow him – it will lead at the very least to inconvenience and often to rejection and worse. Jesus then turns and invites someone else to follow him. His response is: “yes but”. He didn’t want to start the journey until he had buried his father. Since then, there has been much speculation about what Jesus meant by his answer about the dead burying their dead. But what is crystal clear is that Jesus is saying to him that there is always an immediacy and an urgency about responding to God’s call on our lives. Jesus is never the +1. And then we come to the third person. He also is a willing volunteer but he just wants to go and say goodbye to his family. Jesus says to him that no one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.
I understand that image very well. Yesterday I was cutting the grass and I use a grass cutter with blades and a roller which can produce a lovely straight-lined pattern on my lawn. However it isn’t always so. The key to the straight lines is fixing my eye on something at the far end of the garden, ideally two things in line with each other and not taking my eye off them until I reach the far end and turn round. If I take my eye off the end mark, and particularly if I look to the side then I inevitably steer in the direction I am looking.
So Jesus said, as he says to us this morning, come with me, follow me. My face, my eyes are fixed on Jerusalem – fixed on suffering and the cross – come there with me.
So how do we relate all that to what happens between Elijah and Elisha. In 1 Kings 19, we learn that God was preparing the succession and he sent Elijah to anoint Elisha as his successor. He found him and he threw his cloak over him. Elisha apparently knew from that action that he was being called to be Elijah’s disciple, to follow him. His response was – let me kiss my father and mother and say farewell to them and then I will follow you.
Which is exactly what our third person said to Jesus.
But there is a real difference here. We read that Elisha then went back into the field, took his yoke of oxen, killed the animals and used the wooden plough as firewood to make a bonfire on which he stewed the meat; He then had a farewell party and no doubt everybody enjoyed the stew. When that was all over, he followed Elijah, becoming his servant.
This was a very deliberate farewell from which there could be no turning back. He couldn’t go back to farming – he had truly burned his bridges back to that. He had very publicly committed himself to following Elijah, everyone in the neighbourhood would have known about Elisha’s new life.
What this passage shows us is the importance of marking new beginnings and transitions. It is telling us that it is important to do so in ways that are intentional, personal and meaningful for us.
What we can learn from these two passages together is that when we respond to God’s call we need to mark the transition and do so well.
There is a lot of talk at the moment about moving on; moving on from the last two and half years of pandemic in which we have all suffered so much.
I have been reading Pope Francis’s book entitled Let us Dream which is about coming out of Covid. He says this in the prologue: “This is a moment to dream big, to rethink our priorities – what we value, what we want, what we seek – and to commit to act in our daily life on what we have dreamed of. What I hear at this moment is similar to what Isaiah hears God saying through him: Come, let us talk this over. Let us dare to dream. God asks us to dare to create something new. We cannot return to the false securities of the political and economic systems we had before the crisis …. we need to slow down, take stock, and design better ways of living together on this earth.”
His challenge is on a big scale, but also at a local and personal level.
We all know that we have lost so much in the last two years. Not only personally but the communities we belong to including the community here at York Minster have also been affected in many ways.
I was in a meeting this last week, and there was some discussion of about the impact of Covid on cathedrals generally. There was agreement that one of the major losses has been the loss of volunteers. For many of us the restrictive changes in our new patterns of living mean that much of what we used to do is no longer convenient; and that can include our voluntary work and service. As we saw earlier Jesus said that following him would often be inconvenient. Maybe we need to reflect on that.
I am also aware that here at York Minster we are not only coming out of Covid and discovering that there is no going back to normal.
But we have additional new things ahead of us. Soon we will be implementing the Cathedrals Measure which reworks how we do governance and generally manage and run this place; You can read about that in the Acting Dean’s report in the accounts – which are available online. And later this year we shall have a new Dean. So in many ways we will be turning the page and literally we shall be opening a new chapter.
How can we do these transitions and new beginnings well?
There may not be any bonfires and ox roastings, but there needs to be an intentional leaving behind of old patterns and habits and a commitment to the new and what lies ahead. We can all want to hang on to the old, and sometimes to go back even further into the past – to what is familiar, comfortable, safe. For some of us the things we used to do or the positions we held were significant in giving us meaning and status in our daily lives.
There may be some rituals to mark our new transitions – there will be first meetings for the new Chapter and new committees with their terms of reference and instruments of delegation, there will be an installation service for the new Dean. But these can easily just pass by. What each of us needs to do is to name what we are turning from and committing to. And that is not just about our corporate life here, it is as we respond to those big personal questions about our moving on from covid that Pope Francis has posed.
Each of us like Elisha need to make an intentional commitment to the future in a way that is meaningful for us.
The Christian journey, the Way, the life of discipleship, of following Jesus Christ is one where Jesus is always calling us onwards, calling us forwards. Like him we are to set our face towards Jerusalem. Or as Paul said – this one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead I press on towards the goal.
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