Sermon: Following Whom?

26 June 2016 — Dr. Irene Lawrence: When I was about ten years old, I heard a story that at the time I thought was very funny. It seems that one night there was a very thick, dense fog that obscured everything on the ground. Nevertheless, some people had to be out in their cars that night, but of course it was very difficult because visibility was so poor. One particular driver seemed to be more confident than most, so another driver decided that the best thing to do would be to follow them closely, as they seemed to be able to tell where the road was. This worked well for a while, until the first driver suddenly stopped, and of course the second driver plowed into them. The second driver rolled down their window and yelled, “Why did you stop so suddenly?” The first driver answered calmly, “Because I’m in my own garage.”

At my current age, I see this story as more metaphorical than simply funny. Who or what are we following? Who or what is leading us? And where are they leading us? How dense is the fog? Maybe even what is causing the fog? Who or what should we decide to follow?

There has never been a lack of applicants clamoring for us to follow them. In this election year, of course, politicians come to mind instantly, but they’re not the only entities that are beckoning for us to follow. Organizations, including the church, claim our loyalty. On another level, we are constantly urged to drink this particular beer, or use that weight-loss program or hair product, buy this particular car, put our money into that investment, obey these particular rules. Our families, our clans, our tribes, and our cultures, whether related to us by blood, by law, or something else, define our comfort zone and thus our allegiance. How, then, in the midst of all these relationships, shall we know what to follow? How can we avoid the bumper bashing of my childhood story, or the more serious, even possibly catastrophic results of blind following in our adult world?

One way to approach it to ask where we are headed when we follow someone or something. As Christians, we have an ultimate destination in mind—or better, a combined journey/destination—for which we have many different names: the Reign of God, heaven, the Beatific Vision, loving God and one’s neighbor, the path of life, eternal life. Whatever name we use, to be true to the Gospel we have to remember that this “Real Life” doesn’t start after our death, but is present in our current physical life, if somewhat potentially—as a seed, an embryo, always present as both possibility and goal. One of the more contemporary descriptions that I like defines this “new life” as a state of “flourishing”—God’s work is being done when people are flourishing—and not just people individually, but all people in groups, and tribes, and nations, and cultures. And not just people, but animals, and fish, and coral reefs, and all living things. And not just living things, but the whole earth. And not just the whole earth, but all the planets, and stars, and comets, and black holes, and all twenty-six dimensions of string theory—in other words, when all of God’s creation, without exception, is flourishing.

But back to human-sized realities. So we have a rough approximation of where we want to go: we want to increase the total amount of flourishing in the world. And we believe that this happens most effectively when we follow Christ, directly or indirectly. There are certainly legitimate disagreements about how best to go about this, but I think the concept itself is non-negotiable for Christians: to work for the flourishing of all is by definition to love God and one’s neighbor. As always, the devil is in the details, but the theory is pretty clear.

I think this is what Paul is talking about when he reminds us that our freedom consists of loving our neighbors as ourselves, not of self-indulgence. It’s not just our personal flourishing, but everyone and everything’s flourishing. Elsewhere Paul suggests that his churches should follow him, Paul, but only because he is following Christ. Here he describes following Christ as living in the Spirit. And how can we know if we are following Christ and living in the Spirit? Because we are not encouraging anger, jealousy, dissensions, factions or any of the other things he lists, but are headed toward love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. That sounds like conditions for flourishing to me.

Let’s focus on a couple of the negative things Paul mentions here: strife, anger, dissensions, factions—and especially factions. Right now, there seems to be a growing factionalism in the world, at all levels from families to countries. Countries are splitting along ethnic lines, moving from multi-cultural states to ostensibly uniform states, the European Union may be breaking up, the Anglican Communion is at loggerheads, American states are threatening secession, people who are different are demonized, some families are casting out those who are different. Corporate attempts at healing old splits and wounds have lessened or even ceased; instead we are pushing our one right way. We hurry to form our own enclaves of people just like us, thinking that flourishing is a zero-sum game, and that our welfare depends on excluding others from whatever goodies are at hand. I think of this as a kind of neo-tribalism—my group is number one—and I’m sure you’ll notice how easy it is to slip from “My tribe needs this more than anyone else” to “My tribe deserves this more than anyone else.” There is no lack of contemporary leaders who will lead us down conflicting tribal paths. Following these leaders along paths of exclusivity does not lead to the flourishing of all creation.

In today’s first reading, when Elijah calls Elisha to follow him, Elisha has to leave his family and tribe; he is called to move out of the comfortable exclusivity of his tribe. It’s not as abrupt as it might be; he can make a ceremony of it, a farewell feast that was probably long remembered, a proper goodbye to his family and tribe—and then he followed Elijah, who of course was following the LORD. Elisha probably thought he was moving out into a larger exclusivity of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, but in his later career (somewhat checkered from our perspective) he is shown going outside the Hebrew world, for example, to heal Naaman, commander of the Syrian army. In this, he is only following the example of his mentor Elijah, who lived with a Baal-worshipping woman and resuscitated her son.

Finally, and most directly, Jesus himself has the last word on following him. Somehow he forgot to mention the warm, fuzzy, cozy, safe haven that we try to construct when we stick close to home and don’t let any strangers in. No, Jesus is heading straight into danger, setting “his face to go to Jerusalem,” passing through Samaritan—non-Jewish—territory where he won’t let his companions blast the rude unbelievers they encounter. Those he calls on this journey are warned that they will be homeless, and their families of origin and their familial duties will no longer be important. A few people may be called to live this out literally, but for most of us, Jesus’s words are an acted out parable. When we follow him, we step out of our enclave, we leave our tribe precisely to encounter God in other tribes. A snippet from a W.H. Auden poem keeps running through my mind:

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

The rare beasts are fine, and the unique adventures are inevitable—though we may hope they are not too adventurous—but Jesus’s route and ours goes through the Land of Unlikeness, not the land of Everyone-is-the-same-as-me. But as the Psalmist reminds us, just there God shows me the path of life; there in God’s presence there is fullness of joy, and at God’s right hand are pleasures for evermore and for everyone.

6 Pentecost, Proper 8C trk2: 1 Kings 19:15-16,19-21; Psalm 16; Galatians 5:1,13-25; Luke 9:51-62

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