Homily for the Sixth Sunday of Pentecost – June 27, 2010
1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21 Then the LORD said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. So he set out from there, and found Elisha son of Shaphat, who was plowing. There were twelve yoke of oxen ahead of him, and he was with the twelfth. Elijah passed by him and threw his mantle over him. He left the oxen, ran after Elijah, and said, “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.” Then Elijah said to him, “Go back again; for what have I done to you?” He returned from following him, took the yoke of oxen, and slaughtered them; using the equipment from the oxen, he boiled their flesh, and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he set out and followed Elijah, and became his servant.
Galatians 5:1, 13-25 For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.
Luke 9:51-62 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village. As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.”Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
As a priest, I have often found myself in situations with people which were stiff, artificial, awkward. There is something about this collar that creates a minefield of anxiety for people.As a dog owner, it was always interesting how, in moments of tension, or anxiety, when we had company that was particularly awkward or pompous or overly formal, the dog would enter the room, dragging his bum across the floor, which was a huge relief not just for the dog but also for the stiffs sitting uncomfortably around the room. You could try to be angry or indignant toward the dog, but really, how do you not laugh at a moment like that? I would take the dog out for a reprimand, outwardly scolding him, but secretly (and I think, at times, unconsciously) grateful to him for the break.The dog seemed to know, that, every now and then, everyone needs a break from the usual formalities. The dog, perhaps intuitively, brought everyone down to earth, and into a more authentic human connection with each other.One time the Bishop came to visit in the small town where I was serving. He was NOT a fan of dogs, or cats for that matter, and he said somewhat derisively, “Do you still have that dog?” I said “Yes, as far as I know.” The bishop then said “I think I saw him running outside town trailing about 30 feet of rope!” The bishop’s sarcasm noted, I checked the back yard, and sure enough, Woody (or Houdini) as we came to call him, had chewed through his rope and was off on an adventure. I had to admire him – the dog, that is. I got so furious and frustrated with him so many times, but I think he was in my life to remind me of something important: not to get too tied to work and responsibility and appearances. He was often right and I was often wrong. Fortunately, I did listen to his “call of the wild” some of the time, and I would lose my uptight sense of nervous propriety and I would let him lead me on little adventures.
In some people’s view, people, like dogs, are meant to be tied and fenced. Properly house-trained. Totally domesticated. But then again, maybe they’re wrong.
Ironically, almost as a divine act of justice, the Bishop soon found himself obliged to adopt not just one, but two, dogs (and a cat, if I recall) – a legacy from some friend of theirs who died suddenly. God has an interesting sense of humour – karma, I think it’s called.
Every one of us gets caught up in formalities and situations which compromise us and sometimes even obscure the kind of person we know we are meant to be. We sit there playing out some role that we hate, that we feel obligated to, and we may get so stuck there we lose any freedom to respond when something really compelling presents itself. We may associate more with the roles we play, and start thinking of ourselves more in terms of what we do than in terms of what we are – we no longer even know what we really want and some piece of who we are gets pushed down into our unconscious world where it plays out in dreams and fantasies.
A spiritual practice in one religion is to repeatedly ask yourself, “Who am I?” The answer is not always that obvious.We can all acknowledge the reality of the encounter between Jesus and a couple of potential disciples, and the would-be disciples losing the opportunity of a lifetime because of their sense of obligation to some mundane formalities. The Gospel is not trying to say Jesus doesn’t care about family situations. The Gospel is metaphorical, and I believe is meant to say: here is life calling, presenting itself to you, inviting you on an adventure, and what is your response? Would you choose death instead?
It’s as if, in one direction lies a new freedom, new possibilities, new directions, and in the other is all that keeps you tied to the mundane and routine and conventional. At least some part of you wants to chew through that rope (or dog collar) and explore your freedom at least for a while.
The stress of keeping up appearances must be stifling. I am sure that at least occasionally, the Queen, or Prince Charles, are tempted to say or do something rude or off-colour — just to speak their mind instead of being terminally polite — just to relax once in a while from the constant demand to uphold an image of perfection. Then again, they did have Fergie for a while. Maybe she was their version of my dog Woody.
I had a Bible study a few years ago and we were doing some personal sharing and with one very proper, self-controlled, never-a-hair-out-of-place kind of lady, I suddenly had a vision of her dancing in her garden in the pouring rain, with her hair flattened by the rain, carefree as a child, laughing and singing. She received this politely, but with a certain air of suspicion, as though she suspected you might be trying to break into her house. Maybe she thought I was crazy; maybe I was just projecting my own stuff. But maybe something took root, and maybe served to pry a little smile from her when it rained.
Our fears and anxieties often keep us grounded – they keep us safe, they keep us proper, but they also keep us from encountering the scope of life that is out there and the greatness that is in us. We settle for safe, but I think, always, some piece of us is yearning for more. I would call that piece of us our soul and I think it’s important to listen to it and not let it die. Again, the practice of asking “Who am I?” might lead us somewhere.
On holiday, a bee flew into the cottage. It buzzed about for a bit, then, instead of finding the open door, it flew at one of the skylights in the ceiling. After bumping against that window for a while, it flew onto a shelf, and we didn’t see it again. It apparently had exhausted itself in its brief struggle to regain freedom, then just laid down and slept, eventually to die, I assumed. Now there’s a powerful image of what so often happens to us!
Holidays (whether summer or otherwise) present us with a brief respite from the dog eat dog, nose-to-the-grindstone world of everyday life, and beckon us to explore some aspect of ourselves that is left hibernating most of the time. As such, they are like a small reminder and incentive toward a deeper freedom and yearning – to be doing what we love; to be what we are instead of what everyone else expects. These are times when we “let our hair down,” and can be ourselves. Some people on holiday are often almost unrecognizable from the button-down characters you see most of the time. Holidays (holy days) are a way of practising our true freedom and being our true self.
But, like the bee, we get enclosed within certain structures and lose track of the bigger world. Looking at the television set, or looking out the window, like the bee hitting up against the skylights, is not enough to set us free.
The call of Jesus to these men represents a call into the mainstream of life – a call to be spontaneous and follow their hearts. People often think of Jesus, and religion in general, as calling us to obligation – to duty – to responsibility. Actually, the call of Christ is to freedom. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” In one sense, Jesus was homeless. In another, he was completely free – at home everywhere. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock,” Jesus is quoted in another place. When we are tempted to shut ourselves up in our own little worlds, and get way too serious about our own little agendas and status, it’s like God finds ways to come and say, “Can Ann or Betty or Nick or Derek come out to play?”
Our religious life and spiritual practices are, therefore, deeply counter-cultural and radical. They are meant to produce freedom, not just cultural conformity. The more we expose ourselves to the person of Jesus, the more we are offered an alternative and unconventional view of life. I think, often as not, people stay away from Jesus not because they’re bad people, but because they’re afraid of where he’ll lead them.
“Let go and let God.” Failing that, “Let go and let dog.” Let your dog have the lead; pay attention to what he/she is trying to tell you. You’re lucky if you have a pet, because whether it’s a dog or a cat or a fish or a bird, somewhere in it is an instinct for its freedom, for its true life, and now and again that freedom will assert itself, sometimes in embarrassing and inconvenient ways. But wise are you if you pay attention.
“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” May it be so!