Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Pentecost 5: Images of Discipleship

Today’s assigned readings revolve around the nature and challenge of discipleship and commitment. Is entrance into discipleship a one-time event which a person either accepts or rejects outright? What if you are not ready when the call comes? What if the demands are beyond your abilities? What if you are ready to sign-up, but get rejected? We see all of this and more in today’s lessons.

In the reading from the Old Testament, Elisha refuses to leave the side of his mentor, Elijah. When Elisha was first called to the prophet’s role he was plowing a field. He accepted the call without hesitation, reservation, or a fall-back plan. He slaughtered his draw team and threw a big barbeque to celebrate his new ministry. Now, with Elijah preparing to depart this world, Elisha is steadfast and resolute in his desire to inherit a “double-portion” of his mentor’s spirit. When it comes to discipleship he has been all in from the very beginning, but does he know all the pain and hardship and struggle that await him in this calling? Perhaps not, but Elisha will not be deterred and, in the end, his commitment will see him through.

James and John already were followers of Jesus, but in today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, they demonstrate that they don’t quite understand His program. They are infuriated by a village that refuses hospitality to Jesus. The two brothers were known as “the sons of thunder”, in other words, they were a pair of hotheads. Hotheads indeed, because, using one of our contemporary phrases, we would say that they want to call in an air strike on the village in order to wipe it from the map. Rather than joining their indignation, Jesus rebukes them. All of this suggests that there are some things about our nature, about our personality, about who we are as we present ourselves to Jesus, that must change.

As Jesus and his followers make their way down the road toward Jerusalem, a potential disciple approaches Him and says, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Perhaps the emphasis should be on wherever, because Jesus responds that foxes have holes, birds have nests, but He has no place to sleep at night (maybe in part because He was not welcomed at the village). The text does not tell us whether or not this person followed, but the inference is that he did not fully appreciate the hardships associated with discipleship. It calls us to leave places where we are comfortable. It takes us to places we may not want to go. It puts us in situations where we may not be comfortable. It asks us to do things we may not want to do.

Somewhere on down the road, Jesus meets a person who He wants to be a disciple and so He extends an invitation: “Follow me.” “Well, I would like to,” the person responds, “but first I have to bury my father.” It seems like a reasonable concern, but Jesus tells the person to let others tend to the matter. It reminds us that the call to discipleship does not always come to us when it is convenient for us. In fact, the most urgent demands on us often come at times when we are least able to respond to them, forcing us to determine what really matters in life.

A final person approaches Jesus and volunteers to follow, but first has to go home and say goodbye. Jesus’ response is sharp and to the point, “You cannot put your hand to plow and look backward.” Disciples should never dive in if they are not ready or willing to see it through.

So here is the picture of discipleship painted by the people in these readings:

• One is all in, but somewhat naive about the road ahead.
• Two are in, but don’t fully get it.
• One wants to be in, but doesn’t appreciate how hard it is.
• One is invited in, but has too many other concerns.
• One wants in, but isn’t quite ready to give it his all.

What this is is not a pretty picture. What it is is a mirror. In each of these folks I see little bits and pieces of myself. And yet the great mystery is that in spite of all I am that I should not be, and all I am not that I should be, I am on the road with Jesus; following the Way as best I can. Hopefully I am a little better at it today than I was yesterday. By the grace of God I will be a little better at it tomorrow than I am today. This too is a picture of discipleship and commitment. It suggests that we are to give ourselves to God as we are as best we can, being open all the while to what God’s love can help us to become.

St. Paul reminds us that there are markers along the way; a kind of measuring stick of our grace-filled transformation that he calls the fruit of the Spirit. Somehow, emerging in us as we say yes to God is the life of God; a life marked my love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Initially these are present because we will them to be; our commitment to follow makes us mindful to act in a way that a follower should act. But eventually, over time, we become intertwined with these qualities and bring them to bear in life as naturally as a tree bears its fruit.

Mary Oliver is a contemporary writer and poet who grew up in my native Ohio. For years her religion was the religion of nature, but now, late in life and after pain, loss, and hardship, she is beginning to look beyond the creation for the Creator. She describes her journey in this short poem:

Another morning and I wake with thirst
for the goodness I do not have. I walk
out to the pond and all the way God has
given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord,
I was never a quick scholar but sulked
and hunched over my books past the
hour and the bell; grant me, in your
mercy, a little more time. Love for the
earth and love for you are having such a
long conversation in my heart. Who
knows what will finally happen or
where I will be sent, yet already I have
given a great many things away, expect-
ing to be told to pack nothing, except the
prayers which, with this thirst, I am
slowly learning.

Mary Oliver gives us another picture of discipleship; one which resonates with my experience (and perhaps with yours). Trying hard, but getting nowhere, slowly learning, willing to follow but not sure how, holding on to the prayers we have found, willing and wanting more time to get it right. Discipleship.