Saturday, June 30, 2007

Pentecost 5

On an email group this week a colleague shared a story about feeling stressed out and having too much to do.  I hasten to add this wasn’t a priest from this Diocese, or even this country – so I don’t feel like I’m telling tales out of school.  Anyway, this priest was going through in her mind all the things she had lined up for the day – a busy schedule of meetings and paperwork, and somewhere along the way trying to find some time to start thinking about Sunday’s sermon when, as she backed her car out onto the road, she saw a pigeon sitting on the verge with a broken wing.  Now, I suppose a lot of things go through your mind at a time like that – maybe she thought, ‘oh I just haven’t got the time’, or, if she was a bit nicer than me she might have thought, ‘oh, poor thing’, or even, ‘what was that Jesus said about God seeing even the sparrows when they fall?’ – at any rate, she got out of the car and picked it up, wrapped it up in one of her son’s school shirts and looked up the Yellow Pages for a wildlife rescue sanctuary.  To cut a long story short, just finding such a place was a major exercise – but eventually my colleague arrived home just before evening having made the magpie comfortable in its new home, and having spent some time in the country and made some new friends in the process.  Somewhere along the way, she wrote, something clicked into perspective for her.  She stopped fuming about the sermon that wasn’t getting written and started actually looking at the baby pigeon sitting next to her, trussed up on the front seat of the car, looking back at her just as intently.  Somewhere through the course of the day she started to notice the compassion in the voices of the veterinary nurses and the wildlife carers she spoke to, to enjoy the sounds and the smells of the bush and to slow down a bit.  Somewhere along the way, in other words, she began to realise that where she was today was exactly where God needed her to be. 

The story from the gospel today is clearly meant to focus our minds, as disciples and would-be followers of Jesus, on what’s actually important.  It happens right at the beginning of Jesus last long journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, in Luke’s gospel this fateful one-way journey becomes the context for a cycle of teaching and storytelling, and when you read it straight through you can almost visualise the small group of fellow-travellers being joined along the way by travellers on other journeys, by locals who fall into step with them for a few kilometres, others whose lives are so changed by the chance encounter on the road to Jerusalem that they want to leave everything and follow.  In Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ long journey to Jerusalem seems also to function like an extended metaphor for the journey of faith and the challenges that all of us as disciples are going to have to face for ourselves.  And the theme for today seems to be, how seriously are you taking this?  Are you really a disciple, are you really following, or are you just dabbling, is it just one lifestyle choice among many, are you getting distracted by stuff that isn’t important?

Except that, in the same story, there’s an uncomfortable little reflection about the opposite extreme, the pitfalls of religious extremism.  What happens when we start to take religion so seriously that we forget that we forget about what lies at the heart of it – the connection between loving God and loving people?  Like over-eager Crusaders at the very beginning of the journey, James and John want to help Jesus spread the gospel of peace by calling down fire and brimstone on an unsuspecting Samaritan village that didn’t seem to get the point.  My Bible commentary points out that here, in Samaria, was where Elijah called down fire from heaven on the prophets at Mt Carmel, and either the gospel writer is weaving that into his story or else the disciples thought they could repeat the act.  Jesus, of course, tells them off – but the point is, how often have Christians thought of the gospel not so much as a gift of love, as a weapon to wave around in people’s faces?

I was privileged last week to be asked to help formulate a response by the Diocese to a draft covenant that national churches are being asked to consider signing as a way of agreeing on those things we have in common and committing ourselves to remaining in conversation and seeking a common mind about the many issues that divide us.  These are difficult times in the life of the Anglican Communion, of course, and the idea of signing a covenant to remind ourselves that we all belong together even though we might have some fundamental theological disagreements seemed, at first glance, not to be such a bad idea - but looking at it more closely I couldn’t help but wonder if this too could become a way of forcing wayward parts of the Anglican Communion back into line, or even expelling parts of the global Church who seemed to be straying from what the majority decided was the correct party line.  When factions within the Church, whether it’s at a local or an international level, start playing power politics to enforce their own view of what God is like – then we’re back with the disciples asking Jesus to help us nuke the opposition.  And Jesus rebukes us for that.  There is at the moment a very real risk of the worldwide Anglican Communion splitting apart, but no amount of legalese is going to prevent that, the only thing that might make a difference is if we start taking Jesus’ command to love one another a bit more seriously.

So, here, Jesus rejects extremism and fanaticism.  Discipleship isn’t about forcing others to accept your truth.  But the problem is, a few verses later in today’s reading, Jesus himself seems to be taking a hard, almost fanatical line with would-be followers who make some entirely reasonable requests.  ‘Is it OK if I just bury Dad, first?  At least, let me say goodbye to the folks’.  And Jesus tells us, ‘nobody who puts their hand to the plough and then looks back, is fit for the kingdom of heaven’.  Isn’t this entirely unrealistic?  Somebody once pointed out to me that this story was the lectionary gospel reading for the day on 11 September 2001, the same day a number of young men left home and family to do what they believed was God’s will.  Isn’t this a gospel for fanatics, coming straight after Jesus’ rejection of fanaticism?   Is it even possible to turn aside from home and family to follow Jesus, in fact, isn’t our everyday life more likely to be the best context for discipleship?

Some of the standard preachers’ interpretations of this text – for example that maybe Dad isn’t quite dead yet, and the young man is just procrastinating – or else that Jesus is just making us decide what we think is most important – interpretations like this, I think, can be really unhelpful.  I mean, does anyone really want to be thought of by their son, or their husband or wife, as being a little bit less of a priority than God?  As soon as we start working out the implications of this sort of discipleship we arrive at the contradiction that loving God results in some pretty unloving behaviour toward human beings.  Maybe in fact that contradiction is what the story is really getting us to think about.  The people who come to Jesus seem to come with the assumption that discipleship is an either/or choice.  Setting your face toward Jerusalem means giving up everything else, ‘yes, Lord, I’ll join you on your journey, I’ll just finish this other stuff first’ – like changing trains – ‘for me to join you on your journey means I’ve got to get off my journey first’.

In some ways you can’t blame Jesus for reacting negatively to that, because what he rejects is the idea that discipleship is just one priority among many, just another thing that’s got to be fitted in to your busy schedule.  But I wonder what the reaction would be if the would-be follower had said, ‘Yes Lord, I will follow you, and I’ll do it by honouring my Dad.  I’ll follow you, and I’ll start by sharing your gospel of compassion and forgiveness with the folks at home.’  What if discipleship isn’t an either/or sort of thing, but a both/and sort of thing?  What if Jesus expects us to follow at the same time as doing all the other things that fill our lives?  What if we are actually meant to notice that it’s by paying attention to the ordinary details of our lives, and the ordinary people around us, that we learn to be a disciple?

This is a very Benedictine sort of idea, living the ordinary in an extraordinary way, making all of life a prayer.  Setting our face toward Jerusalem isn’t about abandoning everything else, or about avoiding distractions, but about seeing the ordinary things around us in a new way, taking detours we might never otherwise have noticed but for the receptivity and the awareness of discipleship.  What if setting our face toward Jerusalem, above all, means opening ourselves up to the surprise and the delight of the journey, wherever it takes us, and committing ourselves in love to the companions God gives us along the way?