Monday, March 5, 2018

When God is calling

ESR MDiv student Keelin Anderson delivered the following message during ESR worship on Friday, March 2, 2018:

Luke 9: 1-6 NRSV

Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. He said to them, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic. Whatever house you enter, stay there, and leave from there. Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” They departed and went through the villages, bringing the good news and curing diseases everywhere.

Luke 9: 57-62 NRSVAs 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.”

In our readings today, Jesus doesn’t pitch discipleship very well. He basically tells us that if you follow him you will be barefoot, hungry, homeless, and alienated from your family and your former way of life. So, I ask you, what are you all doing here contemplating seminary?

I joke here, but Jesus is saying his call is not an easy one. There will be people in your life who will not understand. There will be habits and assumptions of your own you will have to leave behind. God is calling for an ongoing radical transformation in your way of being in the world. Not everything and everyone in your life is going to come along with you.

Three years ago I was minding my own business, walking home from a yoga class in my neighborhood in Portland, OR, when an idea popped into my head. “Go find out what it takes to become a hospital chaplain,” it said. I had been a nurse and a massage therapist, so in a way this made sense, but I had never had a religion. I was raised by divorced parents, my mother a scientist and atheist, my father, a psychiatrist who during my teen years, lived in a cult that followed the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Religion at the least was suspect, at the most, dangerous.

I had come to my own sense of God in my late twenties through meditation, a practice I mostly did by myself. It had never occurred to me to do religion with other people. My sense of religious people came from American media. Throughout the world people were fighting wars in religion’s name. At home, “Christian family values” meant homophobia and misogyny. As far as I could see, religious people wanted either to control me or kill me. Now God wanted me to get an MDiv?

And here I am three years later giving a sermon! I have not made a dime since I began school. I have abandoned my husband and two cats alone at home in Portland for this Spring Term. I have discovered I am a Quaker. I am learning to appreciate that there is something to this “gathering together in Jesus’s name.” I feel more able than ever to express my true self and allow God to move through me, and, I have to work constantly on my faith and courage. 

As God’s followers, we are granted great power. In our first reading today, Luke tells us that Jesus offers his disciples “authority over demons” and the ability to cure “disease.” Taken in a modern psychological sense, we pastors and chaplains are sent out with the power to help people change and cope. We are at the scene when people are in dis-ease, struggling with their “demons” of personality, existential doubt, physical and mental health, employment, family, and injustice. 

To be open to convey this divine power, though, we disciples must first free up our ability to carry it. Jesus tells us, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic.” We here on earth are understandably filled with concerns of our own and our loved ones’ security. We all need to eat, a place to sleep, warm clothes and a steady income. Jesus requires us to put these concerns down in order lift up God’s gifts of solace and healing. Don’t worry, Luke assures us, God knows we need to eat. He writes, “Strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well” (12:29-31 NRSV).

We must also put down our needs to be well received by and useful to all people. Jesus goes on to instruct the Twelve, “Whatever house you enter, stay there, and leave from there. Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” The Ancient Israelites would have recognized this passage as a statement about those who do not offer hospitality. The dust of heathen countries was considered heathen so when you returned to Jerusalem, you shook the heathen dust off your feet before walking in the Holy Land. This gesture would have said to those inhospitable folks that they were not behaving like good Jews. 

In contrast to these ancient beliefs, I am going to choose a modern interpretation following the wisdom of the pop star Taylor Swift. When our ministry is rejected or misunderstood, we need to “shake it off.” If we leave an encounter burdened by judgements about the people encountered or shame about our own value to them, we will have no strength left to convey God’s peace and compassion. 

Our second reading today is a bit later in Luke’s narrative when Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem and his pending execution. Having walked from Judea to Galilee and back, gathering followers along the way, Jesus seems to be getting a bit tetchy with the crowds of would be devotees. People claim to follow him but don’t seem to understand what that means. 

People promise Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go,” and he says, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” The “Son of Man” being one of the titles for Jesus, I find this a profound teaching. When we follow a calling from God we are changing where we live. Our faith becomes more fundamental than our physical home. We move to make our home in God and God is nowhere or everywhere depending moment to moment on your courage and faith. 

This means that those of us following a call to God are going against the flow of our world. We in America are encouraged to concentrate all our energies on our individual burrows and nests. This feels natural. We must strive for more health, more security, more comfort, more time. When we make our home in God we are releasing these false sanctuaries. We are surrendering all that personal striving to God. And often it is not only our own security we are placing in this trust, but that of all those we love and support. Will God make sure I can send my kids to college on an assistant pastor’s salary? Will God provide health insurance for my partner while I write that book about the real meaning of the dietary laws in Leviticus?

When God says “Follow me,” we answer, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first…”. We have a long and reasonable list of things we feel we need to do before taking up our calling. We have commitments, obligations, pleasures to enjoy, messes to clean up. How could Jesus ask his disciples to ignore the need to bury a father or to say goodbye? Jesus admonishes, “Let the dead bury the dead.” This sounds rather severe. The commentaries suggest that Jesus means “Let the spiritually dead bury the physically dead” as when you take up salvation in Jesus Christ, you are granted new spiritual life. When we look to the end of the passage, though, there is an additional layer of meaning. 

Jesus tells the hesitant disciples, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” The Jews in Jesus’s audience would have recognized a reference here to First Kings 19:19-21. The passage occurs at a time when the Israelites are in transition between the old pagan gods and the new, one God of Israel, often worshipping both. There has been a terrible drought. The prophet Elijah is called to challenge the pagan god Baal to a duel with the God of Israel to see who can end the drought. The God of Israel wins but in the process Elijah ends up killing the prophets of Baal. This angers Jezebel, the Queen of Israel, and she calls for Elijah’s death. 

Elijah, now on the run and afraid for his life, complaining and feeling abandoned, is soon called by God to select a new prophet named Elisha. Elijah finds Elisha plowing with a team of oxen. Elijah gives Elisha his mantle and guess what Elisha says? “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.” Sound familiar? Elijah, reminiscent of Jesus, snaps back the cryptic, “Go back again; for what have I done to you?” Elisha does go back to say goodbye to his family but he also sacrifices his oxen, marking a radical break from his former life and work. 

What these teachings from Jesus mean together is that in a sense we must die to some aspects of our old identities to take up our callings. We may have old gods and idols that we need to let go of like the Israelites. We may have to break the norms or even the laws of society to follow the will of God like Elijah. We may have to leave our family and our jobs like Elisha. Ultimately, Jesus is saying that if one looks back while plowing, the furrow will be crooked. We will not be able to plant our seeds for the future if we keep gazing at the past. 

So, my fellow and future seminarians, as you prepare yourselves to move more fully into God’s house, remember that though at times you may have cold feet, a stomach full of butterflies and nothing else, and moments of awkward truth telling and painful insecurity, you are bringing the good news. You are proclaiming through your being in the world with your eyes on God, that the seeds of hope and healing can be nurtured within a straight, deep, furrow of faith, waiting patiently to sprout and reach for the sun

Keelin Anderson joined ESR as an MDiv Access student in the spring of 2016. She is spending the spring 2018 semester on campus as a residential Cooper Scholar. Keelin lives in Portland, OR, where she attends Multnomah Monthly Meeting (North Pacific Yearly Meeting). She holds a BA from Reed College and a BS from Oregon Health Sciences University. 

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