A reflection on Proper 8-C, 2010: 1 Kings 2:1, 6-14; Psalm 77; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62 By Jacqueline Schmitt
I was lucky enough to get to hear a talk by Harvey Cox this last week, and in his overview of the state of religion in today’s society, he looked back to early years of his career. It got me thinking about two influential books of the early 1960s. One was Cox’s The Secular City, which talked about how little American society seemed to care about religion, or God, or the church – that we were moving into a “post-religious society.” The other was Gibson Winter’s The Suburban Captivity of the Church, which put some of the blame for this lack of interest held by the wider society in things religious, at the steps of the church door. The church had been domesticated, had become captive to the nice life of the suburbs. The church had become the place where middle class values reigned, where people went to church not because it meant much to them, or God forbid cost them anything too valuable, but because it was the thing to do. The church would bless and sanctify THEIR life style choices, their comfortable homes, the aspirations they had for their children to do well in school, succeed and prosper. Indeed, the church itself was the place to be comfortable, to be friends with people like “us,” whoever “we” were. Looking back, we can really see a dialog between these two books: one of the reasons one theologian noticed that fewer people were taking the church seriously and preferring a “secular city” to a religious world view was that the church had become something that it was not supposed to become, something that Jesus had never intended it to become: a safe place, an orderly place, a place with no poor people, no conflicts, no challenges.
Well, some 40 years later, times have changed. Instead of increasing secularization, society has become increasingly religious. Part of the reason is the richness America receives from immigrants from all over the world: Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, and of course Christians from all those places that used to be colonies. Soon after that book was published, the 1960s and ‘70s erupted in times of great upheaval – and so people began to realize that religious texts and faith were relevant – could provide guidance in troubling times.
Ah but there is the rub – and perhaps the explanation to the mindset of “the suburban captivity of the church.” These biblical texts, these words and stories about Jesus, are often themselves troubling. Jesus seems to be offering us comfort at the same time he challenges us to leave everything that is comfortable behind. No wonder people want the church to be a place of order and calm; if we took this Jesus too seriously, what kind of trouble would we invite?
The Jesus we encounter in this week’s Gospel is serious, stern. We are not yet half way through the Gospel of Luke, but already Jesus’ face is set toward Jerusalem, toward his confrontation with the powers and principalities, toward his passion and death. Jesus is on a mission which is serious, and spare: he has no possessions, not even a place to call home. Whoever follows him is required to take up a similar strict regimen: “Let the dead bury their own dead” – the disciples are not even allowed the bare minimum of fealty to their families – “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” If Jesus’ face is set toward Jerusalem, so then are the faces of his disciples – and of all of us who even today consider ourselves followers of Jesus.
Signing up for the kingdom of God means we don’t know what will happen next. Elisha had no idea Elijah would be taken up in a dramatic whirl of fire, leaving him in charge. The disciples following Jesus wanted a better life, and they recognized in Jesus the One who could bring that Good News to them; those disciples just had no idea they had to make such a dramatic and permanent break with everything they had known and loved in the past.
The passage we read today from Paul’s letter to the Galatians reminds me of another text from the 1960s: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Remember that when Paul found Jesus, he lost everything else: his status, his job, his comfort zone of being a Jew with power to persecute others. Paul here recognizes that when he lost all those things, he found freedom. He became a disciple of Jesus long after he knew that following Jesus meant following him to his death. Walter Brueggemann noticed that when you read today’s Gospel and this passage from Paul together, as we do today, you see that following Jesus does bring freedom but freedom …
of a very peculiar kind. It is not self-indulgent freedom, but freedom that enhances the neighborhood. The sum of the new freedom is “love of neighbor” …
There is a high cost to perfect freedom. To what plow have you put your hand, and where are you looking?