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The 4th Sunday after Pentecost, Year C (Proper 13)

Setting Our Face Toward Jerusalem

Readings: 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62

“When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem,” Luke tells us in the Gospel. Those few words say so much. We know the end of the story. We know what Jesus was facing in Jerusalem. He doesn’t want to go, but he knows it is what he must do. It is where God is calling him to be. It is a time of change in his life; it is a time of transition. It is a time in which he must move forward even though he knows the consequences. He looks to God for the strength to sustain him in what he needs to do.

A cousin of mine was known for his speed once he got behind the wheel. He claimed that although he drove well over the speed limit he had never had a ticket. “I drive with my eyes on the rear view mirror!” he bragged. I did not find it particularly reassuring.

I realize that many of us live our lives that way. We are constantly looking back, worrying about past mistakes, unwilling to take a risk, unable sometimes even to grow up and take responsiblity for ourselves. It can affect us in our personal lives. Churches too can be places that get stuck in the past.

The readings this week are an invitation to a new kind of journeying, a new way of setting our face towards Jerusalem. We followers of Jesus are reminded that on life's journey there will be tough choices that require clear vision and determination. There will be choices that require moving forward trusting in God's promises. They are choices that remind us not to keep checking in the rear view mirror.

Elisha is being called by God to bear the prophetic word in place of Elijah. Elijah is the tried and tested past, Elisha, the unknown future. It is difficult to assume that kind of leadership, that kind of responsibility. Elisha wants to cling to the strength, reputation and wisdom of the older man. Elijah knows that he needs to hand over the responsibility to the next generation.

He asks a wonderful question, a question that opens up so many possibilities. "Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you." He knows that Elisha must be ready to act. He must be decisive. He must even risk failure. Elisha asks for the right thing, a double share of Elijah's spirit, the same source of strength that sustains Elijah, strength beyond his own that will assist him in the challenges ahead, Godly strength.

Elijah wisely points out that it is up to him. "If you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not," he tells him. It is a matter of whether or not he has the capacity within himself to accept the grace of God. And of course, Elisha sees beyond the ordinary to the heart of the matter. His anguished cry is the cry of one being deprived of all he trusts and holds dear. It is a cry of loss, but also a cry of suddenly discovered confidence. The challenge for him is to continue to move forward with that same confidence without looking back. The task for him is to channel God's grace through his own gifts and strengths.

It is not easy to set one's face toward Jerusalem. It is not easy to be a disciple of Christ, to live as Christ would have us live, to be all that God wants us to be. Even Jesus’ own disciples did not always live the life of grace. On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples approach a village in Samaria. They are looking for a place to stay. The villagers when they hear that Jesus is headed for Jerusalem refuse to receive them. James and John, not named the sons of thunder for nothing, react with anger. “Lord, shall we call down fire from heaven to burn them up?”

Doesn’t their reaction shock you just a little? Wouldn't you think after all the time they have spent with Jesus that they would have known that it was not his way of doing things, that he was not going to approve of their reaction, that it was not God’s call to them? What they were calling for was not retaliation but a show of power that is nothing short of barbarism. It is the kind of thinking that is behind war, apartheid, homophobia, racism and any number of evils done in the name of God.
We may be shocked by the behaviour of the disciples, yet if we reflect on it, their reaction probably is not all that surprising. In similar circumstances any of us, church going and God fearing people though we may be, people trying to live the Christian life, people trying to answer the call of God, might have reacted in much the same way. All any of us need to do is to look into our hearts to see the truth of this. Are we not constantly surprised, shocked, and humbled at the feelings of anger and resentment that arise in us when we are opposed or threatened?

And yet, the question of punishment did not even occur to Jesus. Even if it had, to punish a whole village for the attitudes of a few would be not only unjust, but beyond reason. Jesus knew that the only thing to do when people refuse to love you is to move on.

There follow a number of meetings between Jesus and some 'wannabe' followers. As they travel along the road, someone comes to Jesus. “I will follow you wherever you go!” he says. He is caught in his emotions. He hasn’t really thought it through. Jesus knows that such emotional decisions come from good intentions but often do not last.

“Foxes have holes, birds have nests; we have nowhere to lay our heads,” Jesus points out to the man. Jesus offers change, transience and insecurity. It is a good idea to know what you are getting into before you take the plunge. We often forget that there is a cost to discipleship. We forget that it is a way that requires commitment. For the way of the Christian is costly and demanding. It promises not softness, but suffering, not comfort, but challenge, not safety, but sacrifice. There is security, joy and abundance, but there is also blood, sweat and tears.

Jesus meets someone along the road. Is it someone he has seen during his ministry? Does he see some possibility in this person? He issues an invitation, “Follow me.”
“First let me go and bury my father,” is the reply. A reasonable request, we may say. Indeed it is a sacred duty. And Jesus answers with perhaps one of the most shocking replies in all of Scripture. “Let the dead bury their own dead!” It shocks our sensibilities. It sounds like fanaticism. It forces us to ask how we respond to God’s call. It challenges family values with a higher claim of allegiance, our allegiance to God. Looking ahead is the stance that God seems to call for and affirm. The call to radical compassion challenges all other calls.

Others on the road overhear the conversation. “I will, but not yet,” they respond. It is a common response, isn’t it? First let me raise my family. Let me get the children through university. Let me get settled in my job and save a little money.
Is it impossible to really be a follower of Jesus? As he writes to the Galatians Paul sets out what it means to choose to follow Christ. He affirms the need to choose between grace and law, between wanting to do something and having to do it. The Galatians were saying that if Christ has set them free from the law then that means they can do whatever they wish. “No!” says Paul. “We are under a new law, the law of love.” That sets us free to become everything that God wants us to be. What a wonderful gift that is, but what a difficult law to keep!

Our parish is in a period of transition. The way ahead is often unclear. There are many unknowns as we discern where God is calling us. We may well be tempted to cling to the past, to what we know. We have overcome so many difficulties. We have a congregation that is committed to the Gospel. We have a caring and compassionate community. We have strong leaders with a clear vision for what this church could be.

It will require persistence in the faith on the part of every one of us. Do we have that willingness to follow Jesus? Do we take the promises of our baptism seriously? Are we willing to live differently? Are we willing to see with eyes of faith, like Elisha, to see beyond the ordinary to where God is leading us? Do we have that sense of radical compassion? Let us set our face toward Jerusalem. God will give us the grace to carry it out. We will have that share of the spirit. We will learn to channel God's grace through our own gifts and strengths. We will become all that we are meant to be, not only in our personal lives, but as the Church. Amen.
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