Gospel: Luke 9:51-62
1st Reading: 1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21
2nd Reading: Galatians 5:1, 13-25
I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that Nick and I have enjoyed attending some comedy shows. A few years ago we saw Eugene Mirman and he told this joke: “I was thinking about truth or dare, and what the first dare was. I bet it was a cave man daring a cave woman to throw a burning stick at a monster. And I bet she was like, ‘Fine, truth.’ And I bet he was like, ‘OK. What’s your biggest fantasy?’ And I bet she was like, ‘Agriculture.’” It was hilarious the way he said, “Agriculture.”
We take so many things for granted, and agriculture is one of them. Here we have two stories involving agriculture—plowing a field, to be specific. In the first, Elisha is plowing, with a team of 12 yoke, meaning 24 oxen. In the Gospel reading, Jesus refers to plowing, which takes persistent focus, just like following him, does.
What a leap it must have been to go from hunter-gatherer societies to ones of agriculture. Of course, it took place over time. In fact, my family used to go hunting when I was kid, and I still like to go pick berries in the summer. However, I am not going to get the majority of my food that way. When humans began to cultivate the land, we started to be able to feed ourselves better, and we started to survive longer, but it is not the end of the story.
We have found that our intense way of doing agriculture is damaging our home, the earth. Working the soil so much releases a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and is depleting the soil. We are not replenishing the nutrients in the soil as quickly as we are taking them out. Our current way of agriculture may not be able to meet all the needs of humans and animals moving forward.
I've been reading a little about an alternative way of growing food called permaculture or food forests. We saw this working in Nicaragua. In some places people chop down all the trees and grow rows and rows of coffee plants. That takes a lot of fertilizer which is expensive. But the coffee co-ops we visited were shade-grown in food forests. There is a canopy of trees, dropping leaves and fruit which are fertilizer for the coffee plants, and providing fruit to eat for the people who live on the land. The birds in the high trees also provide fertilizer in the form of droppings which nourish the plants below. Below that are coffee plants, and other medium sized shrubs. More fertilizer comes from leaves and fruit dropping on the forest floor. Then in the ground, even lower, are other plants, like beans and squash. In this way, food can be grown in a way that is sustainable and which may not need added fertilizer. It takes some time to establish a food forest, but it might be worth the wait. The people who lived in the cofee co-op ate better, more variety of food, and were able to send their kids to school longer than other places we visited, because of the economic benefits of this way of farming. Look for shade-grown coffee in the store. You'll be doing the earth a favor. Drink fair-trade coffee and you'll be helping to send one of these kids to school or ensuring proper nutrition for a family like the ones we met.
In Galatians, too, it seems people went from one extreme like hunter gatherer society and then the other like agriculture and then found an even more life-giving way. People had been slaves to the law. If you want to be a good Jew, you followed God's law. Once the people were called into freedom, they didn't necessarily use their freedom very well and used it as a chance to do whatever they wanted, like the freshman boys at my college 20 years ago. It was like they never had the chance to make decisions for themselves, so they didn't know that if they drank all day and night, they wouldn't pass their classes. 1/3 were on academic probation after the first term and a large percentage of those boys flunked out after the second term. I don't know why, but the girls seemed to be a little more mature. The Galatians are like the freshman boys, given their freedom there was a lot of drunkenness and carousing. And now God is saying, let's be sensible. Let's practice a little self-control, love, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, and gentleness. It may not be the law anymore, but isn't it a better way?
Jesus' Disciples are following him to Jerusalem. Several of them were fishermen with their own priorities and entitlements and expectations of life. They find themselves following Jesus, but they are still focused on their old priorities. They walk with him, but they are out of step with him, otherwise they would know better than to ask to command fire to destroy some people they didn't like. Jesus face is set toward Jerusalem and the cross. He is single-minded in his focus. And here are all these immature Disciples goofing off and being rude and not taking their task of following Jesus very seriously. So Jesus rebukes them, scolds them. Here, we have the way of the Disciples, the way of the world, focused on glory, focused on power, on greed, on violence, and here we have the way of Jesus, focused on love, focused on sacrifice. Jesus is telling them they have to do more than put one foot in front of the other in order to follow him, they have to completely reorient their direction, or they are going to miss this amazing thing that is about to happen. They are going to fail to get it, to live life differently from the way they did before, a transformation as big as going from hunter-gatherer to agriculture, or from being slaves to the law or slaves to sin to servants of one another and of God.
We are all slaves to sin. We live in a world that values power, money, celebrity, selfishness, and greed. We have our focus. We are trained in it from childhood. It is our culture. It is who we think we are. But God knows who we really are and has plans for us. God comes by and puts his mantle on us, his coat, like Elijah does to Elisha when he is picking out his disciple, and we are clothed with Christ. We have a new identity. We are claimed for love and community and hope and life and equality. We are called to follow Jesus from the moment of our baptism. The old way is washed away and a new direction, new priorities emerge that are God's priorities.
In the Old Testament reading, Elisha is allowed to go back and have a big goodbye barbecue before he heads out on his journey, his ministry with Elijah. It is a big transition, a lot to take in. He's not sure if he will ever see his family and friends again. Elijah wants him to think it over, to prepare himself for what is ahead. But in another way he doesn't look back, because he burns all the yokes, eats all the oxen, destroys all the other allegiances to money and his identity as a farmer. He doesn't give himself the chance to turn back and change his mind. There is nothing left for him there if he does. When he goes to follow Elijah and God, he gives himself completely to that endeavor.
In the other reading, Jesus tells the Disciples their focus must be singular. No going back to your father's funeral. No saying goodbye. Keep your eyes on the road or you will lose your way. It seems like Jesus is being pretty mean. But he is saying what mattered before, doesn't matter anymore. There is new way, and if you take your eyes off the road now, you are never going to make it. The Disciples don't get it that this part of the journey is different than before. They've been in training up until now. This is where the rubber hits the road. It won't be long until Jesus is arrested and crucified, and they need to be able to remember what's most important and focus on what will give ultimate hope. It won't be violence. It won't be hatred or anger. It will be love and forgiveness. And I suppose, once Jesus was resurrected and forgave the Disciples for betraying him, they never did lose focus again of what is most important. Once Jesus was raised, they went from being Disciples to being teachers, they became leaders in the Jesus-following community, the loving and merciful community. It was incredibly uncomfortable for them, but because they took off the yoke of the world, the fear based values of this world that said that it is always about glory and power and that death was the final word, and put on Jesus' yoke which isn't as heavy as it looks (“My yoke is easy and my burden is light”), they found a new way of living that meant fulfillment and truth and hope.
Jesus has been resurrected for us, too, not with accusations or anger or to rain fire down on us, but with love and forgiveness. We focus on Jesus. We focus on love. But the thing about Jesus is that he never stays in one place for long, so what that love means for each time place might look a little bit different. The needy in my community might be different than the oppressed in your community. Your gifts are different from my gifts, so discipleship, or following Jesus looks a little bit different for each person and in each time and in each place, just like feeding people looks a little bit different for each person in each time, in each place, just like caring for the earth looks different in every place and time. So we go from one life-giving way to another, Jesus teaching us a better way all the while, and we grow up from disciples into teachers and finally pass the mantle on to the next generation and trust them to carry the good news forward and to learn new ways of conveying it to ears longing for hope.
We get to be focused on Jesus, the source of all life and love, to direct us in the most life-giving way to live in our time and place, the most life-giving and loving way to be church, so that none of us gets stuck in one way of doing things, but so we are always on the move with Jesus into difficult places where mercy is most needed.