Follow the Vagabond

Sermon: Follow the Vagabond

Texts: 1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21; Luke 9:51-62

Date: October 6, 2019

©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church

Those were the days when the Jesus movement was literally a movement, a leader and disciples on the move. Jesus was an itinerant, a vagabond, a nomad. He was coming near to the people with the good news that the Kingdom of God was drawing near—both a message and a demonstration.

Luke’s gospel makes sure we know that Jesus’ journey has gone around a significant corner as today’s story opens. He had set his face to go to Jerusalem. He was marching toward the lion’s den, in other words; going to the center of religious and political power knowing that he would likely be arrested and killed for blasphemy and sedition. So it’s not an “I love to go a-wandering/val de ri, val de rah” season for him. Things are getting serious.

Jesus had sent messengers ahead of him in a village of Samaritans, presumably to find villagers who would be willing to provide lodging and food for the itinerants. Maybe they were doing a little preaching as well, exploring whether Jesus’ message would play well in Peoria. But they didn’t find the welcome they hoped for. The text says it was because he was on the way to Jerusalem, which Samaritans saw as a rival religious center to the place they preferred to worship. It wouldn’t have been that unusual for Samaritans to refuse to receive Jewish pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. There was ethnic tension as well as religious tension between Samaritans and Jews.

James and John are miffed. These young men were nicknamed “Sons of Thunder” and they live up to their nickname by asking Jesus whether they should command fire to come down from heaven to destroy the inhospitable Samaritans. Now, where in the world would they get an idea like that? From the prophet Elijah. Centuries before Elijah answers an officer sent by the king of (where else?) Samaria with these words: “If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty [soldiers].” [2 Kings 1:10, 20] And then he backed up those words with commanding fire to come down, which it did, and that was the end of those fifty-one soldiers who had the audacity to question his authority as a prophet. Actually he does it twice with two different cohorts of soldiers. The third set of fifty soldiers has the good sense to invite Elijah to the palace. James and John must have loved that story as little boys in Hebrew school; why not replay it now? Stories of Elijah had deeply influenced the way Jesus was carrying out his ministry and the way his actions were being interpreted.

But not this time. One of my commentaries notes that Elijah was “both a type and an anti-type” in Luke’s gospel. Jesus was like Elijah in some ways, but went beyond what Elijah was able to do and was able to comprehend. Jesus comprehended God as a loving, forgiving God. And the Jesus movement was a non-violent movement. So: No, boys; sorry, Sons of Thunder, we’re not going to destroy our opponents. The choice words Jesus uses to “rebuke” James and John are left to our imagination. I imagine he reviewed the discipleship training that appears in the beginning of this chapter of Luke: Wherever they do not welcome you, shake the dust of your feet and move on.

Things are getting serious, but not in a slay-your-enemy way. They’re getting serious in a prepare-to-suffer-and-die way. The next section reveals the extreme seriousness with which Jesus took the prospect of people following him to Jerusalem. Three vignettes of people deciding whether or not to follow Jesus unfold. One volunteers, and Jesus says soberly that he is signing up for homelessness—a warning. There’s a melancholy tone to Jesus’ voice here; it made me think right away of Paul Simon’s “Homeless” song, which we’ll listen to a bit later. One of the verses has the line “strong wind, strong wind; many dead, tonight it could be you.” The homelessness of vagabond Jesus contains both a promise of freedom and the threat of vulnerability.

Jesus tries to enlist a second follower, but he makes it clear that he can’t wait for the man to go and bury his father. Since burying one’s parents was a central obligation in that culture, it would have been a shocking thing for Jesus to say. One of my sources says it may have been the time between two stages of burial—the first being the burial of the body and the second being the re-burial of the bones in the family ossuary about a year later. So the man may have had some months to wait before that second burial. But time is short in the Jesus movement; they are on the road to Jerusalem, there might not be a next year to follow Jesus.

The third vignette echoes another Elijah story. When Elijah was calling Elisha to take up his authority as a prophet, Elisha asks to go home and kiss his mama good-bye. It seems Elijah allowed it, but Elijah once again is “type and anti-type” for Jesus, because he won’t wait. Maybe he was worried the recruit’s mama and papa would beg them not to go into this uncertain and unprofitable future; mamas and papas, can you relate? Don’t look back, Jesus says. Put your hand to the plow and go into the future with me.

It’s texts like these that inspired theologian Soren Kierkegaard to write this little parable: “I wonder if a man handing another man an extremely sharp, polished, two-edged instrument would hand it over with the air, gestures, and expression of one delivering a bouquet of flowers? Would not this be madness? What does one do, then? Convinced of the excellence of the dangerous instrument, one recommends it unreservedly, to be sure, but in such a way that in a certain sense one warns against it.”[1] Kierkegaard thought some Christian sermons should be devoted to warning against Christianity, because it would be the responsible thing to do regarding this excellent yet potentially dangerous way of life. It seems as if Jesus is simultaneously inviting followers into discipleship and warning them about it. It’s an excellent Way; but one that demands something of the followers. Hitting the road for Jerusalem was no time for rash promises.

Is Christianity still dangerous and demanding? That depends on where and how one is living it out. Following Jesus has led innumerable people into martyrdom, no doubt about it. But that’s unlikely to be the outcome for peaceful people living out their walk with Jesus in a home such as ours. I don’t think that disqualifies us from being called Christian or claiming the Christian way as our own.

What would disqualify us from claiming to follow Christ would be to take up following with no intention of making any kind of sacrifice. We cannot be comfortably settled in our homes and habits and hobbies and put on Christ as window dressing. We can’t be devoted to tradition more than we are devoted to a vagabond Jesus. The Jesus movement is still on the move; it summons pioneers more than settlers. As Evelyn Underhill wrote, “the coming of the Kingdom is perpetual. Again and again, freshness, novelty, power from beyond the world, break in by unexpected paths, bringing unexpected change. Those who cling to tradition and fear all novelty in God’s relation with the world deny the creative activity of the Holy Spirit, and forget that what is now tradition was once innovation; that the real Christian is always a revolutionary, belongs to a new race, and has been given a new name and a new song.”[2] The Way is our home now; as Jesus said, the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. The movement can’t hole up in the dark like the foxes or feather a pretty nest like the birds because it’s on the move.

The theme in our “Outsiders” series for this week is “the Homeless,” inspired by Jesus declaring himself homeless in this radical text. Few people would hold up homelessness as an ideal to pursue, at least not the way it is manifested in our society. Homelessness is not a choice for most of those experiencing it, and homeless people deserve all the help we can give them individually and collectively. It would be a misuse of the gospel to look at people experiencing homelessness and think it’s not our problem and none of our business if they want to be homeless like Jesus.

Becoming literally homeless is not a Christian goal or ideal. But risking something–risking some insecurity and uncertainty in the name of Jesus is an aspiration for those trying to follow Jesus. Following Jesus is about now, not later on when I’ve got all the other stuff done and dusted. And it’s about expanding our sense of family to include those with whom we walk the way. Following Jesus is not about saying goodbye to your old family so much as it is saying hello to your new one, your siblings and children and parents near and far.

As I have been musing on these texts this week, knowing we would be celebrating our Rain and Shine Capital Campaign, my first thought was how ironic it was to have a gospel text about accepting the essential homelessness of Christ just at the moment we are pledging to pour a ton of money into our church home. What timing! We could have thrown the theme and the text aside, of course. But I came to appreciate how giving money to a campaign like this represents a risk for every person that gives. It represents a step away from personal comfort and security—all the gifts that are coming to shore up the church and make us more environmentally responsible could have landed in each household’s vacation budget or IRA or whatever would have added to the household’s ease. And instead you are generously investing in the church being here for another forward-facing generation. In a sense we make “Outsiders” of ourselves whenever we step outside the capitalist culture’s ethic of Me First/ Mine, Mine, Mine.

I’ve thought a lot about Elisha making a clean break with his former life as a farmer to take up the vocation of prophet. He killed his oxen, the tools of his trade, cooked them over the fire fueled with the wooden yokes he used to hitch them up with, and fed his neighbors. He started out his new life as a prophet with a clean slate, and gave away what he had to benefit those around him. He would have been a slow moving prophet if he had tried to drag that team of oxen along with him everywhere he went on his new road, eh? I admire the way he so boldly lightened his load as both a prophetic symbolic action and as a way to actually sustain his community. I don’t expect that any of the financial gifts coming to EHCC represent that magnitude of a break with the past. But they nevertheless represent sacrifice, no matter what the size of the gift. And that’s a step in the right direction.

There’s so much that goes on in and around this building that we can scarcely imagine how our support of this physical structure makes marvelous things possible. Listen to this children’s story from Tibet that has something to teach about what generosity unleashes: “Once upon a time, there was a queen of a great nation. Some of her attendants told her about the stories and teachings of a wise one in the city. She invited the wise one to the palace, and as she listened to the wise one, her spirits were lifted. She began to see that there could be meaning in her life, beyond simply being the wife of the king, a figure who stood by his side and looked beautiful, who came when summoned. She was utterly grateful to the wise one for the teaching and insights, and she sent the wise one a rather large donation of gold. Eventually the king heard about it and was furious. His wife (he thought) was gullible and had probably been taken in and then pressed for the gold. So he summoned this “wise one” to account for the gold.

“When the wise one came, she told the king the story of what happened to the money and where it went. First, she said, the money was taken to the marketplace. Many bolts of new cloth were bought, and all her followers and friends made new suits of clothes for the poor and the beggars of the city. In exchange, the poor gave all their old rags back to the wise one’s followers. The rags were washed and made into quilts, and the quilts were distributed to those in need. The old quilts were collected and made into rugs. The old rugs were collected and made into doormats. The old doormats were collected and made into straw. All the old straw was collected and made into bricks. And together the wise one’s followers and those who had shared some of the new things gathered and built houses to provide shelter for others, so that many could live in dignity.

“And the wise one looked at the king and said, ‘It is all because of one woman, the queen, who is not naïve at all. Your wife’s generosity has set in motion work for justice and the possibility of peace for many in the kingdom. Your good wife has learned that all is given to us as gift, that everything in the universe is entrusted to us to use for and with others and for the care of the earth. We must all learn this and keep remembering it—gifts are meant to be shared. And you,’ she said, fixing her gaze on the king, ‘what are you going to do? How generous are you going to be? What have you learned from your wife? What are you going to set in motion now that you have heard the story?’”[3]

Gifts of wealth, time and talent have potential to set things in motion, keep the Jesus movement moving in directions we haven’t yet dreamed of. Community of Christ, we are on the move even as we invest in this structure that has stood in the same place for over 100 years. Thank you for risking some of your personal comfort and security to follow the one who perpetually invites us to go toward the Kin-dom.

Beloved, let’s strive together to keep moving, following the vagabond Christ who goes ahead of us—never too settled, too comfortable, too cozy and clique-y. Community of Christ, the journey is our home. The invitation is before us to follow.

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[1] “The Dangerous Instrument” Parables of Kierkegaard Thomas C. Oden, ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978, p. 123

[2] Underhill, Evelyn quoted in This Will Be Remembered of Her: Stories of Women Reshaping the World by Megan McKenna Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2010, p. 162

[3] Ibid p. 184-85

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