This is a sermon which I preached on Sunday, June 30, 2019, at Calvary Episcopal Church in Fletcher, NC. That is the day that Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church in Dallas had dubbed “Freedom Sunday.” Without giving it a lot of investigation, I assume this is because June 30 falls so close to July 4 that Dr. Jeffress felt compelled to put on a show of nationalistic fervor. I don’t think that kind of display belongs anywhere near a church sanctuary, and I doubt that’s the only thing Robert Jeffress and I would disagree about. Including what it means to be free and what sort of responsibilities that brings along with it.
You can find the readings that this sermon was based on here. Look under “Track One.”
Here’s the sermon:
It was about this time in June, 1991, when I walked into the municipal court in Nashville, Tennessee. Outside on James Robertson Parkway, the hot, humid air was so thick that you really needed a scuba tank to get from your car to the building. Inside, the air conditioning was so strong that you could have hung meat in the marble foyer. I found my way to traffic court and took a seat in the middle the subtle chaos of a courtroom at work. No one, especially the judge, seemed to be paying attention to anything, and I started to worry that they would call my name without me noticing. One by one the cases were called. One by one the defendants stood up and plead guilty, and one by one the judge sent them to traffic school.
But the sound of a phonograph needle scratching across a record could not have brought all that routine chatter came to a faster halt than when when the words “not guilty” left my mouth. You might have thought that no one in the history of this particular court had ever entered that plea before. I certainly did not expect to become the center of attention so quickly. The police officer (who gave me a ticket for something I’m still not sure you can get a ticket for) testified for about two minutes. Totally flustered, I mumbled something for 30 seconds. The judge peered over his half-glasses and allowed as how I was going to change my plea to guilty, go to traffic school, and be grateful for his mercy.
So, to a certain extent, I can sympathize with James and John when they got the full and complete attention of Jesus all of a sudden. This is not the response they expected. All they had done was to make the perfectly reasonable suggestion that someone call down fire upon some Samaritan village. It seemed reasonable because the Transfiguration, which they had just witnessed proved that Jesus was very much an heir to the tradition of the prophets. And what is the point of having that prophetic authority you don’t rain down fire on some unbelievers? From the stories that James and John had grown up hearing, prophets routinely called down fire as a sign of the power of the God of Israel.
But for Jesus, nothing about the Samaritan’s attitude threatens his understanding God’s power. His face is set toward Jerusalem. Theirs are not. No big deal. This difference doesn’t call for James and John call down the same fire that Elijah called down on the prophets of Baal. That might even prove to be a distraction from Jesus’s real goal: being taken up at Jerusalem. Luke spoils the ending at the start of this passage.
We get a similar spoiler at the beginning of the first lesson from 2 Kings. We know from the start of this story that Elijah’s will be taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. As prophets do, Elijah crosses a river to freedom following a path that God has made. Elijah is finally free from the incessant harassment of the government, free from the need to constantly bargain with God on behalf of Israel, and free from that pesky kid, Elisha, who won’t stop following him around. Even on this, his very last road trip, Elijah tries one way after another to leave his young protege behind. But Eisha is not ready for their relationship to be over. Three times Elisha is told to let go, and three times he just won’t do it.
Jesus also has would-be disciples who can’t seem to let things go, people who can’t get started following him because of the things they are holding on to. One potential disciple is actually called by Jesus who does not seem to give him the chance to go home and say goodbye. When Elisha was called by Elijah, he at least let Elisha go home and get a hug around the neck before they left.
But we already know that Jesus is a different kind of prophet, and for Jesus it is this moment, this present row which we have to plow, which demands our full attention. God is not looking to some future exit strategy. He does not come to bury the dead. He does not come to bring closure to the story because God’s story is not finished. Jesus tells the young man to “go and proclaim the Kingdom of God” because a part of the story, that part about resurrected life, has yet to be told.
Elisha does not know the resurrection story either. Elisha only knows that he has had the worst day ever. First, this grumpy old man who he has grown to trust and love keeps trying to leave him at every water stop between Gilgal and the Jordan. Then, once they are alone on the other side of the river, Elisha screws up his courage and asks for the one thing he wants: to be Elijah’s adopted son. Elijah’s response is a little less than the total enthusiasm Elisha has hoped for. Then, in the midst of all of this, he loses Elijah.
Filled with grief, Elisha doubts that he can ever speak the words of wisdom and power that came from his mentor. Still Elisha picks up the mantle of Elijah and begins to trudge back to the Promised Land. Standing on the banks of the Jordan river, he looks across to see 50 men from the company of prophets who are waiting to find out if he is Elijah’s heir. Enraged and scared by this predicament he’s in, Elisha smacks the water with the cloak which has fallen onto him and he cries out “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” In that moment, Elisha finds that God has never left, and that the path to freedom lies open before him too.
Freedom lies open before us too, and may seem more open this week than usual.
On Thursday we’ll use grilled meats and fireworks to bear witness to another anniversary of the signing of our Declaration of Independence. This is the document which includes that curious phrase “we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights … among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” “The pursuit of happiness” is a curious phrase that is somewhat difficult for us to nail down 243 years later. There’s a slippery slope which starts with those words and ends with our getting bound up in the effort to satisfy our own desires.
One paradox of being free people is that we stay free people by being willing to limit our own behavior. Saint Paul, who never misses an opportunity to dispense advice, has given us a handy list of behaviors we should avoid if we want to remain free. And when I read Paul’s list, I start off pretty well. Licentiousness? Nope! Idolatry? Not so much. Sorcery? Definitely no. But then things get a little more difficult. Strife, anger, and envy start to hit a little too close to home. And those are the things I can still accept as things to be avoided. Paul clearly was not watching this week’s political debates when he banned dissensions and factions. Or maybe he was. Or maybe this is why we don’t seem, as of yet, to have inherited the Kingdom of God.
Another paradox of our freedom is that we don’t receive that inheritance just as individuals. Entering into the Kingdom of God is a group project, and it involves all God’s children. What is our freedom for if not to welcome in God’s children when they flee from poverty, violence, and civil war? Inheriting God’s Kingdom means caring for the spiritual, emotional, and physical needs of the smallest and most vulnerable of its heirs.
Loving our neighbor as we love ourselves fulfills everything which was required by the law that was given to Moses. Living in the Spirit not only means we can check off “complying with the law” from of our to-do list, it also means that our lives will bear certain fruits. Joy, peace, patience, and kindness. Faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. At the top of the list is love, and St. Paul says that living in the Spirit means living in love. That is the story which God has been trying to tell us all along. God’s story is about love and God’s story is love.
We stand today, like Elijah on the banks of the Jordan and like the disciples on the edge of a Samaritan village, with the hard won privilege to speak freely. Our words have the power to do unbelievable things … right now, right this very moment. The most powerful, most life changing thing they can do is tell God’s story to a world that needs Christ’s loving, liberating, and life-giving word.