Sunday, July 1, 2007

Put your hand to the plow and don't look back

Missionary journeys and the end of empire ...
Today's lessons made me ponder the end of the Anglican Communion, as I was reminded of the end of the British Empire. Ten years ago, you'll remember, this weekend, the British returned Hong Kong to China.
Twenty-seven years ago, and a few weeks, I was ordained, and the church into which I was ordained no longer exists.
But hasn't Jesus been telling us this all along, not to put our faith in empires, to put our hand to the plow and not look back?? To go with Jesus on a missionary journey is a scary thing. Some churches, with full pews and large pledged incomes, have the luxury of pretending that those scary missionary journeys, strict and spare, are not for them. They are. They are for all of us, if we want an Episcopal Church that reflects the gospel imperative -- if we want an Episcopal Church at all. Put your hand to the plow and don't look back.

Proper 8-C July 1, 2007 St. Paul’s
1 Kings 2:1, 6-14 Psalm 77 Galatians 5:1, 13-25 Luke 9:51-62

Ten years ago the United Kingdom handed over a bit of its empire. It returned Hong Kong to China. There was once a time when Christianity and empire went together, and for many many years, the sun never set on the British Empire – which included the Church of England. In commemoration of those years, let us sing two stanzas of Hymn 24 – stanzas 3 and 4.

As o'er each continent and island
the dawn leads on another day
the voice of prayer is never silent,
nor dies the strain of praise away.

So be it, Lord, thy throne shall never,
like earth's proud empires, pass away;
thy kingdom stands, and grows for ever,
till all thy creatures own thy sway.

Many of us are the products of that imperial church. Here in North America, of course, where we have recently celebrated 400 years since the founding of the English colony Jamestown, Virginia. Lillet in Jamaica, Joanne in Trinidad, Benjamin in Ghana, James in Kenya – many of us have experiences shaped by a church that was a big, powerful cultural institution, even if we did not belong that that particular church, we knew the power of its traditions, we recognized the cadence of its language, our hearts beat to the downbeat of its four-square – or waltz tune -- missionary hymns.

Well, as the residents of Hong Kong will tell you, times have changed. Things in that British Crown Colony are not quite the same as they used to be. If the Chinese are now in control of China, well lots of people are in control of North America, and not very many of them are Episcopalians any more. Instead of that downbeat, we wiggle to a strange, syncopated rhythm. To many Episcopalians, it doesn’t seem like our world anymore.

Look at what happened to poor Elisha. He was a dedicated follower of the prophet Elijah. “As long as you, yourself live, I will not leave you,” he said to Elijah. They travel a while, to the bank of the River Jordan, and in a whoosh of a chariot of fire, Elijah is taken up, leaving Elisha behind, wondering what would happen next. In the words of another old four-square missionary hymn, “Elijah’s mantle o’er Elisha cast.” Elisha now becomes Israel’s leading prophet, but we the reader are left with the sense that things have changed, and that things will never be the same again. We are uncertain as Elisha was uncertain as to what would happen next.

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. Those British missionaries thought they could just bring the Church of England with them wherever they went, but it seems that not even the glories of the Church of England can contain the kingdom of God as it breaks in – as it always has done – around us.

I’ve been thinking lately with all this upheaval in the Anglican Communion, and here in the Episcopal Church, that the Church into which I was ordained 27 years ago no longer exists. It feels like it is crumbling around my ears. What happened to Anglican reasonableness, to our pride in being the middle way between Protestant and Catholic, to all those wonderful hymns, missionary or not? What happened to a sense of security in this institution, to this church as a place where we could all go to be baptized, married and buried, to its reliability as an employer, a deliverer of pastoral care? We’re all on the banks of the River Jordan, watching something go rising up in a blaze of fire, although we don’t know quite what we are seeing.

Welcome to the missionary life. Apparently, if we read the Gospel of Luke correctly, this uncertainty is the way it has always been. The chief cornerstone of our faith is not this building, or any building, or any institution or empire. It is Jesus Christ, and to mix our metaphors, Jesus is on the move, to Jerusalem, not to security and stability, but to danger and to change.

Today’s reading from Galatians is one of those lessons from Paul we preachers would rather do without – a list of sins we’d rather not read about in church, thank you very much. But at the very end of the lesson, Paul gives us the reason why we follow Jesus, one way to describe what discipleship is all about: The fruit of this Spirit, Paul says, is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Those are not the things empires can deliver, even empires based on the Church of England. But for we who live by the Spirit – who put our hands to the plow and do not look back – those are the fruits by which we will live.