A man came into church the other day asking for gasoline money. When I told him we couldn’t help, he looked like I’d run over his dog, “I’m shocked,” he said, “but aren’t you the church?” For the poor and needy doesn’t it feel like the church has become a sort of ATM machine. Ask and you expect to receive. Our elected officials don’t help. They love to offer “thoughts and prayers” but little else. “Don’t worry,” they say as they ignore vital social issues, “the churches will take care of it.” And we just sit back and put up with it.
Our image as church is taking a hit in other areas, too. The other day I left Grace Episcopal Church after a rousing counter event to Franklin Graham featuring, among others, your co-pastor Stephen Marsh, and ran right into some 20-somethings fresh from their own protest of Graham’s brand of Christian hate. Not the least bit interested in us church folk; these young adults were part of the Freedom from Religion Coalition. The Christian brand gets damaged every time Christ is equated with some hate-filled Bible-preacher or some Congressman spilling vitriol 'cus her Bible told her so. For the unchurched or the “hurt by church” “Christian” has become generic, like Kleenex® or Xerox®. These young people want to make a difference, and for them religion’s the last place to look for it. To them, our Jesus is nothing but a hammer and they’re tired of feeling like nails. Today, following Jesus is hard, and sadly American Christianity isn’t doing a whole lot to help.
These readings warn us to beware of our polite and safe faith expression. When our God calls us to turn toward the Jerusalems of our time, do we dare? Many can come to church; fewer can pick up the mantle and be the church. Elisha not only takes up the challenge, but asks for a double dose of determination in order to stay the course. Jesus for his part says a bunch of things that sound pretty harsh. Why can’t we bury our family member first before we follow? Why is it so wrong to want to say “Goodbye” to home and family before we take up the call? Jesus tells us: If we aren’t ready to put our hand to the plow and work the field to the end, He says, “Don’t bother to start”; because come harvest time we can’t be counted on. Faith talk is cheap; just ask this generation. Being the church takes more than Sunday attendance and financial support. It takes a depth commitment; putting our full weight into the task. It’s got to matter. Young people want to take a stand against greed, racial, social, environmental and economic justice. When they don’t see it in us, when the only public faces of faith they do see and voices they hear are spewing hate and greed – “No thank you, very much.”
All of us can easily fall prey to our own righteousness. Like the Jewish leadership of Elijah and Jesus’ time, we can get lured into a sort of “check box” theology: Polite church attendance – check; following the rules – check; pledging – check; a few charitable acts – check and double-check.
Luke Chapter 9 begins with Jesus sending the disciples into ministry. The rest of the chapter is a critique about how to improve. By chapter's end, Jesus has set his sights on Jerusalem and the cross, and says, “Come on.” On the way a village of unwelcoming Samaritans; since Samaritans and Jews were enemies, this lack of hospitality isn’t a shock. Jesus’ disciples want to call down fire to smite these unbelievers like Elijah did. Jesus scolds them, “Enough!” “An eye for and eye,” Gandhi says, “makes the whole world blind.” And Gandhi learned this in part from Jesus. “Love your enemies. Show kindness to those who hate you. Do right to those who wish you harm.” But a nation who so loves to quote Scripture, wants to take a pass on this Gospel and the thousands other Bible passages decrying the love of money and disregard for the weak and poor. Our nation used to export justice and generosity, and offer a safe haven for the stranger. Today, we export violence and import hatred … and none of it’s at a living wage.
Jesus calls us to embrace the foreigner and show kindness, love, and friendship to the other. Can we do that? Perhaps not today. Will we commit to the work of discipleship so in time we can? That’s the difference between going to church and being the church. Anyone can come to worship on Sunday, fewer can commit to forming themselves in the faith and acting on what it teaches the other six days.
Jesus calls: “Follow me. But don’t pick up that mantle unless you’re serious; serious about loving God with everything you’ve got, and loving your neighbor as yourself.” And who is neighbor? Our neighbor’s white, black, Hispanic, Asian, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, male, female, and transgender, gay, and straight, young and old, well-to-do, and poor. The Bible tells us our neighbor’s everyone.
“Pick that up, put it on, and then follow me.”