[Sermon given on Sunday, July 26, 2016 (Proper 8 – Year C) at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church – Kansas City, MO by the Rev’d. Fr. Marcus G. Halley]
So he set out from there, and found Elisha son of Shaphat, who was plowing. There were twelve yoke of oxen ahead of him, and he was with the twelfth. Elijah passed by him and threw his mantle over him.
1 Kings 19.19
Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’
Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father, from Jesus Christ our Risen Lord and Reigning Savior, and from the Holy Spirit who empowers and enlivens our time together.
First of all it is my esteemed pleasure to be with you this morning in the absence of Father Patrick and Father Chas. This morning I want to talk about “discipleship,” in terms of what it means to carry this counter-cultural message into an ever-changing world.
The 2013 film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, which chronicles the life of Nelson Mandela the anti-apartheid revolutionary and first black South African president, begins with a scene depicting a Xhosa rites of passage for boys. This ritual was important for Xhosa men to understand and own their place in the community and their duty to their people. However, while the movie does not go into much detail regarding what the ritual entails, his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom does. “In Xhosa tradition,” Mandela writes, “[manhood] is achieved through one means only: circumcision.”
Years later, reflecting on the meaning of this ritual in the context of the Apartheid regime of South Africa, Mandela writes that they were circumcised “in a ritual that promises… manhood, but I am here to tell you that it is an empty, illusory promise, a promise that can never be fulfilled. For we Xhosas, all black South Africans, are a conquered people. We are slaves in our own country.” Manhood meant something different for Mandela. It was not about not playing games or making mischief. Being a man was not even about finding a wife and setting up a household. For the senior Mandala gazing retrospectively upon his life, being a man was about fighting for his freedom and the freedom of his people. “Looking back, I know that I was not a man that day and would not truly become one for many years.”
I deeply believe that each of us experiences God in these liminal, decision-making spaces – these rites of passage – where we have to decide where we are going to go, what life means, and whether we are really going to take this journey seriously.
When we received the Sacrament of Baptism, we are brought into the Church through a ritual that not only connects us to one another and to every other person who has ever been baptized, but to the mission of Jesus Christ into whose life and death we are initiated. It is serious business – it is literally life and death.
But much like Mandela’s experience of rites of passage, baptism in our context is almost empty and meaningless. Baptism makes serious claims about the world and about our place in it even as we are encompassed by examples of the primacy of sin and death. We say we are “Christian” in our baptism, but it might be more true that we spend the rest of our lives living into the power of the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Theologian Howard Thurman puts it this way. When Jesus meets the Woman at the Well,
he demonstrated reverence for personality. He met the woman where she was, and he treated her as if she was already where she now willed to be. In dealing with her he ‘believed’ her into the fulfillment of her possibilities. He stirred her confidence into activity. He placed a crown over her head, which for the rest of her life she would keep trying to grow tall enough to wear.
When we meet God, God meets us at the point of our present and yet God sees us in the fullness of our potential.
That’s how God could call a stuttering and shy Moses to liberate God’s people from Pharaonic slavery.
That’s how God could a poor and obscure Mary to carry within her the salvation of the world.
That’s how God could call a motley crew of clueless disciples and make them Apostles of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, empowering them to turn the world upside down.
That’s how God can call you and I to carry the torch of this faith into the wide darkness of this world. Because God sees us in our boldness. God sees us in our loveliness. God sees us in our goodness. God sees us in our faithfulness. God places the crown of this exalted vision above our heads, and we spend the rest of our lives striving to grow tall enough to wear it.
When Elijah throws his mantle over Elisha, he isn’t making a statement about his present. In fact, almost instantaneously, Elisha proves himself unworthy to carry the mantle of the Elijah. “Let me say goodbye to my family,” Elisha says, “then I will follow you.” Elijah’s response makes clear that the journey he invited Elisha into is one of complete surrender and total commitment. Elisha seems to get the point. He kills all the oxen he was using the plow his field, makes a complete break with his former life, and follows his new mentor.
A similar exchange happens in Luke’s Gospel where a no-name-world-be-disciple tells Jesus that he will follow him wherever he goes. Jesus responds by suggesting that the road of Jesus-following is not for the faint of heart. After a bit of back-and-forth between Jesus and the world-be-disciple, Jesus says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kin[g]dom of God.”
Now scripture is not clear as to whether this would-be-disciple is included in the 70 disciples that Jesus then commissions to go out in pairs to proclaim the Kin[g]dom of God, but the point is clear. This journey requires 100% allegiance.
I have often wondered why this is the case. Why does Christian discipleship require so much? Wouldn’t it just be easier to offer a la carte religion? A little bit of this? A little bit of that? Like a mobile phone data plan. Pay for what you need, not for what you don’t. It’s more efficient that way, and a lot more appealing too, especially for a people who want it our way.
But that’s just the point. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not about us. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a radical claim about the world in which we live. This Gospel proclaims, in the midst of smallness and evil, that we are created in goodness and love. This Gospel proclaims, in the midst of division and estrangement, that we are created for community and family. This Gospel proclaims, in the midst of war and poverty, that our destiny is to live in peace and abundance. This Gospel proclaims, in the face of the passing kingdoms and shifting rulers of this world, that the kingdoms of this world are subject to the Creator the Universe. This Gospel will take every bit of our voice to proclaim, every bit of our strength to carry it, and every single bit of our hearts to believe it.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not about us. It is about turning this world upside down, which is really right side up (as our Presiding Bishop would say) for the sake of God who is recreating this world right in front of our very eyes.
The Apostle Paul would put it this way. “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” Always, in our living and in our dying, we bear witness to God’s power at work reshaping this broken world into the original goodness God intended for it in the first place.
That’s the mission we have been conscripted into, that’s the crown we strive our entire lives to wear.
I don’t know, tell me what y’all think. I’d love for us to share stories about how we interpret and live into our place in God’s mission in the world.
 Nelson Mandela. A Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (Back Bay Books: Boston, 1994), 25.
 Ibid., 30.
 Ibid., 31.
 Howard Thurman. Jesus and the Disinherited (Beacon Press; Boston, 1976 ), 106. Emphasis mine.
 2 Corinthians 4.7 (NRSV)