The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, 2016 – 2 Kings 2:1-14; Galations 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62
Foxes have dens and birds of the heaven have nests; but the son of man has nowhere to lay down his head.
These are dangerous words for Anglicans—because they speak a profound challenge to all comfortable pews, comfortable lives, lives at home in the world, and we are of all Christians perhaps most comfortable. We are a church at home in the world, a church that belongs in the world. Even our name proclaims it: Anglican Church; Church of England. We are at home in the state. This was brought home to me on my first Christmas Eve at Grace Church on-the-Hill, when I looked up from the Gospel which I was reading to see the former Prime Minister standing in the pew two feet away. He was in fact Catholic, not Anglican—but it was to the Anglican church that he came. It is the sort of church in which heads of state feel at home. It is the sort of church that feels at home with heads of state. This goes back to the beginning. We came into being, after all, to serve the interests of the king. And this has been our temptation ever since: to see ourselves as allied with the world.
It’s not just us, of course. It is a quite widespread and particularly evangelical temptation. It is writ large this week in Donald Trump. “America’s Success Story”! That is the billing Trump gets from his Christian supporters. This wealth, this power, this American dream. America’s success story. Calling all Christians therefore to vote for him.
When it is Trump we’re talking about, the irony is clear. Trump may look like the American dream—though most Americans I know would hotly deny this—but he does not look much like Jesus Christ. And this is a problem. Jesus asks us to follow him, not America’s dream, not Canada’s dream, not Obama, not Trudeau, not even all things beautiful and delightfully English.
Jesus asks us to follow not our culture but him.
And the two are not the same. Even at its best, setting aside all Trumps, all Brexits; even at its best, our culture—Canadian, English, American, whatever it is—our culture and Jesus Christ are not the same.
This is a truth sown deep in the biblical history. It is true for Jesus, as much as it is true for us.
There is a haunting homelessness in Jesus’ words in the gospel today. Here he is walking the highways and byways of his own country. Here he is heading to Jerusalem, his own capitol city, heart of the Jewish nation, for any Jewish person the epitome of home. And he says, “Foxes have dens and the birds of the heaven have their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
It is not just that Jesus gets turfed out of the Samaritan town because his face is turned toward the Judaean holy city Jerusalem. It is that even in his own country, among his own Judaean people, in his own culture, he has no home.
He came to his own, John says at the beginning of his gospel, and his own people did not receive him.
Why does Jesus have no place to lay down his head? Because the world that is his, all things bright and beautiful and British and great and small, all things that came into being through him, this world for which he is light and life, this world of his own creating…this world did not know him. At his birth there was no room for him at the inn. And at the end of his journey—this journey toward Jerusalem—there is rejection and a cross.
Foxes have dens and birds have their resting places, but in his own country Jesus is without a home.
In this story of our salvation, the light and life of God’s own being coming into our midst, there is a problem of alienation. It is not Jesus’ alienation. The Christ has come to his people. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
The alienation that haunts the life of Christ is not his. It is ours. It is deeply and inescapably ours. It goes back in the biblical history to Eden and the serpent and the fruit and the man and the woman who turn away, turn to themselves, and who in the very next moment hide from God. We live even now in an alienation that goes back to the beginning.
It is an alienation that plagues the history of Israel, so that Ahab and Jezebel in the days of Elijah turn to Baal and seek to kill the prophet of the Lord, and Ahaziah in his need turns not to God or to the prophet but to Beelzebub.
“What kind of man was he?” Ahaziah asks the officers in 2 Kings 1 who have run into Elijah and his word of Judgement on the road. “He was a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist,” they reply. “It is Elijah the Tishbite” making trouble for me, Ahaziah says as he sends armed men to bring the prophet in.
Why does the prophet of God live in a cave in the desert places? Why does he look like a wild man and no Israelite? Because he is not received in the courts of the king. Because he serves God in a time when the kings do not. Elijah looks different because he is different. He listens for God’s Word among a people who no longer know how to hear.
And it is in Elijah and not in the courts of the king that God’s Word is heard. It is in Elijah, who does not belong among his own people, that the will of God to save is still known.
Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water. The water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them [Elijah and Elisha] crossed on dry ground. (2 Kings 2:8)
Elijah is an outcast in Israel; Elijah who follows the Lord, and it is in him that God is at work to save.
Elijah strikes the water as Moses struck the waters of the Red Sea and Joshua struck the Jordan, and the waters are parted as they were parted long ago so that the people might pass through on dry land. So that the people might be freed from their bondage in Egypt, so that they might live and not die; so that they might worship the Lord and come into the promised land.
In the days of Moses at the Red Sea, they followed. In the days of Elijah and Elisha, by and large, they do not. But God is still with them to save. Elijah and Elisha, the wild men, the outcasts—the prophets who speak mostly judgement; the prophets who do not belong—Elijah and Elisha are the pledge that God is with his people, even now, to save.
So too with the Christ. Like Elijah, like John the Baptist, Jesus comes in the name of the Lord to his people. And his own people do not receive him. As in the days of Ahab and Ahaziah, so in the days of Herod the people are far from following their God. They cannot see in the Christ the Word of the Lord. Or if they can see it, if they do catch a glimpse, they find it a hard thing to follow.
It means such a radical shift. Follow me! Jesus says. Forget your father. Forget your home. Forget the old loyalties. They are not bad things, these loyalties. To bury your father. To put your affairs in order. These are not bad things in the world as it is. But Jesus calls us away from the world as it is. He calls us away from the world; he calls us toward the kingdom of God, and so he calls us away even from this.
There is a necessary separation for those who would follow the Christ.
Do you wish to follow me? Jesus says on his way to Jerusalem and the cross. Understand that you will no longer be at home here, in the old dispensation. You cannot be at home here, if you hear my call, because this is the world that does not know the Christ.
To follow is to be at odds with the world as it is, precisely not to be comfortable. To follow is to be different. It is to walk with the Word and not with the world. It is difficult—perhaps for us Anglicans most of all. Foxes have dens and birds of the heaven have their resting place, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. It is difficult to be different, to follow the Christ.
And it is sometimes the world’s salvation.
In the early days of the Nazis, Karl Barth preached in his own church a different Word. When government officials came to his church with a warning, to demand that the church tow the government line, this is what he said: We follow a different Lord. We follow a different Lord. Barth’s church could see that the culture was awry, because they followed the Christ. When it mattered, they could see with the eyes of Christ. That is what we are called to do. To live by the Word of God now, to listen with all our heart, to learn the Word of the Lord in the Bible and in the hymns and in the worship of the church, so that when it matters we can hear what is true. To follow Jesus so that when we need to, we can have the wisdom to stand apart.
To be America’s success story, or Canada’s, is not the sign of the Christ. If you would follow, look like Jesus instead. Look like the one for whom there is no room in the inn, or even in the big tent. Look like the one who comes to a people who do not know him, who loves this people that does not know him, who walks with them even when they will not receive him, and who accepts for them a cross.
We are not called to be comfortable. We are not called to belong. We are called to follow Jesus Christ. This is how we may be for our world good news.