Bill Countryman Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Berkeley
SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST, JUNE 26, 2016
Proper 8C: 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Ps. 77:1-2, 11-20; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62
THE SPIRIT OF HATRED AND THE SPIRIT OF LIFE
We find ourselves today pulled in very different directions. It’s the day of the Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco, celebrating a revolutionary increase of freedom that has happened in the last few decades—and it’s also just the second week after the massacre in Orlando. We can’t escape a certain bewilderment and disorientation and, inevitably, anxiety as to what might come next.
Obviously, we’re not yet completely through this great process of change. We’re still caught between celebrating of the freedom of a long-oppressed group and the reality that there are some people who will go to great lengths in their effort to suppress the change.
You don’t need anyone to tell you that people fly the banners of religion on both sides of this tension. Indeed, it goes deeper that that. Some of us quote the Bible in behalf of gay liberation. Some quote the Bible in behalf of fostering hatred. What, one wonders, will God say to us here today through these same scriptures? Obviously, they weren’t chosen for just such an occasion as this; they couldn’t be. Yet, read in the light of our present experience, they seem to have a remarkable bearing on it.
Let me start with the words of Jesus from Luke’s Gospel. It’s a difficult passage. In the first part of it, Jesus behaves exactly as we would wish. His disciples want to call fire down on the Samaritans who turned him away, and he rebukes them. But, in the second part, he is curt and off-putting. To people who want to become disciples, Jesus says things like: “Let the dead bury their own dead” or “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Isn’t he, in his own way, as hostile as his disciples had just been?
Well, no. However off-putting he may seem, he is not rejecting these would-be disciples. He is confronting them with the necessity of making decisions. I think many LGBT people can recognize themselves in these stories. There comes a point at which you realize “This is the person I am.” And you have to begin living as that person, even if it might mean estrangement from your family. I was struck by a story in the NY Times about young gay men who came out to their families after the Orlando shooting. They realized that it would be wrong to “spare” their parents now only to have them find out something so important about their sons in the aftermath of a tragedy. They realized that it was an either/or moment in their lives; they had to respond now.
Jesus, in this gospel reading is telling all of us that that we will come up against decisive moments like these, times when postponement becomes betrayal. You can’t put the response off by claiming other obligations. No, you have to live the life God has given you now.
We also heard Paul’s eloquent passage, from Galatians, about the fruits of the Spirit. This, he says, is how we recognize life lived authentically with God—from the presence of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Not much of that to be seen in the assassin of Orlando or his predecessors in San Bernardino or Charleston or Paris or hundreds of places in the Near East, was there? Obviously no kindness, generosity, or gentleness. But also, and perhaps more deeply, no love, joy, peace, patience, self-control.
This is not a difference of Christian and Muslim. These are gifts esteemed the world over. And Paul is suggesting that they are not just a polite list of social accomplishments. The great sorrows of our day are not simply a battle between one political position and another or one religion and another. They are a world-shaking confrontation between the Spirit of God, trying to bring true humanity into being among us and another motivating principle that prompts us, in Paul’s metaphor, to “bite and devour one another.”
He calls that principle “flesh.” But don’t think, as modern Americans immediately do, “sex.” It’s not about sex as such. It’s about the frightened little finite thing inside each of us that is afraid to take chances, that wants to grab everything and control everything and lock everything down so that it can’t escape or offend us. It’s the quality that prompts us to “bite and devour one another.”
This biting and devouring isn’t all on the big stage. We know it from our daily lives. Remember: Paul was writing to a church congregation. (We all know it’s there. We even make jokes about it.) This may seem like something completely different from killing people in a gay bar. And it is. But the difference is one of degree, not of kind. We who would never commit a great bloody crime still know where some of the motivation comes from. We still have further to go in putting on the generous, hope-filled life of the Spirit.
This will involve the same difficult process of learning and growing that Jesus’ first disciples stumbled over. They were so ready to bring down fire on those inhospitable Samaritans. And that pastor in Sacramento—the one whose sermon about Orlando was so unloving, so devoid of joy, so belligerent rather than peaceful, so unkind, so ungenerous, so faithless, so without gentleness and self-control—that pastor still, like the disciples who wanted to summon hellfire from the heavens, has a long way to go in learning the gift of the Spirit. With God’s help, perhaps he, too, will yet succeed.
Jesus, in today’s readings, told us we must choose. Paul is telling us what we must choose. However great and even justified our anger may be, it will not by itself give rise to anything but more anger. To move forward in a truly human and humane life means learning to live by the fruits of the Spirit, to live out of a principle radically opposed to the one that warps people into biters and devourers.
And what of our first reading, the one about Elisha receiving the fallen mantle, the two-fold spirit, of Elijah? You know, these two men are both deeply troubling figures. In some ways, they might rather seem like suitable patron saints of modern religious brutality. Elijah slaughtered the rival priests of Baal. And, worse than that, he called down a devastating drought and famine in his day. He killed far more Israelites, far more of his own people, than he did outsiders. Even modern military communiques might have trouble excusing all those deaths as “collateral damage.”
St. Romanos, in the fifth century, explained it this way: Elijah was completely devoted to God, but failed to understand that God loves humanity even with all its faults, that God was deeply grieved by all those deaths. And so, says Romanos, God—unwilling to shame Elijah publicly—finally tricked him into bringing the drought to an end. (A story for another time.) But Elijah wasn’t really satisfied and later on, as he began to get restive again, God sent the fiery chariot and took him up to heaven mainly to get him off the earth where he was doing so much harm.
And so his mantle fell to Elisha. In some ways, it was more of the same. His world was a bloody one. He left some corpses behind, too. But most of the stories about Elisha are very different. The first thing he did after the passage we heard today was to cure a village’s spring of some toxic substance that was causing miscarriage. And he healed childlessness and leprosy. He provided food and water in times of need. When he found himself surrounded by enemy soldiers, he did not, like Elijah, call fire down on them, but visited them with temporary blindness, took them captive, handed them over to the Israelite king, and told him to send them home.
It’s astonishing to find the inheritor of Elijah’s mantle beginning to walk the way of peace—and that in an age that saw little value in it. It means that we do not have to get stuck in an age of hatred and retaliation. It will not be easy to emerge, but it can happen by the grace of God and by the willingness of human beings to make the hard decisions and to embrace the Spirit and her gifts.
“Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” We know them all. Where do you see them around you? Where do you see them in yourself? I’m not just talking about heroic examples. The ordinariness of daily life is their seedbed. And they have the power to change not just the passing moment, but the whole world in which we and our neighbors live.
This would be good for Orlando. This would be good for the United States, so riven just now by anger and hatred . This would be good for desperate places like Syria. This would be good for the world. This would be good for our own lives. What stands in the way? Whatever it is, leave those dead to bury their own dead. Take on this other life of “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”