3 Pentecost—Proper 8-C–June 30, 2019
1 Kings 19:15-16,19-21, Psalm 16, Galatians 5:1,13-25, Luke 9:51-62
Filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli died recently at the age of 96–most well-known for his classic 1968 film “Romeo and Juliet”. Recently I watched again another Zeffirelli film from 1972, “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” on the life of Saint Francis. Like his other movies this one is filled with beautiful actors, in lush settings, doing amazing things.
We see Francis returning from war deeply traumatized and as he slowly moves toward health he is also being transformed. He sees the light of God in creation and in the poor, so it makes sense to him to give away his merchant father’s cloths and fabrics. Then, in a famous, and authentic scene, when confronted by both his father and the bishop in the town square, Francis takes off all his clothes and walks away naked—until the bishop covers him with his cape.
He walks away from the Bishop who represents the religious status quo which supports the rich against the poor and supports war instead of peace. He walks away from his father who represents the thirst for wealth at the expense of the poor and the drive for power instead of community.
But there is someone else Francis is walking away from that is more important than the bishop and his father. Francis is walking away from himself, who he has been for his entire life and who he might reasonably expect to be for the rest of his life.
To follow Jesus means he must un-follow himself.
And here our social media intrudes because in the world of Twitter and podcasts to follow someone doesn’t require giving anything up, but only means you want to be informed on your phone when that other person tweets something or drops a podcast. To follow someone or a thousand someones leaves us in the very center of oneself and makes absolutely no demands on our life. Just like when we “friend” someone on Facebook it doesn’t mean we will drop everything at 3 in the morning to go help this person, like we would a real friend.
In following Jesus Francis stops following himself. He becomes a new person with a new personal center name Jesus Christ who he promises to follow and obey.
So if Zeffirelli were to make that movie today he could leave a ghostly image of the old Francis up there with bishop and father, as the new Francis walks away to rebuild the church at San Damiano and create a community that transforms the world.
This is exactly what Paul is talking about today when he writes: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
The yoke of slavery is to be led by one’s self-centeredness into the works of the flesh: “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.”
To leave oneself behind and follow Christ is to experience the fruit of the spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
Jesus gives us a helpful image in thinking about following Jesus and unfollowing oneself: He says: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Maybe we’ve never ploughed a field but we’ve mowed a lawn and we know that if we keep looking behind us we will go off line. Or even worse, if we spend more time looking in our car’s rearview mirror than through the windshield we may get ourselves or others killed. Practically and literally Jesus is right.
But what does this mean spiritually? It means we can either follow Jesus in the present into the future, or we can focus our attention on our past.
Jesus is warning us against being transfixed and focused on our past—both good and bad. Maybe we are constantly reliving the great vacation we had or the goal we scored in soccer when we were in high school, or the new promotion with its fame and big salary. But even more likely, we are constantly looking back at our sins and failures and thus experiencing a continuous loop of guilt, shame and regret over things we’ve done, things we’ve left undone, and those things that others have done to us.
We even may think this looking back, often back decades, is a good thing that shows our spiritual seriousness. “Look how insightful and sensitive I am that I still pay attention to that 8th grade math test we cheated on”. But all it shows is how stuck in the past we are and how much more we have to learn what it means to experience the forgiveness and mercy of God that as Psalm 103 says: “As far as the east is from the west so far has he removed our transgressions from us.”
The ego would much rather focus on mistakes in the past than have to abdicate control to Jesus in the present.
To follow Jesus when he was walking through Galilee made all this quite clear: Peter had to leave behind his old self as fisherman to follow Jesus. Matthew had to leave behind his old self as tax collector to follow Jesus.
But what about us? Does following Jesus simply mean a new determination to be a better human being who attends church more often? Does following Jesus mean assenting to the Church’s teaching on the two natures of Christ?
Certainly these are a start but following Jesus is more than a moral refurbishment and theological updating, because neither requires listening to Jesus in the present moment and doing what he tells us to do.
Francis could have kept working for his father without all the carousing he did with his buddies before the war. He could have taken a Christology class from the bishop. But these would have only cleaned up his old self.
For someone like Francis spiritual transformation seems to happen at warp speed, but that’s not the norm. Consider James and John who left their fishing business to follow Jesus. Jesus nicknames them in Mark 3 the “Sons of Thunder.” Friend of mine says that means they’re like the frat boys who destroy their hotel rooms over Spring Break. This morning Luke goes deeper by saying the Sons of Thunder want to call down fire on a city that wouldn’t offer them hospitality.
But instead of kicking them off Team Jesus because they’ve violated his teaching to “love your enemies”, Jesus simply turns and rebukes them. And to their credit they don’t go back to fishing, but they take the rebuke and keep on following Jesus.
Thomas Merton wrote: The rebirth of which Christ speaks is not a single event but a continuous dynamic of inner renewal.”
And though it is Holy Spirit who works that renewal in us, we must day by day be willing to open ourselves to her Divine work. It’s okay to get it wrong, which we often do, but it’s not okay to think we’ve arrived and no longer need to follow, listen, and obey Christ.
Richard Rohr puts this dynamic in simple language: he says following Jesus involves four stages: “Cleaning up, growing up, waking up, and showing up”. And the last stage, “showing up”, never ends in this life because Jesus is always leading us to new people and new places to love—in the world and in ourselves.