Sunday, June 30, 2013

From "Yes, but..." To "Yes!"

A tale is told by writer Massud Farzan of a man who was claiming to be God. He was taken to the Caliph who said: “Last year someone was claiming to be a prophet. He was executed.” “Serves him right,” answered the man, “I hadn’t sent him.

In order to be sent, one needs to be called. When you or I are called to do or be something, we have a choice, a decision to make. It can be “Yes”, “No”, or “Maybe”. Jesus spelled it out in last week’s Gospel passage: “IF anyone would come after me...”, he said, then adding the necessary unconditional condition which one must also accept, i.e., “...let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Further, Jesus explains the consequences of renegging on a decision to follow him: “...Whoever would save his life will lose it.

The readings today from 1 Kings (19:15-16; 19-21) and Luke (9:51-62) deal with the call to follow, the invitation to discipleship, and some typical responses. We find people in both readings saying, “Yes, but...”, something with which you and I can readily identify. “Sure, Lord, I’ll follow you...only don’t let it cost me anything.” “Yes, Lord, I’ll deny myself...but just don’t make me give up what means most to me.” We agree to carry the cross daily, but when it gets heavy and starts to pinch we have to take a rest stop.

It seems that we’re in good company. Moses was willing to take on the task initially to lead God’s people out of Egypt, but then began to throw up all sorts of “Yes, buts”...I’m not eloquent enough...the people are too unruly and stubborn, etc. The great prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah among them, each had a whole list of “Yes, buts” to counter God’s insistence that they honor the call. We’re a bit like the friendly man who came up to a priest in a coffee shop and asked what church he served. The priest pointed to the church across the street, and the man exclaimed: “Why, that’s my church!” The priest replied, “Well, isn’t that strange. I’ve been there for five years now and I don’t recall ever seeing you in the congregation or at the Communion rail.” “Come on, Father,” the man shot back, “I didn’t say I was a fanatic!

In the Gospel passage, Jesus sets his face to go up to Jerusalem, to finish the task to which he’d been called by the Father, to take up his cross, literally, in the City of Peace. On the way, when Jesus asks for simple hospitality in a Samaritan village for his disciples and for himself, he’s turned away because, being a Jew, he belongs to the “wrong” religious group. It’s as if the Samaritan community was saying, “Yes, we have room: but only for those who worship as we do, in the temple on Mt. Gerizim.” The disciples, especially the two hellion “sons of thunder”, James and John, don’t help the situation. Their solution is to “nuke” the Samaritans with prophetic fire because of their refusal. Luke comments, tersely: “...he turned and rebuked them.

As Jesus continues his journey, a way which will eventually lead from death to life, he encounters three individuals. The first volunteers to follow Jesus “wherever you go.” Jesus had the knack of reading people well, and discerned in this person a slight hesitation, a momentary questioning of resolve to follow through to the end: an unspoken, uncomfortable “Yes, but”. Jesus assures him that even though animals have options, not so the One sent from and called by God. Jesus’ call, once answered, compels him to go all the way, even to the wall.

When Jesus meets the second man, he senses a some genuine potential and says simply, “Follow me.” Perhaps one can discern in Luke’s account a sense that Jesus took him rather by surprise, like “Who?!” The man accepts the invitation, sort of, hurriedly asking leave to go bury his father. Perhaps his father was seriously ill or close to death. As the son, the man was responsible for arrangements, either way. He assures Jesus that once this is out of the way, then he’ll be free to walk with Jesus. On the other hand, the father may have actually died already. In that case, Jesus was aware that the ritual of burial and mourning could take days, even weeks. His reply to the man was neither callous nor insensitive. He simply reminded the man that when the Lord of life calls you, invites you, to be his disciple, the priority is clear: to go and proclaim the message that God is here and lives among us. There are always others who can take care of lesser priorities.

A third man approaches Jesus and is, at least, right up front about his situation: “I’ll follow you, but first I need to go say goodbye to my family.” Jesus knew right then that he’d never follow. As the son of a good Jewish family, especially of a good Jewish mother, waiting to tell them that he was going to throw in his lot with a controversial, even revolutionary transient teacher would be equivalent to asking to be disowned. They would have persuaded him otherwise, or he’d have been turned out. For the sake of all those around him, Jesus repeats the consequences for anyone who’s tempted to say “Yes, but...” to his call to be a disciple: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the reign of God.” It’s that simple, and that difficult.

You and I need only survey the fields of our lives to see how often we’ve resolutely set the plow in motion in following the Lord, only to look back, or to stop altogether. The crooked furrows we’ve plowed tell the story of our discipleship. We need Jesus, the prophet Elijah of our lives, to remind us constantly, “Go, and return to me, for I have done something very important to you.” The “something important” which he’s done for us, as Paul reminds us in Galatians (5:1; 13-25), is giving us the freedom to be free. Paul says: “You were called to freedom...”: that’s your calling, your vocation, your responsibility as a follower of Jesus the Christ. Too often, unfortunately, we think of freedom as freedom from, rather than as freedom for something. We confuse freedom with license, and Paul enumerates twelve examples of what happens in our lives when the “lid’s off”.

The freedom to which Jesus calls those committed to being his followers is the freedom for being “led by the Spirit”, for walking “in the Spirit”, for being “servants of one another” through love. Translated, that might mean showing gentleness and tenderness to one’s children; kindness and compassion to an elderly friend or to a difficult relative; patience and loyalty toward someone who’s weak, or even appears to be “wrong”. It means taking Jesus’ call to be a follower dead seriously, not saying “Yes, but...”, but simply “Yes!

Michel Quoist writes:

I am afraid of saying ‘yes,‘ Lord.
Where will you take me?
I am afraid of drawing the longer straw,
I am afraid of signing my name to an unread agreement,
I am afraid of the ‘yes‘ that entails other ‘yeses’...

(Jesus):  Say ‘Yes,’...
I need your ‘yes‘ as I needed Mary’s ‘yes‘ to come to earth,
For it is I who must do your work,
It is I who must live in your family,
It is I who must be in your neighborhood, and not you.
For it is my look that penetrates, and not yours.
My words that carry weight, and not yours.
My life that transforms, and not yours.
Give all to me, abandon all to me.
I need your ‘yes‘ to be united with you and to come down to earth,
I need your ‘yes‘ to continue saving the world!”

(From Prayers, by Michel Quoist, Sheed & Ward, 1963, pp. 121 and 123) 

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