|1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21
|Galatians 5:1, 13-25
By David Grant Smith
1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21
As is often the case in the Lectionary, readings that are snippets and excerpts can often be made more understandable by examining what precedes, follows, and/or lies in between. The context of this story begins at 19:1 with Elijah fleeing from Jezebel who has vowed to have him killed. On the journey of his flight, he is ministered to by an angel who bakes for him while he sleeps. And then, in the cave of a mountain, Elijah encounters God in the “sound of sheer silence” (NRSV). Elijah then, after fleeing for his life, and being affirmed by God, is given his marching orders: to go anoint two different kings of two different countries — countries who are enemies to one another, and who are destined for war with each other. The “missing” verses from this reading (19:17-18) make it clear that between these two new kings, and the prophet himself, all who are unfaithful to YHWH will be killed by their swords. After anointing Elisha as his successor, the verses and chapters which follow detail the violent battles which ensue.
It is troublesome to have a sacred text which sets forth violence as a means for divine intervention in the transitions of human life and politics! It doesn’t edify the faithful community gathered for worship to have such texts read publicly without challenging the assumptions behind them and the way that they express our understanding of God’s relationship to humanity. Preachers who find that this text is part of their worship this week will do their congregations a favor by making it clear that the protological thinking of biblical writers believed that final outcomes of human events were determined by supreme beings, regardless of nation or culture.
Everyone in the ancient world believed that they had a god (or gods) advocating for them in international affairs. We who identify with progressive forms of spirituality no longer believe this to be the case. Instead, especially in a process-relational approach to a faith tradition’s sacred narratives of the past, we are more likely to say that all peoples (regardless of nation, culture, or century) tend to look for a divine presence among them as they work towards resolving daily affairs — whether at the personal or international level.
Though a sermon which reminds congregations of God’s omnipresence and ever-present lure toward creativity is a helpful thing, that message may not be best served by this passage. Instead, this may be a passage which could be used to point toward the way that God lures each of us — in whatever context or situation — toward a creative future (preferably one without the use of weapons and violence!).
The anointing of two new kings and a new prophet speaks to the omnipresent reality of transition. As many wise people have observed, the only constant in life is change! A sermon which creatively engages that reality might point to how the anointing of successors, at God’s suggestion, illustrates the ways that God is luring us ever forward into the most creative possible future. Our past experiences, though always present with us, need not be deterministic in shaping our futures. What shapes our future is the way that we respond to God’s lures toward creativity in the here-and-now.
Another way of looking at this text might be to consider the ways that God might be using our lives and faithful witness for the purpose of luring others into their own respective creative futures. Elisha’s response to Elijah throwing his mantle over him illustrates the ways that we experience invitations to consider alternate futures. It may be that we need to take care of some unfinished business before we can move forward into that invitation. Elisha needed to bid farewell to his parents before he left his agrarian life to pursue a career/vocation as a prophet. Another thing which Elisha did to affirm and provide closure on his former life was to slaughter the oxen with which he had been plowing in order to feed “the people.” We don’t know from the text who those people were, but this detail of the story may be suggesting that Elisha was providing for those who depended on him — a fitting way to care for those who are left behind.
In each moment, we are being lured by God towards creativity in order to shape our future in helpful and healthful ways. And at times, we are the ones whom God uses to help affirm other peoples’ potential. Inviting them to utilize their gifts for creative purposes helps all of humanity to become co-creators with God in the ongoing work of transformation in our world.
Though this psalm begins with the plea “Protect me, O God…” it is more than a prayer for protection. It also celebrates the life-affirming benefits of trusting God, and has an overarching theme of self-dedication (or rededication) woven through it. As part of the dedicatory motif, the poet’s self is distinguished from unfaithful living by swearing to never participate in the worship of idols or other gods. For this poet, there can only be one God.
The poet takes what could be considered a holistic approach to the dedicating of self to God and the worship of YHWH God alone. In his study notes for this psalm in the New Interpreter’s Study Bible, Walter J. Harrelson notes that the “heart” in verse 7 is actually the kidneys (the seat of emotion and conscience), and in verse 9 the “heart” is a word used for the intellect (or seat of decision-making). These, together with “my lips” in verse 4, “my right hand” in verse 8, and the heart/soul/body in verse 9, convey an image of a whole person being given over to intentionally living life in God’s presence. In process-relational theology we affirm this “whole being” approach to spirituality, as well as the omnipresent nature of God as displayed in this psalm. We never bring only parts of ourselves to God, or to any task. We do well to be mindful of the fact that we bring our whole being to the task of intentionally dwelling in God’s presence, as well as living intentionally into all of our relationships.
The confidence with which the poet states that God will “show me the path of life” where there is “fullness of joy” and “pleasures forevermore” (verse 11) also works to affirm God’s abiding lure toward those things which are best for us. We can trust that God is always working to lure us toward beauty, truth, adventure, zest, peace, and love.
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Once again the lectionary forces us to deal with a passage which skips over several verses. It may be to our benefit and edification that verse 12 is missed, with Paul’s harsh words towards those who are trying to force the Galatians to be circumcised! However, by omitting verse 6 we miss Paul’s assertion that “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (NRSV). It’s important to remember that the thesis of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians is to oppose the idea that Gentiles must first be circumcised in order to be “authentic” followers of Jesus. His argument is that the fellowship of the Jesus movement is universally inclusive.
Having established that argument, Paul then turns in verse 13 toward instruction about how to live inside the fellowship: by the Spirit. Paul’s reminder that the summary of the law is to love one’s neighbor as oneself reminds the Galatians that to simply live “by the Spirit” in love for others is a sufficient observance of all that is contained in Torah (the whole covenant and legal code which is signified by the ritual of circumcision). A further consideration, which Paul doesn’t spell out but implied earlier, is that for the men of the Jesus movement to embrace circumcision would be a way of furthering the already strongly patriarchal bias toward men which existed in the ancient Roman Empire (and continues today). Paul had already laid out the argument that in Christ there is to be no distinction — not even between male and female (3:28). A ritual which would include all and which would point to no distinctions would be Baptism, which Paul mentioned immediately before his famous line about “no longer male and female.”
From a process-relational perspective, Paul’s recitation of the summary of the law has implications which go beyond his hope that they won’t “bite and devour” each other. In process thought, we assert that the way we treat each other (and the entire cosmos) not only has an impact on those with whom we are contentious; it also has an impact on God. Whatever we do, whatever we say, and however we treat one other is always being received into God. Paul’s admonition to “live by the Spirit” is an admonition to be mindful of the way that our relational Self/Other moments are part of how we help to shape the fabric of what we process theologians would call God’s consequent nature.
Paul’s long list of “the works of the flesh” are intended not to dismiss the importance of the human body; rather it is a list of ways that we become self-serving; it’s a laundry list of ways that a lack of mindful and intentional relational living can be articulated in behaviors found in the human experience. Paul urges us to continue our living “by the Spirit” by focusing rather on what he calls “the fruit of the Spirit.” Whenever we find love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control coming to fruition (dare we say “concrescence” here?), we can have confidence that we are participating in, and responding favorably to, God’s initial aim.
As verse 5:24 suggests, “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (NRSV). In other words, our participation in Christ and our living by the Spirit help us to suppress the selfish ego in order to give ourselves over to fully engaging in intentional relational living. When “living by the Spirit” and nurturing “the fruit of the Spirit” we become people who willingly look for and respond to God’s primordial nature of beauty, truth, zest, adventure, peace, and love. To paraphrase 5:25, if we live by the Spirit, let us also be lured by the Spirit.
We can all empathize with Jesus and his disciples in the first half of this week’s reading from Luke. We have all been rejected at some point, simply because our face was set toward “fill-in-the-blank.” Simply because we have been living our lives with a particular trajectory, there are those who oppose us and wish to extend no hospitality to us because of it. There can be at least two ways to consider what this might mean. On the one hand, we could perceive ourselves as being on a course which we think to be in line with God’s lure and guidance, and those who reject us have other priorities.
Alternatively, those who may reject our overtures toward entering their lives may have a sense that we are simply not living into God’s lure, but are self-serving, and their rejection of us may have more to do with how we are being challenged to pursue a period of discernment and self-examination. Either way, the issue to be considered here is that of discernment; as faithful people, we need to constantly be mindful of, and open to, God’s lure, and be willing to do the discernment work needed to be assured we are following it to the best of our abilities.
Another approach to this part of this week’s passage is to consider who was traveling through whose territory! Jesus and his disciples were Jewish Galileans traveling through Samaria. Though there were some similarities between them ethnically and spiritually, there was great enmity between Jews and Samaritans. The Jews considered the Samaritans to be racially and spiritually impure, and often treated them like inferiors and with hatred. Based on past experiences with other Jews, most Samaritans had no reason to trust Jesus and his disciples, simply because of where they were from and where they were going. Jesus and his disciples were the intruders; they were the outsiders traveling in the Samaritan homeland; they had no reason to expect that they would receive a red-carpet welcome!
How often do we find ourselves in a situation where we are the person who is coming from outside of a certain context with expectations of hospitality, entitlement, or privilege? Conversely, how many times do we find those from outside our context coming into our lives looking for help, and we treat them with disdain and suspicion? Reflecting on the last several weeks of readings from Galatians, we can easily link this first part of this week’s Gospel reading to what Paul had to say about not making such us/them distinctions!
The second half of this passage from Luke takes us down another path — the path which we often call discipleship. The call which Jesus offered to people to follow him was sometimes met by the response of “I would love to do that, but I can’t get away from other responsibilities right now.” This set of verses seems to be a stark contrast to this week’s reading First Kings. When Elijah called Elisha to follow him (who, at that moment, had his hand on the plow!), Elisha’s response was to fulfill some obligations to family and community before following. Jesus’ suggestion that those who do that before following him are somehow less than qualified to follow him. However, it could also be said that Jesus was trying to say “that was then and this is now.” There is an urgency he is communicating — not so much in following him specifically, but in living into the Realm of God sooner than later.
Yes, there are those whom Jesus called to specifically follow him in a physical sense; and it seems that from the witness of the Gospel narratives, that Jesus often was willing to welcome new followers. But there are times — in the Gospel of Luke especially — when Jesus instead urged people to proclaim their experience of the Good News in their own context (such as in last week’s Gospel reading where Jesus tells the healed man who wants to follow him to instead remain in his homeland and proclaim the good news there — see Luke 8:26-39).
If a process-relational preacher isn’t comfortable with that take on these verses, a case can be made for looking at this text less obtusely. It could be said that Jesus was ultimately interested in getting people to live into the urgent reality of the Realm of God, even to the extent that it may be necessary to leave certain obligations and responsibilities behind — to make a personal sacrifice for a greater cause. But it is seriously doubtful that Jesus (or at least a contemporary preacher) would want to imply that family responsibilities aren’t important. But, perhaps, it could be argued that the need to follow God’s lure in the moment may be more important than our day-to-day responsibilities. Again, whether the call to follow was meant to be a physical one, or lived out in one’s own context, the important thing is to always follow God’s lure and to both live into, and give witness to, the intentional relational living that is characterized by the Realm of God, and the importance and urgency there is to begin living into that lure immediately.
The Rev. David Grant Smith is the Rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Penn Yan, NY, in the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester. Prior to his ordination to the priesthood in 2008, David had a career as a lay professional in church music. In addition to his interests in weaving process theology into parish ministry through preaching, liturgy, teaching, and pastoral care, David enjoys travel, writing, and showing family & friends around the beautiful Finger Lakes region of upstate NY.