Sermon: Frank Moritz-Jauk
with today’s reading, one can, in my opinion, see a very significant theme of our faith: discipleship. In the book of Kings, one can hear of such a path of discipleship when we hear how Elijah and Elisha travel together. And the text from the gospel, which seems a bit challenging, is also describing a situation of discipleship.
Today I want to follow those different steps and hope that each and every one of you can recognize something, either for themselves or for people who are close to us.
Let us start with the two prophets. Before we start with what happened here a small remark about the prophets: Elijah and his disciple Elisha have been two of the most influential prophets of the Old Testament. We should not be put off by chariot of fire or the separation of the Jordan. Both have experienced really big miracles and have been part of those. Both were allowed to raise people from the dead in God’s name. Elijah, the son of the widow Zarephath and Elisha (1.Kings 17,22) the son of the Shunammite woman (2.Kings 4,36). And maybe it is because of that especially educational how the path of Elisha starts.
Elisha’s path starts with loyalty: „As long as the LORD lives and you live; I will not leave you,“ Elisha decides to follow Elijah on his path. He recognizes that there is someone who is important for himself. Someone from whom he can expect something, despite probably not knowing what this will look like. I believe, here is something that is very crucial for faith: nobody can believe from the distance, from the safety with the plain force of thinking. No. But faith starts by following a path. To follow, to give in to something and to follow and to stay. I follow by staying in contact with other people who believe, by visiting the Sunday service, by visiting the youth meetings. There are many forms of following and discipleship.
With this first step of following there is a second step, the step of wanting to learn or understand, „Let me have twice your spirit.“ Elisha asks.
According to Elisha, this is a wise request. With this question, we can see that Elisha recognizes or has recognized what the center of Elijah’s faith is. On the other hand, we can recognize a feature of learning: learning starts with imitation. I see how you do something and try to imitate it. I hear a word and repeat it. I take a tool and hold it just like you do. I ask for a part of your spirit because then my spirit will continue developing. Learning, in the sense of understanding the words of the Bible, can an also mean, to put the words I understood into action. Those things I have not understood, I might leave for now. Elisha will show us this. But we could also already say it here: Love your friends! Love those who you like and who are close to you. Reconcile with them. See that your relationship with them is good. Love those, who are close to you and then try loving your enemies. For you to love those who hate you is, according to Jesus, not the first step. From those words, nobody should be discouraged. Love your friends.
With the third step, faith always needs God to act. I cannot believe through my own accord. This unavailability of faith is something that we need to accept. We cannot develop or make faith. And thus Elijah answers the request of Elisha: “ You’ve made a difficult request. If you can see me when I’m taken from you, then it will be yours. If you don’t see me, it won’t happen.“ Elijah points quite clearly to God. God will answer this request or he might not. Doing this is all in God’s hands.
I believe this unavailability of God is a characteristic of God. Just like it is a characteristic of God when he is looking for us. There are no reasons, why God should deny it to be found by us. Sooner I can remember a word from Jesus, “ Which father among you would give a snake to your child if the child asked for a fish?“ (Luke 11,11)
The fourth step of faith could be a clue that God has fulfilled the request quite literally of Elisha. It could be that I am here reaching the borders of my knowledge or my imagination when I would try to explain how Elisha acted. Elisha is taking the coat of Elijah and asks, „Where is the LORD, Elijah’s God?“ Has he actually received the spirit of Elisha, to do the same just as Elijah has done before? Yet this strangeness about the God of Israel is something that we hear a lot in the Old Testament. God is not immediately the one God, but this strangeness is slowly being overcome. The God of Elijah’s is becoming the God of Elisha’s, this can be shown in how the story continues. Very important in this fourth step is for me the thought of the strangeness. Just like I need to get to know another human and cannot know everything about them immediately, I also imagine this the same with God. And this getting to know can also be part of the acts in the service, to name a concrete and practical example. The open and loud prayers might seem for some people strange and unknown. Something that I myself do not dare to do or want to do. But this can also be a challenge. A new step in a process, in which I learn to develop myself.
With the cue challenge, we have reached the New Testament and its steps of discipleship. I have to admit the clarity or shortness of Jesus‘ answer – some might call it brutal or heartless – is a challenge. But as always, it might need something generous and the question: „What does Jesus want to say with this?
The first comparison with the foxes and the birds could be a cue that discipleship is a path. A path where one does not know where they will be in the evening. The fox has a save home, to which it comes back. Every morning it starts from there and every evening it comes back. This also means that it has its territory. Its reach is limited. It might be big but still limited. If we take this image for our personal discipleship then it allows us to think about the following question: Where is our territory, in what circles do we move? Who do we reach and who do we not reach? Do we need new experience, which is outside of our habits, so we can grow?
The second image might seem quite harsh, heartless and quite unkind. Where is here the empathy and the loving affection, which we are used from Jesus? But when we ask again positively, what the image wants to tell us, then we might ask the following: Are there societal conventions, which keep us from acting? For me this question is in this image, because independent from the sorrow, which we feel when our own father has died, it is the norm to bury the father. Nobody keeps the dead father in the deathbed and let the corps rot and keeps on going with their life. Exactly. So where are the societal conventions, which Jesus points to? If we look at an inquiry of things, one should not do, then maybe the question of societal taboos. A taboo is a space of which no one speaks. In Austria, in our society, this might be about money, what they might earn, or the question of personal faith. In our congregation, it questions about our personal financial contribution to the church. It is an important topic, but it is hard to talk about it. Societal taboos, things we are not questioning, this is a thought I see in this image and the thought is a question of priority: What is right now important? To follow Jesus or first burying the father? Can someone else or a little bit later not bury the father? Is it important for the dead who is burying them? Let the dead bury their own dead. It is over and it is the past. Now, something different is important. What is now, right now in your life important?
And now the image of the plow and then looking back, this is obviously quite expressive. Or let us say it like this. It is connected to the second image: Can it be about trying a true and honest restart? I want to join the path of faith and now even more than later. With all of my will and my strength? With all my courage I look at the goal?
Whoever plows, they have a task ahead. An exhausting, tedious and depending on how big the field is also one that asks for a lot of patience. Patience, until the whole field is plowed up. But this is also the goal: the earth should be ready so it can bare new fruit. And when Jesus talks of God’s kingdom, then he means human connection. People need to be prepared so God’s word can fall on fertile ground and bare a lot of fruit. And looking back might say the following thing: Is it even worth it to start? The field is so big, I will never be able to do this. The old was not too bad, who knows, what the new might bring. The problem is: Whoever is not starting, will never experience it because they will stand still. The image of plowing, as many of us are not farmers, might also be like the image of riding a bike. When we need to go up the hill. It is exhausting, tedious but at some point one is on the top. Just don’t be discouraged, it needs some patience.
Discipleship is made of different steps – I hope that I was able to show through the text. Some steps come first and some later. But God calls us to be his disciple and when we walk the path we will get to know God. And we will learn to love him even more. Amen.