SJF • Proper 8c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
A man said to Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”+
I’m sure that many of you here are familiar with the Narnia series — children’s stories by CS Lewis, beginning with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. That first volume, and the second, Prince Caspian, have been made into movies — and you may have seen one or both of them. For those who haven’t, let me just say that Lewis was trying to address some of the major themes of Christianity in his imaginative portrayal of another world — and, in a way that would appeal to the imagination of children, a fantasy world of talking animals, magic and mystery.
I can attest how important these stories have been to many people over the years — including myself. They played a part in my adult return to the Christian faith when, as a teenager, I was working as a counselor at the Episcopal Mission Society summer camp, and shared these stories with the children under my care — most of them orphans or children in foster care, living in situations very far removed from the polite English world of CS Lewis or the fantasy world of Narnia! Yet they just couldn’t get enough of these stories — nor could I! They spoke truth, and truth we heard. When I returned home from that summer, I looked up the local Episcopal parish and became an active member.
In the last volume of the Narnia stories, Lewis chose to end with his own version of Revelation — a description of the last days of Narnia in a great Last Battle. And as the battle between the forces of good and evil rage through that fantasy world, one group tries to play the part of neutrality — the Dwarfs. They don’t want to get involved on either side. They do nothing to help the forces of good, to hinder the forces of evil, or vice versa. As they say, “The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs.” And so they refuse to take sides in the Last Battle — off to one side in a circle by themselves.
And after the battle is over and the forces of good have triumphed and the forces of evil have been conquered and dispatched, the Dwarfs are still sitting there — off in a circle to one side. They have become blind. They literally can no longer see what has happened — that the battle is over and the world itself is about to end, folded up into a glorious new life — not unlike the biblical images in Revelation! But the Dwarfs have missed out on it all, and don’t even know it. They think they are stuck in a damp, lightless stable, when they are in fact sitting in a beautiful sunlit flowery meadow. As the new creation dawns, they sit in their circle, arms folded across their chests and chanting, “The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs!”
The children try to rouse them from their blindness, holding flowers in front of them, but they cry out, “What do you mean by shoving filthy stable-litter in my face!” Even when the great Lion Aslan — who represents Christ in Lewis’s fantasy world — goes over to the Dwarfs and gives them a low growl of warning, they all say, “It’s just someone trying to frighten us with a noise-making machine! They won’t take us in.” As the old saying goes, they have made their bed and they’re going to lie in it. Or as Aslan himself observes, “Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison. They are so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.”
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I mention all of this because in our readings today we see similar failures to respond to a call to action, people failing to see the good that is set before them, and engaging in all sorts of delaying tactics. Elijah calls Elisha but Elisha wants to say goodbye to his parents before he follows on the way. Jesus gets a whole litany of excuses from various people, as to the things they need to do before they can follow him — and he gives them a stern rebuke.
More importantly Saint Paul lays two choices before the Galatians when he talks about the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit. There is a long tradition in Judaism and early Christianity called, “The Two Ways” — the way of evildoers and the way of the righteous. And which way you take will shape your life.
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I think it was Yogi Berra who said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” The point is, you have to choose — it’s one way or the other. The problem is that sometimes people don’t want to commit; they don’t want to take sides — it may not be quite so clear as the contrast Paul makes between the flesh and the spirit; I mean, he make it obvious about which way is the way of righteousness!
But sometimes, even the best intentioned people can be more like the Dwarfs in Lewis’s fable, or like the would-be disciples who delay in or withdraw from following Jesus because they decided they have other, more important things to do. Sometimes people think that rather than making a choice to reject what is wrong and do what is right, it is acceptable to do nothing, to abdicate responsibility and stand in watchful waiting to see how things go.
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And the church can be just as guilty of this kind of inaction as anyone else — being made of fallible people sometimes the church as a whole fails to live up to the challenge Jesus presents us. Paul’s letter to the Galatians reminds me of one such instance in our own history. The passage we heard begins with a call not to submit to a yoke of slavery This reminds me of a sorry aspect of our own church’s history — not this parish, but the whole Episcopal Church. By the 1850s the Episcopal Church was well-settled in just about every part of the United States, North and South, East and West. And of course, because of this, the church was faced with becoming embroiled in the controversy dividing the nation — slavery. The nation was occupied with the question: shall slavery be allowed to continue or shall it be stopped; and if stopped, how.
The church decided to play it safe. To avoid allowing this important issue to become a source of division, the Episcopal Church officially decided not to take a position on the question of slavery — the church would neither approve nor condemn what was called “the peculiar institution.” The Presiding Bishop of the Church, John Henry Hopkins of Vermont, even wrote a book defending the biblical foundations of slavery. He argued that as long as slaves were treated well there was nothing to prevent Christians from holding slaves, and that going to war about it was a far greater sin than the continuation of a venerable biblical institution — after all, he pointed out, Abraham had held slaves, and he was a model of biblical righteousness. That a bishop from the far North could make such an appeal warmed hearts of his Southern confrères.
And so, during the very years when this congregation was forming, while other Christian churches split along north-south lines, the Episcopal Church was able to remain a single body — at least until war actually broke out, and with the creation of the Confederate States of America, all of their bishops and deputies withdrew from participation in the Episcopal Church of the United States — after all, from their perspective they were part of a different country. One of the southern bishops was even a Confederate general, and died in battle.
The irony is that some people will point at this history with pride — the Episcopal Church didn’t divide, except for those few years during the actual war, and came back together afterward — unlike the Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists. But somehow, I think in failing to stand for something we missed a great opportunity. By accepting slavery — for others, since few slaves were themselves Episcopalians — we colluded in injustice, and at a crucial moment remained silent; like the Dwarfs who were only for the Dwarfs, we were only interested in the preservation of our ecclesiastical union — a union that was in fact divided when the war broke out, even though the Northern bishops refused to recognize it, and continued the roll call of the names of the absent southern bishops whenever the House of Bishops met — knowing full well they were not there.
Is there virtue in such obliviousness? Such living in denial and embracing fantasy? Such collusion in injustice? Do you think so?
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For to be truly righteous it is not enough just not to do bad things — it is not enough just not to take the way of the works of the flesh, those obvious failings. It is not enough to say to Jesus, I will follow you when it becomes convenient for me to do so. No, my friends, we are called to choose — and to choose rightly; not just to avoid the way of the flesh but to get on our feet and walk in the way of the spirit — to follow Jesus. We are called to live by the Spirit, and, guided by the Spirit, to join Jesus in the proclamation of the kingdom of God. To follow him will mean to do the works of God and bear the fruit of the Spirit in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And these are the things God calls us to do, calls us to follow. Where he leads us, will we follow? Will we?+