Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Be Busy Being Born

I’m not the world’s biggest Bob Dylan fan, but there’s no denying the man has an unforgettable voice and a knack for writing amazing songs.  His lyrics are truly poetic, evocative and inspiring as any good poet should be.  I’m willing to bet most of us are familiar with his classic, ‘Serve Somebody.’  You may be an ambassador to England or France, you may like to gamble, you might like to dance, you may be the heavyweight champion of the world, you may be a socialite with a long string of pearls, but you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed you're gonna have to serve somebody. Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you're gonna have to serve somebody.  It’s a great refrain, and when sung with his famous voice, the words become haunting, confrontational even.  No matter our station in life, no matter how wealthy and influential we may be, all of us serve something, or better yet, serve somebody. For Christians, that's the call to discipleship, where we admit that we are not the true masters of our fate.  Like I said, evocative and haunting.

But there’s another song, and another phrase of Dylan’s that haunts me even more.  “From the fool's gold mouthpiece the hollow horn plays wasted words, proves to warn that he not busy being born is busy dying.” There it is, as clear as day, the Gospel sung by a songwriting prophet. He not busy being born is busy dying. If we are not moving forward, progressing, changing and transforming, than we aren’t really living.  If we are constantly looking backward, to the lives we lived in the past, refusing to be born anew to something vibrant and fresh, than we are just slowly wasting away in a grave of stagnant nostalgia.  He not busy being born is busy dying. It’s a phrase the echoes the Gospel of Jesus Christ so well because the Gospel of Jesus Christ is fundamentally about being born again, and not just once when you said a prayer kneeling by your bedside, but constantly being born and reborn again to the new things God is doing in and around us.  Discipleship is not just the mere acknowledgement that Jesus is Lord. Discipleship is so much more than mere allegiance…it means being willing to set aside lives filled with certainty and predictably, and to be born again as someone willing to be stretched, confronted, made and remade in the image of the Son of Man, the one who didn’t even have a place to lay his head, and whose summons to kingdom work was so radical it didn’t even allow a man to properly mourn his dead father.  Becoming a disciple, being born again into the image of the Son, will cost us nothing less than the whole of our lives.  And it’s been like this sense the beginning.

We see this call to radical conversion and rebirth in Elijah’s call to Elisha.  In such a simple act, Elijah’s throwing of his mantle onto Elisha, the summons to be born into new life was given. Immediately, Elisha understood that something significant happened to him.  But he still felt the pull backwards, still felt the call of the old life, of his former responsibilities and his old identity.  Wishing to properly say goodbye to his family, he asked for a brief respite from Elijah’s mission.  But the question Elijah posed to him is as challenging now as it was then: “Go back again; for what have I done to you?” Entering into a covenant with the Living God, being called into God’s service, is not just a merit badge we pin on our shirts, or a trophy we set on the mantle of our hearts and take down to admire when we feel religious.  Being summoned into God’s service is something that is done to us and overtakes us, something that alters us at our very core, something that tears at the fabric of the lives we once lived, and knits together a new tapestry of beauty and transformation.

Elisha models this so clearly for us.  The life he lived before his summons into God’s service centered on the fields, the oxen, and the tools he used to plow.  But having heard his call, having been born again, he burned up everything he had, all of the markers that once identified him, and set off to follow Elijah and the God they both served.  It’s a stark image, a man setting fire to all that once identified him.  But such is the call to discipleship.  And if we think his actions are too stark and confrontational, then what do we make of Jesus’ words in the Gospel: “To another he said, "Follow me." But he said, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." But Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God." Another said, "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."

There are times in the Gospel when Jesus’ words are filled with tenderness and gentleness. But this exchange is not one of them. From our perspective, the requests that these two men made were completely rational and understandable. But Jesus wasn't interested in rationality. He was interested in their spiritual transformation into servants capable and willing to transform the world. To quote again Bob Dylan: “he not busy being born is busy dying.” And that's not too far off from what Jesus meant. What Jesus was calling those men to, and what he calls us to even still, is not merely a religious sensibility, or an outlook on life that does very little to our actual daily lives. To those who would heed is call to follow, Jesus gives the invitation to let go of what is dead, be it an old identity or a competing mindset…to be born again as a disciple willing to forsake even the things that mean the most to us. If we want to consider commitment to Jesus as one commitment among equals, then we aren't really being born as new creatures in Christ. We are slowly dying a thousand deaths of boredom, banality, and busy-ness.

In the tradition I grew up in, we had altar calls, where the preacher would ask anyone if they want to follow Jesus with all of their heart.  We don’t do it quite like that in the Episcopal Church.  But we do have an altar.  And we do call people to it.  And in a way, after hearing the Gospel, after facing the challenge Jesus sets before us, by coming up to this altar and feasting on his body and blood, we are saying ‘yes’ to him.  Yes to the call to conversion.  Yes to the call to discipleship.  Yes to the call to be born again.  Yes to the call to set our face forward and follow Jesus wherever he may lead.  Yes to not looking back at the lives we’ve left behind. Yes to a life of being busy being born, not busy dying a thousand tiny deaths of nostalgia and predictability.  The Gospel calls us to lives unpredictable, radical, and free from that which distracts us from building up the Kingdom of God.  Say ‘yes’ to him today, brothers and sisters, and taste of the freedom only he can give. “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

*A sermon preached on the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 8 year C, at Trinity on the Hill Episcopal Church in Los Alamos, NM.  The texts were 1 Kings 19:15-16,19-21, Galatians 5:1,13-25, and Luke 9:51-62.

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