There was a man who discovered the art of fire. He discovered how to start fire, control it and use it for heating, cooking… It was a wonderful discovery and he, such a humble, generous being, wanted to share his discovery with the world. He wandered around the countryside seeking villages and towns with whom to share his wisdom.
He went to one town and shared his knowledge. He taught people what to do and how to use it, but they wanted nothing to do with this new-fangled idea and drove him out of town. He shook the dirt from his feet and moved onto other towns. Some drove him out, but some were more receptive and welcomed him, albeit with some suspicion and uncertainty.
In one town, the man created fire in their midst and showed them how to cook. In the cold of winter, he showed them how they could keep warm. People gradually responded to the man and his discovery and began to follow him, listening to all his teaching on fire.
The leaders of the town became concerned because more and more people began to listen to and revere him. Their concern grew until they reached the point when they could no longer tolerate him and planned his demise. They saw to it that he had an ‘accident’ and disappeared.
The people grieved his loss, so the leaders set up a shrine to his memory. They set up all the implements of fire making and framed texts of his speeches and teaching. They had paintings of the man hung around the shrine and developed rituals of remembrance for the people. They no longer used the fire he brought to the town, but they worshipped his memory
This is a common story, whether in religious traditions or wider society. We are moved or inspired by a person, their life, teaching, wisdom or loving acts… When they leave us or die, we venerate their memory. Some funerals are renowned for their glowing praise and adulation of the person. They venerate the person and praise their memory. People extol their virtues and honour the memory and the reality of the person’s life. There are metaphorical fireworks and a rapturous experience and then everyone leaves, holding to the memory but not the life to which the memory and teaching, actions etc point. This is certainly the case in the memorial services of great leaders or the holidays and holy days that remember such people. We become caught up in the celebrations and memory but not the reality of the life and practice it represents. Our lives don’t change, or as commentator Brian McLaren suggests, ‘we become fans not followers!’
I confess I struggled with our readings this week until I heard a few words of Brian McLaren and he challenged me to think about how I celebrate ideas and values, sometimes more than embracing them into my life. I am inspired and challenged by the stories of people like Martin Luther King Jr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Archbishop Oscar Romero. I could add many others like Mandella, Mother Teresa… These people’s lives and writings have challenged and confronted me. I revel in them but too often celebrate them like a fan on the sidelines, cheering the team on, rather than being fully engaged in the ‘game’ that is taking place on the field of life. It is often easier to cheer from sidelines than get involved in the cut and thrust of life lived in the raw places with courage, love and faith.
Two of the stories this week (2 Kings:1-2, 6-14 and Luke 9:51-62) speak of impending endings, departures. Elijah, the ancient Jewish prophet is leaving. The story tells of him being taken into the heavens. It is easy to be caught up in the questions of how, what, why of this story and lose sight of the younger ‘apprentice’ that Elijah has been nurturing. Elisha is caught up in the moment and it would be easy to focus on the greatness of his mentor and celebrate his holiness and venerate him – become a fan. Elisha, however, chooses to be a follower. ‘What do you want?’ asks Elijah. Elisha responds, ‘I want a double share of your wisdom.’ Elisha wants to live the life rather than celebrate the memory. He wants to continue the journey they have begun and take up where his mentor has left off, and it is granted.
In the Gospel story, Jesus is facing his impending death. He turns to face Jerusalem, where he will engage the powers of the world, powers that control, dominate and abuse. He journeys towards that place with expectations upon his shoulders, Messianic expectations that he will lead a revolt against the Romans and deliver the Jewish people into a new place of peace under God. They expect a religious-military leader. As he journeys, the disciples call for fire to come from heaven and consume some enemies who reject them. Jesus stops and rebukes them for their lack of understanding and abuse of power. They want the fireworks and the glory but not the real life of Jesus. Others want to follow under their own conditions, enjoy the unfolding drama from a comfortable place and not engage in the challenging moment. Jesus calls people into the journey, not the memory.
So much religious conversation within and beyond the church deals with ideas, values and argues over truths to be believed or not. Why, for example, does Israel Folau, have to speak his beliefs into being on social media? If he truly believes what he says – and if he does understand God as loving – why does he not actively reach out in love to help and embrace those he believes have messed up lives and are lost? It is easy to throw pots shots at people we disagree with but much harder to follow Jesus in the way of love, grace and embracing all people into an inclusive, transformative community! Jesus’ way is about claiming a peaceful, faithful and loving response to the world. He challenged the expectations upon him and lived in a different, prophetic way that proclaimed love, grace, inclusion, relationship and through this, healing. He sought to understand people and walk with them, offering a different way forward than the life-denying ways that oppressed or held them.
We need to live into these ideas of peaceful, relational, loving justice if we are to confront the major challenges of our world today. Political and economic systems that are destroying the planet, creating weapons of death and denying many people freedom and life. The assault on indigenous peoples throughout the world, the denial of place and home to these and other people, displaced through warfare and oppressive regimes. It is not enough to cheer Jesus on from the sidelines or raising our voices in praise. He calls us into a life of following him, of living the life of Christ in the world with all of its pain, struggle, joy and beauty. We are invited into the place of hope and peace to share peace and hope with others. It will take us into dark and difficult places. It will take courage, commitment and love!