Thursday, June 27, 2013

Burn your bridges

Thirteenth Ordinary Sunday Year C

Whenever I prepare couples for marriage, I spend additional time exploring one of the questions which I would be posing to them during the rite of marriage: “Are you ready, freely and without reservation, to give yourselves to each other in marriage?” The couples usually have no problems answering this question in the affirmative but I doubt whether they actually understand the enormity of the demand made of them. I guess when I begin to mention a few scenarios, it only dawns on them how serious this demand is made of them, and how really radical it is to make an irrevocable promise that is both free and unconditional (without reservation). I usually use the analogy of taking a cruise on the Titanic to make my point. “Just imagine that you are taking a cruise on the Titanic with your future husband/wife. There’s no turning back. There are no life boats. There is no emergency reset button. You either sink, swim or drown together. That’s what it means to have no reservations!”

Most people would consider what I’ve just outlined above as severe. No one really expects you to ‘burn your bridges.’ In fact, "not burning your bridges!" is often a piece of advice given to people who are going through major changes and significant moves in their life. Caution demands a tentative commitment - we need to have an ‘insurance policy’, a ‘Plan B’, just in case things don’t work out. It’s playing it safe and having a fallback. And that is often good advice when it comes to most matters. Whether you’re talking about employment, family, or money, the old adage applies. Don’t burn your bridges. Keep your options open.

But, conventional wisdom is turned on its head when it comes to Christian discipleship. Those who are called by God are often asked to burn their bridges.  They are not called to do the safe thing; they are called to do the risky thing. There is no retreat. It’s taking the “leap of faith.” Following Jesus is like skydiving. Once you make the jump you are totally committed! Those who are called by God are not called to do the easy, safe thing. They are called to burn their bridges. They are called to take a cruise on the Titanic with their Master whom they have decided to follow. They are called to take a leap of faith.

And sometimes that feels more like judgment than salvation. The first reading is about the call of Elisha to succeed Elijah as God’s prophet. God told Elijah to anoint Elisha as the next prophet of Israel. So Elijah found Elisha in the field ploughing in the field. Elijah then placed his cloak upon Elisha as a symbol that God had chosen Elisha to be Elijah’s successor. Elisha knew exactly what this meant. It meant that he would have to leave his job, his family and his friends to follow Elijah. And so Elisha asked if he could perform a symbolic action of cutting off his connection to the past by kissing his Mother and Father goodbye. Elijah agreed. But, Elisha did more than just say goodbye to his family. He had a barbeque for the whole community. He slaughters his oxen and uses his plough to fuel the fire. The cost of discipleship was high for Elisha. This was not just a meal. It was a symbolic way of accepting God’s call. He literally burned his bridges; he burned his only means of making a living in order to move on to a new way of life. It was a costly and risky thing to do. There is no going back for Elisha.And throughout the Bible you see the same story being repeated.

If you believe that this demand made of Elisha was severe, wait till you hear what Jesus does in today’s gospel. A far greater demand is made for those who wish to be Christ’s followers – they have to risk homelessness and being deprived of family support. Last week, Jesus had already outlined the meaning of discipleship. If any wanted to follow Jesus on that route, he wanted to make the consequences clear. They would have to take up a cross. They would have to share the sacrifice as well as the glory. Discipleship has a high price tag. When the disciples of Jesus take up the mantle of faith they also take up a cross. The cross and the resurrection are always within the vision of Jesus. He knows what he faces, and he knows that anyone who goes with him must be totally committed. They too must be prepared to face the same odds. He will be rejected and his followers will be rejected as well. There is a foreshadowing of this rejection in today’s gospel – Jesus is rejected by the Samaritans, as he will be rejected by the chief priests, the elders and religious leaders at Jerusalem.

It is not only the fear of what lies ahead that serves as an obstacle to us following Christ. The gospel now focuses on what lies in the past that hinders us from making this radical step of committing to discipleship. It boils down to the question: what are your prepared to give up? Is it our time, our income, our security? Is it our fear of commitment? Is it our fear of rejection by others or objection from our loved ones? The call of God overwhelms and overshadows everything else in the lives of Christian disciples. God’s call takes precedence not only over the worst things in our life but also it takes precedence over even the best things in our life. Even life’s most important duties are nullified by the call to follow Christ.

Most of us dread that moment. We think that it would be better to have a faith that does not require so much of us. We think that it would be better to have a faith that allows to remain comfortably entrenched in our old way of life. We would prefer a soft version of the gospel. Jesus tells us this is not possible. Jesus says that if we put our hand to the plough and then look back we are not fit for the kingdom of God. When one is ploughing, it is always important to keep a fixed point that is far ahead of you in your sight. In this way you are able to plough a straight furrow. The words of Jesus are another way of saying that disciples must always keep their eyes fixed on him. As Pope Benedict reminded us in his first encyclical, God is Love, "Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

And like him we are encouraged to look beyond the shame and frustration of the moment to the eternal hope of resurrection and salvation. Remember the road to Jerusalem is not only about a crucifixion but also a resurrection. That was true for Jesus, and it is true for us as well.

The call of discipleship is often stark, demanding, and uncomfortable. Going with Jesus on the road to Jerusalem is always dangerous. Going with Jesus will change us and change is always painful and frightening. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran theologian who gave up a safe asylum to teach in New York in order to return to his homeland to be imprisoned and executed, once said that when Jesus calls us to follow him what he's really saying is "come and die". And yet, despite the challenge, it is a journey worth taking. St Paul reminds us in his letter to the Galatians, that the call of Jesus is a call to liberty – Jesus by calling us to “come and die” means to set us free from “yoke of slavery” to sin, to liberate us from our addictive ‘self-indulgence.’ It is only through the long and difficult personal struggle to follow Jesus that we learn the paradoxical truth that He taught us in last week’s gospel: “For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, that man will save it.” That's the paradox of discipleship. In order to get what you want, you have to give up what you want. To have the holiday of your life on the Titanic, we must forget about the paper chase we’ve left behind at the office, not concern ourselves about whether our home will be burgled, or even fret over the location of the life boats on the ship. We give up the illusions posed by our false securities in this earthly life, so that we may attain the treasures of eternal life. To follow Jesus means that we have to burn our bridges – no turning back, no turning back.

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