Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sometime in late spring 16 years ago, I took a phone call from the chair of the Priest Personnel Committee. I was told the bishop was sending me as pastor to St. John the Evangelist Church in Waynesboro. My current pastoral assignment had been very stressful at that time. I had just arrived the previous summer. Suddenly I was juggling 5 weekend masses at 2 small parishes and a university campus that had previously been served by 2 priests. I had only been to Waynesboro once before, and otherwise I had no clue what awaited me. I wasn’t sure what to do so I asked for time to think about it. There was a pause on the other end, then yes, you have 24 hours. Expect a call same time the next day and give the bishop a response. I think it was a Monday afternoon and I had no one to talk to. I may as well have been walking blindfolded into heavy traffic. So, I invoked a lesson from a lifetime of Catholic education. No doubt you pick up some strange notions in Catholic school. These lessons never sounded strange then. But we were kids who didn’t know any better, highly impressionable, and just ripe for the picking for cult leaders and demagogues.
The lesson was about discerning the will of God. How do you know what God wants of you? It’s a question young people constantly ask who don’t really know what to do with their lives. Some highly motivated people of course know early on what they want to accomplish. The rest of us just agonize over what God has planned for us and whether we would discover and fulfill the actual purpose God put us on earth. So, easily whatever was pertinent to your state in life was within the realm of God’s will. For a student, getting schoolwork done was clearly God’s will. I had household chores at home and at boarding school, whether it was cleaning toilets or typing some professor’s notes. Most of it was tedious and unglamorous. But getting it done was most definitely God’s will.
And then there was the matter of the school bell, the bell that woke us up in the morning, sent us to morning prayer and mass, and breakfast, classes and recess, lunch, band practice, recreation, dinner, study hall, benediction, night prayer, and bed. It was just what we did. On occasion it was a nuisance, when I didn’t want to get out of bed, or I decided I had to finish one last math problem in study hall, or I was enjoying kicking the ball around the field, or I wasn’t ready for bed. But we were reminded constantly that the bell was the voice of God. Drop whatever you’re doing and go where God sends you. Success was never the goal, obedience always was. If and when God called, the only response was “Here I am, send me.” And if you were doing something God sent you to do in the first place, and God called again, you said, “Here I am, send me.”
Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, presumably to his passion and death, the fulfillment of the purpose for which he came. And three instances in today’s gospel show us how following after Jesus can be so inconvenient sometimes. “I will follow you wherever you go” sounds sincere enough. But Jesus’ response “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head” gives no assurance whatsoever that following him would guarantee any perks. “Let me go first and bury my father” is a “yes, but.” “Let me say farewell to my family at home” is a “yes, but.” And a “yes, but” is not ever really a “yes.”
God sent the prophet Elijah to find Elisha, some random farmer who was clearly neither qualified nor remotely interested in the job, to succeed him. Elisha was plowing a field with twelve yoke of oxen, a detail to emphasize his family’s wealth and standing in the community. But Elisha slaughters the oxen, uses the plowing equipment for fuel to boil their flesh, feeds his people, then leaves everything to become Elijah’s attendant. Bold. Decisive. There would be no half-hearted commitments and no going back, no promises awaiting fulfillment once conditions were better and no regrets in hindsight. You either take the plunge or you walk away. Go big or go home. There is no try.
“Live by the Spirit,” St. Paul writes, “and you will not gratify the desire of the flesh.” What does the flesh desire but largely its own satisfaction? And like an unruly child the flesh will demand constant attention, enslaving our hearts in selfish pursuits. But “Christ set us free” and we should “not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” Our embrace of God’s will allows us to live free of fear and anxiety, like Elisha leaving everything behind and attending fully to his master’s every word and desire.
There is tremendous freedom in doing simply what you are asked, especially if you genuinely trust the one who asks. Was I happy about it? It’s what I signed up for. And it wasn’t my first rodeo. Was my personal happiness even relevant? Many among us would be content if nothing ever changed. But the big picture is seldom ever our concern. We act like anything beyond the horizon can always wait another day.
But the discipleship Jesus asks is total, immediate, fearless, willing. A lifetime won’t be enough to learn it well even with great effort. But we know when God calls, whenever God calls, and in whatever manner God calls, there is only one acceptable response. Can I think about it? No, really. Here I am, send me.
Rolo B Castillo © 2022