How do you stand on the shoulders of a giant?

a sermon on the texts 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14 and Luke 9:51-62


ast year I wrote a piece for the national Anglican Journal, which was ostensibly a review of an album by Ravi Coltrane, but was in fact more a meditation on the challenge of succession; of “standing on the shoulders of giants.” Ravi Coltrane is a gifted and respected musician, an increasingly able jazz composer, and a creative soloist on his instrument; the tenor saxophone. But if ever a musician stood on the shoulder of a giant – or perhaps stood in a giant’s shadow – he is the one. His father was John Coltrane, the ground-breaking innovator whose relatively brief recording career produced a body of work that has now influenced generations of musicians. Ravi’s mother Alice Coltrane was also a musician, and her sometimes eccentric and avant-garde body of work also has its serious devotees.

How do you follow that? Here is what I wrote in my piece for the Journal:

Even people with little knowledge of jazz will know that to place the name “Coltrane” in the same sentence as the words “jazz” or “saxophonist” is to evoke the name “John.”  John Coltrane towers in the jazz world; John Coltrane is “Trane.”  Ravi Coltrane is not – and never will be – simply “Trane.”

How do you follow that? How do you follow up on the legacy of someone who has redefined a genre? Or – more to the point of what we read here tonight in the Gospel according to Luke – how do you follow one who is redefining everything, right before your eyes, as you keep company with him?

The company of disciples has followed; they’ve headed out on the road with Jesus, and they’ve seen some world re-defining things. But they don’t get it. When a particular Samaritan village fails to receive Jesus, two of the disciples suggest a solution: “When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’”

Isn’t that the way that the followers of a proper messiah should deal with rejection or indifference?  “But he turned and rebuked them” – and I’d love to know what he actually said to them… –  “Then they went on to another village.”

And as they made their way toward that other village, people drew close to see this Jesus about whom they’d begun to hear rumours. To one of those people, Jesus issued the invitation, “Follow me,” to which that man said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Fair request you’d think, given that in Judaism the assumption was that the burial of a parent took precedence over all other obligations, religious or otherwise. “But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’”

“Let the dead bury their own dead.” Really. Can you imagine a less pastoral response to a grieving son? They’d probably kick you out of the standard Clinical Pastoral Education training program for being so cold and unfeeling.

But it keeps going. “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 plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’” So much for family values.

Commenting on these verses, N.T. Wright offers the following:

Jesus’ kingdom-announcement is so urgent, so unique, that it must either be followed, grasped and proclaimed totally or lost altogether. The family, a central and vital symbol of the people of God, is thus radically redefined. Following Jesus at once is the only thing that counts.

That this gospel reading is paired with the reading from 2 Kings dealing with the relationship between Elijah and Elisha raises an interesting comparison. When the prophet Elijah had first first called Elisha to follow him, Elisha was actually plowing a field, and he asked to be allowed to leave his field and go back to say farewell to his parents; a request which Elijah somewhat grudgingly granted.

Elisha did go back home, where he slaughtered the oxen with which he’d been ploughing his field, gave the meat to the people from his village, and headed out on the road with Elijah. He walked with him and learned from him, and when the time came for Elijah to leave this life, Elisha insisted on staying right by his side. Knowing that his mentor was about to be taken from him, he even asked that he be given an inheritance, “a double share” of Elijah’s spirit; which doesn’t mean twice as much as what Elijah was gifted with, but actually refers to the inheritance of an eldest son. Elisha was in fact offering to take up his mentor’s ministry and vocation.

It was granted. He did take up his mentor’s mantle, and as the 2nd Book of Kings unfolds we can read of the role he played in challenging Israel to actually be the people of God.

But it was not an easy road that Elisha walked, and while the prophet Elijah continues as a towering figure in the imagination of the Jewish and Christian traditions – remember, it is Elijah who appears to Jesus alongside of Moses in the gospel story of the transfiguration – Elisha is at some level always the disciple, working out the legacy of his great mentor. How do you follow a figure such as Elijah?

And how do you follow this Jesus, who so steadily undoes the working assumptions of those with whom he keeps company? Rebuking James and John for thinking they have the answer to a resistant Samaritan village – nuke ‘em – but then turning around to push every cultural and religious norm of his world by demanding that any who would follow him drop their familial duties and loyalties and just get on with it.  Any wonder their heads are still spinning when they finally reach Jerusalem for that final week in Jesus’ life? Any wonder they flee into the cover of the darkness on the night he is arrested? This is not an easy thing to follow this messiah.

Yet it is Jesus’ arrest and execution that turns out to be the definitive point in the reimagination of the world, because in it violence and death are unveiled as being ultimately powerless. And that rag-tag bunch that has kept company with Jesus not only has a story to tell about meeting him again in his resurrection, they are granted the thing Elisha had requested of Elijah; a “double-share” of his Spirit. They – and we with them – are marked as inheritors of his legacy, as children of God… and each and every one of us is, at least figuratively, an eldest child.

And that is how we follow. Not by virtue of being good enough or smart enough or holy enough to live up to the legacy. We never will be.

But we don’t need to be any of those things, for as I offer in the prayer with which I close many of our liturgies during this season of ordinary time,

Almighty God, we give you thanks, that while we were still far off you met us in your Son and you brought us home. Dying and living, he restored us to life, gave us grace, and opened the way of glory.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Jamie Howison

One Response to How do you stand on the shoulders of a giant?

  1. Once again you remind us that Jesus asked all to rethink this life. Does it hold true today? I think it does, and I struggle with the angels of my better nature everyday due to his teaching.
    I do not know how you manage to speak so directly to me Jamie, but I am certain that you do, and I relish your writings for their interpretations and illuminations. Thank you for your service.

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