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Hoosier Musings on the Road to Emmaus

Sunday, June 27, 2004

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 9:51-63

One of the first classes I took at seminary was called “Christian Life and Thought I.” It was a course in early church history, covering the period from the birth of the church, after Jesus’ resurrection and the inspiration of the disciples at Pentecost, to about AD 600 or so. It was taught by one of my favorite instructors. A.K.M. Adam is a tall, spare man, with bright eyes and a kind smile, and one of the most expressive faces I have ever seen. He’s in almost constant motion when he’s lecturing, his rumbling bass voice rising and falling as he talks, his words chosen with meticulous care. He’s passionate about his subject, and takes his work very seriously.

I don’t want to give you the impression that he is too serious, however. AKMA has a marvelous, quirky sense of humor, and a wry way of expressing himself; we had a lot of fun in his class. One of the things that he did for us, that was both amusing and helpful, was to give us our very own set of Church History Trading Cards. Isn't that cool? Each card deals with a famous figure of the time period, or a popular topic, or a significant movement in the church.

The very first card we got was entitled “Judaism.” It talks about the various streams of thought-- rather like denominations, if you will-- that were part of the Jewish tradition at the time Jesus lived, and in the early church. We hear about most of them in our new Testament scriptures. Sadducees, for example, are described as a “Temple-centered group, emphasizing the Torah (that’s the first five books of the Old Testament) as written.” Pharisees, on the other hand, are “a lay movement emphasizing purity and adherence to the Oral Torah.” That would include the words of the prophets and the writings-- the rest of our Old Testament, and sometimes other teachings as well. All the tradition of the faith-- oral and written-- was to be scrupulously followed.

Another of the sects mentioned on the card is that of the Samaritans. Yes, though you might not guess it from the way the Gospels talk about them, they were Jewish, too. My trading card notes that Samaritans “practiced an ancient form of Judaism, had their own temple, and were hostile to Judea and Galilee.”

That hostility was mutual. Samaritan religious practices were indeed Jewish, but they were different-- their temple on Mt. Gerazim, rather than Jerusalem, was but one difference-- and therefore, they were suspect. Then, too, they were a racially mixed people-- their ancestors had intermarried with the pagan tribes in the North, during the exile. So the Jews in Judea and Galilee thought of “those people,” quite bluntly, as half-breed heretics. They wanted nothing to do with them. They referred to them disparagingly, if at all, and would go miles out of their way, when traveling, to avoid having to pass through Samaritan towns.

So, here’s the first unusual thing we hear in this morning’s gospel: Jesus sent messengers into a village of Samaritans, and was preparing to come in himself and stay a while. We don’t know how long, of course; but that’s still a far cry from what would have been standard practice-- the ancient equivalent to taking the bypass, and avoiding the “bad” neighborhood. That must have been a hard pill for some of the disciples to swallow-- the mere thought of risking ritual uncleanness, in associating with “those people,” would likely have been a real struggle for observant Jews.

Now, there’s one more thing to keep in mind when you hear this story. There were no Best Westerns back then. No Holiday Inn, no Comfort Suites, not even a Motel 6. And this was not a forgiving climate. So hospitality in that time and place was a matter of survival, and a very serious issue. It still is, in middle eastern culture. If someone, anyone, comes to your door, you are under an obligation to care for them, to feed and shelter them as though they were members of your own family.

But Jesus’ messengers, of course, came back to say that they would not be made welcome. The Samaritans evidently got wind of Jesus’ intended destination-- Jerusalem, and that “other” temple-- and suddenly doors closed, and faces went stony, and backs turned. Sorry, we really can’t. Thanks, but no thanks. No, no room here; not for people like you.

Is it any wonder that James and John were upset? Here they were, steeling themselves to set foot in a Samaritan village-- promising themselves to be civil, and tolerant, no doubt. And then suddenly the tables are turned. They were the ones given the cold shoulder, dismissed as though they were the undesirable characters! Who do those people think they are, anyway?

So then, what do they do, these men Jesus called “the Sons of Thunder?” Well, they showed once again why the nickname was so apt. They were so angry over this denial of hospitality, this rudeness in the face of moral obligation, exhibited by “those people,” that they asked permission to call down fire from heaven to consume the village!

Boy, this story is only a few lines long, but it is full of very human responses, isn’t it? Think, for a moment, of some of the things that were said when this congregation sought permission to open Grace House; the comments from local residents, their fears of what kind of people would be moving into the neighborhood. And then think of the furor around the actions of General Convention last summer, and the reactions that you may have heard, or felt, from that. How often do we dismiss, and disparage, and distance ourselves, from those who are different than we are, by race, or class, or religion, or sexual orientation... those whose beliefs, and choices, and lives we do not understand, or with whom we disagree?

But then, when we are dismissed, or disparaged, or attacked... we want to get even. To strike out, to retaliate-- to hurt as we have been hurt, and worse. Think of James and John... and then, for example, about some of the talk show rhetoric that we heard in this country after September 11: “Nuke ‘em ‘til they radiate-- that’ll teach ‘em!”

But that’s not Jesus’ response, not the way he teaches. He does not suggest any sort of retaliation at all; in fact, Luke says he turns and rebukes James and John for even suggesting it. (“Shame on you!” I imagine him saying. Haven’t I taught you better than that?”) And then they simply move on to another village.

But he doesn’t stop there, doesn’t finish by simply “turning the other cheek.” He goes further. In the very next chapter of Luke, Jesus tells a story of caring, and of radical hospitality, where the hero is, yes, a Samaritan. In fact, that’s what most folks call it: the parable of the Good Samaritan.

In other words, Jesus shows us that the all too human response is not our only choice. He shows us that there is an alternative, a godly choice.

We can remember that the “other” that we mistrust or fear, or simply don’t know, is still a child of God-- as much created in God’s image as we are. Just as beloved, and worthy of respect, and care. Even-- or maybe especially-- when we disagree, or disapprove of them.

And we can refuse to retaliate-- even when “we” are right and “they” are wrong. My grandmother would call this “not stooping to that level.” She would say, ”We’re better than that.”

Okay, so maybe we are not naturally inclined to be better than that. I know I still fight the urge to say or do things out of prejudice, or in anger, that I’ll regret later. And I don’t always win. But God is better than that; and, in following the example of the God that we see and know in Jesus, we can hope to be, too. No, it’s not easy. But we as Christians have witnessed, and can witness, that it is possible; that “with God, all things are possible.”


Blogger Don said...

As always, I enjoyed your sermon.

Many years ago,I was more eager for Advent/Christmas/Epiphany and Lent/Easter. The ordinary time after Pentecost seemed so plain and neverending.

Now I appreciate this period much more because through the Gospel readings it illustrates how we are to live, it challenges our assumptions, and prods and pushes us to understand God's Kingdom.

As thrilling as the other liturgical seasons are, this is the practical and thoughtful one in how to live out what Christmas and Easter have wrought.

June 28, 2004 2:42 PM  

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