June 26, 2016

Pentecost – Proper 8

2 Kings 2: 1 - 2, 6 - 14; Psalm 77:1-2, 11 - 20; Galatians 5: 1, 13 - 25; Luke 9:51 - 62


In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  AMEN.

It was a hot and dusty day as a group of about twenty or so men and women walked through the desert sands. Stray dogs passed beside them, some afraid, some barking, some mangy.  The group walked with the mid-day sun beating down upon them, the temperature easily rising over one hundred degrees. The group was tired, dirty, and they needed rest.

The sand blew in the hot desert wind, continuing to blow into their faces as they tried to keep them covered with what little fabric they had. Finally shelter appeared in the form of a small village of ramshackle houses gathered together. 

Yet the moment this road-weary group stepped into the village, it was obvious they were not welcome here. The villagers peered out the windows of their tent dwellings, scowling at thirsty and tired group who had just arrived. This group had a leader, a man they called Jesus, and Jesus understood the nature of the village’s hostility to them. And so they left, continuing down the road in search of a more welcoming place.

Why the rejection? The answer comes down to simple geography. The village that Jesus and his disciples entered into, and were rejected by, was a village located in northern region of Israel called “Samaria.” Samaritans, the people who populated this area were hostile to the people from the south of Israel, like Jesus, who came from a region the Romans called Judea.  It’s simple prejudice.  Samaritans and Judeans don’t get along.  Why?

The source of the hostility between these two groups - and why should any of us be surprised by this – was religion. The Samaritans believed that the temple they built to worship God – a temple they built upon a mountain they called “Gerazim” – was the only temple in the world where they believed God was to be worshipped. The Judeans in the south disagreed, believing that the temple which they built first, upon Mount Zion in Jerusalem, was the true and holy dwelling place of God.  Judean theology asserted  this belief: many psalms in our Bible today proclaim that God dwells in the temple upon Zion, not some remote backwater place like Samaria.

Sadly, this story is not the first, nor is it the last example of religious hostility described in the Bible. After the rejection of Jesus by the villagers in Samaria, as they are walking peacefully away from the village, two of Jesus closest disciples, James and John, walk up alongside Jesus and say (in a very loose translation of the New Testament Greek) “Jesus, the Samaritan people back there in the village were real jerks. They should’ve offered us food, water, and a place to rest.  Because they didn’t, do you want us to just call down some fire from the sky to just burn the whole place up?  You know, to teach them a lesson?”

As ridiculous as the request of James and John sounds to us, they were actually referring to an event that happened in Samaria much earlier; told to us in the book of 2 Kings. 2 Kings tells a story regarding the prophet Elijah, who cast down fire from the sky upon several Samaritan messengers and the groups associated with them. James and John, the two disciples, were familiar with this story, and figured that if it was okay for Elijah, then Jesus would be cool doing the same thing.

Except he wasn’t. Jesus was not interested in raining down fire on anyone, Samaritan, Judean, or otherwise. Quite the contrary, Jesus tired of this deep-seated animosity between Samaria and Judea.  He’d had enough of people fighting over religion, using religion to justify hatred and prejudice against others. So Jesus rebukes James and John for even bringing up the idea. 

I don’t believe it is a coincidence that in the very next chapter of Luke from the story we hear today - after Jesus and his disciples are rejected by the Samaritan village - that Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. It’s a familiar story to us – a man, walking on a road, is robbed and beaten by bandits, and left for dead lying in a ditch. A priest walks by, and ignores him. A Levite, a person who works in the Temple, kind of like an altar guild member, walks by, and ignores him. Last comes…a Samaritan, one of those awful people who worship God on the wrong mountain.  And the Samaritan stops, bandages the wounds of the beaten man, takes him to an inn, and pays the innkeeper to take care of the man. In telling this story, Jesus creates an opportunity for Judeans to think differently about Samaritans, to see them not just as a stereotyped enemy, but as friend and healer.

Take a moment, and think about a person in your life who you feel is an enemy. Maybe it is an ex-husband, wife, or partner. Maybe it’s your boss, maybe it’s me!  Maybe it is a person who robbed you at gunpoint. It could be anyone. Think and find in your mind an image of that person, who for whatever reason, has done you wrong, treated you unfairly.

Now imagine yourself beaten and robbed, and left to die in a ditch by the side of a road, and this person walks by – that person who hurt you, hated you, told lies about you, cheated on you – that person now looks at you lying helpless in a ditch with blood, sweat, and dirt on your face.  And that person, your enemy, kneels down beside you, looking at you – you think so that they can just spit in your face. But instead, they roll up their sleeves, extend their arm, and lift you out of the ditch, place you in their car, drive you to a hospital, and pay for your care. 

Is it too difficult to imagine?  Is it too unrealistic to imagine that the person who saves you from physical and spiritual death could be the very person you label an enemy? The former Archbishop of Capetown, South Africa, Desmond Tutu reminds us all that your enemy is God’s friend, just as you are. 

We might find ourselves tempted, like Elijah, James, or John, to rain down fire upon our enemies. It’s easier that way. Just rid them from our sight. But the parable of the Good Samaritan reminds us that sometimes our enemies are who we need the most, and that sometimes, by God’s grace, they are the only ones who will save us. AMEN.