a sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 8C]
Luke 9:51-62 and Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Christian writer and homelessness advocate Kevin Nye remarked on Twitter this week that in the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) Jesus is asked a total of 187 questions. Nye says Jesus answers (maybe) eight of them, a fact which suggests that maybe faith isn’t about certainty, but learning to ask and sit in the complexity of good questions. I haven’t tried counting all the questions myself, but it is a credible estimate, especially when we consider that in Jesus’ Jewish religious tradition, the typical practice was to approach one question with another one right behind it (much like, I hear, a Supreme Court hears an argument).
As it happens, one of those eight questions that Jesus does answer occurs in this morning’s gospel text from Luke, and Jesus doesn’t appear to give any time for reflection and pondering. His own disciples, worried by the threats of the local Samaritans and frustrated by the Samaritans’ rejection of their message, ask Jesus point-blank, if they can ask God to rain down fire upon these half-breed, no-good people. It is a logical request, actually, and the disciples probably figured Jesus would approve, because their well-known ancestor Elijah had once done the same with his enemies. Bringing destruction upon those opposed to the mission of God’s prophets was not unheard of.
But Jesus doesn’t allow it at all. Without hesitation, without prevaricating, Jesus says, “No.” Interestingly enough, one ancient manuscript of Luke’s gospel inserts an additional line here. In that textual variant, Jesus says “No,” and then adds, as if to clarify, “for the Son of Man didn’t come to destroy souls, but to save them.”
So there we have it: one of Jesus’ few direct, unambiguous answers, and it should make us at least stop and think about where Jesus would stand when it comes to any of our efforts of violence against our enemies and those groups of people we care less for. It should make us stop and think about forcing any religious viewpoint on a whole group of people, much less a whole nation, even when you are convinced Jesus is on your side.
Jesus and his disciples are in the land of the Samaritans in the first place because they are traveling to Jerusalem. Luke says that Jesus has “set his face to go there,” which is another way of saying that Jesus has programed Jerusalem into his GPS and it is going to take the quickest route, not necessarily the easiest. He needs to get to Jerusalem because that is where the power is and therefore where he needs to take the movement of justice and mercy and cleansing that he has begun in Galilee.
So often our journeys of faith don’t take the easiest route. Have you ever noticed that? In my experience, more often than not, following Jesus leads me down a complicated path through obstacles and into places outside my comfort zone where answers don’t seem to be cut-and-dry. Following Jesus usually involves the disorientation of new ideas and the awkwardness of having my mind changed and adjusting to new scenarios.
This isn’t the same as being wishy-washy. It’s the reality of ministry on the move, of seeing that Jesus does not come to put roots down in one place or one country or one culture or one set of laws but comes to free God’s people for one life. What is that one life? It is the life of compassion and forgiveness and love for the glory of God.
So we see that as Jesus travels he doesn’t just encounter stubborn Samaritans. He comes across these other people who want to fall in line with him, and his responses to them may seem grumpy to us, but they indicate that this one life he calls us to does cause a break from some of the other commitments that bind or distract us.
It’s interesting that he uses foxes and birds in his analogy, because we happen to have both right here on our church property. I’ve never given much thought, to be honest, to a fox’s hole until we realized we had a fox last summer underneath the ark toy in our pre-school playground. I saw him go under there one hot summer day and we called animal control to help us remove him before the children began school that fall. As it turns out, removing a fox from his hole is really difficult. The expert set a trap, but that proved unsuccessful. The animal control officer said we could call in a professional exterminator, but that they, too, would probably not be able to remove him. Evidently foxes really like their homes.
And as for birds, I think we have all been impressed somewhere along the way at how un-picky they can be about where they build their nests. The women of the Sleepy Hollow Garden Club included a bluebird house in their new natural habitat garden that they planted for the congregation on the other side of the parking lot. Within two days a pair of bluebirds had already moved in. But it appears they built a dummy nest with no intention of raising chicks there, which many bird species do every year. They build one and, if it doesn’t feel right, they choose somewhere else.
By using these two animals for comparison, Jesus shows just how transient and fast moving this mission of his one life can be. Foxes choose specific, hard to reach homes that they defend fiercely. Birds show up and, without much obvious discernment, build quickly, and then abandon it once the babies are raised. How often do we cling to our ways like a foxhole, refusing to budge or change strategies even when presented with something new? And how often do we rush to establish something permanent only to abandon or discard it once we’re ready for something new.
How do these scenarios inform a congregation that is trying to figure out a ministry plan after a two year pandemic? Do we wait for people to return and restart what we used to do in the ways we used to do them? Or do we just move forward with new ministries and vision and if you’re here with us, then great! It’s hard to know the right answer, but we do know the Son of Man doesn’t lay down his head anywhere. That is, he tends to be moving onward. With his love to save all people and not to destroy them he is moving onward. He is, in a word, free.
And he calls us to this freedom with him. Jesus calls us from our foxholes and our comfortable birdnests to respond to this freedom and claim it. It breaks us free even of certain traditions and responsibilities that we often idolize.
Another person on the road who hears the call of that one life is told by Jesus to leave funeral obligations for the family patriarch and go announce God’s kingdom instead. Another person wants to tie up loose ends, have a good farewell with people back in her village. That’s an honorable request, really. Jesus suggests there is not even time for that.
Any excuse, I imagine, could be offered for delaying the call to be Christ’s people in the world, to put off embodying God’s love here and now and Jesus would probably not allow it. There are people who need to hear that Christ has set us free, that his love on the cross has named and claimed all people as God’s beloved children. There are people who need to know the good news that Christ’s sacrifice has opened us to a life where fruits of the spirit are always in season.
I wonder if, amid all our talk about American freedom and what the Constitution says or doesn’t say, amid all our arguing about our freedom to bear arms or our freedom to say whatever we want we can forget that Jesus actually calls us to a greater freedom. This freedom—Jesus’ freedom—is the freedom that releases us from having to prove ourselves to God and releases us from the trap of living for ourselves and instead is a freedom that binds us to our neighbor.
It’s freedom that makes us a slave, and that’s a bit of an oxymoron when you hear it. For the apostle Paul, though, it is very obvious. Because of Jesus, we are no longer slaves to God’s law, which is the notion that God has some ideal for us to attain and if we’re just good enough at following God’s rules and doing what we’re supposed to, we’ll be in the clear. Christ on the cross set us free from all that. Now he sets us firmly at the needs of the people around us, a slave to them, free to stop worrying about ourselves and our rights in so many ways and free to care for those around us.
This is why Jesus tells his disciples so clearly that they can’t rain down fire on the Samaritans. Surely they could do it, and are able, and they may even have the right. They could go register for the AR-15 and pass the background check, comply with the waiting period and then walk through Samaria with the thing cocked and loaded, but that’s not the freedom that Jesus calls them to. This is not a military march, you see, but the road to Jerusalem, where life is laid down for the freedom of God’s good kingdom. It is movement of a strange kind of freedom and moving forward in a kingdom where the path is always service to those who need it and the goal is abundant life for all.
The challenge with Supreme Court rulings and other legislation is often that we get an answer or a verdict even when we might rather sit in the complexity of good questions. Some people of faith are rejoicing this week while other people of faith are in a state of despair or anger. Some people of faith are mortified by what the January 6 hearings are revealing about the previous administration and others in power, while some people of faith are convinced it is nothing more than a partisan show. Our political positions have become foxholes from which we dare not budge. Even so, Jesus’ hand is on the plow and he will move on and leave the dead to bury their dead, and we can assume he might mean any one of us.
What if, instead of attitudes of defeat or victory about whatever political issue we instead remember Jesus has called us to this strange freedom? What if, after glancing at the flag and Constitution and giving thanks, we remember to walk by the font and recall the covenant that claimed us there? What if, in the midst of all the pompous talk of American freedom we can remember that on the cross Christ has given us a better one—that Christ has actually bound us to each other and freed us to take care of all neighbors, especially those who will be most affected by these decisions.
And with the Spirit’s power, then, we will walk through the land with open hearts and ears, not waiting for God to reign down fire but as the strange liberating presence of love, and joy, and peace, and patience, and kindness, and generosity, and faithfulness, and gentleness. Ah yes…gentleness. (Gentleness, anyone?) And self-control. That is the one life Jesus calls us to.
It is the only one worth living.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.
 The Gospel of Luke: Sacra Pagina. Luke Timothy Johnson. The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN 1991