My sermon from this past Sunday.
“Jesus, shall we command fire to come down from heaven to consume them?”
The Samaritans are enemies of the Jews. There is intense animosity between these two peoples. Jesus is travelling through Samaritan territory on his way to Jerusalem, and while he makes this journey he sends a few disciples to a Samaritan village to find a place to stay or rest or eat. But that village refuses to create a space of welcome for him. No place to rest or eat or sleep. The Samaritan village rejects him, refuses him. So the disciples ask: “Jesus, shall we command fire to come down from heaven to consume these Samaritans.”
It’s not like the disciples didn’t have precedent for this. Back in the book of 1 Kings, Elijah the prophet did something like this. He called down fire to destroy two separate companies of soldiers sent to him by King Ahaziah. King Ahaziah had sought the advice and wisdom of the god Baal – rather than seeking the advice and wisdom of the God of Israel. And so when these two companies of soldiers come to Elijah, telling him to come visit King Ahaziah, the prophet says to each group: “If I am a man of God, as you say, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty.” And that’s exactly what happens in the narrative. Judgment for King Ahaziah’s unfaithfulness to the God of Israel – judgment for his refusal to worship and serve the God of Israel.
So there’s some kind of precedent for this response. This Samaritan village has rejected Jesus, denied him – this village has refused to offer Jesus the hospitality he deserves. The disciples are offended and angry. “Jesus, shall we command fire to come down from heaven to consume them?”
So there is good historical precedent for the disciples’ suggestion. But there is also just basic human instinct, isn’t there? When we are betrayed, when we are denied, when we are rejected for any reason, very often we have that impulsive emotional response: “Yea, you’ll get what’s coming.” Maybe we wouldn’t express it in exactly those words, but that sentiment is not uncommon.
Now, even though there is good precedent for the disciples’ suggestion, and even though it is a common human impulse to see our enemies get what’s coming to them, Jesus turns and rebukes his disciples. Jesus will have none of it. He will have none of their violence. He will have none of their hateful judgment. Rather than responding to this insult with similar insult or with violence, he calls them to move on to another village.
For Jesus, violence is never the answer to rejection and hostility that is directed toward him or his disciples – it is never the answer for us. Of course this is the same Jesus who, earlier in the gospel of Luke, declares in his sermon on the plain: “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and praise for those who abuse you.”
A couple of weeks ago I came across an interesting article in the New York Times – the article was a mini-review of a recently published book by Jonathan Rieder. Rieder is a sociologist at Columbia University and the book is entitled Gospel of Freedom. It’s a book that explores the faith and sermons and civil rights work of Martin Luther King Junior. Let me read a quote from the New York Times article that gets to the heart of the book:
Dr. Rieder is restoring the overtly religious element to Dr. King and the freedom movement. While African-Americans readily grasp the link, many white liberals diminish or ignore the religious element [of King’s life] out of discomfort with religion being granted a role — even a positive one — in political discourse.
[But] the image of a liberal secular Martin Luther King Jr. misses the essential role of prophetic Christianity,” said Dr. Rieder in a recent interview. Jesus wasn’t just an interesting historical figure to King. He saw Jesus as a continuation of the prophets. He has a powerful association with Jesus.
It’s almost astonishing that our culture needs to be reminded that Martin Luther King Jr. was a preacher – that he was steeped in Christian faith and identity.
Having read that New York Times article, I went back this week to listen to and read a few of King’s sermons. One of those sermons fits in particularly well with our theme this morning. The sermon is entitled “Loving Your Enemies”, and was delivered in November of 1957 at Dexter Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama. I’d like to quote somewhat at length from this sermon in which King explores Jesus’ command: “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.” King preaches:
Certainly these are great words, words lifted to cosmic proportions. And over the centuries, many persons have argued that this is an extremely difficult command. Many would go so far as to say that it just isn’t possible to move out into the actual practice of this glorious command. They would go on to say that this is just additional proof that Jesus was an impractical idealist who never quite came down to earth. So the arguments abound. But far from being an impractical idealist, Jesus has become the practical realist. The words of this text glitter in our eyes with a new urgency. Far from being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, this command is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. Yes, it is love that will save our world and our civilization, love even for enemies.
Now let me hasten to say that Jesus was very serious when he gave this command; he wasn’t playing. He realized that it’s hard to love your enemies. He realized that it’s difficult to love those persons who seek to defeat you, those persons who say evil things about you. He realized that it was painfully hard, pressingly hard. But he wasn’t playing. And we cannot dismiss this passage as just another example of Oriental hyperbole, just a sort of exaggeration to get over the point. This is a basic philosophy of all that we hear coming from the lips of our Master. Because Jesus wasn’t playing; because he was serious. We have the Christian and moral responsibility to seek to discover the meaning of these words, and to discover how we can live out this command, and why we should live by this command.
Love for enemies; a refusal of that impulse to call down fire upon the heads of our enemies; a willingness to care for our enemies; an insistence on non-violence in the face of injustices. For King all of that is rooted in the life and teaching of the one he refers to as Master and as Lord. “Jesus, shall we call down fire from heaven to consume them.” Jesus turned and rebuked his disciples.
This passage we are looking at in Luke’s gospel is dense with the radical and uncompromising Jesus we often find it difficult to follow. Immediately following Jesus’ refusal of the disciples’ request to call down fire upon that inhospitable Samaritan village, Jesus speaks with three prospective disciples and in each case offers a difficult word.
The first possible disciple comes to Jesus and says: “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To follow in the way of Jesus is not necessarily to find a comfortable life – in fact, quite the opposite is true. Jesus is one who leads his disciples into places of life and service they might never have imagined. Jesus is one who leads his disciples out of self-preoccupation into a willingness to wash feet and extend grace and offer service, wherever it is needed.
Fifty years ago this spring, Martin Luther King Jr. was in a Birmingham jail. In the 1960’s Birmingham Alabama was one of the most segregated of American cities – most businesses did not hire African Americans – there was segregation in public facilities, restaurants and stores. There were massive economic disparities between whites and African Americans – and on top of it all, African Americans faced real violence if they tried to address these injustices and inequalities.
The well-known Birmingham Campaign was part of coordinated effort, led by Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists, to try and push moderates especially, to realize that their silence was a huge part of the problem – white moderates especially, were doing nothing through their silence. In fact, by their silence they were allowing the perpetuation of violence and injustice.
In April of 1963, in the face of the Birmingham Campaign. a court granted the mayor of Birmingham an injunction preventing all forms of protest. And whereas King had always obeyed such injunctions in the past, this time after much prayer and reflection, he determined that it was time to refuse the injunction whose sole purpose was to ensure that nothing was done to overcome injustices being perpetrated against African Americans. King and the Birmingham Campaign coordinators issued this statement: “We are now confronted with recalcitrant forces in the Deep South that will use the courts to perpetuate the unjust and illegal systems of racial separation.”
On Good Friday, 1963, King was arrested along with 50 other protestors in Birmingham. He was placed alone in a dark cell without a mattress and was not permitted to make a phone call. It was the thirteenth time he was arrested. King spent 8 days in jail.
As they were going along the road, someone said to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
When we get up and follow the risen Jesus – when we follow his way of mercy and love and forgiveness and justice – we must follow wherever he leads us, even if we end up with no place to lay our heads – as King did 50 years ago, in a Birmingham jail. We may not live in Birmingham Alabama, circa 1963, but is our world that much different? If we pan out and take in the wealth and comfort and privilege of westerners on the one hand and the poverty-stricken reality of so many in the majority world on the other, can we claim that anything has really changed – can we think that the call Jesus issues to us is any less dramatic or radical than the called that Dr. King answered?
Sometimes for myself and for our congregations in the west I wonder whether we really have any clue about this life to which the risen Jesus calls us and the way in which he commands us to walk.
Jesus continues along the way to Jerusalem, and meets a second possible disciple, to whom he says, “Follow me.” But this second person says to Jesus, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
Is there any surprise that some preachers or biblical scholars have referred to the Jesus in this passage from Luke as the cranky Jesus.
A third prospective disciple says to Jesus, “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 plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
In the case of these two would-be disciples, Jesus sets himself against the cultural values of his day. In Jesus’ day, as in so many cultures today, family comes first – family matters most – you just have obligations to family that you cannot refuse or shirk. Saying goodbye to your family, or burying a beloved family member, is vital to family life in so many cultures.
But Jesus will have none of it in this passage. Jesus insists on the priority of the kingdom he has inaugurated – through which God is setting things right in the world. If there is anything that would get between us and life in his kingdom – if there is anything that would get between our church and the service of Christ’s kingdom – if there is anything that would get between our families and the sharing of God’s love with imagination and courage and joy. Then Jesus makes it clear where our priority must lie.
This is not a cranky Jesus.
This is not an unreasonable Jesus.
This is not a Jesus who is exaggerating to make a point.
This is not a Jesus who doesn’t expect us to respond.
This is a Jesus who prioritizes the forgiveness and justice and mercy and grace and service that is consistent with the truly human way – the way of his kingdom. And whenever some cultural tradition or some personal preference or some family tradition or some religious value stands in the way of our participation in his kingdom, he makes it clear how we must respond. Leave that cultural priority, that personal preference, that family tradition, that religious value behind – and follow him. Seek him. Pray with him. Serve him and those he loves.
Jesus is not cranky. But he is radical. His kingdom is everything. Thanks be to God. Amen.