Sunday, June 26, 2016

faces set

St. Thomas' Church, Whitemarsh
Proper 8, Year C, 2016

I am struck by the image of Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. Luke tells us that “when the days [draw] near for him to be taken up, [Jesus] set[s] his face…towards Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51, 53). We are nearing the end of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus does not go into this week ignorant of the consequences of his actions; he knows that he is in danger, knows that to travel to Jerusalem is a death sentence. And so when I read this verse, I imagine Jesus setting his face in this way: he takes a deep breath, murmurs a prayer, pulls himself upright, and with a grim expression determinedly continues on his journey. 

You probably have noticed this expression on other people’s faces as well: the look on the face of a gymnast, about to perform the complex final moves of her floor routine and hoping to stick the landing this time. The look of a child learning to crawl or walk for the first time. The look on a surgeon’s face right before performing a major operation.

I imagine that this kind of grim determination—this grit—is part of what attracts Jesus’ followers to him. And yet, unlike Jesus, most of the time we tend to set our faces against something, not toward. We are in the business of turning away from things that make us uncomfortable, of ignoring people that we find different or challenging or frustrating. Or, conversely, reacting against the people with whom we disagree. I know this because I do it myself. 

Right now in the states and in other parts of the world we seem to be living in a climate of division and derision, fueled by fear, especially fear of the “other”. When this happens, we instinctually react by drawing tighter circles around ourselves and the people we love, or worse: lashing out at the people we fear. In the past few years we’ve seen some extreme examples of people lashing out: last year the shooting of church members in a Bible study in Charleston, SC, because of the color of their skin; the deadliest mass shooting just two weeks ago at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando that targeted members of the LGBTQ+ and Latinx communities; and a member of the British Parliament murdered ten days ago by someone who disagreed with her politics leading up to the Brexit vote. 

In the Gospel for today Jesus and his disciples are denied hospitality by the Samaritans. The Jews and the Samaritans don’t get along; in fact, they can’t stand each other. To put it into perspective, let’s just say that their relationship was similar to that of the Eagles and the Cowboys.

Did you happen to notice what the disciples ask Jesus after he and the disciples are turned away? “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (v. 54). It appears that we come by this reactionary response honestly. Our instinct is to respond in kind, to meet injustice with unkindness or even violence. 

But this is not the way Christians are to follow Christ. Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem, but despite the importance of his mission, at his disciples’ question about punishing the Samaritans he stops in his tracks and temporarily turns his face away from his destination. This issue needs to be addressed immediately, and so Jesus rebukes his disciples for even considering violence an option. Early on in his ministry he has taught them to not only pray for and bless but also to love their enemies (Luke 5:27-36). And soon after this incident with the Samaritans, Jesus tells a story about a “good” Samaritan, a concept his disciples apparently have trouble wrapping their heads around (10:25-37). 

The thing is, Jesus does not call us to an easy life. Not by a long shot. Every day we are presented with choices, and we are always to choose the path of love. Ten times out of ten. Most days that’s easier said than done. After Jesus finishes berating his disciples and they continue on the road, he is confronted by new people who want to become his disciples. They pledge their devotion to him and he seemingly dismisses them all in turn, some almost harshly. Now, I do want to say that I believe Jesus is exaggerating when he says that would-be disciples can’t bury or say goodbye to their loved ones. He is trying to make the point that following Jesus takes hard work and devotion, and Jesus doesn’t want half-hearted commitment. Once you grab the plow there is no turning back! 

Earlier Jesus tells his disciples about his upcoming death. He follows this by saying that if they really want to follow him they have to “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow [him]” (9:23). Almost all of the disciples end up meeting a similar fate. 

God is calling us to something different than what the world promises, a higher calling. Twenty years ago this week the KKK held a rally in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Those rallying were dwarfed by the protesters, who came out en masse to show they did not support such discrimination and hate. Somehow one of the members of the KKK found himself in the midst of the protesters. He was chased and then knocked down, and the protesters swarmed around him and started beating him, all the while chanting, “Kill the Nazi”. Keshia Thomas, an 18 year old African-American high schooler, saw the mob forming, and, fearing for his life, threw her body on top of him to protect him. She told the protesters, “you can’t beat goodness into a person”. Keshia’s courageous act saved the man’s life. When asked afterward what motivated her, she responded, "Someone had to step out of the pack and say, 'this isn't right'... I knew what it was like to be hurt. The many times that that happened, I wish someone would have stood up for me... violence is violence - nobody deserves to be hurt, especially not for an idea." A few months later, a young man came up to her and thanked her for what she had done; the man she had saved was his father. 

The photographer who took a picture of her brave action said, "She put herself at physical risk to protect someone who, in my opinion, would not have done the same for her. Who does that in this world?" 

 "Who does that in this world?"

I don’t know if Keshia is a woman of faith, but it is clear to me that what she did is exactly the kind of response we Christians are required to make in the face of threats, however they are perceived: whether the person is an immigrant or Muslim or atheist or gay or straight or trans or Democrat or Republican. In times of uncertainty, we need each other more than ever. 

Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem, knowing what is in store, knowing that the way will not be easy for him. May we be so inspired by his willingness to die and rise again for our sakes that we turn our own faces and follow him, no matter the cost.

Keshia Thomas' courageous act
photo by Mark Brunner
story & photo shared from A Mighty Girl’s Facebook page

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

be an advocate

St. Thomas’ Church, Whitemarsh

“O Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldst come under my roof, but speak the word only and my soul shall be healed.”

In our journey through the lectionary we have returned to the Gospel according to Luke, the Gospel where the voices of those on the margins of society are lifted up. To give you a little context, today’s passage occurs fairly early in Jesus’ ministry. It is soon after the 12 disciples/apostles are chosen (and remember we call them apostles because they are sent out by Jesus to proclaim the Good News). The passage is also right after the Sermon on the Mount, which includes the Beatitudes: “blessed are the poor, the hungry, those who weep, etc.” (Luke 6:20-26). The Sermon on the Mount also includes a command to “love your enemies” and to “do good to those who hate you” (6:27).

So it really should come as no surprise that the first thing to happen after this sermon is that Jesus is presented with a request by a centurion, one of the military leaders of the hated Roman army that has been occupying and oppressing the Jews for about 100 years at this point. Rome is the enemy, and so in the text we see Jesus challenged to practice what he preaches.

The centurion requests Jesus to heal one of his slaves whom he “value[s] highly”, who is “precious” to him (7:2).

Notice what the Jewish elders tell Jesus: they urge Jesus to listen to his petition because the centurion “loves our people” (v. 5). The type of love is not romantic love or the love two friends share; this is agape, the highest form of love, the type of love that God has for us; the centurion is demonstrating God’s love. How has he demonstrated this? He has built a synagogue for the Jews to worship their God rather than force the Roman religion upon them. He has gone out of his way to beg a Jewish itinerant preacher to heal his sick slave, someone considered to be of the lowest class. He has taken the time to understand Jewish customs; he sends friends to tell Jesus not to enter his house because he knows that would make Jesus ritually unclean. And finally, the religious leaders validate his worthiness and trust by vouching for him.

Presented with such a case, Jesus is understandably surprised—even shocked—that someone he would normally consider an enemy of the Jews is using his place of power and privilege to advocate for those under his command. What’s more, the centurion exhibits such strong faith in Jesus’ ability, trusting him to heal his slave from a distance. Jesus has been traveling around teaching and healing, but he has not seen this level of faith among his followers or friends (v. 9). In fact, in just a few verses, some of John the Baptist’s disciples (on behalf of John himself) will question whether or not Jesus is the Messiah, even after Jesus raises a boy from the dead, but this centurion seems not to have a shred of doubt in Jesus’ abilities (vv. 18-23; vv. 11-17).

On the surface, it would appear that the lesson we are to learn from Jesus’ encounter with the centurion is that faith can turn up in the most unlikely of people, places, and situations. This is true and an important lesson, but the underlying message we can glean from this interaction is that we are called to cultivate relationships with the marginalized in our society.

If you’re like me, you tend to identify yourself with Jesus and his disciples whenever you hear a story about the group. As followers of Jesus, doing our best to practice what he taught, this makes sense. Yet, in this circumstance we come to realize that we are actually called to act like the centurion. Like the centurion, we come from a place of power. We live in the wealthiest country in the world, and even the poorest in our nation have a much greater standard of living than those in many other nations.

What Jesus teaches us, especially in Luke’s Gospel, is that we have a responsibility to take care of the most vulnerable in our communities. We have an obligation to lift up the voices of the oppressed. The centurion is still part of a system that subjugates others, yet his story is exceptional because he cultivates a relationship with the people under his charge. He listens to them, learns from them, and then becomes an advocate for them.

We, too, are called to be advocates for the destitute, the persecuted, the ignored. This is no small or easy task, but the tough work of following in Jesus’ footsteps and building the kingdom of God is not left up to us alone. We recently celebrated Ascension, Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday, reminders of all parts of the Trinity. When Jesus ascends back into heaven, he does not leave his disciples (or us) alone; he promises that he will send someone to help us. The Holy Spirit is our own Advocate, who guides and inspires us, so that we can be empowered to advocate for others.

The centurion recognizes in the poor, oppressed rabbi’s teaching that God’s mission goes beyond that of the prevailing culture. He recognizes that in spite of his own power and prestige, his salvation will come from one who is, in nearly every way, less than him. May we, like the centurion, learn to listen to those on the margins, those whom society dictates are not worthy, and use our power and privilege to make a difference. Finally, may we be strengthened by the prayer taken from the centurion’s plea to Jesus: “O Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldst come under my roof, but speak the word only and my soul shall be healed.”

image found here