Psalm 16Galatians 5:1, 13-25
How do we mature in service? That is the question I keep in mind when I read Luke. It is like a lens through which the scripture comes off the page and comes alive to my particular situation. It works nicely when the Gospel text contains a healing, a miracle, some evocative teaching, or an interesting parable.
Today’s Psalm says “You show me the path of life.”
Paul reminds us that the whole law is a single commandment “to love your neighbor as yourself.”
This passage from Luke says to “go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” All of these are in harmony with the question of “how do we mature in service,” but the rest of the Gospel reading is a tough one. That instruction from Jesus is deep in the middle of rebuke, three frustrating interviews with potential disciples, and some weird breakdown of hospitality, not to mention a glaring lack of clarifying detail!
This text is the concluding passage of the 9th chapter of Luke, a chapter which does include a feeding, a healing, commissioning and sending out the Apostles, and the Transfiguration. The last verse before our reading begins is “Whoever is not against you is for you.” That fits with our mission, as Caro reminded us last week, “to restore all people to unity with God and each other.” How jarring then, for me to ponder the encounter in the Samaritan village.
What does it mean for Jesus not to be received in the Samaritan village? This village is in what was formerly the northern kingdom of Israel, where Elijah prophesied. Overrun more than 700 years before the life of Jesus, these current residents of Samaria were not on good terms with the Judeans. And yet, Samaria is between Judea and Galilee and we see Jesus crossing that region frequently. There is so little detail in this story, allow me a small flight of fantasy. It won’t be the last one.
I imagine the messengers, let’s say they are James and John, laying the groundwork for Jesus’ time there. One night? Several? Did he plan to teach? The disciples may have had some inkling that their teacher was opening his message to all people. I hear them assuring the villagers “Hey you’ll like this guy. Let’s have him talk over at Jacob’s well; he’ll love the common root you people share with us chosen people. You are going to feel God’s love. We promise!” At this point, I can guess how to mature in service. Common ground, unity.
But Jesus was not received because his face was set toward Jerusalem. The comments I have read on this conflict lay the blame on the Samaritans disagreeing with Jesus about the need to worship in Jerusalem. We usually don’t see Jesus hung up on particulars that exclude, however, so I want another explanation. And, to mature in service, what does this mean for us? If I am a Samaritan, am I afraid of what it means for Jesus to make this difficult journey and face his arrest and death in Jerusalem? For us today, when do we turn away? be it from difficulties or risk we may perceive? If maturing in service also means trying to be like Jesus, what must we do despite the fact that others disagree with us, not accept us, or even turn aside from us? Will we be able to set our face toward our own Jerusalem? And can we do and be who God is calling us to be without condemnation of those who turn aside?
It is at this point, between the two stanzas of our text, that I have to ask if ministry is only any good if it makes me uncomfortable? Looking at this second stanza, my inner judge pouts: “is it wrong to have a nice bed? Wrong to grieve the dead? Wrong to love how it was yesterday?” Paul helps me here by contrasting the life of the spirit with the life of the flesh. Those comforts and “pressing excuses” enslave us if they keep us from setting our face like flint on God’s call to us.
In the three encounters of this second stanza of today’s Gospel, we don’t know how the three responded to what Jesus said. So, in my second flight of fancy, I imagine all three saying yes to Jesus. Why not? It does not say in this case that they turned away and quit. It does not say they went home satisfied that they were doing enough and didn’t need risk, difficulty, or uncertainty.
Let me share with you about my friend Sam and his yes. Sam had a successful business, was more than comfortable, generous with his time, talent, and treasure at church and in the community, and lived an active life of competitive tennis and sailing. Picture a middle aged Thurston Howell the Third! There was no doubt he was living his ministry. Senior Warden, choir, EFM, lots and lots of volunteering. He was doing enough. Yet somehow, Jesus got a hold of Sam. A different wind filled his sails. In what feels like a rapid blur, Sam’s yes led him through discernment on to Divinity School at Yale on the one hand, *and* on the other, immersion lessons in Haitian Creole and multiple trips to Haiti. This morning, he is preaching on these same texts, not at some wealthy suburban church where he plays tennis with his senior warden or golf with the big donors, but where he serves his tiny Haitian congregation in Brooklyn. The contrast of before and after is only surprising if you don’t see today’s Gospel alive in Sam’s life.
By the way, Sam’s parish is called the church of the Good Samaritan. So, lastly, I want to consider briefly the placement of this text within Luke’s Gospel. These two stanzas stand alone, and don’t really connect to the rest of the fullness of chapter 9. Jesus seems in a big hurry to get to Jerusalem, but doesn’t get there for another ten chapters. And, it’s not hard editorially to go from verse 50, right before our reading starts, to chapter 10. You can check it out. The placement is kind of cool, though, because it’s not the last word on Samaritans. We are not left with this strange, strained encounter. The next chapter of Luke has the parable of the good neighbor, whom we call the Good Samaritan.
I’m glad, because I believe the path of one’s life, loving one’s neighbor, and proclaiming the Reign of God are three “sides of the same coin.” God is calling us and, as Caro reminded us last week, your ministry is really not beyond your ability. It just might look like it. What excuses are there? How will you respond? How will you mature in service?
This prayer is from a little book called Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. Let us pray:
Lord, turn our praises into hands that clothe the naked, arms that comfort the afflicted, tables that host the stranger, and shoulders that support the weary so that your name may be praised by those who live and die with their backs against the wall. Amen. (From Common Prayer a liturgy for ordinary radicals- May 11 Morning Prayer)