“Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Luke 9:54
We meet Jesus and his disciples at the border today. Jesus has set his face to go to Jerusalem and the cross that await him there. But there is a Samaritan village in between. He hopes for hospitality, only to be rejected. It wasn’t surprising. There were centuries of animosity between the Jews and Samaritans. Samaritans worshipped at Mt. Gerizim, the Jews at the temple in Jerusalem. The Samaritans intermarried with the Assyrians, the Jews did not. The Samaritans were deemed impure, the Jews, pure. Today the land of the Samaritans is known as the West Bank where the animosity continues.
At borders the difference between us and them, them and us becomes stark. Difference prevails. Whenever I’ve crossed a border, whether it’s driving on a bridge into Canada, or standing in the Passport/Immigration line at the airport, I get a little anxious – will they let me in or discover some reason not to. Perhaps I’m on a terrorist watch list and don’t know it. At the border, will we be legal or illegal, welcomed or turned back? So many of our brothers and sisters from Central America are experiencing this. They’re hoping to be candidates for asylum from horrific violence only to have their children torn from their arms.
When Jesus and his disciples are not welcomed at the border, James and John, known as the Sons of Thunder, ask, “Master, do you want us to call a bolt of lightning down out of the sky and incinerate them?” Calling down fire to consume an entire community, because of bad manners? It’s a little Game of Throne-ist, don’t you think? And yet, we experience this in the daily media – a relentless demonizing and dehumanizing of those who are different for us or disagree with us. Maybe not bolts of lightning, but whether it’s the belittling of political opponents, the stereo-typing of those of a different faith, or the subtle yet persistent signaling of our own virtue over and against those who disagree with us, it feels like we are increasingly quick to draw a line between who’s in and who’s out.[i]
James and John have been with Jesus a while now. You’d think they would know better. But it turns out, even disciples can be affected by triumphal tribalism. Even disciples can see those who thwart their plans or disagree with their conviction as the enemy. Even disciples can decide that to be different is to be less than human.[ii] Jesus will have none of this and moves onto another village. But he does more, later when a lawyer asks him “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”, he tells a story about a man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho – you know it, at VBS our children learned it. It’s a Samaritan who proved to be the neighbor. Jesus tells stories.
Last summer my Texas cousins came to visit for our family reunion and stayed with us for about a week. Our political views are on the opposite sides of the spectrum. Every morning, John and I would pledge to create a politics free zone. But it was hard. We wound up telling stories – for the Texas cousins what it was like to live near the border, for us what it was like to welcome refugees to St. John’s and Guatemalan immigrants to Phoenixville. Stories about being neighbors. Stories instead of rhetoric. Stories deeper than politics. I confess, sometimes we all needed a little liabation, just to take the edge off. Yet through the stories we grew in understanding of each other and why we thought the way we did.
There’s another border crossing in our Gospel today and this one is deeply personal – will they – will we – follow Jesus? Did you notice how Jesus defines the border? Someone asks if he could follow him and Jesus replies, “It won’t be easy. We’re roughing it.” His response reminded me of the first meeting Shelley Saeger and Jodi O’Neill held last fall about the two summer mission trips. They laid everything out: the sleeping arrangements, likely on the floor of a Church gym, the lack of air conditioning, the lunches of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, the hard, dirty work, the fundraising – the whole thing. We don’t know if the person who said, “I’ll follow you wherever you go,” actually did. But we do know five will follow Jesus from Phoenixville to the Rosebud Native American Reservation in South Dakota and the twenty-two will follow him to the Appalachian Service Project in West Virginia. Their “yes” changes their lives. They will see the world in a new way. They will understand themselves differently and will discover at the center of everything is God!
Then Jesus directly asks someone to follow him. The man replies, “But, first, let me go bury my father.” And another man asks Jesus if he could follow him only to end his request with, “But, first.” How often I have said that, “Sure, boys we’ll go swimming, but first let me finish the sermon.” “I would love to work on that project, but first….” Our lives are full of well-intentioned excuses. We never do find out if they put Jesus first and followed him. Did they stay on the side of their side of the border or did they dare, by taking a baby step or perhaps a running leap, cross the border into faith?
Many mornings I read a daily meditation by a Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr. On Thursday it was written by Brie Stoner, a young mother of two, who was on a spiritual retreat, basking in the quiet and peace and realizing just how impossible this would be at home. So, she boldly asked Jim Finely, the retreat leader, “Jim, can we talk about how much harder all of this is when I’m back home? Because I get up sometimes at 5:00 a.m., desperate to pray, and it’s like my kids have radar and inevitably one of them wakes up ten minutes later. I mean, where can I see God with one baby on the hip, a toddler crying at my feet, cooking dinner with one hand, trying to finish work on a laptop with the other? Because that’s my real life.”
Jim thought for a moment and replied, “Ok, you be you and I’ll be God. And since I’m God, I’m watching you get up exhausted every morning, and I’m so touched that you want to spend this time with me. Really, I am! It just means the world to me. The thing is, I just can’t bear how much I love you. It’s too much! And so, at a certain point I rush into the bodies of your children and wake them up because….” Jim paused. “Because I want to know what it feels like to be held by you.”
Brie continues, “The interruption is the presence of God that I was so desperately trying to access in moments of stillness and silence. With or without the luxury of stillness and silence, God comes to us disguised as our very lives…each diaper change, every choo-choo play time request . . . all of it, as the startlingly stunning, diaphanous infusion of infinite love colliding into the small shape of my very finite and ordinary reality. There, at the intersection of everything, is God with us . . . wanting to be touched, noticed, nurtured . . . held by us. All we have to do is behold.[iii]
God is at the borders, the very places where we feel uncertain and unsure. Jesus has set his face to Jerusalem and the cross the awaits him there. At that intersection of everything + of fear and faith, of despair and hope, of life and death, God is with us, holding us, held by us. Amen.