An Alternative Response

It might surprise us that some of Jesus’s closest followers would think that destroying an entire town over one insult is okay, but should we be surprised?

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Sixth Sunday after Pentecost C
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

This sermon was preached from notecards, without a manuscript. The following is an approximation of the sermon’s message and theme.

1 Kings 19:15-21
Psalm 16
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Luke 9:51-62

This month’s Living Lutheran had a fantastic reflection written by Professor Timothy K. Snyder of Wartburg Theological Seminary (one of the seminaries of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). Titled “Interrupting ordinary time”, Snyder’s reflection focused on the way Jesus in the lectionary readings for the month of June constantly overturned people’s expectations, interrupting their thinking and their beliefs, and brought something new to the table.

Jesus has spent the last few weeks overturning the powers that oppress wherever he finds them, whether they be the powers of death, sin, or even possession. Now, we are told, he “turns his face toward Jerusalem.” Whatever the phrase itself actually means, it’s clear that Jesus is now diving headfirst into the bulk of his important mission work. And the first place he plans to stop on his way to Jerusalem is a Samaritan village.

Who are the Samaritans? They are an ethnic group that is still around today–there’s about 750 of them. They claim descendant from the two half-tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh (the sons of Joseph), which makes them very closely related to Jewish people, who are descendants of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. Like the Jewish people, they believe themselves to be the true descendants of the Israelites. They have their own version of the Torah and they worshiped on Mount Gerezim instead of in Jerusalem.

And during Jesus’s time, the two groups absolutely hated each other. That’s not an exaggeration. They hated each other so much that both groups were basically forbidden from even speaking to the other, let alone touching each other or otherwise interacting. Which, at least in my mind, begs the question:

Why did Jesus plan to go to a Samaritan village?

Now for whatever reason (and we aren’t told what reason that is), the village rejects Jesus’s messengers. This rejection is so insulting and offensive to two of Jesus’s disciples, James and John–nicknamed the “sons of thunder”–, that their proposed solution is to destroy the village with divine fire.

Did you catch that? When insulted and offended, two of Jesus’s disciples thought that a perfectly just and appropriate response to this slight was to burn down the village and kill everyone in it. That’s how angry they were. That’s how much they hated Samaritans, that they were willing–eager–to destroy the whole town just to get back at them. All they needed was an excuse to exercise their rage.

13433306_10100138487187909_509039965970767913_oThere’s a reason I’m wearing this shirt this morning. Last week, I returned from a week away at Camp Luther in Conneaut, OH, where I served for the week as camp chaplain. As the chaplain at the camp, I was responsible for organizing daily worship. But I was also responsible for providing pastoral care in the case of an emergency, or if someone needed to talk to a pastor for any reason.

This was my second year serving as camp chaplain, and unfortunately, both times have been marked by tragedy. Last year, I was sitting on the porch of our cabin when I heard about the Charleston shooting, where an ELCA member went into a historically black church, sat down for Bible study, and when it was over got up and murdered nine people simply because they were black.

This year, before we left for camp, I drove my father-in-law to his church so he could lead worship. Just before the service began, one of his congregants ran up to him with their phone in their hand and said, “Pastor, you need to see this. There’s been a shooting in Orlando.” At that time, there were twenty people confirmed dead in the massacre that occurred at the Pulse gay nightclub. By the end of the service, that number had risen to forty-nine.

Forty-nine dead and fifty-three wounded. One man, one angry, disturbed man, converted to a radical, distorted version of Islam, hated the LGBTQ+ community so much that he felt justified bringing an assault rifle to a gay nightclub and shooting as many people as he could. This led to a three-hour standoff, a hostage crisis, a heroic rescue, an explosive breach of the building, and the death of the assailant. All because he hated gay people, hated them so much he thought it was okay to slaughter them.

When Jesus hears his disciples eagerly ask permission to destroy the Samaritan village out of hate, he rebukes them and calls them out on their hatred. It might surprise us that some of Jesus’s closest followers would think that destroying an entire town over one insult is okay, but should we be surprised?

In the Old Testament, there are plenty of examples of just that. The destruction and slaughter of Jericho by the Israelites simply because it was in the way, the total annihilation of Sodom of Gomorrah because of their lack of hospitality, the ten plagues sent against the entire Egyptian population because one man, Pharaoh, wouldn’t release his slaves, the whole book of Joshua and the conquest of Canaan; all of these examples would suggest that in the face of people you hate, it’s perfectly justified to call for genocide.

And lest we think that such logic only exists in the Old Testament, absolving us Christians, don’t forget that Jesus used the same logic when he cursed a fig tree to death because he was hungry and it didn’t have any fruit for him, and Peter strikes down Ananias and Sapphira dead when they try to cheat the fledgling Christian community.

Total destruction may have been what James and John expected, given their hatred of the Samaritans and the history and culture which they grew up in. Instead, Jesus outright rejects the idea he should destroy an entire town of people who disagree or even hate him, even people as vile and evil (in their eyes) as Samaritans.

Jesus’s entire life and ministry has been about rebuking violence and hate. Through Jesus, God presents alternatives to such destruction. There’s a reason why in a few weeks we’ll hear the story of the Good Samaritan, the Good Person-Y0u-Absolutely-Revile-and-Hate-and-Wish-Was-Dead, a story about putting aside the very same reckless hate that motivates James and John and embracing mercy for those we hate. Jesus’s last command to his disciples is that they should love another as he has loved them, with all their faults and wrongs intact.

Ultimately, God demonstrates this alternative to destruction on the cross. I’m not a fan of the penal substitutionary model of atonement: that Jesus -had- to die on the cross to pay a price for our sins, because God is not capable of forgiveness and must square the debt or God explodes (you can already see my bias). It’s just one theory of atonement. Instead, on the cross, I see God’s final rejection of such wanton destruction borne out of hate and wrath.

Instead, the cross demonstrates the great lengths that God will go to show mercy to those who hate and revile God (that would be us). The cross proves once and for all that God stands with us in chaos and violence, showing us another way to respond: not with hatred and violence, but with love, mercy and sacrifice. Christ went as far as human beings can go, death, to show us another way.

After this teachable moment with his disciples, Jesus’s mission seems to get more urgent, more immediate, as if something about that encounter convinced Jesus that there was a lot more work to be done. Maybe he saw in James and John the tendency that runs through all humanity to identify people we hate and seek to do them the maximum harm we’re able to inflict. Human history can easily be distilled into a constant barrage of “James and John in Samaria” moments. Maybe he knew that hate was going to be something he encountered for the rest of his ministry and that, ultimately, it would lead him to the cross.

So what about us? Do we fall prey to our desires of destruction? Even if we aren’t like those pastors, yes, pastors, who openly celebrated the deaths of the Orlando 49 as God’s will and something to cheer about (and I won’t dignify their comments with links–look them up yourselves), do we let our hate get the better of us? Do our opinions about the LGBTQ+ community and our silence about the hate done to them contribute to that very hate? Do we, like the priest and the Levite of the Good Samaritan story, walk by on the other side of the road because it’s not our problem?

How we respond to hate is just as important as whether we hate or not. For like Christ, we are called to show the kingdom of God. When James and John called for genocide, Christ called for peace. In the face of oppression, hate, and violence against his own self, Christ reflected courage, compassion and trust.

How do we respond?

Featured Image: “LGBT love is stronger than anti-gay hate – Peter Tatchell and other activists at London’s vigil in memory of the victims of the Orlando gay nightclub terror attack.” by Alisdare Hickson is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Author: Pastor Ken

Ken Ranos serves as the pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI, a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

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