An Ash Wednesday Meditation
March 1, 2017
I’ve never preached this text before. I’m not sure if that’s because it hasn’t shown up in the other lectionary readings, or if I’ve just avoided it.
In any case, I’m intrigued by it.
Especially the disciples. “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” is how Luke records the conversation. But you know the subtext is “please, please, please Jesus let us obliterate those Samaritans”.
Aren’t they cute? The same disciples who just a few miles ago couldn’t heal a boy with a demon somehow think they are capable of commanding fire from heaven to rain down? Precious disciples.
It says Jesus rebuked them, but we don’t hear his words. I wonder if he didn’t dignify those comments with words, but just with one of his “are you kidding me?!” looks.
If you can’t use God’s power to heal people, but you think you can use it to destroy people?
That ain’t good.
It’s not how we’re called to use our power, or to be disciples.
We tend to think of Samaritans as being “good” because of the text in the next chapter that we’ll hear on Sunday.
The disciples were under no such illusion. Judeans and Samaritans are like Hatfields and McCoys, the Union and the Confederacy.
We think of Israel as one nation, but for many years, it was a divided kingdom. Samaritans are northern kingdom of Israel, and Jerusalem, where Jesus face is facing, is southern kingdom of Judah. Perhaps they didn’t receive Jesus because he was facing the wrong way, toward the wrong capital city.
And, of course, whether we have a clue where Samaria is on a map, we understand and recognize our own tendency to “other” people. We decide they are different than we are, because of voting patterns, or colors of skin, or countries of origin, or whether they worship in Jerusalem or Mecca or Samaria or Rome. So many ways we separate and divide each other.
Just read the news.
We decide one group is deserving, of whatever societal benefit, and another group is undeserving. Or, like the disciples, we decide one group gets access to healing and another group gets fire rained down from heaven.
Jesus, who just this last Sunday, in the previous verses, was being a little harsh and calling out the faithless disciples, telling them to pay attention and let his words sink in, continues with his rebuking.
Divine power is not for the destruction of people who view the world differently than you do. Also up for rebuking are people who claim too easily their confidence that they will follow Jesus wherever he goes. Or those who would delay their following because they need to bury their dead, or say goodbye to their loved ones, or put their hands to the plow.
None of those things are bad things. Of course we bury our dead, and we express our love to the people at home, and we put our hands to the plow, or whatever tool we need to be able to bring in a paycheck.
On one level, these illustrations remind us that there are lots of ways, even good ways, we tend to lose focus. Jesus, on his walk to Jerusalem, is not losing focus.
At another level, these illustrations highlight for us the truth that none of us is Jesus. None of us can follow exactly where he will go. We cannot distance ourselves from human connection and relationships the way he does. When he says no one who puts a hand to the plow is fit for the kingdom of God, he’s saying, “no one is qualified for the kingdom of God”.
We won’t make it on our own merits. And so we would be wise not to believe our own press that our merits somehow make us better than those Samaritans upon whom we’re trying to rain fire from heaven.
I can see how you might be thinking this text is a terrific bummer of a story. Gee, thanks, Jesus, for your confidence in us. Apparently we aren’t qualified to do anything….
In fact, this text is hugely liberating. As soon as Jesus points out their lack of qualifications to them in such a direct manner, Luke goes on to tell us that “the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where Jesus himself intended to go…”
He commissions all of these people to bear the Good News throughout the country. All of these completely unqualified people. All of these people like us.
He sent his disciples to tell people “the kingdom of God has come near to you”. He sends us to do the same.
The trick is that we just need to remember it is God’s grace that calls us, and not our ability to be like Jesus. We need to remember we are not somehow more worthy of God’s love and concern than the people we try to “other” or upon whom we want to rain fire down from heaven . Our being called as disciples is less about our particular worthiness and more about God deciding that error prone humans, creatures of dust, were the way God’s love would be shared.
And so tonight, we will join in a litany of confession, using Psalm 51. Every week, we pray a prayer of confession, but this is night is the most poignant night of the church year for me, because of the connection to our mortality. This is the night we proclaim, ‘from dust you are, and to dust you shall return”.
We are finite beings. Our earthly lives have an end date. It isn’t our job to worry about when that date will be. We are just called to remember the ending is a part of life.
And so we receive the days we are given as gifts, and not something we earn. We receive the inclusion as disciples who get to share God’s love to the world as a gift, and not something we earn.
We enter the season of Lent with a posture of humility, burdened not under guilt but aware of the enormity of the gift we’ve received. Let us journey together, our faces set toward Jerusalem.