A Grace We Cannot Own – Br. Sean Glenn
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Zechariah 8:20-23 :: Psalm 87 :: Luke 9:51-56
This evening’s lections highlight for us a very important paradox about what we might call “the Religious world-view.” In our readings from the Hebrew Bible, both Zechariah and the Psalmist remind us that the beauty and goodness of religion have the power to bring people into a relationship with the Divine. Surely, this is true for just about every one of us here, whether we call ourselves religious or not. Both biblical authors imagine for us a context where the abundant beauty and goodness of God become so incarnated in the life and worship of God’s people that the people of the world will long for nothing more than to enter into that life.
Peoples shall yet come, the inhabitants of many cities; the inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying, ‘Come, let us go to entreat the favor of the Lord, and to seek the Lord of hosts; I myself am going.’ … In those days ten men from nations of every language shall take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’
Glorious things are spoken of you *
O city of our God.
The singers and the dancers will say, *
“All my fresh springs are in you.”
Yet the author of Luke reminds us, God’s people, that we are not to let this promise make us forget our poverty; who we are and who we were when we first met God: a lost and confused people whose only hope and reliance is the voice and grace of the Good Shepherd. If we claim the mercy of God for ourselves, warns Luke, we will subvert the very project into which Jesus has invited us—a project that, little known to the disciples as this juncture, is supremely about self-disregard.
Before Jesus and his disciples enter a Samaritan village that refuses to receive them, Luke tells us that Jesus has “set his face toward Jerusalem.” Despite all opposition and misunderstanding, Jesus has resolved within the fullness of himself to complete the exodus he was sent to inaugurate by his suffering, resurrection, and ascension.
As they enter this Samaritan village, Luke asks us to notice the dynamics of cultural and religious prejudice at work in both the disciples and the Samaritans. Not only do the Samaritans not receive Jesus and his entourage because of their decided and purposeful aim toward Jerusalem (a place the Samaritans did not consider a place of right worship), but Jesus’ disciples too display a similar, if not over-blown rejection of the Samaritans’ otherness.
Ever since the Babylonian exile, Jews and Samaritans lived with an ugly mutual apprehension of one another. Samaritans did not consider Jerusalem the proper meeting place with God, but preferred instead to worship on Mount Gerizzim. For the Jews, this was tantamount to an embrace of the pagan practices historically known in that land. For both, a tinge of national pride undergirds the theological enterprises they seek to define and protect. Yet Jesus refuses to engage in the petty claims of nationalism, national pride, or national and religious prejudice.
When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.
While my hope is none of us has ever desired to call down cosmic destruction on our enemies, I can at least be sure that (if my own experience of myself has taught me anything) we have all certainly come very close to such a desire. We should be mindful that Jesus, having set his face toward Jerusalem, has the full scope of his mission and fate in mind—both the immense suffering and the infinite joy to follow. These words of Isaiah must have been close to his heart:
I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
The Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
We do not know exactly how Jesus rebuked his disciples in this instance, but we can imagine that these words from Isaiah must have burned right through whatever admonishment he gave. For us, in an era when it is easy for drone-equipped nations to quite literally rain down fire from heaven on their enemies, Jesus calls on us to be vigilant, discerning, and inclined always to mercy—for he shows us a God whose power is declared “chiefly in showing mercy and pity.”
What the disciples don’t realize is, they need the mercy and pity of God just as much as the Samaritans they scorn. Noting the parallel between this passage in Luke and the famous scene between Ahaziah and Elijah in Second Kings, Matthew Henry, in his commentary on the Gospel of Luke, has this to say:
The disciples did not consider that the conduct of the Samaritans was rather the effect of national prejudices and bigotry, than of enmity to the word and worship of God; and though they refused to receive Christ and his disciples, they did not ill use or injure them, so that the case was widely different from that of Ahaziah and Elijah. Nor were they aware that the gospel dispensation was to be marked by miracles of mercy. But above all, they were ignorant of the prevailing motives of their own hearts, which were pride and carnal ambition. Of this our Lord warned them. It is easy for us to say, Come, see our zeal for the Lord! and to think we are very faithful in his cause, when we are seeking our own objects, and even doing harm instead of good to others.
Even if by grace beauty and goodness pour forth from our life and worship of God, it will not be of our own making; we will not own it. Such blessing is given to us so that we might gratuitously give it away, mindful of who we are so that we will not be tempted to inquire as to whether another is “deserving” of it. Warning his readers to be mindful of who they really are, Luke places a warning sign in the path of the faithful. Be careful to keep your eye on the slain Jesus as you walk this path, mindful of the fact that you will be tempted to lay your hands on the mercy of God and keep it for yourselves, defining with great zeal who is “in” and who is “out.” But Jesus tells us this will not work.
Luke’s Jesus invites us to look deeply at the ways we deal with people who do not honor our religious convictions. Are we ready to write them off—or even destroy them?
I pray that we, the church, may live into this tension with care and mercy, asking God to smother whatever wrath remains within us, so that in the fullness of time, by grace, we may serve the risen Christ in all we meet, whether they accept us or not. I leave us with the words Edwin Markam:
“He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him In!”
 Zechariah 8:20-23
 Psalm 87:1, 6
 Luke 9:51-56
 Isaiah 50:6-8
 From the Collect for Proper 21
 Matthew Henry, Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Moody Publishers, 1981)
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Thank you for such a beautiful sermon. It is hard to be inclusive when you feel you are being chiseled out these days. I pray for all women and marginalized people. I feel challenged in standing up for what I believe to be good and right when others are so vehemently against it. Very hard to do that appropriately and still widen the circle.
Again, thank you.
Such an important word, and especially in a time when one can easily fall into just this kind of judgmentalism and religious finger-pointing. Thank you, Brother Sean.
I love the quote from Edwin Markam. WOW!
I was talking with someone some time ago and mentioned that my pastor (at People’s Church in Bemidji) was going to make a Christmas creche for me. I had some figures (purchased a long time ago) that were carved from Olive Wood. The figures are vary minimal – features not clearly defined – but recognizable) – the wise men, the shepherds, sheep a camel, Mary, Joseph, and the babe! My goal is that the creche will be rough – not finely polished. After all – it was a stable. So not fancy or polished or anything. While the figures a beautiful, a stable is at that time was not! Pastor Bob is very creative working with wood or stone or whatever and gives these things to people at church or at meetings. I’m waiting to see what he does with it and have given him only the dimensions of the book case on my living room where it will be displayed (Width and depth)
Looking forward to seeing it – and hope it will be soon. Given that fall is upon us, I’m expecting it to be soon.
Thoughtful sermon. Much to reflect upon. Thank you!