The promise first came to Abram when he was already 75 years old! God said, “I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great…. In you, all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen. 12:2-3). It was unthinkable even then, unimaginable, impossible, given his age and the barrenness of Sarai’s womb. But Abram believed God.
The second promise came eleven years later, when Abram was 86 years old! This time, Abram questioned God, “You have given me no offspring… [Is one of my slaves to become my heir]?” (Gen. 15:3) and God replied, “[No]. Your very own issue will be your heir… Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall you descendants be” (Gen. 15:5). And, once again, Abram believed God.
But as time went on and there was still no heir, his faith wavered. Abram and Sarai decided to help God out by taking matters into their own hands. So, Abram slept with Sarai’s servant and she conceived and bore him a son, Ishmael. But this was not God’s plan.
The third and final promise came thirteen years after the second. Abram was 99 years old and Sarai 90. Still, they had not conceived. Their dream of having a child had withered over time and finally evaporated completely. They knew it was now physically impossible. They had no reasonable hope. But God insisted, “You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you” (Gen. 17:4,6). This time, Abram laughed (Gen. 17:17).
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In the Midst of Violence
Br. Geoffrey Tristram
I picture the disciples after the terrible, terrifying experience of seeing their dear Jesus crucified. I imagine how they must have gathered together in lockdown as, shocked and anxious, they surely stayed off the streets. “The doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear,” we read in John (Jn 20:19). No doubt the disciples kept describing again and again to each other what they had seen – the scene on Calvary: his words from the cross, his final giving up of the spirit. They were shaken and, I imagine, shaking still, with the violence they had witnessed, and which they worried might be coming for them next.
Violence can tear, break, and shatter not only individuals but whole communities. Think of all those whose lives have been shattered by violence during this last year. Individuals and whole communities in places such as Syria, Ukraine, the Holy Land, but also in Maine, Alabama, Maryland, California – and even closer to home, the senseless murder of children and teenagers here in Boston, in Lynn, Brockton, New Bedford. The violence which is everywhere in our country, and our world, profoundly touches all of us.
In some of these places, lockdown is a daily experience: places where at night, and even in the day, you lock your doors and don’t go out. Violence can kill individuals, but it can also deaden whole communities, when fear locks down their spirits, and imprisons their hopes and dreams. That is especially tragic for those who are young.
In my meditations on such violence, I’ve been reflecting on a scene from John’s Gospel, one of a succession of confrontations between Jesus and the religious authorities. These confrontations take place, symbolically, at a series of Jewish festivals, and at the climax of each confrontation, there is such anger that stones are picked up to throw at Jesus. He escapes each time, but there is a growing sense that they will eventually get him, as they make their plans to put him to death.
By the Feast of the Dedication, the level of impending violence and hatred surrounding Jesus has gotten very high. John, with consummate skill, simply and laconically states: “It was winter.” Jesus was walking up and down in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. His opponents were waiting for him. John says, “They gathered around him” – like a gang. “Are you the blessed?” one says. “You’re a blasphemer,” says another. “We’re going to stone you,”says another.
Imagine how frightening it must have been for Jesus. But Jesus looked deep within them – and saw their wintry, frozen hearts, full of a violence which froze out God’s love. His voice could not penetrate the hardness of their hearts. Yet with great courage, Jesus confronts them with a highly provocative word of truth: “You do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
“No one will snatch them.” The verb used here is the one used for wolves, who creep up and snatch a vulnerable sheep. The wolves are always seeking an opportunity; but, so too, the good shepherd is always looking out for his sheep, and they are always listening for his voice, because they know and trust his voice to guide and lead them.
That seems to me a powerful metaphor for so much of the violence that is happening in our nation, especially among young people. What is happening when mainly young men are shooting people dead in schools, in movie theaters, in our inner cities, on Boylston Street?
What voices are they listening to? Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd and my sheep hear my voice.”
But there are many, many other voices, loud, strident, persuasive voices in our society – voices of violence. And these voices can snatch our young people away, like a wolf does. Violence in our movies, violent games and websites all over the internet. Gun laws in this country which are so lax, but which, for political reasons, scandalously cannot or will not be reformed. Violent voices, violent organizations, take root especially where there is little family support, high unemployment, and poor education. In such places especially, it is our responsibility as Christians to stand up in Jesus’ name and speak with his voice of peace. We must counter those voices of violence that speak so loudly.
We must counter those voices of violence
that speak so loudly.
When I was ordained a priest the following words were spoken to me by the bishop, and I think they are true for each one of us who are called to live the way of Jesus:
“You are called to be servants and shepherds among the people to whom you are sent. You are to tell the story of God’s love. You are to search for his children in the wilderness of the world’s temptations, and to guide them through its confusions, that they may be saved through Christ forever.”
These words have always been close to my heart. They say to me now, “How are we being asked to actively face up to the voices of violence in our land, and witness to Jesus’ voice of peace, in our cities and beyond?”
When Jesus set his face to Jerusalem on that final journey, for the last confrontation on the Jewish festival of Passover, he walked right into the heart of darkness. The voices of violence surrounded him on every side: “Crucify him, crucify him!” But in the midst of the violence and terror, Jesus’ gentle voice, the voice of the Good Shepherd, spoke: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
We who love Jesus are called to speak courageously with Jesus’ voice, to bring hope and peace to places filled with violence and hopelessness. What part will you play?
The voices of violence may seem loud and overwhelming, but we are a resurrection people. “Fear not,” says Jesus, “for I have overcome the world.”
What part will you play?
What voices of violence and evil do you hear and witness in the world around you? How are you hiding in fear in the face of them?
Where do you hear the voice of the Good Shepherd calling to you?
How might you actively embody Jesus' voice of peace for others in the face of fear and despair?
Take concrete action to speak a word of hope and peace in places filled with violence and hopelessness.
Visit or call someone who might be facing fear or destruction in their own life. Write or call an elected government official about a cause of violence in our world that moves your heart.
What part will you play?
The prophet Malachi could not be using more extreme language. The messenger for the Messiah will come “like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap.”
- A refiner’s fire is a metallurgy process dating back to antiquity. A refiner’s fire is a crucible that heats precious metal, like gold and silver, to a molten state from which the dross – the impurities – are skimmed off. It is a searing process that yields the pure, precious metal.[i]
- The fullers were the launderers. Fuller’s soap is a caustic cleansing agent, made from lye and other repugnant chemicals.[ii] Fuller’s soap was used to purify fabric and make it white. The fullers stamped on garments with their feet or used wooden bats in tubs of this blanching soap. The stench from this soap was so great that the fullers had to work outside the city walls of Jerusalem.
Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle
What would it mean for you to have proof?
This question is in the background of P. D. James’s novel Death in Holy Orders. A theological college holds a papyrus that purports to disprove the Resurrection. Surely, if this document proves to be authentic, the inspector asks one of the priests on staff, if it is hard proof about something that had until then only been a belief, this would surely be relevant to your faith. “My son,” the priest responds, “for one who every hour of his life has the assurance of the living presence of Christ, why should I worry about what happened to earthly bones?”
Earthly bones very much worry the apostle Thomas, whom we celebrate today. Bones and flesh, blood and wounds—the physicality of Jesus’s body, the fleshly reality of his friend and teacher. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (Jn 20:25) Jesus lets Thomas see and feel his body, giving him the proof he seeks. But not without a rebuke: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (Jn 20:29).
Remember Daniel in a lions’ den and in a furnace of fire? Before those awesome saves, Daniel did what no magician could do. King Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem in 597 B.C.E. and marched thousands of Jews 900 miles to Babylon to live in exile. He had some young men from Israelite nobility brought to serve in the palace including Daniel and three friends given new names: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. King Nebuchadnezzar had a disturbing dream. He demanded wise men tell him both what he dreamed and what the dream meant. They replied: “No human can do that.” Enraged, the king commanded all the wise men be killed.[i]
Daniel said he would do what the king asked. Daniel went to his three friends and with them prayed for God’s mercy. Daniel had a vision that night which revealed the mystery. Daniel prayed thanking God.[ii] Then Daniel told Nebuchadnezzar both the dream and its interpretation. We heard that read tonight. There’s a large statue with layers of gold, silver, bronze, iron, and clay. A stone cut not by human hands strikes the statue which completely breaks apart and is swept away. What this means is that Nebuchadnezzar all subsequent kingdoms will all fall away when God makes an eternal kingdom.
I know that I have told this story before, but I’ll tell it again, partly for those who have not heard it, but mostly because tonight there is a significant point to it.
Years ago, as a young priest, and new to the practice of preaching on a regular basis, two members of my congregation approached me one Sunday after church. They were puzzled by something and wanted to ask me a question. Both Robin and Ann came from the Baptist tradition, and they had a concern about the lectionary. What would happen, they asked, if I felt it important to preach from a different passage of Scripture, than the one assigned by the lectionary. Would I be free, they wondered, to change the reading, or preach from a different text?
Nearly 40 years later, I can’t remember what I said in reply. I do remember the question. It has stuck with me all these years, and keeps cropping up every so often. Today, if one of you were to ask me the same question, I know exactly how I would answer.
The question, for me at least, is not what I would do if I felt it important to preach from a different passage, than the one assigned by the lectionary. The question for me is, what do I do when the lectionary points me in a direction I might not choose to go in, or would prefer to avoid? Because that’s the case tonight. If it were up to me, the gift and promise of hope is not something I’d gravitate to at this particular time. Yet tonight, of all nights we hear, in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
For a single chapter, it’s pretty hard to beat the ninth chapter of Luke’s gospel for action. There is a ton of stuff going on. What we have in tonight’s reading is just a tiny fraction of the action. If it weren’t for the fact that this rather curious, and I must admit slightly disturbing account of people’s refusal to attend to Jesus’ message, and the threatened consequence, was the assigned gospel text for today, I’d be tempted to gloss over it.
In the verses just before tonight’s reading, we have Jesus commission to the Twelve; Herod’s perplexity regarding Jesus; the Feeding of the Five Thousand; the Confession of Peter; the Transfiguration; Jesus foretelling his death, not once, but twice, to name a few. After tonight’s passage, we have some excuses for not responding to Jesus’ invitation to follow, at least not right now. And that is all in a single chapter.
As I said, in 62 verses, there’s a tremendous amount going on, much of which is perhaps more suitable for an edifying homily than what has been dished up for us this evening. Yet in spite of the temptation to avoid the discomfort this passage poses for us, we can’t, especially since it has been paired with this glorious passage from Zechariah.
From the image held before us by Zechariah, of many peoples and strong nations coming to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem, and entreating the favour of God, we then hear of James and John wanting to call down fire from heaven to consume a Samaritan village, as punishment for their refusal to receive the Lord. Two, more different pictures, could not be painted for us. The first is one of welcome and inclusion, where even people who are not followers of the Lord of hosts, are drawn to worship. The second, is a picture of refusal, revenge, and threatened violence. How much more different can the two images be?
The context for the passage from Zechariah is one of promised restoration and renewal. At the time Zechariah is writing, God’s people are living in exile. All is lost. The great temple is destroyed. Jerusalem, the city of God, is a heap of rubble. Grieving, defeated, and exiled, Zechariah offers them a word and vision of hope.
Thus says the Lord: I will return to Zion, and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem; Jerusalem shall be called the faithful city, and the mountain of the Lord of hosts shall be called the holy mountain… Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing… Thus says the Lord of hosts: Even though it seems impossible to the remnant of this people in these days, should it also seem impossible to me, says the Lord of hosts?… I will save my people … and I will bring them to live in Jerusalem. They shall be my people and I will be their God, in faithfulness and in righteousness.
It is in that context we hear tonight’s promise, that not only will God’s people once again return to Jerusalem to entreat the favour of the Lord, but so too will foreigners from every nation. It is a vision of restoration, renewal, and hope. Sadly, not all are inclined to receive Zechariah’s message, and the fury of the Lord is kindled against them, as we would see if we continued reading into the next chapter.
All these themes, restoration, renewal, hope, and even rejection, are hinted at in tonight’s passage from Luke. And the hint comes in a little, 3 letter long word.
It’s a little word. You may have missed it. Yet it is so significant that it appears twice, in just a couple of verses. [Jesus] set his face to go to Jerusalem. But [the Samaritans] did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem.
In case you missed it again, the word is set.
There are many reasons for the Samaritans to reject Jesus and his message. As we know, Jews and Samaritans hated one another, so much so that Jesus used the image of a good Samaritan to shock his Jewish audience. But that does not seem to be the reason for the villagers’ reaction. Nor is it, it would appear, because Jesus was rejecting the Samaritans. He was after all about to break the taboo and stay in the village. This would not have been the only time Jesus stayed among the Samaritans. John tells us that after the encounter with the woman at the well, he stayed in a Samaritan village for two days, and many believed in him. No, the cause of the Samaritans’ rejection of Jesus was not based on deep seated prejudice and enmity, but, as Luke tells us, they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem.
By this point in the gospel, Jesus has one thing on his mind, and he tells us of it, not once, but twice in this chapter, both before and after the Transfiguration. The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. Because of this singlemindedness, Jesus’ face is set towards Jerusalem, and all which that means: suffering, death, and glory; cross, tomb, and resurrection; restoration, renewal, and hope.
These Samaritans, unlike those in John’s gospel, were unwilling to receive Jesus, not because of any historic enmity, but because, for whatever reason, they were not prepared to see in him the Saviour of the world. They were unprepared to accept, perhaps, the message of suffering, death, and glory. They could not see in him signs of restoration, renewal, and hope. Jesus, knowing he was on the path to renewal, hope, and glory, by the way of cross and tomb, suffering and death, did not want to be diverted. And so, his face was set to Jerusalem, causing the Samaritans to reject his presence, and his message.
This is not an uncommon reaction to Jesus. Many did, and many do, reject his claims. We remind ourselves of this in our Rule of Life, where we say: [we] also expect to experience failures. Some of these contain lessons that can help us become more skillful in the future. Other failures are means by which we enter further into the mystery of discipleship; we are not greater than the master, and many went on their way without accepting his words or deeds.
For many, the message of Jesus and the promise of God is ludicrous, and they can only see defeat, destruction, and exile. They can only see suffering and death. Seeing only this, they reject messages of hope and glory, and in rejecting the message, they reject the herald.
And that is where we find ourselves tonight: in the midst of a people who reject the herald, because they cannot see in him the signs of hope. For James and John this is reason enough for revenge and violence. Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them? For Jesus, it was no doubt an occasion of great sadness as they went on to another village. But what about us?
As tempting as it is to call down fire from heaven, when someone so clearly rejects the good news of God, I am not sure that is the most helpful thing. It is better, I think, to live in hope, as did the exiled people of God.
Now hope is a very strange thing, for it is often confused with wishful thinking. But Christian hope, the hope of the resurrection, the hope of the exiled people of God, is not wishful thinking. It is sober. It is grounded. It is real. The hope of the exiled people of God is real because it knows the pain of loss, and looks toward the hope of restoration. The hope of the resurrection is grounded because it knows the grief of death, and looks toward the promise of renewal. The hope of the Christian is sober because it knows the reality of suffering, and looks toward the hope of glory.
Jesus’ face was set to Jerusalem, and all the Samaritans could see was suffering, rejection, and death. And so, they did not receive him. But the prophecy of Zechariah, the message of Jesus, and the promise of God, as ludicrous as it sounds, is not one of defeat, destruction and exile, nor of suffering, rejection, and death. It is one of renewal, restoration, and glory, because it is a message and promise of hope.
And it is that gift and promise of hope which Zechariah proclaims, and Luke invites us to share, as Jesus sets his face to Jerusalem.
 Zechariah 8: 22
 Luke 9: 54
 Zechariah 8: 3 -8
 See Zechariah 9
 Luke 9: 51
 Luke 9: 53
 Luke 10: 28 – 38
 John 4: 40 – 42
 Luke 9: 21; and see Luke 9: 44
 John 4: 42
 SSJE, Rule of Life, The Spirit of Mission and Service, chapter 32, page 65
 Luke 9: 54
 Luke 9: 56
On this day of resurrection, we all share something with these faithful women coming to the tomb. We also share something with the disciples and with Jesus. We share woundedness. We are all wounded. Jesus is wounded by the scourgings that preceded his crucifixion, and the horrific piercing wounds hanging on the cross. None of these wounds is yet healed. And Jesus’ heart is also wounded by the betrayal and abandonment of his closest friends, the disciples, who literally left Jesus hanging. The women, who were there when they crucified their Lord, witnessed it all, a horrific experience. They are wounded with trauma, with grief, and with fear. Meanwhile we know that the disciples are hiding – hiding in their own fear, and guilt, and shame. So much trauma.[i] On this day of resurrection, everyone in the Gospel story is wounded, and this is likely true for many, if not all of us here. You are bearing your own wounds in body, mind, or spirit: wounds that have come at you from beyond your control, or wounds self-inflicted. You also may know the wounds of the cross, what it has meant for you “to take up your cross and follow Jesus.”[ii] Here we all are on this day of resurrection: Jesus, the faithful women, the disciples, and we ourselves alive, wounded. All of us. We acknowledge Jesus’ resurrection and, at the same time, acknowledge that everything is not all right in our world and in our own lives. We are wounded.
The psalm appointed for today, Psalm 62, includes the phrase: “For God alone my soul in silence waits”; however another translation of this text is: “Before God, I am silence.” Not, “I am silent”; but rather, “Before God, I am silence.” And therefore, when God speaks, I am silence: I am an empty, open vessel to receive. Our life’s invitation is to learn to “be silence” so we have space to receive the work and words of God. It is a good thing to cultivate stillness and silence within ourselves.
But for many people, life seems to lose its cultivation because of suffering. We witness, and we may personally experience, tremendous suffering, loss, fear, grief, despair that may simply leave us or others speechless and empty, feeling very much alone and abjectly vulnerable. This is the silence that visits the elderly who have lost their health, lost their companions, lost their meaning in life; the silence of those who are very sick with no help at hand and the silence of those who are very sick with help at hand; the silence of those who are imprisoned because of prejudice and racism, and those imprisoned behind bars; the silence of those who live with inexpressible shame. So many people experience a silence that is unbidden and which may seem to them so vapid, despairing, orphaning.
I don’t know what keeps you going these days. The recent mass shooting of 19 students and 2 adults at the Robb Elementary School in Uvulde, Texas, was another punch in the gut, coming, as it did, just 10 days after ten Black people were shot to death at their neighborhood supermarket in Buffalo, New York. Both mass shootings were carried out by 18 year-olds, with legally purchased assault weapons. We are just five months into this calendar year and already we have witnessed 214 mass shootings in this country. Our leaders cannot seem to find a way to put an end to it. Other nations have found ways to stop the senseless killing of innocent human beings, but we cannot.
We are suffering. Handcuffed by partisan politics, unable to take any effective action, completely out of patience with sentiments like ‘our thoughts and prayers are with the families of those who died,’ and sick to death of the senseless killings, we… are… hurting.
Century after century, generation after generation, we human beings continue to find endless ways to inflict harm upon one another. Suffering – so much of it completely senseless – seems to be woven into the very fabric of our existence; none of us escapes its effects.