After I graduated from college, while in discernment for the priesthood, I worked for about six months waiting tables at a Red Lobster. It was worse than it sounds. Anyway, one lunch shift, one of my fellow servers was complaining that her check engine light had come on. Back in the kitchen, we debated what might have caused it. The chef was convinced that her car was about to die. “Pontiacs are junk,” he told her, “you might as well get ready to buy something new.” I also drove a Pontiac at the time, and I didn’t think they were junk. I knew that there were lots of causes for the check engine light to illumine, including something as simple as forgetting to replace the gas cap. “Nah, man,” the chef reiterated, “it’s a garbage car.” And with that, we all went back to work.
Now, I’ve not always been a good loser. I like to think that I’ve grown up a lot since then, but there was a time when I could get pretty petty about proving that I was right. I have no idea why I cared so much about it, but my blood was boiling at the way that my suggestion had been simply dismissed by this guy who didn’t know anything more about cars than I did. I stewed and festered on it for a while, until finally, when I had a minute, I marched out the front door, around the side of the building to the employee parking lot, and found, much to my delight, the gas cap, dangling from side of the young lady’s car. I screwed it back on, and waited until the next time the three of us were back in the kitchen to let her know, or more accurately, to let the chef know, that I was right, and he was definitely wrong.
Actually following the way of Jesus is a lot harder than simply being like his disciples. Like me, James and John didn’t like to look bad in front of other people. We have several stories of their trying to one up the other disciples. Even their mom got involved at one point, asking Jesus to make sure her boys got the best spots in his kingdom. Our Gospel lesson this morning might be James and John at their best worst. Just days after they joined Peter in seeing the transfigured Jesus talking about the next steps in building the Kingdom of God with none other than Elijah and Moses up on the mountain, James and John were already deep in it. They got involved in a dispute over which disciple was the greatest. John, always worried about the Jesus brand had just proudly rebuked a man, who was not a part of the twelve, for casting out demons in the name of Jesus only to get rebuked by Jesus himself.
Luke tells us that at this point, with his disciples still far from understanding what he was about, Jesus began his final journey to Jerusalem. In the Gospel, it’s a ten-chapter jaunt through the Palestinian countryside. For us, it’ll be the focus of every Sunday Gospel from now until the end of October. Along the way, Jesus will teach any who would follow him what it means to live in the Kingdom of God. As Jesus heads steadfastly toward the cross, we will witness miracles, sit at his feet as he teaches, be privy to private conversations with his disciples, and, hopefully, deepen our commitment to Jesus’ call to discipleship. Before we get there, however, the Luke 9, “James and John show us how not to do it” episode has one last act.
The Jews and the Samaritans were bitter enemies. In modern religious terms, it’d be like Louisville versus UK basketball or Auburn versus Alabama football on steroids. The Samaritans were the descendants of those who had been left behind during the Babylonian exile. Ethnically, it is likely that they ended up inter-marrying with slaves who were brought in from modern day Iraq. Religiously, the Samaritans contended that they, rather than the exiled Jews, held most closely to the faith of their ancestors. The key source of animosity between the two was upon which mountain God wanted the Temple to be built. The Jews said Mount Moriah in Jerusalem. The Samaritans argued it was Mount Gerizim situated some 45 miles to the north. These two groups hated each other to such a degree that Jews travelling south from Galilee to Judea would go well out of their way to avoid Samaritan territory.
Jesus, however, was on a mission. Despite the fact that it’ll take months for us to get from here to there, Jesus, having set his face for Jerusalem and the cross, didn’t have time for detours. He and his disciples made their way straight through Samaria. One late afternoon, as they sought a place to rest for the night, Jesus and his disciples found themselves unwelcomed in a certain Samaritan village. Luke doesn’t give us much insight into why they weren’t invited to stay. It could have been that the villagers hoped Jesus might stay for a while and he refused. It might have been because Jesus and his entourage were Jewish and generations of hard feelings won the day. We can’t be sure, but what we do know is that a lack of hospitality was a huge deal in the ancient world. There were no Super 8 Motels in Jesus’ day. When Mary and Joseph found “no room in the Inn” in Bethlehem, it wasn’t that the hotels were all full, but that every guest room in the city was occupied. It was common for folks to offer food and lodging to travelers en route to major cities because one day, it might be you and your family in need of a meal and a safe place to rest for the night.
When James and John realized that a Samaritan village had dared to reject the group, they became indignant. A lack of hospitality was a violation of the Law. The sin that resulted in Sodom and Gomorrah being destroyed by fire and brimstone was a lack of hospitality to the angels of the Lord. Certainly, James and John thought that they were doing the righteous thing in trying to show that they were right and these Samaritan were wrong. Following with what they knew about a lack of hospitality, they asked Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”
Now, we have no reason to believe that James and John could actually call down from fire from heaven. But, wouldn’t that be tempting? Scorched earth victories are a pretty popular pastime on social media these days. People are willing to lose friends and alienate family members over being loud right on whatever the topic of the day might be. Even at our highest levels of government, there is a willingness to, almost with ease, completely write-off anyone who disagrees with you on any particular issue. The desire to be right, and to win at all costs, is slowly destroying our ability to live in community, to offer grace, and to love our neighbors.
One of the things that made Christ Church Bowling Green so attractive to me in the search process was how purple it is. Not just your typical red congregation in the south. Not just your average blue congregation in a college town. Christ Church is a community of Christ’s servants who genuinely seek to learn and grow together, despite our conflicting opinions and understandings. We are a congregation who, despite very profound differences is able to come to the altar each week and receive the bread of life and the cup of salvation side-by-side. Scorched earth doesn’t work here. Instead, in order to live with one another, we have to offer hospitality in our hearts and minds to those who differ from us. As a result, at our best we are a community that is open to being changed, to growing in our faith, and unafraid to lose or admit that we are wrong from time-to-time.
This hospitable mindset is a sign that the Holy Spirit is at work in this place. Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, warns the fledgling church that things like enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, quarreling, dissension, and factions mean that the Spirit is not being followed. Rather, the way we know that we are living in the Spirit of God is a life marked by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. May we continue to live in that Spirit, to grow in compassion and hospitality, and to remember always that we are not called to be right or to win, but simply with the help of the Holy Spirit, to follow Jesus in the way of love and grace. Amen.