Fox Hole Faith
copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
June 27, 2010
I noticed the Portland Trail Blazers have been in the news again. Well, in the interest of accuracy it was their general manager rather than the team, and not for reasons most fans might hope for. I won’t go into a sports commentary, but seeing that story led me to recall a time, years ago, when I was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, attending the meeting of our denomination’s General Assembly. My roommate was a long-time friend from both my college and seminary, who was then serving as a pastor in Iowa. Art has always been a competitive sort of person, and more than that, he is someone who, in a discussion, is generally willing to take the opposite side from you just for the sporting fun of debate.
One night while we were there, the Trail Blazers played their first basketball game in the 1992 NBA finals against Chicago. I was really looking forward to watching the game, but as some of you who may be avid Blazer fans might recall, the game that night turned into a complete blowout by Chicago. Portland was down by as many as 30 points all game long, and they went down in a miserable loss. My friend, sensing my loyalty to Portland from the comments I had made over the previous two days, had more and more fun at my expense as the game went on: he became a big Chicago fan right before my eyes, observing my misery, cheering for Chicago, taunting me when Portland made a bonehead play – and they made many that night.
I tried to make the most of being on the losing side, tried to make my retreat from the misplaced confidence I had voiced prior to the game as orderly as possible, snidely asking him to name all the NBA teams in Iowa – since there are none – and trying to help him see by extended recitals of statistics and stories of previous triumphs what a really terrific team the Blazers had been all season. It was futile. He would have none of it. He just grinned back at me, pointing at the TV, reciting the score as things went from bad to worse. The real evidence, he snidely suggested, correctly, was on the screen.
Now, why did this come to my mind as I was pondering today’s passage from Luke? Here in Luke the Samaritans, refusing to receive Jesus because of his loyalty to the home team in Jerusalem, became the object of this comment from James and John: “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Isn’t it funny how our loyalties, even loyalties to things as silly as a professional spots franchise, once chosen, can quickly turn more fierce, even more violent than we had thought?
I really hadn’t thought of calling heavenly fire down on my friend, but inasmuch as we were on the ninth floor of the hotel, I had thought about pitching him out the window several times during the game! Loyalty can be a funny thing that way. Once we have committed ourselves, sometimes it is easier to imagine doing violence to those who don’t share our commitment than to live up to the commitment itself. I’ll tell you what I mean.
Theologically speaking, it seems to me that today’s passage has to do with the requirements of discipleship. How does discipleship – attachment to Jesus – mean anything more than just following the cultural norms for what it means to be good people? How can we think about discipleship in a way that keeps the topic from being anything other than another sermon “snoozer?”
This passage about discipleship really comes in two parts. The first part of the reading reports the unwillingness of the people of a Samaritan village to become disciples. Ever since the Jews returned from their exile in Babylon 600 years earlier, the Samaritans had received nothing from them other than heaped-up abuse and active, malicious disdain. Why should they follow this Jew and his band of fellow religious elitists, whose intention – as Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem – was to head their movement into the Jews’ own capital anyway? Better that they honestly reject this Messiah, I suppose, than that they go charging into a commitment without first having counted the costs, like the three other examples of half-way followers in the second part of the reading.
In this first part of our reading we come to know that James and John have not understood that their calling as disciples was not to get even with all those who differed with them, but to follow the example of a master who loves and even dies for those who reject him. Not an easy task! Revenge and retaliation, which clearly were guiding principles in some of the stories of the people of Israel, these have now been replaced in the ministry of Jesus by unconditional love even for those who reject him. The calling of his disciples is to do nothing less.
There are those who would preach extensively about the extraordinary and generous love of God, but just in case there are some in their audiences who are not convinced to come to Jesus by all that talk about love, they would resort to the bolts of hellfire for the reluctant as the ultimate convincer. I think, more often than not, what gets communicated this way is that we worship a God who, when he doesn’t get his way, forces our hand through threats and intimidation. The love of the gospel becomes a thin veneer, a cover for a God who is perfectly willing to throw his weight around if it becomes necessary.
The second half of the reading seems to me to ask which is worse, the Samaritans who reject Jesus unequivocally, or the ones who make a less-than-complete decision to follow, rejecting the demands of Jesus bit by bit in order to follow their own lead? This entire episode should be instructive for any church that is overly willing to trust its own judgment as to who is in and who is out of the circle of the Lord’s favor.
Here is something that occurred to me when I was once in attendance at a meeting of the General Assembly: Even though many characterize our times as a period in which young people are too busy looking out for themselves as they prepare to enter adult careers to pay much attention to the needs of the less fortunate, I have observed that many young people in my acquaintance are finishing high school and college and asking what they can do to make a contribution to the ministry of the church in the world. Young people sign up to spend summers, spring break, even a year or two after college to work in overseas missions, with the Tony Campolo ministries in Philadelphia, to volunteer at camps for youth. I have often been asked, by those who are about to finish college, to help them locate mission opportunities where they can volunteer a year or two of their time. This is an indication that there is a willingness among many young people to set self aside and actively pursue their discipleship. Yet the unwelcome fact of our current economic times is that opportunities for service which our denomination makes available to volunteers have been scaled back from the level of previous years because of budgetary difficulties.
Isn’t that an amazing thought? It is as though Jesus had said to us, “I need you to follow me today,” but as a denomination our response has become, “Sure, Lord, but first we will have to get acceptable housing provided – after all, even foxes have holes to nest in; and we will need to tidy up the dying cemeteries of our lives ourselves before we will trust our future with you; and of course we want mainly to be in mission right next door – we’d rather you not ask that we actually consider the needs of those who live across town, across the country, across oceans, across cultural barriers, or across religious affiliations.”
No wonder the great cathedral architect of the nineteenth century, William Butterfield, felt moved once to say, “Hold to Christ, and in everything else remain uncommitted.” In the end, it really is the only way. Pilgrimage with Christ, moving toward a new way of living and relating to others in the world, finally means that the demands of discipleship are meant to be understood against a background of other demands which are, often, very good, very legitimate. It is good to work to provide adequate food and shelter for oneself and one’s family, it is good to see to family obligations like burying one’s father, and kissing the relatives goodbye. But in the hierarchy of things that are good, what is best? The best is to follow Jesus, to choose to follow Jesus no matter what. The rest will fall into place.
For James and John – and for us, I believe – there is then this word: Before calling fire down on the inadequate commitment of others, Jesus wants us to assess the completeness of our own commitment. Doing that, we will likely be a lot less arrogant, and a lot more humble knowing that, before God, all people come as needy ones.
Author Frederick Buechner once called faith “the word that describes the direction that our feet start moving when we find that we are loved ... stepping into the unknown with nothing but a guiding hand just beyond our grasp.”
I believe that any time our feet begin moving that direction, our example will give the courage of faith to others in a way that threats of fire and destruction could never do. Acts of faith are acts of loving kindness, no matter where we find the opportunity to offer them.
copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder