November 4, 2012
All Saints and All Souls Sunday
While reading from one of my daily meditation guides for Lectio Divina, I realized the inspiration I was being given for today’s sermon. The passage of Scripture from the Bible I was reading about at the time was from Luke 9:49-56. As I was reading and meditating, I was thinking how this will be great for a sermon one Sunday. Little did I know it would be the sermon I was thinking about and started writing just prior to that. Almost as if the Holy Spirit said: “Right topic. Wrong direction.”
I had been thinking as of late about how we sometimes get ourselves worked up over other people. Be they friends, family, co-workers, acquaintances or even strangers. We all do it. I frequently catch myself and have to try to correct my mindset. Lately, I have begun to notice various factions around those whom I interact with on a regular to a semi-regular basis and have discovered a sermon like this is needed. Then, as preparing for my sermon, I read today’s Gospel and I realize that maybe the Holy Spirit is trying to tell me now would be a good time. The Sermon on the Mount, or the beatitudes, was such a perfect match for what I was reading in Luke 9 during my meditation.
Let me read it.
John answered, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” But Jesus said to him, “Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you.”
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, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. And they went on to another village.
The time had come for Jesus to begin his journey to Jerusalem—and to the cross. He knew that word of his teachings and miracles had gone ahead of him, so he was cautious about entering certain villages.
This was especially true of Samaritan villages, where Jews in general were not welcome and where he in particular might face opposition. So he sent a few followers ahead of him to one village to find a place for him to stay and maybe even a gathering place where he could preach. But the answer came back as a resounding “No.” The villagers wanted nothing to do with this Jewish prophet or his date with destiny.
John and James were indignant. “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?” they asked. They wanted to show their faith and their knowledge by mimicking Elijah from the early ancestors by asking for fire to come from heaven and consume the people in the town they just visited. But Jesus would hear none of this. He rebuked them and continued on his way.
Why did James and John react in the manner they did? Part of the key here is that they went to a village of Samaritans. Jews and Samaritans have been bitter foes for some years. Jews considered the Samaritans illicit relatives. Back around the 8 B.C. the Assyrians destroyed the northern area of the Jews. The Assyrians brought with them pagans who remained after the Assyrian destroyed their kingdom and intermarried with the Jews who remained. By doing so, the Jews still faithful to the Law of Moses considered those who intermingled with the Assyrians not only as traitors but now having impure bloodlines. Those who intermarried with the pagans eventually became known to many as the Samaritans.
So, why James and John’s reaction, Maybe it was because of the Samaritans as a people; a people who mixed the purity of Judaism with pagan religions and who were a constant thorn in the side of faithful Jews. Maybe it was because they were offended that anyone would reject Jesus, who had done so much good for so many people. Possibly, too, they were trying to show Jesus how committed they were to him. After all, this story comes not long after they had gotten caught up in an argument about who was the greatest among them. Whatever their reasoning, while their proposal seemed reasonable to them, Jesus was very quick to condemn it.
This Gospel reading can help us realize ways in which we harbor resentments against people who don’t share our values; any animosity we may feel toward people who seem to stand against us and our general views on life. This could include people who are actively opposing Christianity, and it could include those who are indifferent to God as well. It could include our neighbor who never takes his family to church on Sundays, and it could include political leaders whose policies seem to show little regard for the sacredness of human life.
So, it’s helpful to see that Jesus rebuked his apostles and not the Samaritans. While he no doubt wanted the villagers to welcome him, Jesus humbly moved on to the next town. He seemed more concerned with James and John’s attitude than with the Samaritans’ attitude.
Jesus wants to focus on our attitudes rather than the “Samaritans” around us. He wants to correct us when we allow judgment or self-righteousness to pit us against people who don’t share our faith, our values or our simple everyday life opinions. Of course Jesus wants everyone to believe in him and obey his Father’s commands. But he also wants us to witness to the joy of following him. He wants a kind and compassionate Church, not a hostile, self-righteous one.
Why is it important to be kind and compassionate? Think about Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:4-6). The shepherd in this parable risked his own life, as well as the safety of ninety-nine sheep, just to find one missing sheep. And when he found it, he didn’t scold it or rebuke it for wandering off. He put it on his shoulders and brought it back to the fold. He was so happy that he even held a party to celebrate! Maybe, our little church – our little denomination - has a mission to bring back the ones and twos of those who have left the church for one reason or another and show them the true compassion of Jesus in the way we interact with each other and minister to them also.
Every human being is a child of God, created in his own image and likeness. And this means that every person deserves to be treated with the deepest respect. In this regard, there is no difference between believers and unbelievers or those who hold our political view and those who do not. There is no difference between faithful, observant churchgoers and lapsed or complacent Catholics. We are all members of the same family, and our Father wants us to treat each other like the brothers and sisters that we are. He wants us to reach out to them as friends, not enemies. He wants us to tell them about the gospel in the same way we would share some good news with our best friend.
So what should we do? First, let’s be positive and start looking at everyone, whatever their convictions, with the same love that God has for us. Second, let’s be sure we are listening to people carefully and respectfully. Third, let’s be careful not to over-emphasize our objections. Instead, let’s look for common ground and build from there. Finally, if points of contention or disagreement come up, let’s try to stay calm. We should remember that the Lord is with us and that he wants to bless us and those we are speaking with.
This doesn’t mean that we should give in or water down our faith. It means that we should patiently go as far as we can to help people come to Jesus—but not go overboard. It means making sure we can “live to preach another day.”
Jesus has these Apostles who want to send fire down on fellow humans, yet in the midst of such divisive and even destructive thoughts, Jesus was still pleased with them. He looked past all the infighting, the mistaken passion, and the subtle arrogance. He knew all of this was an essential part of the process of becoming a disciple and learning to be more like Him. In fact, in the very first verse of the very next chapter of Luke, we see him sending them out on a second mission to spread the good news all over again (Luke 10:1).
Jesus wants us to be in unity with each other. He wants us to put away any condemning thoughts and attitudes and stop judging people who don’t think the way we do. But he knows how challenging this can be.
The best defense is a good offense. We have all heard this before. Although, it may not work for all things, it commonly will for most and it certainly does for Christians. Sermons are not often the place for teaching about disagreements or arguments as such, but as human beings we seem to place ourselves into less than friendly relationships sometimes. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes, as they have come to be known, can serve us well when we encounter those pesky disagreements.
Yet, head on, flat out, face-to-face confrontation has been the most popular form of combat for centuries. The Roman Empire gave us gladiators - two men armed to the teeth facing each other across an enclosed coliseum. Medieval combatants came up with jousting - two opponents mounted on enormous steeds, rushing straight towards each other with long pointed lances. In the 18th century European battles were fought by lining up all the soldiers in neat rows, their weapons pointed directly at the tidy rows of the opposing army across the battlefield from them. Interestingly, this was also done in the name of Christ. However, we have come to learn that Christ would not have condoned such behavior and His Sermon on the Mount, as we read today, and the passage from Luke makes it very clear.
In the Beatitudes Jesus offers a series of what appear to be intentionally self-destructive personal choices, which he then reveals as the way Christians will ultimately "win" against those who seek to harm them. I suppose this is the art of what we can call Christian Judo of sorts.
The Beatitudes stand as the pre-eminent example of this Christian Judo stance. Jesus said, "Congratulations to those who show mercy;" "Congratulations to those who love their enemies." Unfortunately, the church which bears Jesus' name has often found more pragmatic ways of dealing with its enemies: torture, persecution, burnings, inquisitions, intolerance. However, it would seem it is time to return to the source and explore Jesus' method for dealing with opposition.
In the art of Christian Judo, instead of pitting strengths against strengths, one steps aside and turns another's strength to one's own advantage. Don't attack your opponent's position. See what lies behind it. Don't reject their position or defend your own. Sidestep their attack by getting behind where they are coming from and where they are going. When we disagree with a point of view, we would do well to find out why the opposing person feels the way that they do, instead of attacking what we may not fully understand as their motive.
The whole point of Christian Judo is not to return tit for tat, an eye for an eye, strength for strength. The point is to step aside and let the attacking person's strength benefit and bless you. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount gave us the best outline of Christian Judo - how to deal with those who are attacking us. Jesus' surprising defensive technique ultimately leads to a truly shocking final conclusion. Further into the Gospel of Matthew Jesus contradicts the Torah and thus the Jews of His time by rejecting the right of retaliation and instead counseling listeners to turn the other cheek.
Instinctively we oppose some people we disagree with, but we should not react this way. Let the other person make the first move and develop a strategy and approach based on their angle of attack. Listen and be creative. Refrain from reacting: Don't attack your opponent or defend yourself - ascertain and discern instead. Rather than coming at your opponent and attacking their position, sidestep their attack while ascertaining where they're coming from. Rather than defend yourself - which locks you in and gives them a target to hit - discern what's behind their arguments and attacks. Search for the underlying premise that motivates their hatred, fear and uncompromising personality. Once you understand the bedrock principles behind and underneath the attack, you can deal with fundamental forces of opposition rather than the overt expressions of hostility.
Unlike James and John, we should not call down fire based on our preconceived thoughts of the background of those of whom we are dealing with or the disagreement we may have with them. We cannot and may not ever really know all that is behind their thoughts or actions any more than they will of us. But, by following Jesus’ examples and teachings we can be one step closer to respecting those whom we desire respect from.
Christian Judo – the stealth and humble way to being disciples of Christ. He is so committed to us and to his dream of a united, beautiful Church that his final prayer was “that they may all be one” (John 17:21). It’s a prayer he continues to make for us each day. It’s not always easy to be in unity. But those who seek it will find it over time. By God’s grace, we can triumph over everything in us that feeds division. So let’s continue to pray for the strength, the compassion, and the wisdom to love everyone as Jesus loves us.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.