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June 26, 2022
I’m going to begin this morning with an incredibly obvious statement. It is hard to watch the news these days. I was pretty disconnected from the news while I was on vacation, other than the occasional headline that drifted by on social media. And I honestly think that was a big part of why I felt so relaxed.
I’m not arguing for intentional ignorance. We need to be informed. But lately it has felt like an unrelenting assault of bad news, made worse by the conflict and division that swirls around each emerging story. Even if you don’t feel particularly upset about what’s going on, I guarantee you someone in your life does – probably someone you care about deeply.
I’m not proud to admit this next part, but I will anyway. Sometimes the news leaves me feeling vengeful. When I see people abusing their power in ways that harm others, I want those people to experience some pain themselves. I don’t even know what that would look like. A punch? A bout of food poisoning? Hives?
It’s probably best that I can’t do any of that. But it explains why, when I read this morning’s gospel, I sympathize with James and John.
I understand what James and John are after when they want to rain down a little fire on that Samaritan village that had rejected them. Jesus and his friends just needed a little hospitality as they traveled along, and instead they got doors slammed in their faces. I’d be mad too. I’d be itching for some payback.
In James and John’s defense, there is some precedent in scripture for an aggressive use of fire. There’s a weird little story in the Hebrew scriptures that involves Elijah, the elder prophet who passes the torch to young Elisha in today’s first reading. Elijah once took himself to the top of a hill to hang out for a while.[i] Meanwhile, the local king gets himself injured and wants Elijah to tell him whether he will recover, so he sends a messenger to summon Elijah. The messenger comes back with the bad news that Elijah says the king is going to die. Unsatisfied with that answer, the king sends a captain with fifty men to confront Elijah, who find him still sitting on that hill. The captain commands Elijah to come down, at which point Elijah summons fire from heaven to consume the captain and his small army.
The king makes the mistake of sending a second captain with fifty more men, and – I’m sorry to say – Elijah summons fire to consume them too.
A third captain shows up with a third army, only this time he knows the drill and begs Elijah to have mercy on them. Elijah relents and goes with him, only to tell the king in person the very same message he had initially delivered: you’re going to die.
All of that drama for the same outcome. So much loss of life. And a reminder that the people who suffer the most in these showdowns are not usually the people who start them. But this story might explain why James and John thought there would be some spectacular perks to following Jesus – some useful pyrotechnics with which to impress friends and destroy enemies.
Scholars will tell you that some of the conflict between Jews and Samaritans came from disagreements about where worship should be centered. The Samaritans thought it should be a place called Mt. Gerizim, whereas the Jewish people believed it was Jerusalem. The gospel suggests that the Samaritans rejected Jesus and his friends because they were headed to Jerusalem. But I’m not convinced that it’s anything more than human pettiness. Age-old conflicts among factions that rival any middle-school cafeteria. The same knee-jerk reactions that make us snap at each other or lean on the horn or post the angry comment without thinking it through.
Jesus rebukes James and John for their fiery idea, and they move on to the next village. He reminds them that a life of following him, a life of pursuing love and justice means courageously looking forward instead of backwards. It means knowing that we will encounter hostility along the way, but that the hostility does not demand our revenge. Energy spent on vengeance is energy that could be better spent proclaiming the healing and hope of the kingdom of God – and reminding people that this hope is for everyone.
At this point Jesus has begun his journey to Jerusalem, fully aware that what awaits him there is the cross – a cross on which he refuses to rain down fire in his own defense, in spite of his executioners taunting him to do so. Even in the moment of his agonizing death, Jesus does not choose vengeance. He says then, as he is dying: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” He chooses forgiveness.
I wonder if this is what Paul had in mind when he wrote that letter to the Galatians and said “For freedom Christ has set us free.” Paul reminds us not to use our freedom for self-indulgence but rather for neighbor-love, the kind of love seeks the well-being even of those people with whom we disagree. In Christ we are free to turn outward with love instead of inward with resentment.
In Paul’s list of things to avoid, anger might be the trickiest. There are plenty of examples of righteous anger in the Bible. Jesus gets angry himself, especially when he sees the poor and marginalized being treated unjustly. So our motives matter. Turning our anger toward petty revenge fantasies isn’t going to accomplish much. On the other hand, channeling our anger in the pursuit of justice can be a powerful way of loving the neighbor, especially our neighbors who are oppressed.
What Jesus is telling us this morning is not to get stuck, not to wear our difficult emotions like an anchor. To focus on revenge is to focus on the past, to stay mired in old wrongs, old wounds, old grudges. Jesus calls us to look forward, to set our faces to the future, to ask what we can do now to seek freedom and healing and hope for all people.
Remember that the Holy Spirit is often depicted as fire – a cleansing, clarifying fire. A fire that does not destroy but instead inspires and enlightens us to do the work that God has called us to do.
My colleague Matt Laney offers this one-sentence prayer, one that I will carry with me in the days ahead. I invite you to do the same. He writes: “Holy Fire, when I’m lit up with fear and anger, bring down fire from heaven to incinerate my ego and leave only love behind. Amen.”
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i] See 2 Kings 1.
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