embracing the stranger

 

I’m grateful for the many opportunities I’ve had to be a guest preacher in congregations in Arkansas this year! This morning I was invited to be with First Presbyterian Church in Argenta. Here goes:

Luke 9:51-62

51 As the time approached when Jesus was to be taken up into heaven, he determined to go to Jerusalem. 52 He sent messengers on ahead of him. Along the way, they entered a Samaritan village to prepare for his arrival, 53 but the Samaritan villagers refused to welcome him because he was determined to go to Jerusalem. 54 When the disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to consume them?” 55 But Jesus turned and spoke sternly to them, 56 and they went on to another village.

57 As Jesus and his disciples traveled along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”

58 Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and the birds in the sky have nests, but the Human One has no place to lay his head.”

59 Then Jesus said to someone else, “Follow me.”

He replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”

60 Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead. But you go and spread the news of God’s kingdom.”

61 Someone else said to Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say good-bye to those in my house.”

62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for God’s kingdom.”

**********************

Three days ago, I asked a few friends to talk through this passage with me. I was stuck; the passage was confusing, upsetting, and frankly I thought Jesus was acting like a jerk. So, more specifically, I asked to lead the Bible study at Mercy Church, an ecumenical worshiping community for people with and without housing. I’d read a lot of scholars’ opinions on possible interpretations, but reading Scripture in a space with people experiencing poverty and homelessness illuminates Scripture in a way reading commentaries can’t. After reading through the passage once we immediately dove into a discussion of the very last line. So following in the example of my friends at Mercy Church, we’re going to work our way backwards through this story as well. The last line, confusing though it might sound, provides a solid framework for the preceding story.

“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Have you ever tried to use a plow? If you look anywhere other than directly ahead, your furrows and subsequent planting will be crooked, resulting in wasted time, space, and energy. You need a single-minded forward gaze without distractions to use a plow properly and ensure your crops will be planted in a straight line.

At this point in Luke’s Gospel narrative, we see a distinct shift signaling Jesus’ resolute and single-minded purpose toward his destiny: Jerusalem. Jesus has put his hand to the plow and isn’t looking back. He has set his face toward Jerusalem, marking a re-orientation in looking from the past to the future. There is a sense of urgency in his words; he knows what lies in store for him in Jerusalem and he knows that every last remaining moment of his ministry counts. There is no time to say goodbye to family and friends. No time to arrange for a parent’s funeral; Jesus is on his way to his own burial. No one who looks back is fit for the kingdom of God. This is a kingdom where traditional loyalties are questioned and rearranged. Even family and accompanying obligations take second place. Jesus interprets all of the requests as a desire to hang on to the old life, which he emphatically rejects. In God’s kingdom, our past is less important than how we choose to move forward; this is “the way.” There are many reasons to not join Jesus on his way to Jerusalem, but Jesus’ face is set in only one direction; he is leading the way forward with or without us and it is our choice whether we join him.

Only one of the three potential disciples in this passage does choose exactly this. He says to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go.” This is the only place in all of Luke’s gospel where anyone volunteers to follow Jesus. It seems like an admirable thing to say, but Jesus doesn’t welcome him in or commend him. In fact his response is abrupt and rude. “Foxes have dens, the birds of the skies have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” This man says he’ll follow Jesus anywhere, but Jesus isn’t welcomed anywhere, and neither are his followers. A life following Jesus, at least according to his words in this passage, is one marked by rejection.

If I wasn’t preaching on this passage this week, and I had to finish the sentence “A life following Jesus is one marked by…” rejection is not the first word that comes to mind. It’s not the first word I want to come to mind. I would have wanted to say “love,” or “acceptance,” or “compassion.” These are harsh words, but with Jesus’ face set to Jerusalem and preparing himself for the fatal journey ahead, this is not the time to sugarcoat anything.

I believe that God became human in the person of Jesus in order to show solidarity with the human condition. If Jesus’ life was marked by rejection and suffering, that’s because the God we worship chose to endure this to empathize with the suffering we experience now. The way he lived his life on earth gives us a window into understanding what communities Jesus has chosen to identify with. In this case, Jesus has shown solidarity with the people whom society has rejected. The people who are marginalized, who aren’t welcome, those who have no space to lay their head: this who he aligns himself with. He identifies with the people sleeping on the streets, with no place to lay their head. Jesus is telling the would-be disciple that if he isn’t prepared to experience the rejection and marginalization that accompanies being a disciple of Jesus, then he isn’t ready to follow him.

The interaction that preceded this passage had both affirmed that the road toward Jerusalem would be marked by rejection and mirrored the coming reality that awaited him in Israel’s capital. A few disciples went ahead to a Samaritan village to prepare a space for Jesus, but when they learned his destination was Jerusalem, they refused to show hospitality toward him and his followers. Rejection is an essential component of Jesus’ narrative, but his disciples, even the ones who have been with him throughout his entire ministry, don’t understand this. James and Johns’ reaction to being rejected by the Samaritans is to suggest the ancient equivalent of nuking the enemy; “Hey God, should we call down the fires of heaven to consume this town?” Jesus admonishes them for wanting to employ violence. Just a few chapters later tells a story about a good Samaritan who challenges any resentments his followers may be holding onto following this encounter. Jesus brushes the dust off of his sandals and goes somewhere else. His hand is on the plow, still resolutely heading forward to Jerusalem. This was his destination. The worst rejection was yet to come.

I’ve often heard these stories told as a call to accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior, to not reject him in your heart. Sure. But perhaps a more tangible and in my opinion interesting way of understanding this story is to think about whom society rejects. What groups of people consistently face discrimination? Whom does society reject, subsequently rejecting Jesus? I can think of several. Consider the rise of virulent anti-immigration rhetoric, both in this country and the UK. An article published in the Washington Post yesterday asked “The uncomfortable question: Was the Brexit [or “British Exit” from the European Union] vote based on racism?” The same article continues notes that “In the heated atmosphere before the election, the lines between anti-immigration rhetoric and pure racism became blurry.” The question of immigration became the defining issue of Brexit. Advertising campaigns in favor of leaving the E.U. resembled propaganda by Nazi Germany, and those same parallels can be found in our own country. The majority of voters chose to leave instead of stay “against the advice of the majority of the country’s politicians and many experts from around the world, who said the country’s political and economic standing would be deeply hurt. Some experts suggest the explanation for that decision has to at least partly be put down to racism and xenophobia.”

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On the same day the world was reeling in shock from the aftermath of Brexit, our YAV community joined the Islamic Cultural Center of Little Rock for Iftar, breaking the fast after sunset during Ramadan. Out of consideration for our hosts, Dani and I wore headscarves. I was a bit nervous about mine and was frantically adjusting it even as we were walking through the parking lot into the building. I hadn’t needed to worry, though; even if a bit of my hair was poking through, we were greeted with nothing but generosity and hospitality. People we’d never met were smiling at us and hugging us and putting food in our face and pushing us to the front of the food line and telling us just how glad they were that we had come. They were showing us a hospitality that starkly contrasted the Islamophobic, anti-immigration rhetoric we hear in our current political climate. When we openly reject immigrants based on tired stereotypes, whether from the Middle East or Central America or anywhere else, we become the Samaritans rejecting Jesus for having his face set toward Jerusalem.

Rejection can encompass more than refusing hospitality to a group of people; as one of my favorite theologians Henri Nouwan says, “…I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection…. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved.’ Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.”

I’d like to tell you about a dear friend of mine who is part of a community that often faces both self-rejection and societal rejection, and about a time when he gave both the finger.

click here to read this story from his perspective! 

Today is June 26th. On this day a year ago, the Supreme Court ruled that gay Americans had the right to marry in every state in the country. The day stands clearly in my mind because I was living in Washington DC, just a few miles north from the room where it happened. At this exact moment a year ago, I was racing on a bicycle through the streets of DC to the Supreme Court to celebrate with the crowds gathered on its steps. I arrived to find rainbow flags waving, faces painted, and tears of celebration and joy. I wove through the crowds for a few minutes until I saw him. Flanny Flanigan. Flanny was one of my best friends in DC and fellow church intern. He identifies as gay, but he was not yet out to his family and had spent most of his life in the closet. But last summer in DC, with a LGBTQ-affirming community surrounding him, he “had a lot of time to make up for.” So I wasn’t surprised to find Flanny outside of the Supreme Court. I was surprised to find him wearing a tie-dye t-shirt, purple shorts, multiple miniature rainbow flags, and of course a rainbow flag as big as himself as a cape. He was holding a sign that said in all caps and rainbow lettering “FREE HUGS” with a huge crowd of people surrounding him waiting for their turn to embrace him. He stood there on the steps of the Supreme Court for nearly eight hours, embracing countless strangers and the strangers embracing him in turn, taking pictures with him, buying him donuts, and sharing stories.

Have you ever had the experience of bearing witness to someone else’s pure, unadulterated joy, and seeing them you can’t help but feel just as ridiculously joyful? I watched Flanny stand on the steps of the Supreme Court, so authentically and unapologetically himself, simultaneously embracing his own identity and allowing others to embrace him in turn. He showed love to others, accepted the love of strangers, and loved them unconditionally in turn. This story gives me hope for a future where we know that rejection is not the end of the story. Even with the senseless violence in Orlando two weeks ago, this story offers a hopeful way forward. When we embrace the stranger across differences, when we find the image of God in the rejected and know them as God’s beloved child, we are stepping into our Christian vocation.

This is the future Jesus calls us into with single-minded and resolute purpose. Love will ultimately triumph, but the journey to Jerusalem is just beginning. Jesus is calling us out into the unsafe spaces, both in the world and within ourselves. Just like Jesus with his hand on the plow, charging into a future we cannot begin to know or understand, planting seeds in a garden we may not get to see, we must go forward, toward danger and rejection, eyes opened, without looking back. Maybe even holding a sign offering a free hug. Amen.

Peace,

Emily

PS I have discerned my plans for next year! I’m beyond thrilled to announce that I will be serving in Peru for my second year of service with the Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program! More specifically, I’ll be in Moyobamba (a small city in the rainforest) working with a program that serves children who are deaf-mute. I’ll learn Peruvian Sign Language and eventually teach classes in the community, especially for parents with no other means of communicating with their children.

If you’re interested in walking with me and supporting me financially throughout this coming year, follow this link and click “Support Emily.”

My heart is so full. I have so much gratitude for all of the communities that have supported and guided me throughout my journeys. Here’s to another adventure!

 

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