Sermon at St Mary’s Church Hadlow on 30th June 2019 – 2nd Sunday after Trinity – Civic Service
Galatians 1 vv 1, 13 – 25 – Paul called by God
Luke 9 vv 51 – end – Samaritan opposition. The cost of following Jesus.
- Introduction. I count it an honour to have been invited to be Mayor’s Chaplain for the year of office of our Mayor Jill Anderson and a privilege to preach at this civic service following the beginning of the Council’s new year. I have incidentally lived in the Borough for 29 years, both in Ryarsh, where for 10 years I was Rector of the BART Group of Parishes, that is the four parishes of Birling, Addington, Ryarsh and Trottiscliffe and then for the past 19 years, in retirement, here in Hadlow. Our two Bible readings this morning, in quite different ways, relate to God’s call upon the lives of his followers. The first reading reminds us of God’s unlikely call of Saul of Tarsus, that great persecutor of the early church. The second reading, from the gospels, brings us Jesus’ challenge to a new attitude and a severe cost to those who would follow him. They both have much to say to those who would follow Jesus today.
- Samaria. To understand the gospel reading one needs to understand the context. Jesus, with his disciples, is travelling from Galilee, their home area, in the N of Palestine, to Jerusalem, for the great Jewish festival of Passover. There were two basic routes from Galilee to Jerusalem. One was the more direct route through Samaria and the other, avoiding the possibility of conflict with Samaritans, was a longer more easterly route via the Jordan valley, with a long climb from Jericho at about 1,000 feet below sea level to Jerusalem over 2,500 feet above sea level. Jesus on this occasion deliberately chose the Samaritan route. Who then are these Samaritans that the Jews generally so despised? Some 700 years earlier, the Northern Kingdom of Israel had been conquered by the great Assyrian Empire, with the leading people taken as captives to Assyria, never to return. Assyria imported other people from surrounding countries into Israel. This was their way of ensuring that a country would remain a vassal state. The original Israelites intermarried with the people from other countries and so in the eyes of Jews, living in what had been the S Kingdom of Judah, the Samaritans were not by descent, part of the true people of God, albeit they accepted the authority of the Biblical books of Moses – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, known as the books of the law.
Samaria separated the Jews in Galilee from the Jews in Judah, centred on Jerusalem.
There was always the possibility therefore for conflict between Jews travelling through Samaria and the Samaritans.
- Disciples’ attitude. Within this context, one can understand the attitude of the two disciples of Jesus, the brothers James and John. In their proposed action of calling down a lightning strike on the inhospitable Samaritan village, there are echoes of the Prophet Elijah’s action when King Ahab of Israel twice sent an officer and 50 soldiers to arrest Elijah. The honour of God was at stake. Twice Elijah called down a lightning strike and killed the whole contingent. To James and John it seemed also that the Samaritans in rejecting Jesus, whom James and John believed to be God’s Messiah, the Samaritans were challenging God himself and therefore should be shown in no uncertain terms where authority lay.
Incidentally, I did not choose this passage from Luke’s gospel because of my second profession as a lightning protection consultant. The reading is the Church’s set reading for this Sunday, the second Sunday after Trinity.
- Jesus’ attitude. In complete contrast, Jesus rejects John and James’ proposal with a rebuke and a much simpler and kinder solution, that they should just go on to another village. One calls to mind the words of St Paul in his epistle to the Philippians, “Jesus, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped.” We see in much of Jesus’ teaching and many of his actions that he does not conform to accepted traditions but deliberately crosses boundaries and reaches out to the despised, the poor and the needy. In particular, in the parable of the Good Samaritan he shows the superior compassion of the Samaritan as compared with a priest and a Levite, both Jews. In his discussion with a Samaritan woman at the well of Sychar he crosses two boundaries, firstly of talking to an unknown, non-family woman in public and secondly having a friendly, albeit challenging discussion with a Samaritan. There is another aspect, Jesus, the co-creator of the world works with creation, rather than using creation as a weapon to zap those who opposed him.
- Our attitude. If we are to be followers of Jesus we must adopt similar principles of action to him. We must be those who deliberately reach out to and welcome the stranger, the immigrant, the refugee, rather than always staying in the comfort zone of our familiar friends and family. Even extending hospitality to people whom we find difficult, people of opposing views and parties. One of the most difficult teachings of Jesus, to be found in the Sermon on the Mount, is to ‘love your enemies’, but to do so is the way to improvement in personal relationships. The implications can be widespread for good. It may well be right politically, nationally, to place limits on immigration, so that we may provide reasonable support in terms of housing, work and all the necessary facilities to a growing population. Even national policies should be motivated with a strong element of compassion, as well as realism. We should also recognise that over the years, immigrants have made huge contributions to society.
The second aspect arising out of Jesus’ attitude in Samaria is of working with creation. We are all becoming more and more aware of the fragility of the planet on which we live, in relation to the size and impact of a huge world population, through our use of the world resources. Let us not be over critical of the actions of previous generations when people were less aware of the global impact of their actions, albeit there have been voices from many past ages recommending a great respect for the natural order. Theologically of course it begins with the account of creation in Genesis Chapter 1 in which God created the world, said of every aspect that it was good and then gave mankind, whom he had created in his image, dominion over creation. Clearly our dominion was to be exercised in a caring way, just as God in whose image we were created cares for us.
Buddhists have always had a great respect the natural order.
The well known and respected 19th Century clergyman, Charles Kingsley wrote of the natural order, “Holding every phenomenon worth the noting down, believing that every pebble holds a treasure, every bud a revelation, making it a point of conscience to pass over nothing through laziness or hastiness, lest the vision offered and despised should be withdrawn, and looking at every object as if he were never to behold it more.”
The last testament of the Native American Chief of the 19th Century Seathl, after whom the US city of Seattle is named, is very prescient, when he writes, “One thing we know, which the white man may one day discover – our God is the same God. You may think that you now own him, as you wish to own our land; but you cannot. He is the God of man, and his compassion is equal for the red man and the white. The earth is precious to Him, and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on the Creator. The whites too shall pass; perhaps sooner than all other tribes. Continue to contaminate your bed, and you will one night suffocate in your own wastage.” Care for the earth and sustainable living is not something just to be acted on by governments whether national or local, important as their actions are. It is the responsibility of each one of us. We each need to take one step to help the process of sustainable living and then having done that to think of the next step and the one after etc. This is not to turn ones back on the modern developments of technology but rather to use them in a more sustainable way. For example, agriculture may increasingly use robots and artificial intelligence in sowing and harvesting.
- Apostle Paul. I also wish to comment briefly on our first reading from the Apostle Paul letter to the churches of Galatia in what is now part of Turkey. Paul was quite an amazing person, whom God took from being a prime persecutor of the early Christian Church, getting people thrown in prison for nothing else that that they were Christians. A bit like the USSR of the 19th Century and China now. God chose this man to be the leading evangelist of the Christian Gospel in the 1st Century.
God is a God of surprises, sometimes choosing the most unlikely people to work for the kingdom of God. If we are to change the world in some small way it may mean that we too need to change. God is still today a God of surprises, calling unlikely people to serve him. I never thought that I would find myself in my 80s being Mayor’s Chaplain!
- Conclusion. I invite each one of us to be open to change, change in the way we regard and treat other people, in the way that we treat the created order of our planet, being open to God’s call and direction and in so doing being changed ourselves as we follow more closely Jesus’ teaching, Biblical teaching generally and godly wisdom.
1694 words Christopher Miles