Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
April 14, 2013—Reconciling Sunday
Acts 9:1-20; Luke 10:25-37
Acts 9:1–20 • Meanwhile, Saul was still spewing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest, seeking letters to the synagogues in Damascus. If he found persons who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, these letters would authorize him to take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. During the journey, as he approached Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven encircled him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice asking him, “Saul, Saul, why are you harassing me?” Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?” “I am Jesus, whom you are harassing,” came the reply. “Now get up and enter the city. You will be told what you must do.” Those traveling with him stood there speechless; they heard the voice but saw no one. After they picked Saul up from the ground, he opened his eyes but he couldn’t see. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind and neither ate nor drank anything. In Damascus there was a certain disciple named Ananias. The Lord spoke to him in a vision, “Ananias!” He answered, “Yes, Lord.” The Lord instructed him, “Go to Judas’ house on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul. He is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias enter and put his hands on him to restore his sight.” Ananias countered, “Lord, I have heard many reports about this man. People say he has done horrible things to your holy people in Jerusalem. He’s here with authority from the chief priests to arrest everyone who calls on your name.” The Lord replied, “Go! This man is the agent I have chosen to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites. I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” Ananias went to the house. He placed his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord sent me—Jesus, who appeared to you on the way as you were coming here. He sent me so that you could see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Instantly, flakes fell from Saul’s eyes and he could see again. He got up and was baptized. After eating, he regained his strength. He stayed with the disciples in Damascus for several days. Right away, he began to preach about Jesus in the synagogues. “He is God’s Son,” he declared.
Luke 10:25–37 • A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?” Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?” He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.” But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?” Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
I don’t know about you, but I love to drive. I love to take long road trips. I have driven across the country and back twice by myself. There is something about those long stretches of road—especially roads you’ve never been on before—that is alluring. I will admit the experience is not limited to driving. I enjoy the same thing when riding my bike, it’s just a little harder to get as far as fast. But the experience of wide open, new road, can be exciting.
I get a lot of good thinking done on the road. I’ve written a couple of sermons in my head on some of those trips. There’s something about the road that is almost a spiritual experience.
It is perhaps why roads and journeys have figured so prominently in literature and mythology. The Odyssey is built around the story of Odysseus as he makes his journey home. The Canterbury Tales are stories told along the road to Canterbury as pilgrims make their way. In Huckleberry Finn, Huck and the slave Jim travel along the Mississippi River, which is a road by another name. Jack Kerouac’s most famous work is entitled On the Road. And most recently, Cormac McCarthy’s haunting The Road.
The Bible, too, knows its share of roads: both literal and metaphorical. The King’s Highway, the road in the wilderness, the road to Emmaus. And the two roads we encounter in our readings tonight: the Road to Jericho and the Road to Damascus.
II. THE ROAD TO JERICHO
One of the most famous teachings of Jesus is the parable of the Good Samaritan. A lawyer has asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds by asking him what the law says to which the lawyer responds to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. When Jesus says that the lawyer has answered correctly, the lawyer asks, “But who is my neighbor?” In response, Jesus tells a story of a man who is robbed, beaten, and left for dead alongside the Jericho Road. A priest comes by but walks crosses to the other side. He is followed by a Levite, who does the same. Finally, a Samaritan comes by, takes the man, treats him, brings him to an inn, and leaves money to treat him, promising to pay the balance on any expense when he returns. Jesus then asks: “Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?” The lawyer responds, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.” To which Jesus replies: “Go and do likewise.”
Now, “Good Samaritan” has become something of a cliché in our language. It means something like “a really helpful person in a time of need.” Where I grew up, for the last 30 or so years, CVS has offered a free emergency highway service entitled the “CVS Samaritan”. Laws that compel passersby to assist those in need (many of which were enacted in the wake of Princess Diana’s death) are known as “Good Samaritan Laws.” A Good Samaritan is a helpful person in a time of trouble. We all know what it means.
Except that we don’t get just how shocking the story is supposed to be. The Samaritans were (and are—there are still about 500 of them left) a people who were descended from the former inhabitants of the Northern Kingdom of Israel (the “Lost Tribes”) and the populations that were imported into that Kingdom after the Assyrians destroyed it in 721 BC. The inhabitants of the Southern Kingdom of Judah, never saw this mixed population as authentically Israelite. And over the centuries a fair amount of hostility developed between the Jews of Judah and the Samaritans of Samaria. A level of hostility that was keenly felt in Jesus’ day.
Against this backdrop Jesus tells his parable. It’s jarring. Some have argued that to understand the significance of this story, you have to imagine a modern context and substitute the word “Palestinian” for “Samaritan.” But Jesus does more than simply provide a twist. He violates an established pattern. See, the traditional division of the Jewish people is “priest, Levite, and Israelite.” So, Jesus tells this story only it has a surprise ending: priest, Levite, Samaritan. It’d be like telling a story about a Fourth of July party and saying that you’ll have “baseball, hot dogs, and crème brulée.” The violation of the pattern is jarring. The hero of the story isn’t an Israelite. It’s a Samaritan. The Other.
So, here on the Road to Jericho, we find a powerful message of the Gospel: the one we thought of as other is actually neighbor. The one we imagined was outside the community is actually on the inside. The Road to Jericho flips the expectations of the world on their heads and causes us to envision community in a more radically inclusive way than we might have done before.
III. THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS
The story from Acts is also a familiar one: Saul traveling along the Road to Damascus, on his way to that city to persecute any followers of The Way he might find there. As he is traveling to that ancient city to persecute any Christians he might find there, he is confronted by a bright light from heaven and he hears a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” or as the Common English translation we heard read puts it “Why are you harassing me?” In this moment he is blinded and remains blind for days until he is healed with the help of the Christians of Damascus with whom he stays. After he regains his sight be begins to preach in the synagogues of Damascus that Jesus is indeed the messiah and Son of God. That’s quite the conversion.
It goes on record as one of the most dramatic and famous conversions in history. The persecutor of Christians becomes one of the great apostles for the Christian movement. But I think there is a deeper conversion at work that often goes unnoticed.
Everyone knows that prior to his conversion, Paul was a persecutor of the Christian community but rarely is any thought given to why Paul persecuted them. One scholar posits that Paul persecuted the early Christian movement because they admitted Gentiles into their communities. The early messianic communities began to share their message not only with their Jewish co-religionists, but with non-Jews as well, especially those who had been long attracted to Judaism but felt the entry requirements of kosher food, circumcision, and special days too onerous. There were many members of the Jewish community who believed that by welcoming in these non-Jews into the community without requiring them to become Jewish first, this Jesus movement was dangerously diluting the Jewish religion and the traditional definition of what Judaism was. And Paul was one of those.
Now, what I find so interesting is that Paul spent his pre-Christian career zealously persecuting the Christian movment because of their inclusion of Gentiles into the community. This is the same Paul who after his conversion spends his career attempting to bring the gospel message to the Gentiles. In fact, Paul would see himself as Christ’s apostle—Christ’s envoy—to the Gentiles.
That’s Paul’s real conversion: an experience with the Risen Christ has caused Paul to dedicate his life to reaching out to the very people he once believed had no place in the community of faith. Let us make no mistake, Paul is not simply welcoming or accepting Gentiles in the church: he is actively seeking to bring them into the people of God. As they are.
The Road to Damascus is a road on which we encounter the risen Christ, who calls us to invite into the community of faith those who had once been excluded.
IV. TWO ROADS
Two roads. Two journeys of faith that radically reorient our understandings of the world. The Road to Jericho calling us to reenvision who is neighbor and member of the community. The Road to Damascus calling us not simply to tolerate or welcome, but to seek out and embrace those who had formerly been rejected and excluded. Two roads that change how we see the world.
When I first mentioned to some folks in the community that I was going to title this sermon “Two Roads” one of them remarked, “Oh, you’re not going to bring up that Robert Frost poem are you?” … Yes, I am.
It is one of my favorite poems, as it is for many. And it often serves as a reflection on charting one’s own path; on going of in a direction not shared by the crowd. And that’s fine. As Americans we like that interpretation (even if there are those who point out that it’s wrong).
But in reflecting on that poem there are two other roads that I think of. In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of salvation, and the road thereto:
“Go in through the narrow gate. The gate that leads to destruction is broad and the road wide, so many people enter through it. But the gate that leads to life is narrow and the road difficult, so few people find it.” (Matthew 7:13–14 CEB)
Jesus describes the road to perdition as a “broad gate” and a “wide road” but the road to salvation is a narrow gate and a difficult road. In fact the road is difficult that “few people find it”. The road to life, then, is the road less traveled.
Over fifteen hundred years ago, St. Augustine of Hippo found himself facing a controversy in the church. The church had undergone a recent persecution and many of the bishops of the church had renounced their faith under threat of torture and death. After the persecution was over, some returned to life in the church. They were opposed by a group known as the Donatists who argued that as a result of these bishops’ faithlessness, everything they had ever done was invalid. The marriages they had performed, the baptisms they had done, the eucharists they had celebrated, the priests they had ordained—all of it was invalid because these bishops, when push came to shove, had not shown true faith.
St. Augustine rejected the claims of the Donatists and in so doing made an argument for what is called the “catholicity” of the church, that is, an expansive church. A big tent. That encompasses all. A church not for the narrow Donatists but for everyone.
In times of crisis, the church is always tempted to double-down and become more insular. And as the church shrinks in the face of rising secularism and disinterest, there are those who will advocate a return to an old-fashioned theology and “traditional” understandings of religion. But in reality, that is a well-worn path, a road frequently traveled. Augustine’s path is the harder road, the difficult road. The road less traveled. The road that seeks to open the doors to all.
And so, paradoxically, the wide road is the road that leads to being narrow. The road that leads to being expansive and open, that is indeed the road less traveled. But it is the road we are called to travel.
At times, I will admit, it does not seem like we’re getting that far.
The 2012 General Conference of The United Methodist Church was a disappointment to a lot of people who were interested in greater inclusiveness in the church. Astonishingly, the previous year, the Baltimore-Washington Conference has passed resolutions endorsing permitting clergy to perform same-sex marriages if they chose and repealing the language in our Book of Discipline excluding LGBT persons. Hopes were high that systemic change could come for the entire denomination. But those hopes were dashed and a lot of people were disillusioned. A number of people from this community even made statements like, “Remind me again why I’m going to go to a Methodist seminary?” or “Why am I still a member of this denomination?” Honestly, I had no answer. I’ve been a lifelong United Methodist and have never even considered another denomination. But even I was disillusioned. I was fed up. And lacked any words to provide to the very students for whom I am supposed to be that source of wisdom and insight.
Now fortunately, we pastors also have pastors: our district superintendents and our bishop. I had occasion to meet with my bishop some time after that to discuss a number of issues. At the end of the conversation I said, “Bishop, here are some of the things I’ve heard from my students and quite honestly, I have no answer for them. I can’t give them any reason why they should stay in a backward, narrow-minded denomination.”
And he said something to me that changed the way I viewed the entire question. He said, “Mark, the United States of America ended racial segregation in 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education. The United Methodist Church ended racial segregation in 1968. Don’t look to the denomination for change; look to the local congregations to pave the way.”
And he was absolutely right. I have said this before that we are a connectional church and there are times when we benefit greatly from the example and teaching of the church at large. But there are times when the wider church will need to take its cues from us. And this is one of those times.
For we, as a community, have commited to travel down the road in which everyone—everyone—has a place at the table.
For far too long, LGBTQ persons have been told that they are “other”, that they are not a part of the people of God. And many, many people have walked down the road of narrowmindedness and bigotry. It is a very well-traveled road.
But we are called to travel down the road less traveled. And I don’t mean this in the sense of us being iconoclasts and going against the crowds. I mean in being pioneers and trailblazers. So much so that the road less traveled, that road of grace, of love, and of inclusion, becomes a well-worn path in the wilderness.
We are called to travel down that Road to Jericho. To destroy the barriers that continue to cast LGBT persons as “other.” As our own Reconciling Statement says: “As a community committed to sharing the Good News of Christ with all, we commit to challenging all boundaries that veil and deny this love to marginalized people.” The love of Christ breaks down all those barriers and sees not others, but neighbors. In fact, while I am thrilled that this worship service is the first event in Ally Week, I don’t want this community to be perceived solely as a community of allies as if we were a group apart from LGBT persons (however supportive we might be), but as a community that includes LGBT persons fully in the life of the church. I am proud of our Ally Award and our fliers that say “Allies” on them. But I want everyone to know that we are not a church community that is merely an ally community, we are a community in which LGBT persons are fully included in the community.
And we are called to travel down that Road to Damascus. To have that encounter with the Risen Christ that sends us out into the world to reach out to the very people who were once excluded. We are called to make sure that every person—every person—regardless of who they love, knows that we love them and that we want them to be a part of this fellowship. Not merely put up with. Not merely “tolerate”. But make a real part of this community. That’s what “full” inclusion means. Not simply welcome, but full involvement. In the sacramental life of the community. In the teaching life. In the marriage rites and ordination rituals of the Church.
St. Paul went from being a persecutor of the Christian movement and their tendency to involve Gentiles in their fellowship to one of the great emissaries to the Gentile world, spreading the Gospel abroad and insisting that in Christ there was one people of God without distinction. In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female. For all are one in Christ Jesus. To that we might add, there is no gay or straight, no either or, no accepted and unaccepted. All are one.
This is the road we are called to go down. It is not an easy road. It was not easy for the man on the road to Jericho. It was not easy for Paul on the Road to Damascus. It will not be easy for us.
But it is the Road that Christ calls us to. A road on which God’s love for all people is clearly known. A road on which grace is shared freely. A road on which the Church is known as a place for all the Children of God. A road on which we encounter the Risen Christ.
It is, for now, the road less traveled. But it’s a wide open, new road; and it is the road we are called to walk down. And that will make all the difference.