Year A, Pentecost 2
Every week brings more bad news and Mark and I could probably preach on that bad news every week. We do not, because most of us need a break from that news on Sundays. What made the most news this week was not another terrorist attack or natural disaster, but a tragedy at baseball practice. In the grand scheme of things, this shooting was not significant. In any given day in the United States, there are between 40 and 50 murders…a day. While two people are in critical condition, this shooting has not resulted anyone dying . However, this shooting was particularly disturbing for a number of reasons. It seemed random in that it was a nice suburb of Washington DC and the criminal was someone who wanted to inflict pain on as many people as possible. The two people most seriously injured were a congressman and his security person; someone in the national spotlight.
Yet I think that there is a bigger reason than all of these. This baseball practice was not just any practice. This was the Republican team practicing for a game against the Democrat members of congress. This game has gone on for over 100 years. Many of those participating said it was one of the last vestiges of comradery between these two opposing parties. It had brought people together and even created unexpected friendships between those who would have otherwise been political enemies. In this day of political divide, people are more desperate than ever for some display of unity in this nation. Thus, it was that much worse that someone chose to attack one of the few places where people seem to get along, preparing for a congressional baseball game for charity.
We all know that this division in our nation is nothing new. At this church, our building reminds us of how the Civil War affected our nation and our church. This entire town was burned to the ground because one side did not want the other side to win. While our walls remained, everything inside was scorched. No– division is nothing new in our country and our world. The world that Jesus lived in was divided as well. There were Jews and Gentiles. There were Romans and the people they ruled. There were slaves and free. There were women and men.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus said something that referenced one of these divisions. To some it seems that he even reinforced the division. When providing his disciples instructions for their first missionary journey, he said, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans…” One of the reasons this is so strange is that Jesus did interact with Samaritan people. He told parables where the Samaritan was the hero. The last thing he said to these same disciples in this same Gospel before he ascended to heaven was, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” Knowing this, why would he tell his disciples not to go to the Gentiles?
I believe it is because Jesus knew that they were not ready. He had just called these men to be his 12 apostles. They knew him a little at this point, but had not spent a lot of time in his company. When he tells them later in the Gospel of Matthew to go to all nations, they have been with him for several years. They saw him heal and teach. They saw miracles. They saw him die and after three days rise again. Obviously, it would still be difficult to go preach to all these people, but they would be more prepared. In our story for today, they were new to all of this. Just going to the Jews in their region was going to be hard enough.
Jesus was compassionate and loving. He was also smart and strategic. He knew that his 12 disciples would need more preparation before they could head out to the big world and try to cross the large chasms of division. One of the ways he prepared them to face this division was to be an example for them. They saw how he spoke to and about Samaritans. They saw how he acted when he was in a foreign land. But Jesus did something else that was pretty sneaky. Most of these 12 disciples did not know one another when they began this grand adventure. Jesus did not choose the rabbis or the scholars. He chose fishermen. He also chose a tax collector and a zealot.
We all know that tax collectors were considered bad in the Bible. They are always put on a list with major sinners. There is a reason besides that people just didn’t like to pay taxes. Tax collectors were traitors because they worked for the Romans, a government that oppressed the Jews and taxed them, but gave them no rights. Tax collectors were part of this oppressive government, and to make matters worse, they often earned their living by asking for more taxes that even the Roman government required. They were basically stealing from their own people. Right alongside Matthew (the guy who works for the Romans), we have Simon the Zealot. Zealots were essentially nationalists. They hated the Romans and everything and everyone associated with the Romans. Their goal was to free the Jewish people from the tyranny of Rome. They were prepared to use violence as necessary.
In a group of 12 men, Jesus decided to pick these two. They lived together. They worked together. They ate together. That must have been crazy hard because under any other circumstances, they would have hated one another. Yet there was one thing that always transcended that kind of hatred—hatred of the other. That was (and is) the love of Jesus Christ. By choosing this group of men who were so very different and probably antagonistic toward one another, Jesus was teaching his first lesson on overcoming division. In order to truly bridge the divide, you need to be in one another’s company.
That is what is so disheartening about the shooting this week. This man thought that he was hurting one group, but he was hurting both. This was the one time when our national leaders came together and he was prepared to take that away from them. As we all know, the game went on. They played their game. The Democrats won and they gave the trophy to the Republicans. It’s a small gesture, but a gesture none the less. In many ways, this act of violence has been a wake-up call for our nation, a reminder that there is one thing that brings us together…not just that we are Americans, but that we are humans, made in the divine image of God. That is what really matters.
As a church, we cannot necessarily end division, but we can be a model of what the Kingdom of God can be. People often say that they love St. John’s because their friends go here. That is wonderful. It’s good to have people you like, people you are comfortable with. But you should also have people that you don’t like, people you look at and think if I they were not a member of the church, I would never speak to them. That’s the point. If you want to find a group of like minded people, join a club. If you want to find a group of people whose one commonality is a love of Christ, join a church. That is what sets us apart from so many other groups. That is what makes it hard to be a Christian, maybe even hard to come to church. Jesus never told us it was going to be easy or fun.
I believe that we, as a church, have something to show the nation and the world…that it is possible to rise above the differences. It is not only possible, it is God’s will for us. Yes, please, invite a friend to church. You know what would be even better…if you invite someone who is not a friend.