Proper 16 Year C


Last month Mary and I were in Browning, Montana on the Blackfeet Indian reservation. While we were on our way to the North American Indian Days pow wow, a notification beeped on my phone. It told of the policeman shot in Dallas. Later on that evening Mary, her Blackfeet cousins, and I watched in horror as the events unfolded before us on the television. Those were difficult hours. Trying to process what was occurring in real time in Dallas was confusing, frustrating, and frightening. Days later on the return trip to Southern California I reflected on what we had seen. I saw two groups of people. One group, the largest number, was running away from the gunshots as fast as they could go. The second group, much smaller and in uniform, was running toward the gunshots. The group running away carried placards and posters. The group running toward the gunshots brandished unholstered handguns and rifles.

Gunshots of any kind interrupt whatever else is going on. Anyone hearing gunshots makes some quick decisions. The first decision is whether or not the gunshots represent danger. If the decision is that the gunshot represents danger, the next question is what to do and where to go for safety. For most of us the answer is quickly and easily made: run away and hide, or to shelter in place.

If you watch the videos you will see a group of men and women running toward the gunshots as fast as they can. By running toward the gunshots they place themselves in a vulnerable position. They are putting their lives on the line for their fellow human beings. We might say we expect police to do this, but upon reflection, we can see this is an act of courage and potential self-sacrifice on behalf of others.

If you have been watching the news this week, you have seen the combined forces of the LA County Fire Department and the San Bernardino Fire Department rushing to the Blue Cut fire in the Cajon Pass. These men and women put their lives on the line for the 80,000 people who were evacuated and for the homes in places like Lytle Creek and Wrightwood.

The normal human response to dangers like gunshots and fires is to seek places of safety. How astounding it is that there are men and women who run toward the gunshots and rush toward the fires placing themselves in great danger in order to protect others. Even though it goes without saying, we cannot say it enough: people who run toward gunshots or fires do us a great, unimaginably great, service in protecting us from chaos and potential destruction. Without human beings who are willing to run toward gunshots, this world would be much more dangerous.

Many of you may know that our grandson Greggory is a member of the LA County Fire Department. He was among those who were fighting the Blue Cut fire in the Cajon Pass last week. In fact, he may still be on the fire lines today mopping up the remaining hotspots. Last weekend I had the opportunity to ask him about his experience in fighting fires. I asked him if he was trained to run toward fires. He told me that no firefighters were ever trained to run toward fires. He said that would be a dangerous move. He said firefighters were trained to approach a fire deliberately and carefully.

He also told me firefighters were unique in that they are drawn to the experience of fighting fires. In fact, he said this desire, attraction, and excitement about fighting fires was one of the qualifications necessary to be selected for the LA County Fire Academy. The men and women who demonstrate their desire to confront and knock down fires are the only ones who are qualified to enter the LA County Fire Academy training program.

Once these human beings who are not only willing, but driven to put their lives on the line to protect others from fire are identified, they are admitted to the most intensive training imaginable. They are trained over and over again in the methods of knocking down fires in houses, buildings, and in the rough terrains where wildfires spread. Because the LA County fire department, one of the best fire departments in the world, has perfected these techniques since 1920, they can train those who want to confront the chaos and danger of fires how best to do that while protecting themselves and their fellow firefighters. They train people to confront the dangers of fires. He spoke of the great rush of adrenaline in firefighting.

Jesus was driven toward people on the margins of society: those who were disfigured, broken, lonely, depressed, and diseased. He sought out people who believed they were unloved. He moved toward those in need in love rather than leaving them behind in judgment. Again and again in the gospel stories we see Jesus going out of his way to be with these people and to reassure them that they are loved.

Like police hearing gunshots and firefighters smelling smoke, he moved toward the unloved and stood with them in solidarity. In his world, one of the effects of the Temple religion was judgment of others, exclusion, and prejudice. In fact, the majority of the people, the poor and most vulnerable, were convinced that they were unloved and unwelcome.

Jesus was most judgmental in confronting people who used religion to separate themselves from the poor and oppressed. He confronted those who wanted to stone a woman caught in adultery. When the priest and the Levite ignored a person near death to preserve their purity in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus condemned their behavior. When he healed a woman crippled for 18 years on the Sabbath, he demonstrated that compassion was more important than conformity.

Jesus put himself in danger in each of these confrontations with authority.  He confronted people who believed their lives conformed to the Word of God. In every case where Jesus challenged the religious authorities, he challenged their belief about the Word of God with his behaviors. He expanded their vision of how it is more important to be in relationship with suffering people than to be right, according to the Law.

When I read the gospels I see Jesus running toward the marginalized, the left out, the diseased — the unloved again and again. In challenging the religious authorities and all those who believed the religious authorities, Jesus made himself vulnerable to their power. He put his life on the line for those who had been taught they were not worthy of love or acceptance. Jesus made the point over and over that love is more important than a particular belief about the Word of God.

Jesus could have been a healer and a teacher who quietly made his way through life caring for people and teaching them. He could have chosen to avoid confrontations with the religious and political authorities. But he didn’t. He, like people who are called to live life running toward gunshots and rushing to fires in bright red trucks, had no choice. He was called by God to do what he did to love others, especially those on the outside.

The heart of Jesus’ message for anyone who wants to follow him is this. Love God. Love your neighbor. Jesus made this clear in the Great Commandments. He was very clear about who our neighbor is: it is anyone we come across in this world. We will be judged on how we treat “the least of these.” Jesus said how we treat those who suffer is how we treat him.

We need Christians who seek out the unloved, the marginalized, the judged, and the outcast with as much passion and potential self-sacrifice as police running toward gunshots and firefighters rushing to fires. Wherever there are gunshots, police will come to stop the gunshots. Wherever there is a fire, firefighters will rush to knock down the fire and put it out. I want to see Christians rushing to stand with the unloved to reassure them they are loved by God and forgiven for any and all sins by Jesus through his life, declaration, and his resurrection.

Police and first responders who run from danger are useless to society. The same holds for Christians who run from commitment to the outcasts among us. The early Christians were known for their love for others. It is no different today for those of us in the Jesus movement.

The ones who need us are our neighbors, those who are suffering: lonely elders, addicted teens, refugees fleeing violence, people living on the street and in the park, friends with mental illness, and sick people who can’t afford medical help. You can make up your own list.

Police are drawn to gunshots. Firefighters are drawn to raging fires. And what are we to do? We in the Jesus movement are to run toward the unloved bringing help and hope. We are to risk experiencing discomfort with the unfamiliar. Listen to that still small voice within. The Holy Spirit will lead you. The possibilities are extensive. The blessings are without limit.