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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Friday, June 25, 2004

Luke 9:51-62
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
June 27, 2004

Applying statistics, a percentage of you here today think working jigsaw puzzles is a great leisure activity. I love to look at them when they're finished, and I'm amazed that people have the patience to work them. I'm one of those other percentage people who think jigsaw puzzles were invented by the CIA to extract information from detainees. "Tell us where the weapons are, Saddam... or you'll be assembling a 50,000 piece picture of a fruit bowl."

You puzzle people: have you ever gotten a puzzle that didn't come with all the pieces? There also might be some of you non-puzzlers - and I sure hope not - who think it would be funny to drive a puzzle person crazy by taking a piece from one puzzle box and exchanging it with a piece from a similar puzzle. Fruit bowl - salad bowl. You people are sick.

To some of us, the Bible is like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Sure it was written at different times by different people, but it was all guided by God. Right? So, logic says, if you work hard enough, if you know enough to spread out all the different pieces in front of you, then they SHOULD fit together into one glorious whole. Does that make sense?

What's more, the pieces of the Bible ought to fit together one way, and one way only. If you work it right, Paul shouldn't be contradicting Moses, and Moses shouldn't be contradicting Jesus, and Jesus sure shouldn't be contradicting himself. Right?

The Bible ought to make sense in an assembled jigsaw picture sort of way, provided no cruel devil has snuck in and messed it up. And if we're only smart enough, we ought to be able to figure it out.

And if it works that way for God's creation, the Bible, then it ought to work that way for God's creation - creation. Sure, we look different from people far, far away. Sure, we sound different from people in New Joisey. But if God is the Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer of ALL humankind, then it would make sense that humans could be kind to one another, and as Rodney King said, "All just get along."

Well, no. Sadly it doesn't work that way. Maybe we could get along if we all just understood each other a little more. Palestinians and Israelis, Democrats and Republicans, Tennessee and Alabama - maybe if we could join together and learn where we're each coming from, maybe then the puzzle pieces would fit. But no. It always seems that as soon as two groups start to get together to form a picture of unity, some wise guy swaps out a puzzle piece, and the whole thing goes crazy again.

Today's scripture gives us back-to-back pieces that don't fit together. Furthermore, they don't fit together with other pieces of the Bible. And what's more, this scripture is about people who can't get together, and don't want to get together, even though they both believe the same God is the Creator of all people.

This is indeed a puzzle. What do we do when our faith butts up against faith - when maybe even our own faith butts up against itself - and we can't figure out how to make it all fit together? What do we say to people we ought to be able to get along with, but for some reason just can't? Do we not have all the pieces? Or are we just not smart enough to make it work?

Sometimes God teaches us by how miraculously things work out all picture-perfect smoothly. But God can also teach us by putting scripture together, and by putting people together, where there are gaps between the jagged edges. And in those God-gaps, it takes God to make it work.

On one hand...

On the one hand, we have a story about the disciples wanting to call down fire upon the people who rejected Jesus. Jesus has "set his face to go to Jerusalem." Along the way, he enters a Samaritan village. These are not Good Samaritans. These are bad Samaritans. They don't show Jesus any hospitality because he's an Israelite. Bad Israelite.

The likely truth is that you or I couldn't tell an Israelite from a Samaritan - physically, theologically or geographically - without a map and a Bible dictionary. Truth is, back then, they probably couldn't articulate the difference either. They just knew that the other people were bad. It probably had something to do with civil warring that had happened a couple of hundred years earlier. And how the prophet Elijah called down fire from heaven to consume fifty of the finest men in the Samaritan king's army. Then the Samaritan king sent another fifty to ask Elijah to do his prophesy on a different mountain, and he called down fire and burned them up, too.

It's not the kind of thing you forget, Samaritan or Israelite. Kind of like Gettysburg or Appomattox in our own country's "recent unpleasantness." It's amazing how long the memories stick around. So when the disciples (who have trouble with the most basic miracles) see the Samaritans are at it again, disrespecting their Master, they're more than willing to invoke precedent and call down fire from heaven to consume the stinking Samaritan town.

Here's where the puzzle pieces start not to fit. Jesus turns and rebukes his disciples. Then, they go on to another village. Just like that. No fire. No explosions. No mighty zaps from heaven. What's up with that? Once a Samaritan, always a Samaritan. Those people don't change, you know. Logic would say that if it was OK before, it would be just as OK the second time. After all, it's in the Bible, right?

And then, on the other hand...

On the other hand, we have people who want to follow the Son of God. Butting up against the scripture where Jesus just blows off the rudeness of a rude race of people, is this other collection of verses. Here, good people want to be better people. People want to give their hearts to Christ. And they want to have good manners about it, too. One would like to bury his father. Seems like a pretty good reason to me. Another wants to say goodbye to his family, so they don't think he just went out for coffee and never came home. These good people who want to be better people want to obey the scriptures of God that say, "Honor your father and your mother," among others, and they want to follow Jesus, too.

"Let the dead bury the dead," Jesus says to one. "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God," he says to another. OK. Why is it that Jesus can say that not a jot or an iota will be removed from the law of God, and then turn around and call down shame upon the people who want to obey the law? And how is it that Jesus can shrug off the rudeness of rude people while not giving good people a chance to do good?

Nothing in this scripture fits together very well - with itself or with other pieces of the Bible. What does that tell us - we people who don't like rudeness (our own or anyone else's)? What does it say to us who would like to be better if only we can find the time? What does it mean that scripture is sometimes just as jumbled as we are? On one hand this, and on the other hand that - what do we do?

If I raise my hands to the side, palms up, with my shoulders scrunched up, press my lips together, and open my eyes wide, how would you translate that body language? Beats the heck out of me. Exactly. But if I were to change my posture just a little, if I relaxed my shoulders and face, what would my body language say? You see, the first is the universal sign for frustration. The second is a posture of prayer.

When we have this on one hand and that on the other, when our hands won't go together, when not even scripture goes together, when WE can't get it together this stance is where we're left. And the difference between frustration and prayer is very, very small. When our body is tense, we get frustration; when it's just a little relaxed, we get prayer.

Maybe the pieces of your life-puzzle don't fit perfectly together. You can get out a hammer and make them fit. Or you can sit back and consider the shape of the space in between. We all have spaces between what we know and how we'd like things to be. And while those differences can bug the devil out of us, they're often exactly the places we find God. They're God-gaps. Scripture like today's tells us those uneven gaps are precisely the places where Jesus tends to show up.

I watch a lot of children's television. Not by choice. And with the exception of "Spongebob," there's hardly a children's show where everyone in the neighborhood doesn't get along just swimmingly. "Hi Barney! Hi Mr. Boyd!" And if there's a problem, the characters are always best friends by the end of the episode.

If you really want to freak yourself out, have children's television on in one room and Headline News on in another and walk back and forth from one room to the other. And we wonder why teenagers get depressed. The gaps between childish ideals and the grown-up real world are getting bigger all the time.

And in our own country, the gap between the world we thought we knew growing up and the world we live in now keeps expanding. We really are a melting pot - or a boiling pot - as races, religions and streams of thought butt up against each other more than ever. What do we do? Do we throw up our hands in frustration and call for the flames of punishment to set things right? Some people do. There are a lot of good, Christian people who would like to see their enemies simply wiped out.

And when some good, Christian people suggested that same idea to him, Jesus just said, "No."

Ironically, Jesus was a lot harder on his disciples than on the people who didn't like him. He had no patience for those who wanted to stay in the safety of recited commandments. Not that the commandments didn't apply or were outdated. But Jesus was living in a world where all the pieces didn't fit together into one glorious picture. Jesus was living in a world that was different from that of his earthly ancestors. Jesus was living - and is living - in OUR world of jagged edges and troubles boiling over.

Scripture says that Jesus "set his face toward Jerusalem." It's the reason he cut through Samaria. town. It's the reason the Samaritans didn't like him. And it's the reason he shamed the followers who wanted more time. It was, scripture says, the time for him to be "taken up." And so Jesus sets his face toward his final destination and lets no one - for him or against him - he lets no one throw him off course.

Where the disciples - or you and I - throw up our hands in frustration, Jesus lifts up his hands in single-minded prayer. Jesus' journey to Jerusalem is a single-minded act of prayer that the disciples - and backsliding you and I - and even the rude Samaritans of the world will receive salvation. When you're following someone from a distance, as are we, and they throw up their hands, it's impossible to tell the difference between impatience and hope. Where the two butt up against each other, it's up to God alone to save us.


And so in the end, the glue that holds together the unfit pieces of the puzzle together is the mercy of a forgiving God. No, things don't fit together into one glorious picture. And a good portion of that is our own fault. We cut and divide ourselves so we can't get along. But another good portion of the problem is that this is a broken world. We're part of a puzzle that IS missing some of the pieces. Whether we throw up our hands in frustration or in prayer is our choice. You can look at the shape of the God-gaps and see failure. Or you can look for the shape of God.