Not What You Would Think


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

July 28, 2019

Texts: 2 Kings 2:1-11; Luke 9:51-62

       Based on a true story, the film Sweet Land tells the story of a mail order bride sent to rural Minnesota right after World War I. As we consider that state today it’s hard to believe that it was once so sparsely settled. The Chippewa and the Sioux had already been confined to reservations where many still live today; and those Norwegian bachelor farmers were tilling the soil and harvesting wheat close to making the land America’s bread basket.

        In this film, told by Inge the mail order bride as she celebrates her 90th birthday we learn that Olaf does not get what he expected; that is, when he made his order he ex- pected another Norwegian but he ended up with a German, a young woman who had been adopted by a Norwegian couple. The small town is as upset as Olaf because they all have anti-German feelings in the wake of World War I.

        We really don’t hear much about this history but in the wake of that war which characterized Germans as “the Hun,” a clear reference to Attila––probably a distant relative of mine ––in several states German was banished from the schools and some states tried to forbid its use in churches. 

       Those restrictive attempts succeeded only in part be-cause in the anti-German hysteria, the state legislators had forgotten we had a First Amendment. That’s the one that guarantees freedom of religion and speech. The hysteria was so great that Congress passed the Sedition Act of 1918 which made it a federal crime to interfere with the “war effort.” It was upheld by the Supreme Court in the case Abrams v. U.S. (1919) and Eugene v. Debs, a perennial Socialist candidate for President, was sentenced to ten years for interfering with conscription.

        As an aside, Oliver Wendell Holmes who coined the “clear and present danger” phrase along with Louis Brandeis dissented using the dissent to urge a “marketplace of ideas,”  The so-called imminent danger in the Abrams case was throwing leaflets from a second floor window urging Americans not to send troops against the new Bolshevik regime in Russia; they got ten to twenty years for that.

         All of this gives you an idea of the ease with which societal hysteria can be whipped up––sort of like certain political rallies shouting “send her back.” This serves as a framework for the story which begins with the rejection of young Inge. But she is feisty and doesn’t succumb even to the refusal of the local Lutheran pastor to marry the couple because he, too, has been infected with the anti-German hysteria. A little like Jesus in Samaria.

         Why, one may ask, considering the fact that there was such enmity between those who considered themselves the true heirs of Abraham and Samaritans, would Jesus go through Samaria as he “set his face to go to Jerusalem,” as the text put it,  It is the most direct route to take from Galilee to Jerusalem. But there is danger.

         The apologist historian Josephus provides a picture of how great the danger could have been. In the early years of direct Roman rule under Coponius, from about 6 to 9 CE, Samaritans hid themselves among Jews going to Jerusalem for Passover and then strewed human bones in the Sanctuary of the Temple, making it ritually unclean. A one commentator writes, it’s a bit like putting the head of a pig in a synagogue or mosque. 

         In the years following the life of Jesus, Samaritans trapped and killed Jewish pilgrims passing from Galilee to Jerusalem. So one can see that Jesus’ decision to go this route could have been a total disaster. The text only says that they rejected him because his face was set toward Jerusalem. Jesus, however, later in the parable of the Good Samaritan takes an inclusive view in spite of their rejection.

        The disciples are not so accepting of this rejection. “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” they ask, referring to how Elijah had wiped out the priests of Baal. That may sound a bit stronger than our response when we are rejected, but the idea is the same. None of us like the feeling of rejection, for whatever reason.

        Although we may see this as a bit strong, there are times, we must admit, in a symbolic sense, that we wish fire from heaven would come down on those who reject us. Per-sonal rejection makes us feel alone, sometimes outcast and apart from others. Rejection is also a cumulative experience.

         Like our experiences of happiness and sadness, the experience of rejection is not a stand-alone experience. When we are rejected, when our ideas are rejected, the other ex-periences of rejection feed into how we deal with the rejec-tion we are currently experiencing. Jesus was rejected in Samaria, but he was also rejected in his hometown. His plain-tiff statement that follows, “foxes have holes; and the birds of the air have nests,” reflects how we feel when rejected.

         Some psychological anthropologists believe that our feelings of rejection derive from our evolutionary past. Back in time, membership in the group was a key to survival. One could not live outside the tribe. That unit was a key to our being protected from external forces that could kill us, such as animals or even other people. 

        In the Middle Ages, excommunication was a form of rejection, a form that could indeed lead to death since no one was not only obligated not to protect the excommunicant but was forbidden to do so. The ultimate form of rejection was, not only living outside the city wall, but even rejection in burial once dead.

         Rejection often results in surges of anger and aggression. This week’s New Yorker carries an article about James Earl Ray and how he was clearly rejected by the mainstream society around him, heightening his anger and frustration at not being in charge. His way of answering rejection was a life of petty crime and, ultimately, the assassination of Martin Luther King. 

          Not all rejection leads to that kind of violence, of course, but the sense of hopelessness found in rejection often results in self-directed anger masking itself as depres-sion. We see those results in the confusion and sadness of children when they feel rejected by their parents. 

          This past week I watched a ten-year-old looking somewhat confused as her mother told me she was too afraid to accompany her child to Immigration Court because she knew that she had probably had a deportation order. I have to admit I was more than puzzled at her rank fear. It wasn’t like asking her to rush into a burning building to save her child. In some sense the child was being rejected. One part of the intimate bond between mother and child was being broken. 

         The disciples responded to the Samaritans’ rejection with anger. They just wanted to show the Samaritans what could happen to people who rejected their leader. Unfort-unately, not many leaders have responded as did Jesus. We have a long history of leaders from rulers in the past to current dictators who have used violence against those who rejected them or their message. 

         The pain of rejection does not respond to reason. We may try to explain the so-called “reason” for rejection, but for the rejected, it’s irrelevant. In the 1950s when I was growing up, every once in a while a girl I knew would disappear for a year and then suddenly come back, obviously changed but there was no discussion of why or where she had gone. She had just gone to a “home.”

         It was, of course, a home for unwed mothers who were pressured to “give up” their babies for adoption. Adopt-ions then were secretive to the point of having a new birth certificate with the names of the adoptive parents as the biological ones. This worked better for white babies than for the mixed race results of what was called sinful behavior. 

         Some of those children have sought out their biological parents, sometimes with disastrous results. Women who had never even told their husbands about the “mistake,” as it was called, found themselves confronted with their pasts. And the adoptee again faced rejection. The fact that there was a so-called reason for the mother making that choice did not mask the rejection. 

         Though we may not have had these kinds of rejections, we still respond in the same kinds of ways: confusion, anger, depression. It’s important to recognize that Jesus had these same kinds of feelings. But he did not respond with violence. Our response to rejection should be learning how to care for those around us as we need care for ourselves. 

         Community can be a means for learning to deal with rejection, to accept our limitations and to care for others. Sharing or sorrows as well as our joys as brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus helps us to go to another village just as Jesus did with his disciples. The sorrow didn’t disappear as Jesus lamented the lack of a home to lay his head. He knew that violence was not an answer. So should we.

         Let us come together to God in prayer: 

Compassionate One, who hears our sorrows, help us to care for each other in ways that reflect your love. In the name of him who cared for us all, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.