I spend most of my time on the road, traveling. Most people spend their lives closer to home. But all of us are meant to be on the road, the Jesus road, moving toward the Reign of God. The very name of this church is a reminder that we are always moving, following the good shepherd toward good pasture, clear water, and a place of peace where there is no more need to struggle for justice. We haven’t arrived yet, except in moments and interludes, which means we always have to be ready to answer the call, to keep moving “onward.”
Initially, when Elijah threw his mantle over him, Elisha was plowing. Elijah offered an invitation to come and join him on the road of transformation toward the reign of God. Elisha resists, saying he wants to say good-bye to his family. Elijah says, if you’re not ready to follow me, don’t bother, just stay here. But Elisha responds in a very different way. He pauses long enough to butcher and cook his oxen. And then he feeds the meat of those oxen to the people around him. His journey begins with an act that blesses the community and demonstrates abundance. He begins by enacting an image of the reign of God. And then he sets off down the road with Elijah. Elisha stays on the road with Elijah until the end. He even insists, “I will not leave you.”
The gospel we heard reflects this kind of movement as well. Jesus has taken the road to Jerusalem, a road that repeatedly insists that ultimately God is in charge, rather than Caesar or Herod or the powers of this world. That’s what the Palm Sunday procession is all about, it is the meaning of the road to Calvary, and it is why the prophets kept reminding Israel that the nations will come streaming in to Jerusalem to learn the ways of the Lord.
Jesus has been on the road for a while already. This part of Luke’s gospel tells of several encounters, beginning with Jesus’ transfiguration, when the disciples hear the voice from heaven say, “this is my son, the chosen one (or the beloved one), listen to him!” Then a man asks Jesus to heal his only son. The man has asked the disciples to heal the boy, but they can’t. Jesus does, and then tells the disciples that he will be betrayed – he reminds them that he’s going toward Jerusalem. Then the disciples start arguing about which of them is greatest, and Jesus points to a child and says, whoever welcomes this one is the greatest. Then they report that they saw somebody trying to heal in Jesus’ name, because he wasn’t part of their group, and Jesus tells them that anyone who is not against them is for them. And then they come to a Samaritan village, where they get no hospitality because Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem, and Samaritans avoid that city. The disciples want to punish the villagers, but Jesus rebukes them.
Every one of these encounters offers a hint about where to look for companions on the road, and how to find fellow travelers and fellow ministers or shepherds. Jesus is showing them how and where to discover God already at work, even in unexpected people – that there are children of God all around them, and opportunities to act like one of them. He’s also reminding them not to turn aside once they’ve begun the journey. It’s a counterpoint to the story of Elijah and Elisha – get on the road, and do the work of the kingdom of God wherever you go. And we hear that again in the last encounters in this morning’s gospel. Jesus meets others on the road, and he reminds each one that the road takes everything – they can’t stop for funerals or family reunions – there aren’t any time outs. He’s not being cruel or saying you can’t grieve. He is saying that every part of life is meant to be lived on the road, as children of God, and heirs of God’s intention for all of us. We are to be messengers and enablers of the reign of God, in everything we do.
There is no part of our existence that is separate from this journey toward the reign of God. We discover God’s presence, we discover opportunities for healing and doing justice by staying on the road. The road is meant to take us home – all of us, and all humanity. We can’t go there by ourselves – and we will find companions if we look for them. This journey is urgent, and there will be distractions, but we can learn to be discerning about what is a distraction and what is an opportunity to share good news.
What do we do with all the little encounters in our lives? How do we respond to the nameless strangers we meet on the road?
I was standing in line waiting to board an airplane not long ago, reading something, when a man walked up. He didn’t say anything for a moment and I couldn’t tell what he wanted. Then he told me he was a retired priest from New Zealand, on vacation in the United States. We talked about New Zealand and the church there for a few minutes, and then he walked away. I’m not sure, but I think he just wanted a friendly word.
Many of us walk through the city seeing lots of faces that belong to strangers. Do we see friends or potential enemies? How would the world change if we recognized each one as a potential ally?
Costa Rica has many inhabitants who were born elsewhere, as does the United States. Most human communities struggle to include travelers and immigrants, though I think this country does a far better job of it. The political conversation in the US right now is a deep conflict between those Americans who see migrants as threat and those who see potential blessing, and are willing to recognize that those who come seeking opportunity and blessing are kin.
These struggles happen everywhere. A bishop from Pakistan visited me recently, and he wanted to tell the story of members of his diocese who were being persecuted for religious reasons – some whose homes have been burned, and others who have been falsely charged with blasphemy, who had to flee and look for refuge elsewhere. Sometimes the inhospitable are people in our own community, but there is no time to waste calling down fire on them. Stay on the road, keep looking for grace, keep building justice, don’t be diverted by vengeance – or by the desire to outshine another.
This diocese and the one in North Carolina have built remarkable friendships that certainly began with some doubt and hesitation. If we can suspend judgment for a while, most of the time we discover that strangers are potential friends – and the challenge is to walk the streets expecting to find a child of God in the strangers we meet, rather than a threat or an enemy.
The good shepherd looks for sheep of all kinds – black, white, brown, foreign, familiar, young, old, frightened, joyous, and tired – and the flock will not be whole or healed until each one finds a place within it. May our journeys be made in open expectation, looking for fellow sheep. They want companions, too. So stay on the road – and find them – and let them find you!