Sermon for Aug. 18, 2019, Pentecost 10C on Luke 12:49-56. Audio can be found here for several weeks.
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”
I used to follow the musical work of Christian guitarist and singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn. One of his most famous songs is probably also his most misunderstood. It’s called “If I had a Rocket Launcher.” Each verse ends with that phrase “If I had a rocket launcher” repeated three times, followed by something ominous, which varies from verse to verse, starting with “If I had a rocket launcher, I would not hesitate.” The first time I heard it, I asked myself, “Did he really say that?”
Context matters: the humanitarian relief Organization Oxfam had sponsored Cockburn to go down to Mexico to visit refugee camps housing Guatemalans, that had been set up during the counterinsurgency campaign of the Guatemalan dictator Rios Montt. Cockburn was horrified by the stories he heard from those refugees. The descriptions of the killings, disappearances of their children, the helicopter gunships that were even known to fire on those very refugee camps, just across the border in Mexico, he said made slasher horror films look tame by comparison. The feeling he had in those camps came out in that song: “If I had a rocket launcher, I’d make somebody pay.”
In concerts I attended, the audience would sing along, and when they sang those phrases, I observed a lot of fist-pumps of affirmation. But that’s where he was misunderstood. Bruce Cockburn says he is against violence; his song was a pain-cry, not a call to arms.
Yes, He Said It
I thought of that song when I was reflecting on the gospel text this week. Jesus says,
“I came to bring fire to the earth,” and “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No…”
And I want to ask, “Did he really say that?”
Yes, he did. And just like in Bruce Cockburn’s case, context matters. Jesus was living in tense days. They were the days of the Roman occupation, no less horrific than the days of Guatemala’s death squads. Crucifixions were common, and so were the clandestine groups planing for new violent resistance.
In that context, Jesus was proclaiming the kingdom of God and the completely upside down perspective of justice, inclusion, and equality. Some have described Jesus’ strategy as a third way. He did not agree with the advocates of violent resistance. In fact he believed that violent resistance would fail — which, eventually it did, with catastrophic results.
But neither did he simply head out to the desert communities, as some did, passively uninvolved in the day-to-day life of struggling peasants. He did not advocate quietism. He did not believe in just keeping your head down and keeping quiet.
Rather, Jesus’ third way was a very public, intentional, non-violent confrontation with the powers-that-be. He was disruptive. He did the unexpected, the unconventional, and sometimes, the unheard of.
How did he get there? Just like all great movement leaders, Jesus’ famous public actions and teachings came from a whole life of preparation.
Jewish spirituality, as reflected in the Psalms that Jesus knew and quoted, connected the God of the universe and the people on earth. It was a combination of mysticism and ethics. That was the tradition that formed Jesus.
As he taught and as he worked, Jesus was modeling a deep personal spirituality that produced a life of passionate attention to suffering. He practiced meditation and prayer, which kept him connected with God whom he related to as a loving parent. But that loving parent was not just a softie. God, according to Jesus, also had desires. His desires were for people to dismantle the conditions of oppression and discrimination and seek the common good.
But, not everyone was convinced. Jesus was getting resistance from the people who benefited from the unjust and oppressive status quo. So he could see — anyone could see — that a conflict was coming, and what he said seems to have come from a moment of frustration; it seems he wanted to get it over with.
What do we learn here? I think there are several things crucial to learn. First that genuine personal spirituality, like the kind Jesus practiced, is the foundation of a life of trust in God. Trust is the sense that it is going to be okay, that God is with you, even in the context of upsetting and uncertain times.
Second, that genuine personal spirituality produces a passion for public action on behalf of suffering people. There is no dichotomy between spiritual work and social work. Loving your neighbor means addressing their life-conditions. And it may included disrupting the status quo conditions that are life-diminishing.
So, what kinds of disruptions would Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom make? Luke gives us an example here: it is the challenge to the power dynamics that put some people in a position to control other people’s lives. The illustration is the family. People who want to maintain their positions of absolute power — fathers over sons, mothers over daughters, and mothers-in-law over daughters-in-law, will not like having their power limited.
Families are societies in miniature, and Jesus’ call for a new perspective on power relationships was thoroughgoing. He knew this would be disruptive and even divisive; as his parable predicted, some of the seed that the sower sowed would fall on rocky ground. He was prepared to accept it. So the “peace on earth” that the shepherds heard the angel choirs singing about at Jesus’ birth, in Luke’s gospel story, would come to people of “good will,” but maybe not to everybody. It’s still true: When the power shifts away from the rich white males in the room, some of them suddenly get fragile and defensive.
Jesus’ goal was not to teach manners. Politeness was not his goal. It was not his mission to make sure no one got upset. His mission was not to offend people intentionally, but to work for the values of the kingdom on behalf of suffering and oppressed people. That was offensive to some people; especially the people in power.
Part of Jesus’ frustration that produced his harsh rhetoric was that people were just not getting it. There were signs all around that things were coming undone, politically, religiously, socially, and economically — and yet people were resisting. He was sounding an alarm, but only getting push-back. He says, with obvious frustration:
“You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”
The Call to Interpret the Present
This is a clear call to all of us. We have the responsibility to be able interpreters of “the present time.” In other words, to identify the status quo conditions that are life-diminishing, and to be willing to disrupt the causes behind them.
We have been tasked with knowing what the looming crisis is and responding to it with the perspective and values of the kingdom of God. The crisis of our “present time” may not look like the crisis of Jesus’ “present time,” but the call to interpret our times could not be more clear.
It is interesting that Jesus pointed to the weather as an illustration. It was just an illustration for him, but for us, it is, in fact, the current life-diminishing status quo that needs disruption.
The crisis that is looming over us is the climate crisis. How should we interpret “the present time?” As a time which is short. We do not have long to fix this. As the ocean temperatures rise and the air temperatures rise, there is more moisture in the atmosphere — the rains and flooding we had this spring are probably going to be repeated.
As the ocean temperatures rise, so do sea levels which put millions of people at risk. Threats to agriculture are huge and will affect both the price and availability of food, which of course will disproportionately cause the poor to suffer. Are there power dynamics involved in this crisis? Yes, massive ones.
Matthew 25 and Climate Crisis
This is where we see the connection between spiritual and social work. Our Presbyterian Church is encouraging our congregations to become “Matthew 25 churches.” At the end of the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25, Jesus famously says, “As you did it to the least of these, you have done it unto me.”
Recently, Rev. Dr. Diane Givens Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, has spoken on the connection between the climate crisis and the call of Matthew 25 to serve “the least of these”. She said, “Whole communities in some places are being displaced, torn apart because of global warming.”
She called on congregations to answer the call to care for the earth. She said, “We’ve got to make sure that we take care of God’s Earth so that our human siblings may be able to be refreshed and renewed through the waters of the Earth.” And quoting Jesus in Matthew 25, she said, “As you did it to the least of these, you have done it unto me.”
I wonder how much of the challenge we can accept? Would we be willing to make lifestyle changes to respond to the call? Probably we all have made many changes already, from our cloth grocery bags to our recycling practices.
I wonder if we would even consider our diets? I have just read an article about the carbon costs of producing and consuming meat. It is substantial. When you consider all the land used for farming the grains that animals are fed, the carbon involved in driving tractors, spreading fertilizers, plus the way the land could be used if it were growing food for humans, the impact is huge. According to British research, “One kilogram of beef protein has a carbon opportunity cost of 1250kg. That’s roughly equal to one passenger flying from London to New York and back.”
The report concluded “If we want to prevent both climate and ecological catastrophes, the key task is to minimise the amount of land we use to feed ourselves, while changing the way the remaining land is farmed.”
But that would mean changing our diets. I would like to ask us all to consider reducing the amount of meat and dairy we consume. All of us can take steps, even if they being small. Consider a meatless Monday. Start to educate yourself about plant-based proteins. Many Americans believe all kinds of myths about how much protein they need every day. Many of us have no idea how much protein plants contain. But we all can learn, and we all can adjust, and together, we can make a difference.
Do not stop with diet. Find ways to engage the issue of the climate crisis. Join groups that are working to make a difference. Make sure the people running for office know the issue is important and that you are a voter. Address the power dynamics with the power of your voice.
Heeding the Call
Jesus was frustrated by the resistance he was getting to his his calls for change. He was frustrated that his warning about the coming calamity of his “present day” was being ignored. He called for people to wake up and interpret the present time accurately and change accordingly. And finally, as in Matthew 25, he said, “As you did it to the least of these, you have done it unto me.”
Let us be different. Our core values and our core identity call us to action. Our regular spiritual disciplines sustain us. So, let us be those who head the call. Let us be those who make the changes necessary to make a difference.