Lectionary Sermon on Luke 14:1, 7-14, 22nd Ordinary, C Aug. 29, 2010

The Upside Down Table and the Matter of Manners

Table Manners

After years and years of the most boring, repetitive, wearisome instructions, finally I saw the point.  I had not only learned but also internalized the lessons; I knew what to dodinner.jpg family image by mickifree_2007 instinctively.  I was out on a real date with a nice young lady, dining in a restaurant in which the food did not arrive wrapped in paper in a sack with the fries on top.  On the table were linens and more than one fork (on the left, of course) cloth napkins, and I knew what to do; my parents had taught me well about table manners.

That’s one reason we need parents – its called primary socialization – to learn table manners and social customs.  “Look them in the eye, give a firm hand-shake, speak up, and don’t be cocky, arrogant, or pretentious.”

Is that why we need Jesus?

That’s why we need good parents.  Question: is that why we need Jesus?  Is this textThings025.jpg Miss Manners image by SweetStrawberryKisses about proper table manners?  Where to sit at the table, how to make an proper invitation list?  Practical advice about the value of humility in polite company?

No, no no!  No, for all kinds of reasons.  No, because that puts Jesus on the level of Miss Manners.  If Jesus were that kind of teacher, two things would be true: 1) we would not miss much if we ignored him today; and 2) he would have made no one angry, and certainly no one angry enough to have him killed.

But he did make people that angry, and they did have him killed for what he was teaching!  So, if we start with that in mind, perhaps we will look more deeply about his comments about table manners.

Jesus the bad manners teacher

One more reason for the “No!”  If Jesus thought he was teaching about table manners and social customs, he was a horribly mistaken teacher.  He got it wrong.  At least partly wrong.  He may have been correct about not trying to grab the head table – getting shamed by being asked to move down with the plebes would certainly have been cause for shame (especially in his culture back then).


But then he made huge mistakes according to accepted custom:  he told them that their banquet invitation lists had to include people who would not be able to invite them back to their place latter.  That was just crazy advice.  In Jesus day, the principle of reciprocity was even stronger than it is today.

You did not just return a favor because you were nice: if you received a favor, like anPicture034.jpg back scratch image by yodevo invitation to a celebration banquet, you were obligated, in fact, indebted to pay it back.  Reciprocity was the backbone of society.

You got nowhere unless you are able to invite decent people to your dinners and then get invited to theirs – we would perhaps call it social networking.  But Jesus said don’t do it that way.  The direction of your invitations should go down the social scale, not up.  So Jesus missed that one.

The Invitation List

The other mistake Jesus made in the Manners Advice Business was also about the invitation list: he completely got this upside down.  He told people:

13 when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.

The issue with these people is not only that they are too poor to reciprocate and therefore will not help your social advancement; no, it’s much more profound than that.  The issue with three of the four groups, “the crippled, the blind and the lame” is that they carry the stigma of being specifically marked out for exclusion. (We will get to the fourth group, the poor in a moment).

The Exclusion list  Exclusion by whom?

Well, first exclusion by the Law of Moses, at least in terms of exclusion from88e8a41a.jpg Wider view of wall dividing Palestine image by oliviavillegas being priests, fit to approach the holy altar to offer sacrifice (Lev 21:17–23).  Whom else made such exclusions?  The super-holy, pure people that had moved out to the desert to write the Dead Sea Scrolls excluded that same list too.  While they waited for Messiah to come, they developed rules for their separatist community at Qumran.  Only the “whole” were fit to be “holy.”  They even went so far as to say that deformed people would not even sit at the banquet hosted by Messiah. (1QSa 2:5-22).

So Jesus was way off base recommending that the banquet invitation list should invite, instead of exclude these people.  It would be like advising someone to eat with their fingers and chew with their mouths open; exactly opposite of correct custom.

The poor too?

So if  “the crippled, the lame, and the blind” were already marked out for exclusion from the inner circle of acceptable people, what about the fourth group in Jesus’ list; what about “the poor”?  This is the odd grape in the bunch.  The “poor” were not on those exclusion lists.  The poor were not excluded by the law of Moses, nor were they excluded by the Qumran community.

In fact, Israel was used to thinking of themselves as “the poor.”  They were the people who had been the slaves of Egypt until Moses led them to freedom.  They were the ones who had been conquered and driven into exile by the Babylonians.  Now they were back in Palestine, as the poor people under the boot of the Roman Empire.  They felt like this condition might as well have been a new exile requiring a new exodus-like defeat of the enemy.  They were “the poor” – even if some of them had cash.

What was Jesus doing when he advised them to make out a banquet invitation list that put together such strangers with each other – the poor Israelites along with the excludables, the crippled, the lame and the blind? Why did he say that if all four were on your invitation list, “you will be blessed, … at the resurrection of the righteous”?

The Kingdom of God, not table manners

Because this whole scene from Jesus’ life is not about table manners and polite custom.  This is crucial teaching about the Kingdom of God.   Is this important?  This is teaching about the resurrection of the righteous.  I think Jesus considered this important.  And yes, they were watching him closely, and he knew it; and yes, this teaching made them angry.  Remember, we are still following Jesus on his long journey from Galilee to Jerusalem which will end in his arrest, trial, and execution by crucifixion; this is serious.

So what is going on if this is not table manners and politeness advice?  This is about God, and what God is doing in the world.  It is about God’s will and God’s purpose.

The Purpose of God, coming to fruition

The story goes like this: Jesus, and all the Israelites who knew the bible, believed thatDuneEveningPrimrose.jpg Garden of Eden image by raefavell God created a good world, blessed it, including blessing the people he made in his image, but that something had gone wrong.  Evil had entered the story and made a mess of things.

But God did not abandon the world.  He had a plan by which he would put things right again.  It would take time.  He would start with one family, Abraham and Sarah. He would promise to bless them and to make them the source of blessing for all of humanity.  He spoke of them and their descendants as the “light to the nations.”  (Genesis 12)

This plan was now coming to its climax.  Jesus knew that his calling, his vocation, was to be the one God would use as his anointed, or Messiah, to finally confront the powers of evil and to be the means of God’s victory.  He accepted that this vocation would mean his suffering and death, but he also believed that God would vindicate him in resurrection as  he triumphed over the powers of evil.

All of this is God’s purpose and plan to put right what had gone wrong so long ago when evil messed up the world.  God was restoring humanity to its original, blessed condition.

Now everyone who was made in God’s image – including “the poor”, and including “the crippled, the lame, and the blind” are invited to the great banquet, hosted by Messiah!
A Telling Moment has come  Is this important to God?  Well, is participating in the resurrection important?  It seems that this is one of those telling moments.  It reminds me of another telling moment from Matthew.  Remember his scene of the sheep and the goats being separated by the King at the end of time?  The king says:

34…‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;  35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

“We like the same things!”

When you were first in love, what made you think that “she might be the one”?  Whatrelationship_DOKhz_3868.jpg egalitarian relationship image by byutyko made you think “he is the one for me?”  What was the sign that this relationship was a match made in heaven?

Wasn’t it important that you had a lot of “me too” moments?  “You like that song?  Me too!  You like that movie?  Me too!  You like to go there?  Me too!”

How do we know that we are in a right relationship with God?  Is it not the same?  That we share “me too” moments; that we like what God likes, values what God values, love what God loves?

In fact, isn’t the opposite true as well?  That if we do not like what God likes, if we do not value what God values, if we do not love what God loves, then we are really not in relationship with him at all.

Loving God means No Exclusions

Loving God means loving people, without qualification, and without distinction.  There are no categories of exclusion with God; there cannot be with those who call him Father.

But look around.  Look literally around the room today, and look around the neighborhoods where we live.  Look at the guy on the TV news and the way he talks about people who are different from us.   That too can be a telling moment.

There is good news here.  There is a blessing here.  Jesus said, when you do invite to the banquet “the poor, the crippled the blind and the lame.”

14 you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

There will be a banquet hosted by Messiah.  It will be an occasion of joy and celebration if we have learned to welcome the people who we will be dining with.

Where do we stand?

Who are the excluded of today?   We have made great progress in some areas, and have aarticle-1301846-0AC03417000005DC-107_634x344mosque.jpg the New York Mosque image by iamgetterdone long way to go in others, don’t we?  We have realized how wrong our past exclusion was of people with disabilities – though we are still working on full integration.  We have come along ways since the civil rights movement, though racism has not gone away.  We are struggling to make the work place an level playing field for women and men.  But we still have a long way to go with Muslims, with aliens, with gays, and even with people in the “wrong” political party.

The question of the day is this: am I in a right relationship with God?   How do I know?  Do I like what God likes?  Do I love whom God loves?  Is this a telling “me too” moment?

Call To Worship based on Exodus 3

Cries of Pain, Call to Follow

Hearing their cries,
God called to Israel,
“Come out”
Out of slavery to Empire
Into a land of promise

Hearing their lamentations,
God called, through the prophets,
“Come back”
Out from the land of exile
Into a new beginning

Hearing our despair,
Jesus calls his disciples,
“Come, follow me”
Out from the bondage to sin, and self, and status quo
Into the Kingdom of love, and peace, and joy in the Spirit

This was also used at our recent Presbytery meeting in South Alabama which was on the theme of Exodus 3

Prayer of Confession: Presbytery Meeting of South Alabama, Aug. 2010

We have a contemporary worship service on the Friday evening of our Presbytery

meetings here in S. Alabama.  This is the prayer of confession that we used, since our text theme was from Exodus 3:1-12 – God heard the cries of the Israelites in slavery under Pharaoh in Egypt, and called Moses to be the means of their liberation.  I wrote this with help from Rev. Karen Bullock who also arranged it into different reader-parts.

Confession 2010

(Leader  [person #1]  from upfront):

Here is our pain, our cry,

here is our prison cell graffiti

here is our 5th amendment waiver

Look and see into our eyes

Hear the burdens of our hearts

(unexpected, person #2  stands up in pew and says)

we have been locked up so long

born into a prison that we cannot smell or taste or touch

we have paced the cage til we’ve worn paths into the floor

Cursed is our containment

Heavy the weight of sin we bear

(person #3 stands up and says)

We have acquiesced too quickly

swallowed poison propaganda

kowtowed to Empire

genuflected towards the status-quo consensus

(person #4 from the pew, seated, reads this)  

And it is killing us, slowly

we are rotting, souls first.

Look at our atrophy (pause)

No, don’t look we don’t want to be seen like this

Oh, but look, look, and help us learn how to be free

(leader up front [person #1] reads again)

now it feels chronic; nearly normal

now it’s all habit and routine

comfortably predictable misery

numb monotony

(All; words on screen)

But this is wrong and we know it

we have felt it our entire lives,

there is something wrong with the world

this is not how we were meant to live

this is not what we were made for

this should not be our destiny

prosperity has not borne fruitfulness

our garden became a junk-yard, oil-stained

longevity has only lengthened our loneliness

we have outlived our reasons

We cannot be silent any longer

whether from true repentance

or merely a pain-reflex

heard or not, we must cry out:

(leader up front, person #1)

Enough of “not enough”!

No more of “a little more”

Our neurons are nauseated

by the salt-sugar-fat trinity

(person #2)

now we know:

no amount of messages

can fill an inbox without a bottom

no screen, … touch or not, …can hug or cry, or bleed, or scream

(person #4 seated)

These are our walls,

this is our incarceration,

for this we traded freedom

can there yet be liberation?

( reader [#4]  stands up, raises hands continues)

God of Exodus, hear our cry,

Lord, have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy (all 4 readers)

Set us free

Or we are hopeless

(all 4 readers)

Pry out of our clenched fists,

finger by finger,

(break them open if need be)

your jagged, cruciform, key

Sing: “O Lord hear my prayer” (Taize)

O Lord, hear my prayer

O Lord, hear my prayer

When I call, answer me

O Lord, hear my prayer

O Lord, hear my prayer

Come, and listen to me

Assurance of Pardon from Isaiah 61  (Leader:)

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,

because the LORD has anointed me

to preach good news to the poor.

and provide for those who grieve in Zion—

to bestow on them a crown of beauty

instead of ashes,

the oil of gladness

instead of mourning,

and a garment of praise

instead of a spirit of despair.

He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim freedom for the captives

and release from darkness for the prisoners.

[bring up house lights]

Lectionary Sermon for 21st Ordinary C, Luke 13:10-17

Days and Knotsknots.jpg Knots image by Viurre

Sometimes Jesus speaks to children, sometimes to middle aged adults, sometimes to soldiers – but today we see him engaging a person I think nearly everyone in this congregation can identify with.  We are going to see that this story not only looks a lot like us, it fits us too, and we need its message.

If you have been here recently you know that we have been looking at the Gospel of Luke.   A large part of the heart of Luke is taken up with the long journey that Jesus makes from his home area of Galilee in the North down to Jerusalem.  He has met people along the way, addressing them according to their needs.  Some people are in open opposition to him, many are a part of curious crowds, and some are followers on the journey with him; disciples.

Along the way Jesus has been announcing that the Kingdom of God has come.  He himself is the means by which God is launching his Kingdom on earth.  Jesus understands that God has anointed him, in other words, he is Messiah – the anointed one, or the Christ.

Teaching and Healing: Kingdom Work

As Jesus journeys to Jerusalem what is his day like? Typically he teaches people about the Kingdom of God, many times by parables: “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed…” and so on.

Jesus also typically heals the sick – in fact he is quite famous as a healer, and many come to him seeking healing.

Is healing a purely physical treatment or is it spiritual?  How much is physical and how much is spiritual?  We could spend a long time trying to sort that out, but for our purposes here as we look at today’s text, we simply need to remind ourselves that in the time of Jesus – and for most of the world for most of human history, no such distinction was made.  Most of us are content to leave the distinction ambiguous: we want the best medical care money can buy, and we also want all the prayers we can get.

The story before us today has a woman who is ill.  Luke tells us she had a “spirit of  weakness” that crippled her to the point that she was bent over could not stand up straight.  Jesus says that the cause is “the satan,” or the adversary – a term for evil power at work in the word.

Our Blessed/Dangerous World

Here is a person that this congregation can identify with!  How old is she when she came in contact with Jesus on that particular Sabbath?    We are not told; only that she has an acquired condition, and has had it for 18 years.

This sounds like our story.  We are all born with a set of facts about ourselves that we cannot help or change: our place of birth, our ancestry, and our genes that play such a huge role in our lives.  Then from day one on, we start living in a world that has nutrition and oxygen and all that we need for survival, and with it exposure to many dangers that threaten us.  We are exposed to bacteria and viruses, diseases, opportunities for accidents, and simply to the damage of long term wear and tear.

We are also exposed to evil.  This world is an odd place.  Evil is never positive or good; it’s always destructive and dehumanizing, but it is also often seductive.   Some peoplewayne2.jpg Coming this way! image by chance2jump resist it, others seem to have capitulated to it, but one thing is sure: all of us have been affected by the damage that evil does to us.  Sometimes evil is done to us by others – even within our own families.  Sometimes we bring evil upon ourselves.  In fact it’s always some of both, isn’t it?  I wonder what evil you have suffered damage from in your life?

Visible and Invisible Evil

Some evil is easy to see, other evil is subtle, nearly invisible.  Our Presbytery along with all the others is looking at a new Confession of Faith called the Belhar Confession which we will vote on whether or not to add to our book of Confessions.  It comes out of the horrible evil of the Apartheid system in South Africa.  That evil, like slavery, Jim Crow and all forms of racism and discrimination are obvious evils.  They destroy and dehumanize both the victim and the perpetrator as well as damaging the societies they both inhabit.

Other evils are less visible, but no less harmful.  We, in this country, think that enough money would solve most of our problems.   From welfare recipients to bankers we all get caught up in it.  We get so focused on our growing pile and quest to make it grow bigger that we find ourselves comfortably ignoring poverty, hunger, disasters at home and abroad.  None of us would say we are guilty of being materialistic, would we?  We just cannot see it.  Nevertheless, the person free from it is rare in our culture.

Varieties of Evil

Evil is not a thing, it is a corruption of something else.  This is why there are so many varieties of evil: anything benign or good can become corrupted and evil.  Money is necessary for all of us every day; when corrupted, money becomes Mammon, the god that makes blinds us and deafens us to human need.  Businesses and corporations make the products from kitchen appliances to heart monitors – but if corrupted can ruin the lives of employees and pollute the world God put us in charge of.

Evil can be intimately personal; remember the song, “be careful little eyes, what you see… be careful little hands what you do… be careful little feet, where you go…” – we can use our beings to bless people and glorify God, or to indulge our basest desires and do damaging, destructive evil to ourselves and others.

Evil can be larger than merely personal; evil can be structural.  Evil can be a whole system, like apartheid, like slavery, like the Third World Debt crisis, like governmental  corruption, like every form of injustice and oppression.  Every organization of humans, from the family to the club to the church to the company to the government, to the global banking system can be sources of blessing, or, if corrupted, destructively, dehumanizingly evil.

God’s Response to Evil

What is Jesus doing as he journeys to Jerusalem?  He is announcing that God has not abandoned this world to evil.   God created a good world with everything needed for humans, who reflect his image, to live blessed, fruitful lives.  Evil entered this world and we fell for it – and keep falling for it – and it is destroying us.  But God never abandoned the world to its evil ways, and now at long last, God is acting in a dramatically new and powerful way to rescue his people from evil’s damaging hands.

Jesus comes down that road announcing that God’s intervention has begun in him.  He is launching the Kingdom of God.  Yes, it will mean a confrontation with the powers of evil, and yes it will involve suffering – even death.  But through Jesus’ death, God will overcome the powers of evil and redeem the people he made.

This is what Jesus’ ministry of healing is all about: a public display that God is at workA_Slave_to____by_SpellbinderImag-1.jpg tied in knots image by rage_by_poetry through Jesus taking back territory like a liberating army.   A woman has been held behind enemy lines for 18 years: now she is set free.  The knots that have tied her down have been loosened; she is now free to stand up straight as she was created to do.

Tragically, there have always been those who have misunderstood what God wants to do in the world – that was true in Jesus’ time, it is still true today.  There were those who were offended that Jesus was opening the door too far, to too many people who were not supposed to be fit for God’s company.  For Jesus, the old traditions like Sabbath that were so important to distinguish Jews from gentiles now had to be reinterpreted.

Sabbath Rest

Sabbath was supposed to be the time to rest on the seventh day after six days of labor – it was meant to liberate people from a life totally consumed by the demands of economics.  If one would untie an animal to give it water on the Sabbath, how could one also not loosen the knots of evil that had bound this daughter of Abraham all these years on the Sabbath?

Some did not see what God wanted.  How can we not make that mistake?  How can we get God right?  How do we know what in the world God wants?  We know God, we see God, we understand God by knowing Jesus.  Watch Jesus: though him we learn how God acts, how he thinks, what he feels strongly about, what he values.

God is all about healing our brokenness; repairing the damage that evil has inflicted.  God is about opening the doors to people who were lost sheep, prodigal sons, impure, lepers, Roman soldiers and demon-possessed gentiles.  Everyone is invited in to repent from the evil that has done them so much damage and the evil they have participated in, and be transformed by mercy, love and grace.

The Victory of God

We know what happened down the road to Jerusalem.  Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God and was arrested, convicted and crucified as King of the Jews.  That was a mistake of course.  Jesus’ death overcame the powers of evil and launched the Kingdom of God for the whole world.

We have been set free from the dominion of evil.  We are rather citizens of the Kingdom of God.  We know what God wants – we have seen it in Jesus.

He wants our liberation from evil.  He wants our entire allegiance, body, mind and spirit, heart and soul, seven days a week.  He has given us his Holy Spirit to empower us and to guide us as we oppose the evil that lies close at hand.

He also wants us to do as Jesus did.  Jesus shows us how to live.  Jesus gave himself to bringing healing to real suffering humans.  We oppose evil in all its forms: personal and structural, local and global.  This is what we commit ourselves to do.

Our Commitment

We will be people of the Kingdom.  We will not be complicit in any evil, neither at home nor abroad.  We will be the ones who study Jesus and so know what our mission is.  We are here to love God – with our whole heart, mind and strength.  We are here to grow in faith, grow in our ability to trust God with our lives, our resources, and our futures.  We are here to share Christ Jesus’ love in practical, tangible, significant ways.  We are here to bring healing to our families, our community, our country, and to our world.

Where is the evil in your life?  What is God calling you to do about it?

Where is the evil in your world?  What is God calling you to do about it?

Daily Lectionary Aug. 18, 2010

“God is Not a White Man”

Reflections on Psalm 15

There is a great new video on YouTube called “God is not a White Man” by Gungor which whimsically (but quite seriously) goes after the common misconceptions of God and offers the alternative “God is Love, and God loves everyone.”  Sounds like Jesus might have written that one.

How does God love to people?  It starts by creating the good conditions that enable them to flourish: a Garden of fruitfulness with enough for everyone, and humans to share it with.  Ah, but put humans in a Garden, and pretty soon there will be trouble.  We have a hard time keeping the Garden tended and an even harder time blessing each other.  God shows Love by guiding us into correcting our impulses that would desecrate relationships on both the personal level and the social and economic levels.

Today’s Daily Lectionary texts begin with Psalm 15 that explores the ways in which community between persons can break down, and makes it a matter of God’s concern.

1 O LORD, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?
2 Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
and speak the truth from their heart;

Speaking the truth is a condition required for right relationships – and God loves us by making our impulse to run to him with our vendettas against each other out-of-bounds.

We are not to corrupt relationships with our tongues:

3 who do not slander with their tongue,
and do no evil to their friends,
nor take up a reproach against their neighbors;

In the ancient language of “love or despise” (no complex middle ground) the ways of the wicked who intentionally corrupt relationships through slander and reproaches must by rejected:

4 in whose eyes the wicked are despised,
but who honor those who fear the LORD;

Rather, the person who is able to stand in God’s presence is one whose mouth will not do damage to another – even it it means doing damage to oneself – by making an oath that will unexpectedly put you in a disadvantage – but fulfilling it anyway, rather than creating a community in which trust has broken down:

who stand by their oath even to their hurt;

But the conditions of a flourishing human community cannot just be personal and private.  They must include economic relationships as well.  The strong always take advantage of the weak among humans – so God’s love guides economic behavior (in the context of an ancient agrarian culture) forbidding usury:

5 who do not lend money at interest,

We go further: this society must be one in which the poor are treated equally at the court.  Rich people must not be allowed to blind the eyes of justice with their tempting cash. Yes, this is “social justice” (say it loud):

and do not take a bribe against the innocent.

God shows love for the people he made by creating the original conditions for them to flourish in, and by showing them how to maintain those conditions.  He offers this blessing:

Those who do these things shall never be moved

Here it is, all together:

1 O LORD, who may abide in your tent?Who may dwell on your holy hill?2 Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,and speak the truth from their heart;3 who do not slander with their tongue,and do no evil to their friends,nor take up a reproach against their neighbors;4 in whose eyes the wicked are despised,but who honor those who fear the LORD;who stand by their oath even to their hurt;5 who do not lend money at interest,and do not take a bribe against the innocent.Those who do these things shall never be moved

Is it any wonder that following this trajectory, Jesus comes, as today’s gospel reading shows, healing, feeding, rejecting the ideology of scarcity (and therefore competition for scarce resources) in favor of sharing, which leads to satisfaction and abundance for all, and even left overs (see John 6:1-15).

Lectionary Sermon on Luke 12:49-56, 20th Ordinary C, August 15, 2010

Luke 12:49-56

Storm Tracking

When I read this gospel text as a young man I did not understand it, and I did not like it.  It seemed completely out of character for Jesus.  The Jesus I thought I was getting to know came to bring peace, right?  Isn’t that what the angels sang about at his birth? “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth.”  Didn’t Jesus himself say “blessed are the peace-makers”?   So what was all this about bringing not peace but division?

Furthermore, I used to think, who needs this message?  We don’t want our households divided, we long for peace in our families.  We don’t need to have help getting people upset with each other – we manage that fine on our own.  How does this help us?

Well things have changed.  I believe I do understand the text now, and now I see how it fit perfectly well with Jesus’ message.  And I believe this text has an important message for us today – in fact a crucial one which we need to hear and respond to.  Let us look at it together.

The Journey to the Conflict

As you know, we have been with Jesus on a journey from Galilee in the north down to Jerusalem.  On the way he meets different groups of people and he responds as they need: to his opponents, he offers parable of rejection.  To the crowds he calls for repentance and to his disciples he teaches.

What is going to happen?  Shortly after Jesus gets to Jerusalem he is going to be arrested, tried, sentenced to death and crucified.  A short number of years later a Jewish revolt will be ignited, and quickly suppressed by the Roman army.  They will march into Jerusalem, desecrate the temple, then burn it to the ground.  One generation later another revolt will start, ending in the complete destruction of the whole Jewish state, sending the survivors into exile around the known world.

Jesus and everyone else knows that violent revolution is in the air.  It’s a part of whispered conversations.  It is the subject of secret meetings.   Some have already started collecting weapons and organizing.  Violence, like assassinations of collaborators has already begun.

Why Risk it?

Why in the world would Jesus leave the relatively peaceful and quiet region of Galilee and head right into the lion’s den of Jerusalem where it is most dangerous – especially if you are drawing crowds.  In fact his disciples asked him this very question.

Here is why.  Jesus, and everyone else who read scripture, knew that God had a purpose and plan.  The world that God made good and blessed had been corrupted by evil.  God’s response was to choose one family, Abraham’s, and to bless them as his chosen people so that they would become a light for all the nations and peoples of the world.

Abraham’s family became the nation of Israel.  They did not do so well at fulfilling their vocation as the vehicles for God’s blessing of the whole world, and ended up in exile, without temple, land or king.  Now they were in an exile of a different sort – in their land but under foreign domination – and they were on the verge of revolution to try to put matters right.

Promised Intervention

But Jesus, and everyone who read scripture, knew that God had promised, through the prophets, that one day in the future he would return to Jerusalem, to Mount Zion as they call it, to bring his Kingdom, the Kingdom of God.  God would return with his Messiah leading the way; there would be judgment of the forces of evil, and then the dawning of the new age of the Kingdom of God.

Jesus understood that he was the one anointed by God, in other words God’s messiah.  He fully understood that conflict was coming.  In fact, he knew that this would lead to his own suffering and death, just as some of those ancient prophets had described.

But he also expected God to vindicate him by raising him to life again after three days.  Jesus was willing to walk into the firestorm of Jerusalem even though it meant conflict and suffering was coming, because he understood that this was the inauguration of the Kingdom of God.

In anticipation of that coming conflict, Jesus said,

49 “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!  50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!

It must have been horrible suspense all the way to Jerusalem; he wished it was over before it started.

Coming Divisions

Now we come to the part that is most difficult and yet the most needed by us today.  Jesus said that his mission was going to have consequences for people, even down to the level of splitting families:

51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!  52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three;  53 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.”

Division comes when some people side with one strategy and others with another.  There would be people who would cast their lots in with the revolution and those who refused; it would split families.  But you had to decide one way or the other – you either joined the Zealots and took up arms or you didn’t.

Jesus had been warning people that the revolt was not good, not God’s way, and would end in disaster.  Some believed him and followed him; others did not.

So What?

This is why we need this text.  From the start, Jesus has been serious about his mission and ministry, and demands to be taken seriously.  The Kingdom of God that Jesus came to inaugurate is in diametric opposition to evil in all its destructive and dehumanizing forms; it is a deadly battle.

Somehow, during the 2,000 years since Jesus, he has been domesticated beyond recognition.  He looks like he has hands that never saw a callous and hair that never felt the wind.  He has a matching soft agenda – as mushy as mashed potatoes and just as interesting.  It’s about being nice and polite, doing the occasional good deed, and going to heaven when you die.

That hideous distortion bears no resemblance to the Jesus that was willing to walk into a Roman death sentence without flinching.  Neither does it bear any resemblance to his mission and teaching which were dead set in opposition to evil.

We need this text for two reasons: first, to understand what is at stake in taking Jesus seriously, and the second is to see what is happening around us in our day.

Taking Jesus Seriously

First, the seriousness issue.  There are plenty of people who consider Jesus just anoptional religious object.  We are not those people.  We are people who understand that the Kingdom of God that Jesus inaugurated is here, now!

We are here to engage the battle against evil in all of its destructive and dehumanizing forms.  We are here to be the vanguard of the Kingdom of God fighting back against structures of evil and oppression, habits of exclusion and discrimination, and the evil self-indulgent apathy that is so used to the evil in the status quo that it no longer even notices or cares.

If being the engaged people of the Kingdom of God makes other people uncomfortable with us, so be it; division on that basis may be unavoidable.  Just like during the civil rights movement, we will do right and work against evil even if it scandalizes others.  If there are those who are offended by the use of the word justice, so be it.   We take Jesus seriously as he demands to be taken.

Storm Tracking

The second reason we need this text is its insistence that we read the times and act appropriately.  Jesus actually requires us to track the coming storms:

54 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.  55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens.  56 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?

Change is Here

What is happening today and how are we to respond?  The first most obvious fact, the elephant in every room is rapid, massive change.  It is not at all a question of liking or not liking change; change is upon us, not asking for our permission.  The world our children and grandchildren are growing up in is not the world we knew.  Most jobs that our grandkids will be doing do not even exist today.  We could list all the evidence of change but it would be boring – let’s cut to the chase.

What happens in periods of change?  Reaction, of course.  Fundamentalism, as we are witness to both in Christianity and in Islam are reactions to the uncertainties of change.  People need security and so they desperately cling to past certainties.  They describe the world in black and white, us and them terms, circle the wagons, and shut out the bad guys.  It never works – the change happens anyway.

The Language we Speak

This is where we come in.  We are the people of God, the church.  We do not want to be the last generation of the church.   If the church is going to live in the coming generation, we must communicate in the language that is being spoken, not the language that used to be spoken.

In the past, the church spoke the language of official pronouncements.  That language is not spoken or understood outside our walls anymore.  The only language understood now is the language of authenticity.

People out there are saying, “Don’t tell me you believe God loves the world, show me your authenticity: show me what you are doing about poverty and the Third World debt crisis.  Show me what you are doing about domestic poverty, about the huge and widening gap between rich and poor here in America.  You say Jesus loves the little children?  Show me what you are doing about the kids in your own neighborhood who are falling behind in school and desperate for a decent tutoring program.”  The only language being heard is the language of authenticity.

This is a huge subject that we can only begin to engage, but let it begin here: the coming storms of change require us to be people who take Jesus seriously – to the point of division.  Taking Jesus seriously means being the people of the Kingdom of God in a world of evils that destroy and dehumanize the lives of people made in the image of God.  Being people of the Kingdom means that we will speak with the language that people understand: the language of actively engaged authenticity.

The storms of change are upon us, like it or not: but we are the people of God, citizens of the Kingdom of God.  We know our purpose: we are here to Love God, to Grow in Faith, and to Share Christ’s Love authentically.   Let’s get on with it.