Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: O God, judge eternal, you love justice and hate oppression, and you call us to share your zeal for truth. Give us courage to take our stand with all victims of bloodshed and greed, and, following your servants and prophets, to look to the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The phrase “family values” has become an increasingly common and increasingly politicized rallying cry invoked to marshal support for or opposition to everything from health care reform to regulation of our soda intake. We all have differing opinions about a lot of these issues, but everybody supports family values. The worst thing you can say about your political opponent is that s/he denigrates family values. The best way to undermine support for a piece of legislation is to argue that it is “anti-family”. If you are going to run for office on a platform without a solid family values plank, then you might just as well come out against Mom, apple pie and saluting the flag. Your campaign is doomed.
I am never quite sure what people mean by the term, “family values.” It seems to me that we are far from agreement about what constitutes a “family” and what kinds of “values” hold it together. Rather than attempting to define that nebulous term on my own, I consulted a neutral authority for that purpose. According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, “family values” are “values especially of a traditional or conservative kind which are held to promote the sound functioning of the family and to strengthen the fabric of society.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. I suspect there might be some dispute over which values qualify as “traditional” or “conservative,” but let’s put that to one side. Obviously, whatever these values might be, they are deemed important for the promotion of “the sound functioning of the family” and for strengthening of “the fabric of society.”
In this Sunday’s gospel, Jesus is not merely indifferent to family values. He is downright hostile to them. “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.’” Luke 12:51-56. If you think that is anti-family, just listen to this: “Now large crowds were travelling with [Jesus]; and he turned and said to them, ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.’” Luke 14:25-26. It makes you wonder how so many avowedly Christian individuals and organizations can claim Jesus as an ally in their fierce battles to uphold family values. Do they ever actually open up and read those Bibles they keep waving in our faces?
As it turns out, Jesus does hold family values. But he defines “family” altogether differently from our “traditional” cultural norms and his “values” differ greatly from our preoccupation with strengthening “the social fabric of society.” We meet Jesus’ family in the 8th Chapter of Luke. “Then [Jesus’] mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. And he was told, ‘Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.’ But he said to them, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.’” Luke 8:19-21. Jesus’ understanding of family can be summarized in just five words: Water is thicker than blood. The community of disciples born of water and the Spirit radically re-defines the meaning of family. No longer are marital, filial and fraternal relationships the defining parameters of family identity. From now on, the family is the community of faith. All other relationships are secondary. Loyalty to Jesus takes precedence over familial duties, clan loyalties and responsible citizenship. There is no higher calling than discipleship-even when answering that call shatters the peace of the “traditional family.”
For too long, the church in our culture has tried to function as a tool for strengthening the traditional expressions of family rather than acting as a destabilizing agent of the Spirit breaking them up, redefining them and bringing them under the Lordship of Jesus. It might sound rather cold to insist that one must “hate” one’s own family in order to follow Jesus. But the hard truth is that anything we put before Jesus is an idol. The things that become idols for us frequently are not evil in and of themselves. But they become evil when they demand from us loyalty and devotion that belong only to our Lord. While I am no psychologist, it is my sense that a lot of family dysfunction arises from our demanding too much from family relationships. Too many parents are trying to live the lives they wish they had had through their children, placing on their backs the burden of their unfulfilled dreams. Too many children are walking around with anger toward parents who (like all parents) were less than fully supportive, understanding and empathetic. Too many marriages are disintegrating under the strain of having to meet needs for intimacy, meaning and self worth that no human being can satisfy for any other. Bottom line: Family is a great thing, but it isn’t God. If you try to make it God, it will implode, collapse and crush you along with it.
Paradoxically, as soon as you learn to hate and to see through the idol that your family has become, you are free to start loving it as a gift of God. That is why I believe that the best thing we can do for our families is to stop making them the center of our lives, stop demanding of them the intimacy only God can give and recognize them as one of the many places where we are called to live out our obedience as disciples of Jesus. Families thrive when freed from the burden of being the “the basic unit of society” (Heritage Foundation Website). Families are strengthened when we begin to understand that they are not individual, self contained units, but subsets of a much larger family called into existence by the incarnate Word, rooted in the baptismal font and gathered around the Lord’s Table. According to Jesus, family transcends blood relations, racial identity and national allegiance. Simply put, Jesus’ family values are “the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”
Jeremiah is a prophetic book that reports the ministry of the prophet Jeremiah to the people of Israel both before and after the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E. It is made up of poetic and prose oracles interspersed with vivid narrative capturing the prophet’s ministry among a resistant and hostile people in the twilight years of the Davidic Monarchy. Like most of the prophetic books, the book of Jeremiah has gone through several stages of editing. It reached its final form long after the death of the prophet and this is most likely because it was not until after the fall of Jerusalem that Israel recognized the truthfulness of this faithful prophet who had been hated, persecuted and ignored throughout his lifetime.
Jeremiah’s chief adversaries were his own prophetic colleagues. As the Babylonian military machine tightened its grip on Judah and began besieging the city of Jerusalem, these prophets continued to insist that God would yet intervene to save the holy city and its temple. Not surprisingly, the people were drawn to their messages of hope. These hopeful prophecies were entirely consistent with Israel’s past experience. Hadn’t God always come to the aid of his people in the days of the Judges? Didn’t God break the army of Assyria at the gates of Jerusalem a century before? What reason was there to think that God would not come through for Israel once again?
Jeremiah had the difficult task of letting his people know in no uncertain terms that there would be no miraculous act of deliverance this time. Judah’s belief that God would be compelled to defend Jerusalem in order to protect his temple amounted not to faith, but godless superstition. There was indeed hope for Judah and even the promise of deliverance-but not for the monarchy, not for the temple and not for a society built upon injustice and exploitation. Salvation lay on the far side of judgment. Not until Judah’s false hope for salvation without repentance was crushed could genuine hope come into view.
Our lesson for this morning finds the Lord addressing the false prophets through the lips of Jeremiah with a series of rhetorical questions: “Am I a God near by…. and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? Do I not fill heaven and earth?” Jeremiah 23:23-24. These prophets of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer would call “cheap grace” are reminded that they will be held accountable for the messages they proclaim. They cannot hide behind the poor excuse that they were simply mistaken. Of course, they can speak all they wish about their dreams and visions. They can express their views about what is taking place in Jerusalem and perhaps even venture an opinion about what God might be up to. But one dare not frivolously preface such remarks with “Thus saith the Lord.” That seems to be Jeremiah’s chief point: if you are going to speak in the name of the Lord, you better be sure that you have got it right and that what you speak is in fact the Lord’s word and not your own.
Of course it is easy for us to side with Jeremiah from our own safe vantage point. For us this is all ancient history. The outcome of the war with Babylon is well known as is Judah’s subsequent interpretation of that traumatic event. I doubt that matters were so clear in the midst of Jerusalem’s siege. Jeremiah’s prophetic colleagues turned out to be wrong in the end, but the people listening to them and to Jeremiah were not at the end. They were in the anxious middle trying to discern the word of the Lord in the midst of all this prophetic wrangling. I don’t think it was unreasonable to hope that God would rescue Judah from Babylon at the eleventh hour just as he had saved Israel from Pharaoh at the Red Sea and rescued Judah from the army of Assyria in the days of King Hezekiah. If I were standing in the shoes of the audience, I cannot say whether I would be more inclined to trust Jeremiah over his more hopeful critics.
Perhaps we can never judge the genuineness of prophecy except in retrospect. In any event, that appears to have been the case for Jeremiah. With the temple destroyed, Jerusalem in ruins and the people in exile, Jeremiah’s was the only prophetic word able to help the remnant of Judah make sense out of the terrible thing that had happened to them. His promise of salvation on the far side of judgment, a word that people frantic to escape judgment could not possibly hear, now relit the flame of hope.
I often wonder whether we mainline protestants are not even now facing our own 587 B.C.E. In the face of precipitous decline, we are turning to consultants, gimmicks and motivational techniques in an effort to turn ourselves around. Though the rhetoric of change is rampant, from where I sit it appears that we are all in high gear preservation mode. We are cutting costs, consolidating administrative functions and merging task forces, etc. But that strikes me more as siege behavior than genuine transformation into a new thing. Could it be that the real enemy is not secularization, anti-institutional sentiment or generational differences, but the Lord God? What if God does not need our denominational machinery anymore than God needed the Davidic Monarchy, the Jerusalem temple or the land of Palestine? What if God is bringing our years of societal influence, strength in numbers and established patterns of ministry to an end? What if the church we are striving to save is not the church God needs? What if our efforts to revive our church are really just desperate acts of rebellion?
I would be committing the same offense as Jeremiah’s colleagues if I were to suggest that I know this to be the case. I don’t. Nothing here is prefaced with “thus saith the Lord.” Nevertheless, I believe it is worth thinking about where we might be in time, not chronological historical time, but in time as measured by the biblical narrative. Is 2013 also 587 B.C.E.? If so, it is reassuring to know that we are not without hope and light. However dark this stretch of the road may be, the scriptures testify to people of God who have traveled there before us. They have wisdom and encouragement to share that we very much need. As we shall see, our lesson from Hebrews makes this very point.
This psalm reflects an early period of Israelite history when the existence of gods other than the Lord was more or less taken for granted. Nevertheless, these gods were always viewed as inferior to Israel’s God, YAHWEH. The psalmist gives us a peek into the grand council of the gods in which YAHWEH rises to criticize these lesser gods for the unjust management of their respective realms. These lesser gods are “national” gods in the true sense of the word. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, (c 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 164. That is, their sole concern is to promote the interests of their national patrons. Ibid. It is important to note that YAHWEH does not rise to assert the rights of Israel over the nations governed by the gods. Israel is not even mentioned. YAHWEH’s agenda for this meeting is justice for the “weak,” the “orphan,” the “destitute” and the “afflicted.” The “foundations of the earth” do not rest upon any kingdom, empire or nation state. They rest on justice. Naturally, then, these “gods” who base their reign upon princes or kings will share with them the same fate of mortality. The psalmist concludes by affirming that, notwithstanding the many gods worshiped among the nations of the world, these nations nevertheless belong to YAHWEH who will judge them according to justice.
There is much debate over the extent to which Israel, even in the early period of its history, accepted the existence of gods other than the Lord. While academically interesting, this question is hermeneutically irrelevant. The take away here is that Israel’s God is not a national deity. God’s chief concern is not with Israel’s nationalistic ambitions, but with justice for the weak, the orphan, the destitute and the afflicted in whatever land they might be. To be sure, Israel is God’s chosen nation. But she has been chosen not to receive special favors or achieve national prominence, but to be a faithful witness to the justice and compassion God desires for all people. Needless to say, this insight is also applicable to the church.
Our lesson for Sunday builds upon last week’s discussion of faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1. Having ended his inspiring roll call of faithful saints from the dawn of creation to the Israel’s entry into the promised land, the writer identifies and alludes to many other such heroes of faith whose stories would hardly fit the printed page. He goes on to point out that their faithfulness, courage and willingness to suffer stems from the conviction that God is leading them to a better country. For the sake of that promised homeland, they were content to be pilgrims, travelers and outcasts.
This is a helpful reminder that the church is a pilgrim people. Something deep inside of me resents that. I yearn to be settled. Yet I must admit that, for reasons I have never been able to explain, I feel the deepest sense of anxiety when I finally do get settled into a place where I am happy, enjoy my work and feel content. Perhaps that anxiety arises from my knowledge that nothing ever remains quite the same. Pleasant conditions never last forever. The neighborhood I moved into twenty-one years ago is not the one I live in today. My children have left home. Many of our friends have moved on and strangers live in the houses that once were oases of hospitality. I scarcely recognize the town in which I grew up. Even the church that I have served for the last five years is not the same. Some dear old souls have passed on to the church triumphant. New people have stepped in and made their presence felt. The words of the old hymn ring true: “Change and decay in all around I see.”
This letter to the Hebrews reminds us that we are called not merely to endure such changes but to embrace them. The suffering and loss that go with being always on the move constitute more than the death throes of our old way of life. They are also birth pangs of a new creation. It is the firm conviction that God is at work in the midst of conflict, suffering and death bringing to birth a new creation that makes endurance possible. So the author of Hebrews urges his/her readers to take comfort from the example of this scriptural “cloud of witnesses” whose faithful lives both challenge and encourage them to persevere in suffering and persecution. More than that, they are called upon to look to Jesus who embraced the cross-not because suffering is a good thing in itself; and not because God needs a blood sacrifice in order to be merciful; but because the cross is the natural consequence of faithfulness to God’s command to love even the enemy.
Jesus’ opening words here call to mind the preaching of John the Baptist in the early chapters of Luke: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you withthe Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Luke 3:16-17. Jesus’ ministry culminating in Jerusalem will cast fire upon the earth. The consequences that John speaks of metaphorically as separation of wheat from chaff, Jesus spells out with brutal particularity. The line of demarcation between loyalty to Jesus and unbelief will split families down the middle and create discord. Such is the cost of peace through reconciliation, not to be confused with the tense, brutal and unjust peace imposed by Rome. That false peace is soon to be shaken to its core. As pointed out earlier, this is fully in accord with Jesus’ teaching about the cost of discipleship elsewhere throughout Luke’s gospel. Luke 8:19-21; Luke 9:57-62; Luke 14:25-26.
Jesus does not call his disciples to endure this baptism alone. Indeed, the lesson opens with Jesus’ declaration that the baptism of fire is first and foremost his own. Jesus will be the first to endure the betrayal, abandonment and loneliness that goes with prophetic faithfulness. Because Jesus goes before his disciples into this baptism of fire, his disciples will not face that ordeal alone. In the hostile reception and treatment they receive from the world, they will be united with him. That unity is the basis for the new community, the family of God bound together not by ties of blood but by the promises of baptism.
At verse 54, Jesus changes his focus from the disciples to the multitudes gathered about him. The charge that these folks are “hypocrites” suggests that Jesus’ hearers are actually more astute than they let on. Their ability to recognize signs of imminent weather phenomena does in fact extend to “interpret[ation of] the present time.” Vs. 56. By now it must be evident that Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem signals stormy weather on the horizon. Such knowledge should impel his listeners toward an appropriate response, namely, repentance and reconciliation. Instead, Jesus’ hearers choose to remain blind to the signs of the times. This is further spelled out in the parable which follows (but is not included in the gospel reading): “And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? Thus, when you go with your accuser before a magistrate, on the way make an effort to settle the case, or you may be dragged before the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer throw you in prison. I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.” Luke 12:57-59. With every step Jesus takes toward Jerusalem, the judgment draws closer and the call for repentance and reconciliation becomes more urgent.