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.
In this Sunday’s gospel lesson, Jesus chides his opponents for their failure to “interpret the present time.” That prompts me to wonder about my own interpretive acumen. What can be said definitively about the times in which we live? That assessment is difficult to make, particularly during a presidential election season during which hyperbolic rhetoric distorts reality like the mirrors in a fun house. The pundits tell us that this is an “historical” election. But of course, they say that about every election. Every four years the candidates try to sell us on a particular vision and convince us that they, not their opponents, are on the side of history. Negative campaigning, denigrating the vision of one’s opposition, is also a part of the process and as old as the republic. It has been said that politics has never before been as nasty and personal as it is today. That might be so, but I think it reflects more a trend toward lack of civility, vulgarity and tribalism in the culture generally than a fundamental change in the political order itself. Once the election is over, whoever sits in the White House will wake up to the reality that he or she must negotiate with two houses of congress representing vested interests going far deeper than the simplistic partisan divides firing up political campaigns. Electoral rhetoric will subside and politics will once again settle down into the dull art of achieving the slow, frustrating and limited possible.
That said, I do believe this election cycle is driven more by fear than any previous one I can recall. I don’t believe that politicians are responsible for creating that fear, though they certainly exploit it. Fear has been building up among us for a lot of years. There is no shortage of angry white lower middle class men who see their America dying. They have watched their jobs evaporate, their social status slip away and their beliefs about right and wrong, manhood and patriotism fade away. Rightly or wrongly, these folks have been described as less educated than the rest of the American electorate on the whole, but they are not stupid. Deep in their hearts, I believe they know that deporting all undocumented immigrants, building a twenty foot wall along our southern border and imposing tariffs on foreign imports will not bring back the old factories supported by an army of lunch box carrying workers, factories that ate raw materials at one end and spit out toaster ovens, television sets and hot plates through the other and, in so doing, supported whole cities with good paying jobs. Those days are gone forever and I think everybody living in the shadows of all the now shuddered rust belt plants knows it. But angry and frightened people always tend to think less clearly. They will struggle to believe any lie, however improbable, when the truth is too frightening to accept. And the truth is that, along with their livelihood, white lower middle class males are fast losing their social, economic and political dominance in our culture. The election will not change that which ever way it goes.
People of color likewise fear the specter of racism-which is more than a specter. The Black Lives Matter movement has made us all painfully aware that racism is still endemic in our law enforcement and justice systems. This year the Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act on grounds that its protections were no longer necessary. The ink had hardly dried on the Court’s opinion before states throughout the south began passing re-districting provisions and voter ID laws, the practical effect of which was to burden the access of minorities to the voting booth. The shooting of several African American worshipers along with their pastors by an avowed racist in Charlotte last year is a chilling reminder of how intense racial hatred continues to be in pockets of our culture. People of color have good reason to be afraid and are justifiably angry that their call for change too often falls upon deaf ears. It is hard for those of us who have grown up benefiting from a system favoring white privilege to imagine what it is like to live daily on the receiving end of that system.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, I see a church that is driven by fear. It is no secret that the church in the United States has fallen upon hard times. Our congregations see their membership thinning and contributions falling-and too often they resort to the same fear driven responses we see in the corporate world. They cut back where they most need to invest for the future. They lash out at one another in anger and blame. Churches blame their pastors and staff for their lack of effectiveness and adopt punitive measures to “improve performance”. Pastors blame their congregations for their lack of commitment, tepid giving and self-serving attitudes. Congregations and pastors become increasingly angry at a world that seems increasingly disinterested in the church and that, of course, makes speaking a word of grace to that world a lot more difficult. Denominational authorities hire consultants to improve their images, launch all manner of programs to shore up membership and announce new capital fund drives hoping against hope that these efforts will “turn the situation around.” None of those denominational efforts are necessarily bad in themselves. The trouble is that they are too often driven by fear of institutional death and a frantic desire to recapture an idealized past rather than being inspired by hope for the future and sustained by confidence in God’s promises. Survivalism is always grounded in fear and fear always moves us to choose the way of death. That is why Jesus warns us that the surest way to lose our lives is to devote ourselves to saving them.
Against the backdrop of all this fear, the New Testament-and the Gospel of Luke in particular-declares repeatedly, “Do not fear.” “Do not fear” say the angelic messengers to Zechariah, Mary and the Shepherds. “Have no fear little flock,” Jesus told us in last week’s gospel lesson. “Do not fear,” says Jesus to a man who has just been told that his little daughter is dead. “Do not be afraid,” says the Lord to the imprisoned Apostle Paul as he faces trial before the Roman tribunal on capital charges. That isn’t to say disciples of Jesus are never afraid. I cannot imagine how a person in any of the above situations could not be afraid. Moreover, we are right to fear for the future of workers in the rust belt whose livelihood has been devastated. We should fear for the well-being of African Americans, Latinos, Gay, Lesbian and transgendered persons who are regularly targeted for verbal abuse, discrimination and violence. We should fear for the future of the church’s witness in America. But our fears, even when justified, must not be permitted to drive our decision making. We must always act out of our confidence in God’s promises, no matter how futile, impractical or dangerous that might seem. While unbelieving eyes can see only the death throes of a world coming apart at the seams, disciples of Jesus see also the birth pangs of a new heaven and a new earth struggling to be born. Disciples strive to become people able to live in a new creation without borders, walls or divisions. They devote themselves to work that will matter in the age to come rather than to projects invested in shoring up the old order. Disciples look to the future, not with fear and foreboding, but with hopefulness and joy. They know that the key to understanding the present time lies not in the headlines of any newspaper, blog, e-mail blast or tweet, but in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God loved the world so much that God sent God’s only Son. Such love, the Apostle John tells us, “casts out all fear.” Below is a poem by Maya Angelou that makes the point.
Touched by an Angel
We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.
We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.
Source: The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou ( c. 1995 by Virago Press). Maya Angelou (1928-2014) was a multi-talented American poet, author, singer, dancer and civil rights activist. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and was credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning over 50 years. She is perhaps best known for her well known autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969. The book earned her the National Book Award. Angelou was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton in 2000 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2010. You can read more about Maya Angelou and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.
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 any more 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 eight 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 with the 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. 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.