Homily for 8.18.13
20th Sunday in
Since September 11, more and more we have come to understand reality the way most of the rest of the world understood it all along -- through the eyes of fear. Add to this the present blatant inability of those trusted to lead us to accomplish anything at all, let alone their seeking to meet the steep challenges facing us and the world, and you begin to understand the desperation of the hour. This in no way is a political statement.
And this fear, this insecurity we feel mounts higher everyday. Two examples will have to suffice. One noted and professional futurist asserts that twenty-years ago the yearly consumption that the world practiced was at 100%, and in another twenty it will be at 200%. It is easy to understand that this is in no way sustainable.
Likewise, it is easy to understand the anxiety that seeps from our psyche. We recognize in our bones that something is wrong. We now know the apprehension that comes from discontinuous change, "which is [a] non-incremental, sudden change that threatens existing or traditional authority or power structures, because it drastically alters the way things are currently done or have been done for years." (go here).
In some ways this fear and anxiety have always been with us, but we may be at a time when the angst is particularly acute, and for good reason.
I do not know if the troubled times were similar in the Palestine of the 1st Century with today's Palestine of the 21st Century, but I would be surprised if they were not. In the 1st Century the fires of rebellion burned hot in the Jewish heart. Fed up with years of Roman brutality and offended by the spiritual compromise of Herod and the ruling class, revolt was daily fueled by both these flames of oppression and concession, and by the holy sense of a covenant destiny. Therefore, these were the questions on many hearts and minds:
Where was GOD?
Would GOD ever be faithful to the covenant?
I can’t help but wonder if some of the words from Psalm 77 fell from their lips:
I cry aloud to God,I cry to God to hear me.On the day of my distress I seek the Lord;by night my hands are stretched out unceasingly;I refuse to be consoled.When I think of God, I groan;as I meditate, my spirit grows faint.You have kept me from closing my eyes in sleep;I am troubled and cannot speak.I consider the days of old;the years long pastI remember.At night I ponder in my heart;and as I meditate, my spirit probes:“Will the Lord reject us forever,never again show favor?Has God’s mercy ceased forever?The promise to go unfulfilled for future ages?Has God forgotten how to show mercy,in anger withheld his compassion?”I conclude: “My sorrow is this,the right hand of the Most High has abandoned us.”
In the midst of this disheartened longing, Jesus enters, flashing on the scene as the prophet, the one sent from GOD. Jesus offers himself in a way that says, "if GOD were to come to the nation, this is what it would look like!"
This is how N.T.Wright unpacks the ministry of Jesus. He asks:
"What would it look like if God were in charge around here?"
And he answers:
"Well it might look like having a dinner party with all the wrong people, or it might look like healing this old woman bent over double for years. [That is, God, in Christ] is running the world by healing, by bringing hope, by transforming, by bringing justice, by challenging the people who are doing all the oppression and wickedness in the world, and then, eventually, by his own death, taking the pains into himself..."
Today's text brings us to the brink of the, what would it look like if God were in charge around here, offered by Jesus. Here, within this deeply demanding text, is the summons to go with Jesus into Jerusalem, and there to be ready to face his ultimate confrontation with the powers through the defiance of the cleansing of the temple, the bloody prayer of the garden and the ghastly crucifixion.
When Jesus says:
Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided,three against two and two against three; a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father, a mother against her daughter and a daughter against her mother, a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.
How would this have been heard?
In a culture built on clan and kin how strange were these provocative words! No wonder Jesus so often adds to his pronouncements: he who has "ears to hear." Indeed, for, one needs a special hearing to comprehend this ultimatum of Jesus' threat. In fact, we read this and it seems to move against all that we have come to understand about the words and works of Jesus.
But this is not so. Consider Jesus words from Luke 14:
"If you want to be my disciple, you must hate everyone else by comparison--your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters--yes, even your own life. Otherwise, you cannot be my disciple. (Lk.14:26)
Consider as well the fact that Jesus understood the Jewish revolutionary spirit of his day as soon precipitating a desperate crisis. As we have said time and again from this pulpit, the Romans would have nothing to do with a people unwilling to submit to their rule. This nation's armies were professional killers, and they would not hesitate to act at their profession. Which they did.
Jesus clearly sees this, even if his fellow citizens could not. He knew Roman violence was on its way. He also knew that his confrontation in Jerusalem would incite a violent response to his kingdom initiative. He says in today’s text:
There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished.
However, even if the leaders rejected him the question remained:
What would the people do?
Would they follow his way?
Would they be willing to give up their way of being Israel and follow his way of peace, of going the second mile and of turning the other cheek? Clearly, those who willingly followed him would find divisions and the dissolution of families and relationships, for not all would sympathize, not all would understand.
That is, and this is the point of the pericope, choices must be made, choices that would lead to division and strife. If we knew nothing more about the gospel than this text, we would know that to follow Jesus involves a tearing of existing self-understandings and identity, and the upheaval of social relationships.
Far from being the benign, holy man for the ages -- who offers new and exciting spiritual experiences, or the cultural critic -- who wants to make political inroads (from whichever party we like), the Jesus of the New Testament dares instead to challenge our view of settled reality.
This young Jewish prophet, who is more than a prophet, comes to us demanding a choice. We must choose how we would order our world. We must choose the future we create. We must move away from self-interest and toward the other. That is, if we are to truly see the Jesus of the New Testament, then we must see him through the dual lens of sacrificial love and reconciling forgiveness.
This Jesus comes to us with an overcoming love and a mercy for all, even his enemies. This Jesus brings to his death the confident faith that through this death the final vindication of his life, of his message and of his kingdom will actually, truly occur. That is, all that Jesus does is done within a faith and a faithfulness to GOD, his intimate and loving Father, and within the moment-by-moment reliance of the power on the Holy Spirit.
Make no mistake about it, then, following this Jesus will lead to both death and life. The world is no friend of grace and it has no use for a prophet, especially one who was more than a prophet, and one who claims to be King. To choose the Jesus-way, therefore, is choose the way of sacrifice. It is to choose the way of giving oneself away. It is to choose to follow Jesus into our own Jerusalem, to our own moment of sacrifice, to our own cross.
Clearly, this choice to follow Jesus may divide families. This choice may lead us away from the loved and the known into places of danger and disadvantage. This choice may mean we give up our children or our grandchildren to the work of the Gospel and for the sake of the Kingdom. To see this choice in this way means we understand what is at stake in following Jesus.
I regret that over time we have let the call to follow Jesus become a rather gentle decision to join a church. Of course, in other places to join a church is to be enjoined with a sentence of death, literally. But, for most of us in the West, joining a church means little more than joining a social club.
But, to follow Jesus...
To follow Jesus is to be part of his Kingdom-people where much is at stake. If we would frame the call to the narrow-way with a view to what is really at peril within such a choice, no doubt there would be fewer followers, but those who do follow would be sold out to the kingdom.
Said differently, in this world fraught with danger and anxiety, the call to follow Jesus allows us to see beyond the false-trappings of a world at war with itself, to the truth behind all truths, that to be truly human is to be on the Jesus-way, and that nothing, and I mean nothing, is more important than this.
Jesus said to his disciples:
“I have come to set the earth on fire,
and how I wish it were already blazing!
There is a baptism with which I must be baptized,
and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!
Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?
No, I tell you, but rather division.
From now on a household of five will be divided,
three against two and two against three;
a father will be divided against his son
and a son against his father,
a mother against her daughter
and a daughter against her mother,
a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”