This is the second in a series of five Wednesday evening Lenten reflections I’ve been invited to offer at Grace Lutheran Church in Eau Claire as I accompany them in a congregational journey toward a deeper embrace of creation and a faith-based response to climate change. Later this spring I’ll offer several public lectures hosted by Grace. The text for each reflection is my own choosing, drawn from Luke’s “journey” material.
Lenten Reflection for Wednesday, February 24, 2016
Grace Lutheran Church, Eau Claire, Wisconsin
An explosive urgency, a beckoning calm
David R. Weiss
Luke 12:49-56 – Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son … and son against father; mother against daughter … and daughter against mother; mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law … and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”
Following LENT SUNDAY TWO – Luke 13:31-35 (Herod, that fox; Lament over Jerusalem)
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This is all my imagination—but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also the truth. I want you to hear the words in this text as they might’ve sounded back then—or today.
You could see the tension building up if you just paid attention. A certain edge crept into the way he told parables. They’d started off almost as invitations. Later, the same parables sounded like pleas. And by now they’d tilted into begging—“can’t you see? The kingdom of God is like this …”—and they teetered on the cusp of threats.
It was the same with the healings. At first, when he beckoned the lame to walk, the demon-possessed to shirk their demons, or the lepers to wrap themselves in fresh skin, he was himself altogether delighted. As though this was as much a wonder to him and to those whom he healed.
But he grew weary. At some point even the healings felt like a task. He wasn’t about to withhold the sheer goodness that moved through him from those who needed it. But he came to realize that they rarely understood their need as well as he did. For Jesus, the healings were never just about healing. They were always about wholeness—about being restored to a rightful healthy place within yourself … and within your community.
The healings were like parables played out in people’s bodies. But … like the parables, the crowds mostly didn’t get them. Heck, most of the time even his own disciples didn’t get them.
By now, through his parables and healings, in his teachings and at his table, Jesus had spent more than a year proclaiming “the kingdom of God.”
You need to know four things about that.
First, “kingdom” wasn’t a reference to a place, as though there was a palace somewhere in a land that was “God’s kingdom.” No, in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, the word for kingdom is a verb. It means “the activity of God reigning as king.” Not a place, but an activity.
Second, that activity was radical gracious welcome. God’s kingdom included everyone, even those you’d expect to be put outside. Think of it as God’s kin-dom: the activity of God welcoming everyone as family.
Third, Jesus said, “REPENT, because the kingdom—the activity of God making all of us kin—is at hand.” Just around the corner. Close enough to touch.
Fourth, by “repent” Jesus did not mean, “Okay, everybody say you’re sorry.” Plain and simple, repenting means turning around. Moving, acting, living in a different direction.
In Jesus’ day (not unlike our own I might add) people were often played off against each other. There were all kinds of rules, some formal, some unspoken, that were used to determine insiders and outsiders, who had status, and who had nothing. And Jesus’ message challenged that; it was a direct challenge to virtually everything that everyone among his followers had ever known.
So the fact that almost nobody GOT Jesus’ message really just acknowledges how stuck they were in their world as it was, all around them. In the face of all that, seeing from a new perspective—and then actually moving in a new direction was a BIG challenge. You can’t hardly blame them for not getting it right away.
Problem was, Jesus could tell he was operating on borrowed time. He saw his own people getting played against each other. He saw the powerful—whether Roman or Jew—taking advantage of the powerless. He saw people learning to despise themselves. He saw a community fractured in ways that turned it incessantly against itself.
And he knew that his own message, his call to turn around and BE a whole new kind of community, posed a real threat to the powers that be. They would act sooner or later to silence him. You heard that ominous note sounded in Sunday’s lesson, when he’s warned that Herod is looking to kill him. And you heard his lament: wishing that Jerusalem could hear his message and gather around him like chicks running to a mother hen … but they do not.
In tonight’s reading that lament is even more restless, more edgy. See if you can hear it better now. Jesus says, in effect:
People, I’ve been healing your sick. I’ve been telling you parables. I’ve been eating at your tables. And you’ve been content to be healed, but not yet whole. To murmur about the parables, but not actually respond to them. To gossip about my meal companions without daring to welcome outcasts at your own tables. Have you even been listening?!
You only reach the kingdom—the kin-dom, the familyhood of God—if you turn around. Repent. Move in another direction, act in another way. And Herod is on the hunt now. Time is short!
You’re acting like I’m just going to fix everything for you, and everyone’s just gonna be happy and get along. No! I’m talking about re-making the whole way we are a community. I’m casting fire on the status quo. I’m risking my neck! And before it’s over people will be divided because of me and the message I bring.
Can’t you see how short the time is? You know how to watch the weather, to anticipate rain or sun. Why, oh why, can’t you pay as much attention to this present time?
This explosion by Jesus is less anger than anguish.
Jesus’ message, what we refer to so tamely as “Gospel,” good news, is pretty damn stark. He’s saying that the only way forward in which true human flourishing is possible … requires turning the world as it is … inside out. Including outcasts. Loving enemies. Welcoming strangers. Not easy stuff back then——or right now. But Jesus was adamant. It’s this way forward. Or else.
Then there’s this paradox. Because the same man you just heard exclaiming in impatient anguish that he’s eager to cast fire because only real life-turning repentance will actually save us, he also says—and on this same journey to Jerusalem: “Do not worry. Consider the lilies, the ravens, the grass of the field … God knows what you need. (12:22-31).
Yes, I’m asking you to join me in remaking the world. And, yes, I’m probably going to die before we’re done—and probably by a violent death. But, don’t worry.
That “don’t worry” is crucial. But NOT because it’s there to comfort us. Rather, because only by clinging to those words with faith, can we ALSO hear the urgency, which would otherwise overwhelm us. The “don’t worry” doesn’t make it any less urgent, any less necessary. Any less deadly for Jesus. I suspect he sees what’s coming, even if his followers don’t. But still, he says, “don’t worry.” I think so that we muster the courage to hear the whole of what he’s saying.
Now … fast forward 2000 years. What do those words sound like today?
People, I healed sick bodies and minds. I fed hungry bellies. I blessed children. And when I died, I bled real blood. Is there any thing I did to suggest that I didn’t take this incarnation business—this being fully IN THIS WORLD—seriously?
I ate with outcasts. I challenged authority. I really, really wanted to call you into my work of remaking the world. Not because it’s easy, but because it’s desperately needed—for the least of these, my brothers and sisters. For all of us.
Still today, you will only reach the kingdom—the kin-dom, the familyhood of God—if you turn around. Repent. Move in another direction, act in another way. And this world is on the verge of collapse. Time is short!
You’re acting like I’m just going to fix everything for you, and everyone’s just gonna be happy and get along … like the planet will just heal itself. No! I’m talking about re-making the whole way we are a community. About the entire way we live on a finite planet. I’m casting fire on the status quo. I’m risking my neck! And before it’s over people will be divided because of me and the message I bring.
Can’t you see how short the time is? You know how to watch the weather when you’re thinking about the fishing opener or the start of baseball season or the 4th of July parade. You know how to count down the shopping days until Christmas; you even know how to map out the liturgical seasons months in advance.
But when the global temperature is rising and species are going extinct and ice caps are melting before your very eyes and extreme weather is on the increase and your own best science tells you that human activity is driving these things … why, oh why, can’t you pay as much attention—and respond with equal energy—to this present time?
That’s what Jesus would sound like today. Which ought to leave all of us, myself included, squirming uncomfortably.
And then he would add, not to take the edge off his words, but to give us the strength to really hear the edge of his words: And remember, don’t worry. God knows what you need. Amen.
QUESTIONS for reflection and conversation:
- Did you gain new insight (or feel a fresh challenge) from the four things I noted about the “kingdom of God”—(1) verb/activity (2) radical gracious welcome; (3) repent; and (4) turning around?
- What in my message helped you hear the power of Jesus’ anguished words in their original context? Or as addressing our context today? Can you sense the “productive” tension of “don’t worry” in the midst of this urgency?
- What else will you take away from tonight’s reflection?