I am taking some vacation time this week, which means two things. First, my sermon from today will not get posted until I’m back in the office next week. Second, this coming Sunday someone will be covering for Stephanie and me, so I won’t be preaching (or posting) again until August 14.
I hope you all are enjoying a pleasant summer!
Pentecost 6/Proper 8, Year C
Texts: 1 Kgs 19.15-21; Gal 5.1, 13-25; Lk 9.51-62
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” is on my mind this week as I read these passages of scripture and reflect on recent events. I think about this as I listen to Elijah calling Elisha to be his disciple and successor. I think about it as I hear Jesus respond to these three would-be followers. I think about Yeats’ words because as I listen to these stories, I hear Elijah and Jesus asking for people to follow them in the work of God with the same passionate intensity that we too often witness only in terrorists.
When Elisha asks for leave to kiss his mother and father goodbye before following, Elijah doesn’t seem to have any objection. “Go and return,” he says, “for what have I done to [stop] you?” Jesus, on the other hand, seems far more harsh and unyielding than Elijah. How can anyone be expected to follow Jesus when he seems to be asking them to forsake family, friends, homes and livelihoods in order to proclaim the reign of God? And yet, we know from experience that we live in a world where people are too ready to give up those very things, to strap bombs to their chests and take assault rifles into movie theaters and night clubs for the sake of the fear and hatred they feel towards others. Why shouldn’t Jesus ask for the same level of commitment? The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
Perhaps this is why Jesus demands so much of us who would follow him. Jesus is looking for people who have the zeal and the devotion and the conviction to work for all they’re worth to realize the just and righteous reign of God. If we are to do this work, we cannot be distracted even by family, friends, or livelihoods, because the powers of hate and fear and evil have no such distractions either.
But even conviction alone is not enough. Unlike the three Jesus encounters on the way to Jerusalem, James and John did give up everything. They left their nets on the beach and their father in the boat to follow when Jesus called them. They have that conviction that Jesus is looking for, but that doesn’t mean it’s always directed well. When they ask Jesus if they should call down fire from heaven on the Samaritans like Elijah did (2 Kings 1.1-18), he rebukes them. Like James and John, our conviction can sometimes easily slide into violence, even without us realizing it.
In the wake of the tragedy in Orlando, many well-meaning people who are understandably and justifiably angered and saddened have been driven by their convictions to do good and ended up doing harm. Nobody has held a gun, but we have fed the hostility. We have lobbed the same tired arguments about gun control or mental illness or Islam at each other like grenades across the same stagnant political lines. The more “inclusive” members of our Church have aimed and fired allegations at our sisters and brothers who disagree, accusing them of violence simply because of their sincerely held beliefs.* In short, we have, in our passionate intensity, desired to call down fire from heaven on our perceived foes who stand in the way of God’s reign.
This entire story discipleship is framed in Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. We know what will happen to him in Jerusalem, and what he will give up for the sake of God’s reign. We know that he will endure the worst kind of violence there, and we also know that he will overcome it; not with more violence of his own—not with flames coming down from heaven—but with love for his friends and for his enemies, with obedience to God’s will and faith in God’s promise.
Days after the shooting in Orlando, Diana Butler Bass, a prominent Christian scholar and author, tweeted:
https://twitter.com/dianabutlerbass/status/742895262289526786Since I first read these words, I have wondered: what might that look like? What might it look like for us to “set our faces towards Jerusalem,” like Jesus did?
One place we might begin to look is in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. “The works of the flesh are obvious,” Paul writes, “…enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions…” “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.”
If we truly believe that Jesus loves and works to save all people then being “radicalized by love” means that we should continue to stand up and even fight when necessary for what we believe to be right, but it also means channeling our anger, our sadness and our frustration into more fully loving the people we are tempted to call “enemies;” otherwise we only become part of the problem we intend to solve.
I think what Jesus is demanding of his followers is not the “passionate intensity” of the “worst” of us coopted and redirected by the “best,” but a complete and utter change of the script. As Jesus says, you can’t plow a straight line while looking backward. God is calling us to find a way forward, and we can only do that together, and that is difficult, frustrating work; so difficult, in fact, that it got Jesus killed. However, if we truly believe that God’s reign is for all people, then that’s the job ahead of us.
The second half of Yeats’ poem concludes:
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Yeats’ fears what ancient and primordial power might be about to be loosed on the world, and rightly so. He wrote this poem in 1919. After having witnessed the cruel powers and evil forces at work in First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution, and political strife in his own native Ireland, and believing that the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity, how could he not fear what the future might hold?
And yet, as Christians, we trust in the promise that what “slouches towards Bethlehem” is no rough beast at all, but Christ himself, and with him, the reign of God in which all wrongs are righted and all hurts are healed. On some days, that hope seems truly delusional. We may feel naïve or ignorant to trust in a promise of wholeness when things fall apart all around us.
Or, we may feel that if we are to help bring about that reign of God, that we, too, must have the same passionate intensity of the terrorists and the murderers. Like James and John, we are ready to call down fire on those who would oppose the reign of God and prevent Christ’s work from being done. If God’s reign is to come forth in the midst of such violence and terror—even from Christ’s own followers—then the power and conviction behind it must be great indeed.
Thankfully for us, it is. Even on our best days, we may be unable to match the passionate intensity of the world’s hatred and fear. It’s not humanly possible to keep on plowing, to keep on proclaiming the kingdom of God without looking back. Thankfully, though the best among us may lack all conviction, there is one whose conviction is enough for all of us. The Letter to the Hebrews encourages us: “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.” (Heb 10:23) We may not always be faithful to God’s vision of love and wholeness, but the one who calls us to this work is. Jesus has a habit of calling broken and imperfect people—people like James and John—and using them to inch slowly towards God’s promised reign.
Do not misunderstand: this is not an invitation to “let go and let God,” but rather a call to redouble our efforts, to grab the plow with both hands, to be “radicalized by love.” Friends, the work is hard and wearying, and the field is full of rocks, but we do not work alone. When Elijah prayed to God in desperation, God answered his prayer by giving him helpers: Hazael, Jehu, and Elisha. When Elijah thought he was all alone, God assured him that there were 7000 yet who stood with him.
Jesus calls us to give everything we have, to set our faces towards Jerusalem, and then in the same breath he says to us, “This is my body, this is my blood, given for you.” Through baptism, we are joined to Christ—our weakness and faithlessness has died, and he now lives in us. We are able because he is able. Where our conviction ends, his takes over. Maybe the center cannot hold, but it is no rough beast that slouches toward Bethlehem to be born; rather it is the eternal reign of God that is preparing to bind up the broken pieces of our world. As the old proverb says, “When you get to your wit’s end, remember that God lives there.”
* I am specifically referring to numerous comments I saw on Facebook groups for my Church (the ELCA) of (more “liberal”) people accusing those among us who believe that homosexuality is sinful of being as bad as Omar Mateen. While I agree that this negative attitude towards the LGBTQ+ (especially within the Church) is harmful, this sort of name calling and sniping doesn’t solve anything or contribute meaningfully to conversation; it only puts people on the defensive and stops rational discussion. However, I have seen this sort of behavior generally in lots of other places. It’s easy to demonize the “others” who disagree with us, but that is not helpful for community.
Although it didn’t make it into the sermon, I found this story about Martin Luther King, Jr a great example of what I am talking about. On January 27, 1956, King sat in his kitchen in Montgomery, Alabama holding a cup of coffee, unable to sleep. The bus boycott seemed to be collapsing. His own life had been repeatedly threatened. He later recounted:
. . . I bowed down over that cup of coffee . . . I prayed a prayer and I prayed out loud that night. I said, “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. I think the cause we represent is right. But Lord I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak.” He needed the word of this proverb. “Keep your hand on the plow…” (Samuel Freeman, Upon This Rock, 143).
And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.” I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me alone (ibid, 173).
Pentecost 3/Proper 5, Year C
Texts: 1 Kgs 17.17-24; Gal 1.11-24; Lk 7.11-17
Last week as Stephanie and I were packing up our stuff to spend the night at my sister’s in-laws’ place in Bonney Lake, we opened the cabinet under our sink to get our bathroom kits and found a surprise. The sink had been dripping for weeks, as it turns out, and our bathroom bags were covered in green, fluffy mold. On Tuesday, I sat on our back porch, scrubbing the mold out of our bags with bleach water and thinking about the impermanence of things, because I’m a nerd and that’s what I do. Strike that: I’m not a nerd, I’m a “theologian;” that sounds better.
The bags, you see, are synthetic fibers, so the bleach doesn’t damage or decolorize them; and yet, the mold reminded me that they are not indestructible. The mold itself didn’t hurt them, but if I didn’t feel like cleaning them they could easily have been thrown away where they would have ended up in the landfill, and someday, they probably will. In spite of the fact that they are made from plastic that will exist far longer than I will, someday they will decay and fall apart like everything else. Read more…
Holy Trinity Sunday, Year C
Texts: Prov 8.1-4, 21-30; Rom 5.1-5; Jn 16.12-15
Today we celebrate the identity of God as triune: Father, Christ and Spirit. The idea of a God that is both one and three at the same time doesn’t make a lot of sense, but that’s because it isn’t an idea that was reasoned out and created; we experienced it. Trinity is what you get when you testify to the experience that the God of Israel raised Jesus from the dead. It’s impossible to really wrap one’s head around it, but in the end, what is truly important about the idea of trinity is not what it is, but what it means. Read more…
Easter 7, Year C; Ascension (observed)
Texts: Acts 16.16-34; Rev 22.12-21; Jn 17.20-26
Today is the 43rd day of Easter. The season of Lent has 40 days, but Easter has 50. It’s a reminder that the joy of Easter outweighs the somberness of Lent; that the feast is bigger than the fast. But this far into the season of Easter, the excitement of that resurrection morning has begun to wear off a bit. Alleluia! Christ is risen! But, where is he?
This week, we also celebrated Ascension Day. Ascension, 40 days after Easter, is the day when Jesus left his disciples and ascended into heaven. It marks the end of Jesus’ physical presence among his disciples, which we recognize by extinguishing our Paschal candle. He leaves his disciples with the promise that he will return, but he leaves them all the same. 43 days into Easter, 3 days after the Ascension, here we are, waiting.
Easter 5, Year C
Texts: Acts 11.1-18; Rev 21.1-7; Jn 13.31-35
We most often hear these words from Revelation at funerals. This image has become for us a picture of heaven, a place where all “good” people go when they die, the eternal reward of the righteous. Within the Church there is some disagreement about what exactly is meant by “good” people: maybe it’s those who keep God’s commandments, or maybe it’s people with good hearts, or maybe it’s those who believe in Jesus. Regardless, most of us have been taught one way or another that getting into heaven is decided on a case-by-case basis, and is dependent on some action or characteristic of each person being judged, leaving us to work hard or hope that we make the cut.
What we almost always look past in this vision of “heaven” is that this is not heaven at all, but earth. “I looked, and I saw the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven…” “I heard the voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals.’” Heaven is actually being emptied out as God makes God’s home on Earth with us. This is not a vision of salvation for only a select few, or even for only humanity; this is a vision of salvation for all creation. As my New Testament professor in seminary once said, “God is not interested in saving a handful of individuals; God is saving the whole frickin’ universe!” Read more…